The urban legend that will not die

The first thing I ask of people who send me queries about news of silly political rumors (Obama wants to take all our guns!) or emails that purport to reveal the next great internet catastrophe (Facebook wants to own our identities!) is this: Have you checked Snopes.com?

I was banging around the internet in 1994 when Snopes was started by two researchers in urban folklore who thought this then relatively new medium could use a fact-checking web site since no matter how fast you think bad information travels by mouth, it is nothing compared to the light speed by which it travels on the internet. StuffGerbilInWomen

Nobody could have guessed that Snopes would grow into the invaluable resource that it has, ending up on influential end-of-year Top Ten Web Sites lists again and again. Having something you wrote end up as a debunking source on Snopes is, for those of us who think such things matter, a badge of honor.

In fact, an article I wrote in March of 2000 is the first citation listed for articles debunking what was once a particularly pernicious urban legend about gay men: gerbilling, or the practice of allegedly putting the eponymous small rodents up one’s rectum for sexual pleasure.

I say “allegedly” because it doesn’t exist. In 2000, however, mention of the practice was everywhere. There were rumors about movie stars who did it. Radio and television talk show hosts joked about it. You would run into people who said they know someone who did it. Right-wingers would reference it as proof of our depravity. It was a damaging thing to have out there, yet it made absolutely no sense no matter which way you approached it. But mostly it just made no sense as to how it might work mechanically. However, in the language of urban legend researchers I spoke to at the time, it passed the believability test: it didn’t seem impossible, therefore it seemed believable enough to pass on — even if everyone who said they knew someone first hand who did it wilted under direct questioning and admitted finally they knew nobody who did it.

KarlRovePlatoSo I wrote an article for which I contacted the emergency medicine departments of urban medical centers since it appeared first responders were a major source of the urban legend. I managed to snag an interview — off of AOL! — with an EMT from Texas who swore online in a message board that he knew of a patient who was transported to a Dallas hospital with a gerbil in his anus. In an interview that EMT folded completely and admitted he knew of no such case. That same goes for all the emergency rooms I contacted, including then San Francisco General.

I bring this up because, as proof that urban legends never die, the clip below from Feb. 9 is from the game show Family Feud. It is making the rounds.

“Name something a doctor might pull out of a person.”

Take it away Steve Harvey and the female contestant who blurts out the answer.

Added bonus: the nice looking African-American dude, her opponent, has one of the most entertaining laughs I’ve heard in a long while. That kind of laughter is good for the soul.  He clearly gets the absurdity of the situation but doesn’t seem mean about it. He just says, “That’s awesome.”

When you are done watching it, click over to the gerbilling listing on Snopes.com which cites my article. Sadly, this is a long time ago and I lost the electronic version of the article in question, and none of the links seems to work when I search for it.

But do read the Snopes entry. It gives you some background on the term.