We tend to assume that the other humans beings we meet are physically intact. From a little research, though, I’ve come to the surprising conclusion that one can find scattered throughout history a great many of those who have, by either their own will or the will of others, had their genitalia removed. And, perhaps a bit surprisingly, rather than relinquishing the rest of their lives to despair from pain, loss and indignity, a great many of these castrated men have gone on to achieve very great things. In fact, when the relative rarity of their condition is accounted for, one could make the case that they as a group tend to excel at life by a greater percentage than the population at large. There is also a notion, supported by a 2012 study of early modern Korean eunuchs but disputed elsewhere, that castrated men tend to live longer lives. Indeed, the study found that the subject group produced centenarians – people living to 100 or older – at a rate 130 times that of the West today.
Perhaps it is still unsurprising that few people opt for a life without genitalia. A 2006 survey found just 122 instances of genital self mutilation (GSM) on record, and that number included both men and women who’d mutilated themselves in various ways for reasons ranging from a cheap option for a transsexual surgical procedure to a botched home abortion. And, predictably, the psychologists who carried out and described this survey found psychosis beneath the cases of men carrying out auto castration. Truly, even the most famous documented case of a man who castrated himself, Thomas Corbett, the very same man who shot and killed John Wilkes Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, is thought to have done so out of madness, him having produced hats for a profession. Hatters at the time worked with mercury to carry out their craft and the poisoning that resulted is thought to have given rise to the phrase “mad as a hatter,” although this is in some dispute. Corbett, worried after his wife’s death that he would become tempted by others, cut off his entire genitalia with a pair of scissors and is said to have gone to a prayer meeting and had dinner before seeking medical attention. So it’s possible his faculties weren’t entirely unmolested by the mercury.
This brings up a very good point, however: In fact, one must be careful when labeling a person with a desire to be castrated as crazy, as one writer found through an Internet survey of people with a desire to be castrated. Of the 112 respondents, 40 percent reported a desire to be free from sexual urges and another 30 percent of respondents said they either wanted castration for the cosmetic appearance it provided (ostensibly like a Ken doll) or as a way to act out a sexual fantasy. In none of those three categories does one find too much psychosis to make hay of. What’s more, castrated individuals often speak of relief at no longer having their genitals and some speak of a sense of serenity that is brought about by the loss of their testes. Instead, psychosis is attributed to acts of auto castration because of the self harm involved; castration itself and living life as a castrated person doesn’t by definition have any inherent psychosis attached.
It is at the hands of other people that most people who are castrated have come to find themselves that way. For most of history, castration was used to produce a class of servants, either domestic or civil, who could be trusted by the very fact that they were missing some, most or all of their genitalia. By virtue of their castrated state, these eunuchs could be trusted not to attempt to overthrow the sitting emperor and replace them with their own family dynasty, since they could not produce a family of their own (although Korean eunuchs were allowed to marry and adopt, but adopted male heirs also had to be eunuchs). This trust placed eunuchs in positions of tremendous power running the imperial machinations of the empires of China and Korea through a great deal of the last millennia. Having no genitalia with which to impregnate them, eunuchs could also be trusted to guard and protect the wives of the rulers they served in the kingdoms of the Middle East. As a result of these traditions, it became customary for some male children to be castrated before puberty in China and Korea, the initial step toward a career as a successful civil servant. And in the Middle East, captured boys were routinely castrated to be made into royal house servants.
Very quietly, this tradition has continued along – it wasn’t until 1996 that the last of the Korean eunuch high bureaucrats died. It was in 18th-century Italy, however, that secrecy surrounding the production of castrated boys (referred to collectively as castrati) was most vigilantly kept. Still today historians have trouble identifying exactly who was carrying out these operations and by what method they were produced. An anonymous book on the subject from 1718 is one of the few contemporary texts on how castrati were made. It said that most of the time boys between the ages of 7 and 9 would be held down and their carotid arteries pinched until they lost consciousness, followed by the removal of their testes. The author notes that sometimes the young boys would be given opium to produce unconsciousness, but too many died of overdose from “this Narcotick.”
The procedure was illegal, and it seemed that castrati simply tumbled down from the heavens, which accounts for the use of them by the Church in the choir at St. Peter’s in Rome. It was, of course, for their voice that these young boys were delivered by their parents to illicit surgeons for castration. It’s popularly misconceived that removal of the testes or the genitalia as a whole results in a high pitched voice in man afterward. Instead, the procedure must be carried out prior to the onset of puberty so that the vocal cords have no chance to lengthen during the period brought on by the production of male sex hormones, 95 percent of which are produced in the testes.
In puberty, male vocal cords typically increase by 65% in length, from between 35 and 92 millimeters at most. By removing the testes, the vocal cord growth in the castrato is greatly diminished. The other factors that create the distinguishing features of the adult voice – a larger pharynx and oral cavity and an ability to draw a deeper breath – still do grow, however, and the resulting effect is a man with a high-pitched, resonant voice with the ability to produce and hold notes for long periods of time.
Each year thousands of boys became castrato in the hopes that they would achieve some success as singers. The simple fact that they no longer had their genitalia was not the only determining factor, however. The field of competition was intense and only a very few castrati made it all the way to the great operas of Europe. By the end of the 19th century, public opinion toward castrato turned toward disgust and the trend of castrating boys before they reached puberty to introduce them to the competitive singing class in the hopes they would make their parents wealthy died out.
Castration, however, is still around today. In addition to the occasional instance of auto castration by psychosis that makes news and scholarly journals, the state has become involved, meting out castration as punishment for crimes and, equally controversially, to prevent future crimes that may or may not ever take place.
One of the most famous cases of chemical castration at the hands of the state is that of Alan Turing, the father of computing. He was castrated in 1952 for homosexuality, what was then a crime in Great Britain. Turing committed suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple two years later.
In 1966, an American physician named John Money introduced a simple procedure for chemical castration using synthetic female hormone contraceptives. The procedure, simply an injection of female hormones every three months, the same used among women for birth control, was groundbreaking in that it required no surgery. Money first prescribed the procedure for a man who was having fantasies involving children and the procedure was voluntary. It would remain so as an option for anyone who was afraid of their sexual urges or for use as a bargaining chip in criminal cases involving crimes of a sexual nature.
Within 30 years, chemical castration became compulsory in the U.S., when California first introduced legislation for the treatment to be used against convicted pedophiles. Other states followed suit, to varying success. The concept of using chemicals to reduce the libido of convicted sex offenders against their will is controversial for two reasons: 1) It is either punishment for previous crimes, which, as Amnesty International asserts, makes it cruel and unusual; or is is being taken as a preventative measure against possible future crimes, which must be unconstitutional, and 2) it doesn’t necessarily work that well.
It is true that recidivism rates of sex offenders drop from 80 percent to just 5 percent or less among untreated convicts and those chemically castrated, respectively. But, as the world learned in the 1990s, there is still much room for relapse with chemical castration. In 1998, a man named Joseph Frank Smith was convicted of sexual crimes and was suspected of 75 more, this despite him being chemically castrated in 1983 after he was convicted of raping the same woman twice. Smith became the poster boy for chemical castration, speaking publicly about its effectiveness, all the while carrying out sex crimes that wouldn’t be uncovered for a decade. Smith used the longstanding trust society holds toward eunuchs as a means to perpetrate more crimes.
There was no mystery about why Smith’s castration wasn’t effective; he simply stopped taking the drugs. But even among those who follow the prescribed course as directed, there is still a chance for sexual arousal and even erection. In fact, even removal of the testes does not necessarily result in a total loss of sexual urge and the ability to have sex. That small percentage of male sex hormones that is produced outside of the testes, in the pituitary gland, has been shown to be enough for libido to remain in some men. A 1960s study of German sex offenders who’d undergone castration through orchiectomy (removal of the testes) found that 18 percent were still able to have sex 20 years after the procedure. Removal of the penis, a penectomy, along with the testicles, followed by drug therapy to reduce production of the hormones produced by the pituitary gland would, based on what I’ve come across in my research, likely be the only way to fully remove sex drive from a male.
What would life be like for a person free from sexual urges? For a sex offender, especially one who felt guilt from his crimes, certainly it would be some sort of bargain. And some castrated individuals report a sense of serenity, a freedom that could only be enjoyed by someone who has removed from their life the possibility of having sex and become unjoined for that lower, basic part of their selves. Asexual people — the third orientation, those who opt out of sex either by choice or by nature – often report a similar sense of serenity. But there is another, virtually opposite, reason that some people seek castration: for sexual gratification.
This desire was uncovered by the Internet survey of castrated men mentioned earlier, and in fact there are plenty of videos on YouTube purportedly showing how to perform a surgical castration procedure in the extremely dangerous comfort of your own home. For those who seek castration as a means of sexual gratification through self torture, known more commonly as masochism, one half of the S&M dyad, keeping the penis intact will be of the utmost importance, since a person seeking such a castration would still want to retain the ability to engage in sexual activity afterward. In such a case, the person would opt for the removal of the scrotum and testicles through an orchiectomy. But exactly where to go for such a procedure? While there are allegedly surgeons around the world who will, for money, carry out the procedure without questions, few if any professionals with access to an operating room would also engage in any kind of sex play before during or after the procedure. So a person seeking sexual gratification through testicular castration would have to go underground to an illicit surgeon.
In 2006, one of these S&M surgical outfits was uncovered in the hills outside Asheville, North Carolina. Three men were eventually charged with performing medical procedures without a license for carrying out surgical castrations on at least six men, one of whom traveled from South America for his. When police entered the home where the procedures took place (and where S&M videos chronicling the procedures were produced, they found scalpels, local anesthetic, bandages and a pair of testicles in the freezer.
And that’s everything I know about castration.