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What makes a eunuch?

Richard Wassersug

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Matt Smith:

What you are listening to is a recording from 1902 of Alessandro Moreschi, an Italian singer who is known as a castrato. These men have a high vocal range as a result of castration before puberty. And with that uncomfortable thought, I'm Matt Smith and this the La Trobe University podcast.

Richard Wassersug is a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and an adjunct professor with the Australian Research Centre of Sex, Health, and Society at La Trobe University. For years, he has been studying eunuchs. And while the castrato are no longer singing, castration is an old practice and it is still found in modern times.

Richard Wassersug:

And it turns out that the term eunuch has changed over the years. It has quite a different meaning since we don't have a specific class of people in society castrated to serve governments as these were official roles and they dressed up differently, they looked differently. They had a whole culture unto themselves. We don't have that. But when you look at the medical definition of what it means to be eunuch, it is a castrated male. So although there are not many people who go around calling themselves eunuchs and there are people indeed who would seek castration who wished to be degendered, emasculated but don't necessarily wished to present as female and they are by technical definition modern day eunuchs.

Matt Smith:

How did they come about in today's society? There seems to be one branch where it happens for medical reasons. One thought of eunuch that way, and one way if they go bad and willing...

Richard Wassersug:

The most common reason for a male to become castrated which can be achieved with either chemicals or surgical castration, is for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer and hundreds of thousands of men are chemically castrated right now.

Now none of them would identify with eunuch because the term has such a pejorative negative connotation and the doctors and the patients don't use the term and if they heard it they probably wouldn't like it but at the same time, it is also true that there's a very small group compared to prostate cancer patients of men who don't wish to be males but also don't wish to be females and they are within the transsexual world even invisible to the transsexuals because that of the transsexual typically presumes a binary.

If you're male you wish to be a female. If you don't wish to be a female you wish to be a male. But these individuals often dislike their malehood, their masculinity but mostly their male thoughts. Their libido they find interferes with their life. They hate it, then they decide to be free. The main thing the testicles produced that affects their behavior which is testosterone. So they wish to be testosterone-deprived. And many of them will go out and actually castrate themselves. Ah, 15% of them do. Some of them go to underground cutters.

Some of them get the castrations done legally but ironically if they do it they probably have to claim that they're transsexuals who wished to be females, get the castration and then don't go further with it. And indeed one quarter in the European study of all supposedly male to female transsexuals after getting castrated decided not to go any further with the treatments with the, they just didn't necessarily desired to have breast implants or be feminized. They simply were very happy once they got off of testosterone.

Matt Smith:

How many people are we talking here? Do you know what sort of numbers.

Richard Wassersug:

By our estimations there are seven to ten thousand of modern day voluntarily emasculated men in North America at this time. That's not inconsequential. My concern for this population is unfortunately that they're not recognized medically they aren't even recognized within the set of broader queer community. So they have really no other options but to go underground. If they try to go to a doctor and said, "Look, I can't stand it anymore. Please remove my testicles or give me drugs that'll destroy them," they're afraid they're going to get locked up most of them and some of them will in some mental institution.

So they not go into the medical profession. They're not recognized by the medical profession as a recognizable group and consequently they go underground for treatment and that is a serious, serious problem.

Matt Smith:

You said that the word eunuch has a negative connotation, should we be using a different word? And the word eunuch wasn't always a negative...

Richard Wassersug:

No. There's a, a very famous book by Germaine Greer, an Australian, called The Female Eunuch from about 30 years ago, 40 years ago. And it talked about emasculation of women as a political issue. So to use the word eunuch now is a pejorative term. And our society is supposed to be hypersexual. We got a society that is out there particularly in the streets of Melbourne and elsewhere displaying their, their body form to the attention of anyone who's interested. We are sexual all the way.

So now wished to be asexual, to wish to be castrated is considered just so weird that it is something that people are stigmatized by, hide from. To say someone's a eunuch is to say they're totally physically and mentally disempowered.

Ironically history shows that not to be true. That is the eunuchs were, in many cases, from one end of Asia to another for about three thousand years, they were running large empires. When things about the sultan or the caliph or the emperor having, you know, hundreds of wives and therefore being very, very empowered but somebody had to be running the government. He, they weren't even breeding but somebody had to be making the government work and virtually all these cases it was the eunuch class of individuals who had the brain power and wisdom and the personality types that allow them to do it.

So our current pejorative term of a eunuch just doesn't apply to the reality of what we now know about androgen deprivation. Nevertheless, it's hard to come up with an alternative term, which is helpful. And in my own personal view is that this is the correct medical term so I use it.

Matt Smith:

It's understandable that you'd need as a class of, I suppose wise men who would run empires back then, but what was the benefit of being eunuchs? Why were there specifically eunuchs?

Richard Wassersug:

Well just actually now we're finishing up a manuscript, which actually asks the rather intriguing to me a very basic question and that is, what is the personality effect of castration? One has contemporary stereotyped that the person's a wimp afraid of everything but the eunuchs were generals, past eunuchs were, the senior diplomats, they had to be wise and firm at certain points but it turns out we actually ran on the internet what's called the Big Five Personality Test.

It's a well-established test that defines personality and we ran it for 150 eunuchs who were androgen-deprived voluntarily castrated individuals against a huge amount of other people who filled in our survey because it was posted in the site called eunuch.org and people who are interested could fill it in as well. So we have individuals who are androgen-deprived and we have somewhere like 1300 of people who identify as wannabes. They're fascinated with and liked the idea of being castrated but they haven't gone forward with it. So they're very similar personalities in terms of all these presentations of odd obsessions.

The difference is one subgroup has actually is androgen-deprived. And we actually now what it means to be androgen-deprived in terms of what effect it has in this well-validated standardized personality test. And it turns out the one thing that changes radically is agreeability goes up. Now that means unlike a person's a wimp but someone says what you want to go to this movie or that movie and they say I don't care. But it's also true that if they decide, you know I'm happy to do what you'd like. I don't need to fight over it. I will save my fighting for more important things. This is wise.

A lot of the wisdom comes from being agreeable. We suspect that was the key trait that made them so effective as diplomats, negotiators, people who could resolve a tension conflicts to prevent them from becoming worst and to allow empires to continue for generations upon generations. They provided stability. The wisdom that comes by not being reflexively aggressive, which is sort of what happens with teenage males who are high on testosterone.

Matt Smith:

Well it sounds like we have the testosterone, you might be a bit more level-headed, assumedly.

Richard Wassersug:

Testosterone levels are highest in young adult males and continually decline afterwards. We talk about testosterone fueling aggression but it doesn't do that quite simply as, as it wouldn't be implied by that statement. The typical aggression we're talking about is reflexive-reactive aggression. So for instance if a high testosterone individual one can imagine an 18-year-old male, he has cut-off in his car in the highway, he might get angry and say, "I'm not going to let that guy get away with it," and go chase the guy in the other car down the highway. The average female thinks about it and says, "No, all right that was rude, insensitive. But what have I could have gained by starting a fight here?" And then decide not to. And women just stay out fights they tend to survive better for it. Young adult males tend to die in car accidents at a higher rate and then who cares if the eunuchs to have the control by being off of testosterone they could not be reflexively aggressive. That doesn't mean they couldn't be assassins and some of them were.

The difference was it wasn't that in the heat of a bar room brawl, it was a well-thought of murder when the eunuchs did it. So the idea that they are wimps isn't quite right. The idea that they're controlled and thoughtful I think is a better perspective of what you can gain if you get off the testosterone.

Matt Smith:

Men who go through castration as a treatment for cancer, how is that different from people who voluntarily go through it? I take there's a lot more of an adjustment or a lot more coming to terms with the situation.

Richard Wassersug:

That's a superb question and it's a major area of my interest and research. It turns out that without knowing how testosterone affects personality formally, there are sort of myths out there in the medical literature and they are inconsistent but I think I can resolve some of the inconsistencies. You have men who don't want to believe that they've changed and are embarrassed to be seen as changing. My classic example is a guy who cries at a television commercial for drunk drivers or smoking. Some issue that relates to human sensitivity. He's embarrassed. He's ashamed. He never did it before.

He looks at it in himself as a weakness now he's androgen-deprived and start to feel sorry for himself. The other way of viewing it is, "Hey I'm sensitive to something I've never been sensitive before." This is interesting. What we see is in terms of the interactions that we deal is say, heterosexual couples where he is a prostate cancer patient on these androgen-depriving drugs. He knows he's changed. His wife knows he's changed. She says, "Dear, I've never seen you cry before." He said, "What do you mean I'm not crying." And he shuts her out.

So now the denial of the change. He's now offended her and they're in trouble. The alternative is, we hear this occasionally from patients, "Yeah my personality's changed and now we shared Kleenex over a movie." And they both sit there and I've been with these couples and they laugh and hold hands and we realized that they have recognized the change, accepted the change and don't see that as a demeaning change, they see it as something that they can share. So I think it's incredibly important for us to understand what testosterone does. What testosterone deprivation does and acknowledge it and accept it find out what its strength and weaknesses are.

The fact is that half of our species all the time is living with less than half of the testosterone that men are and they're doing totally well. They're not dying, OK. They're not necessarily wimps. I mean I believe that the leader of this country right now is female and she's doing more or less OK. She survived, anyway for the moment. But the point is that you don't have to have the testosterone of a 20-year-old male in order to ascend and be somewhat effective in a political situation.

Matt Smith:

Rudy Giuliani is an example of a castrated man.

Richard Wassersug:

That's an excellent example. He's a perfect example we know that he actually was on these castrating drugs. We know about also some stuff about his personality womanizing and aggressive and, oh in a not popular way. And he comes out after he gets prostate cancer and goes on these drugs as a thoughtful statesman. And I think it's a perfect example though I have no idea how offended he would be if I said, "Hey what's it like to be a modern day eunuch?" But he is an example of someone who is a modern day eunuch.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr. Richard Wassersug, thank you for your time.

Richard Wassersug:

A pleasure.

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