Destroying a man’s testicles or cutting off his penis is a practice that most people consider barbaric.
But today surgical and chemical castration, which causes a man to lose the function of his testicles, is increasing throughout the world.
One reason is the growing incidence of prostate cancer.
Professor Richard Wassersug, currently working at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University says that in North America currently there are around 600,000 prostate cancer survivors who are on androgen-reducing medication.
“Given the detection of prostate cancer, 4 per cent of all men in Caucasian populations can expect to go through medical emasculation before they die,” he says.
“Put simply, castration improves their chances of survival.”
There is however another group of men who are electing voluntarily to become eunuchs, and not because of illness or injury.
Professor Wassersug is researching the motivating factors behind the modern day voluntary eunuch.
“At the moment there are probably over 600 in Australia and interest in and access to voluntary castration here and around the world is growing because of the Internet,” he says.
“Some of these men have a non-specific Gender Identity Disorder, others a Body Integrity Identity Disorder, and some have extreme sadomasochistic paraphilias (fetishes),” he says.
“The common theme is that they are opting to change their fundamental identity as male – they wish to be emasculated but do not want to be female.”
Other motivating factors, according to Professor Wassersug who has conducted a review of personal histories from 200 voluntary eunuchs include sexual abuse as a child, having witnessed the castration of animals in their youth, having been threatened with castration in their youth and having a strict religious background that condemned sexuality.
Professor Wassersug’s area of research is providing valuable insight into unfamiliar parts of the human condition and in an area of science that has been too long ignored.
“What we are discovering is a tangle of motivating factors which are not being addressed by the medical profession at all – and it needs to be,” he said.
He speaks with authority about the issue after unexpectedly becoming a eunuch in 1998 when at aged 52 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent orchiectomy himself.
For him, the experience has been life changing as the reduction in testosterone takes hold including weight gain, muscle loss, shrinking genitals and hot flushes.
But this experience combined with a natural curiosity has spurred Professor Wassersug into exploring more about eunuchs in society alongside his original research line – amphibian biology.
“My experience was about survival and it was carried out under medical supervision and support which is not the case with the majority of voluntary eunuchs,” he said.
“Many seek medical treatment but cannot get it. Many are afraid to seek help in the first place for fear of involuntary institutionalisation. Many get the androgen- reducing drugs off shore or through the underground where the quality is disputable, others castrate themselves.”
Wassersug and colleagues have been posting questionnaires on the Internet a to understand more about this little discussed area.
Among 178 castrated individuals who have responded to the questionnaire, only 37% had received surgery from medically qualified professionals.
“We are talking about a highly educated population who want to get sexual urges under control. They don’t actually identify themselves as wanting to be a eunuch.”
‘Many who have undergone voluntary castration are neither informed, nor prepared, for the plethora of additional long-term side effects of castration,’ he added.
“Worse still, because they are not discussing these issues with their doctors, they often seek the services of people who are not medically qualified for free or at costs below those of medically qualified personnel. Some of the would-be eunuchs end up in emergency rooms as a result.
The same survey has discussed voluntary castration with 108 ‘underground cutters’, some of whom are experienced in surgery but are putting their clients at risk because of inadequate equipment and procedures.
‘What is even more disturbing is that nearly a quarter of the voluntarily castrated men did their own surgeries,” he said.
Professor Wassersug will give a free seminar on Wednesday 9 February on the modern day voluntary eunuch.
Prof. Richard Wassersug received his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Chicago in 1973 and has spent most of his career studying the biology of amphibians and reptiles. However he now spends most of his time researching human sexuality and gender theory. This year he is dividing his time between the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), La Trobe University, Dalhousie University in Canada, and Boston University in the USA where he currently holds a Visiting Scholar post in their program in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Date: Wednesday 9 February 2011,
Time: 12.00 pm to 1.00 pm
Where: Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society La Trobe University, 215 Franklin, Melbourne.
Public inquiries: 03 9285 5220.
Media inquiries: Penny Underwood on 03 9818 8540.