Eunuchs

I recently saw the subject of eunuchs come up twice - in a front page article in the Philadelphia City Paper, and in Dan Savage’s advice column. Both were talking about men who voluntarily underwent castration - in some cases, the men in question attempted to perform it on themselves. Dan Savage’s column, in particular, mentioned what the men would permanently give up - including sex and orgasms.

Now, I know that the testes produce testosterone, which in turn produces sex drive. But I want to know if men who lose their testes lose ALL desire for sex? And further, do they also lose the ability to have orgasms? It would seem not - transsexuals who undergo sex reassignment surgery lose their testes, but still enjoy sex, don’t they? Do they still have orgasms? Can they?

So the question is - just what are the permanent effects of losing one’s testes (to castration, cancer, whatever reason)? Can you still function sexually? Respond if someone wants you to have sex with her? Get erections, have orgasms?

Were the eunuchs who guarded the harmems a thousand years ago considered safe because they had no sexual interest in the women, or rather because they could not impregnat them? (Were they really having sex on the sly with the harems without the sultans catching on, or perhaps caring?)

For that matter, the stereotypical portrayal of someone without (or with injured) testes is a high-pitched voice, but I know that comes from boys being castrated to preserve their singing voices, prior to adolesence. What happens if your voice has already changed - is testosterone necessary to keep the manly pitch of your voice, or do the vocal chords tighten up if the hormone isn’t there? Could you tell by a man’s voice that he lost his testes to injury or illness, or would it be unchanged if the loss happened in adulthood?

I’ve actually researched eunuchs a lot in my past. They’ve always fascinated me, particularly the Byzantine eunuchs (who numbered in the tens of thousands just in Constantinople at one point). There’s actually more research into eunuch sexuality (even in the ancient and medieval world) than you might think.

The two most important factors in eunuch sexuality are

1- at what age did the man became a eunuch?
2- how much was cut off?

We tend to think of eunuchs as “testicular eunuchs”- men who’ve had their testicles and nothing more removed- but in some societies they went all the way and removed part or even all of the penis as well. The mortality rates for this procedure were extremely high. In ancient Greece and Rome (where the extreme form of castration was usually reserved for punishment or [I’m not being racist, just reporting fact] black Africans) and in China (where at times this was the standard form of eunuch) anywhere between 1 in 4 to half died during or shortly after the procedure and those who emerged were asexual due to the lack of testosterone and, frankly, the pain involved in any form of sexual activity.

Testicular eunuchs, who constituted most of the Byzantine caste and all of the castrati (save for those who had more removed for medical reasons) the age was the determining factor. The castrati who were castrated after the onset of puberty actually included many notorious womanizers (particularly Farinelli). Supposedly sexually capable eunuchs can hold an erection longer [timewise] than the average man because there is no ejaculation to bring immediate climax and this, coupled with the 0% chance of impregnation and often androgynous features, made them very desirable as lovers.

Those who were castrated in early childhood were far less sexual, though not necessarily asexual. They usually had tiny penises, though they did still undergo a lesser form of puberty as their adrenal glands produced more testosterone than they otherwise would have (though nowhere near as much as the testicles produce). While it’s been a low-brow comedy standard for literally thousands of years to portray these men as having extremely high pitched voices this wasn’t necessarily true- those castrated before puberty tended to sound more childlike but not like high voiced women.

Both the pre and post puberty eunuchs were often used as sex toys by men which led to the myth that they were predominantly homosexual. While certainly some were most were heterosexually inclined or, for those castrated in infancy or early childhood, mostly asexual. (In Byzantium there were many infant castrations ranging from Emperors who wanted to invalidate their illegitimate sons from succession to peasants who wanted their son to enter the civil service and aid the family financially.)

A psychological trait that seems true of eunuchs was that while not as agressive as the average man they did tend towards greed. Many eunuchs were notoriously power mad (Bagoas [not Alex the Great’s squeeze but a predecessor of the same name] usurped the throne of Persia from Darius II; numerous Byzantine eunuchs grew fabulously wealthy; the eunuchs at the Chinese imperial court famously robbed the last few emperors blind). For this reason eunuchs were forbidden from officially holding power, though some found loopholes (e.g. John the Orphan Master, a peasant castrated in young adulthood along with 3 of his brothers for their father’s crime- he maneuvered his studmuffin peasant born kid brother [who was spared castration] into the bedchamber of Empress Zoe [who was three times his age], helped them murder Zoe’s ancient husband, established his brother as Michael IV and then ruled while little brother dedicated his time to keeping the empress happy and descent into health problems; one of his brothers advanced their peasant nephew in a similar fashion). This is one reason that eunuchs could not inherit titles or officially hold offices, though they could do most everything else in Byzantium; Narses the Eunuch was one of the civilization’s greatest generals and several very high ranking priests and archbishops were eunuchs [ironic since the Bible forbids the eunuch to enter the temple]).

Eunuchs could not marry in almost any culture, though many kept concubines. The castrati had it the worst- they couldn’t marry, become priests/monks, hold official or elected office other than musically, and for many of them their voices crashed soon after their surgery which left them without testicles or voice or prospects. An irrelevant aside about the castrati: it was noticed in the 15th century or before that children with pleasant voices would often keep the voice indefinitely if castrated, but it was against the law to castrate a child for this purpose. When a plague of mumps caused many boys to be castrated many of them found careers in the church choirs and the demand for them grew, and while it remained illegal to castrate a child just because he had a beautiful voice there was a huge traffic in treating “illnesses” and “accidents” that created thousands and thousands of castrati each year- supposedly in one year alone 2000 boys were castrated just in Rome as treatment for being gored by hogs [nudge nudge wink wink]- the potential riches were just too much for poor families to pass up (and you thought Jackie Coogan and Brooke Shields had nasty stage mothers!).

Sorry, I seem to have digressed, but the point is that eunuchs castrated after the onset of puberty were usually capable of sex or something like it. They did get erections (so long as nothing else was damaged in the operation) and climax and have sexual urges. Those castrated very young varied but on the whole were much less likely.

And if you’d like to hear a castrati you can do so here . This is a recording of Alessandro Moreschi, the last surviving castrato in the papal choir. He really was castrated for medical reasons (castrati were out of fashion musically by the time he was born) and is believed to be the only one ever recorded. The recording ain’t that great, but remember that it was made using 1904 technology and a middle aged man who wasn’t considered anywhere near the greatest of the castrati, but it’s still a haunting sound.

from here

Perhaps the small amount of adrenal testosterone is sufficient to enable sex drive in a testicularly castrated, post-pubescent male?

Without starting a religious debate, did the Bible explain why eunuchs were forbade temple entrance?

Broadly speaking, it was a question of not offering God damaged goods, either as servants or as sacrifices (the same section makes it clear that you are to offer God the pick of the crop, flock or herd). FWIW, it wasn’t all one-way traffic, 'cos God also promised that as long as his laws were kept, Israel would have cattle and flocks and grain in abundance, to eat, lend and give away as they liked.

They weren’t forbade temple entrance. Eunuchs just couldn’t serve as priests/offer sacrifices as priests, and neither could anyone with any other physical deformity (the blind, the lame, dwarfs, hunchbacks, etc).

It’s from Leviticus 21:16-23.

Sampy, all that info is great! I’ve always been curious, too. Thanks.

Wow. Your whole post was well written and interesting, but thanks in particular for sharing this link. It sounded nothing like I expected a castrato to sound (I, like most people, figured it would sound like a guy singing falsetto). After about five seconds of his singing I was thinking shit, this sounds awful, and next thing you know I had goosebumps on my arms.

Yeah, I have that mp3 on my hard drive to settle “Hah, you think THAT’s bad singing?” contests with friends, family and internet freaks.

4 wins, 1 loss. Not bad.

Eunuchs in charge of harems (the ones who still had their penises, that is) were known to have affairs with the women there. Problem was, if they were discovered, both parties would likely be killed. That probably kept the practice from gaining too much popularity.

Snip, snip?
Must you be so graphic? :slight_smile:

Jeez, it takes balls to sing like that Moreschi guy.

This is probably evidentiary of nothing, but I’ll mention it anyway. When my grandfather was 86 he had to have his testicles surgically removed due to a growth on his prostate. He became the most sexually obsessed old man I’d ever known (not that he was exactly a prude on the subject before) and reminisced constantly, sometimes in graphic detail, about his sex life for his remaining few weeks (he had been sexually active since he was a teenager and was a habitual adulterer for most of his marriage [with his wife’s consent]) and told me stories about his first encounter with oral sex (WW1 France), the sexually explicit real story behind his nickname (Mustang, which we’d always heard was because "I was a wild little boy so they said ‘He’s wild as a mustang!’- nah ah), went on and on about how much he’d like to bed Cher one night while she was on the Carson show, etc… I honestly think that his death shortly after the surgery was in large part because he honestly didn’t want to live as a eunuch (and in fact initially refused the surgery even though not to have it would have meant death).

On a totally different subject, one of my favorite scenes in The Last Emperor is when the eunuchs are expelled from the palace and as they leave they each take with them jars. When the emperor asks his tutor what’s in them he’s told, of course, “Their organs, so that they can be whole men at their funeral” (or words to that effect).

Narses was made eunuch after a childhood accident. Wasn’t there made a difference between those were made eunuchs by accident and those on purpose?

Since so many died of the procedure, eunuch slaves must have been considerable more expensive. What was the great value the Byzantines saw in eunuchs that they were willing to pay a higher price for them? Especially since they were (and are) also at the same time pretty much universally despised. At least few people despised eunuchs as much as the original Romans. Not that there was much Roman spirit left in Byzantine.

Being a eunuch automatically made one ineligible to hold certain posts and offices, plus being sterile they weren’t able to leave an office to their son, so supposedly the threat of usurpation was less. This didn’t always work out: some eunuchs were content to just enrich themselves or their friends and relatives (siblings, nephews, etc.), but since they couldn’t hold the office themselves usually they did have to keep their patron since they couldn’t hold the office themselves so that was a sort of insurance policy I suppose.

It was also believed that with no sex drive the eunuchs would work harder. This may or may not have been true. I’ve certainly known lazy celibate people and really productive alleycat people, so-

Then of course as household servants you could be sure they wouldn’t be impregnating your wife and daughters. There may be some chance (discussed above) they might have sex with them, but that’s better than the woman having an affair with another man (which eunuchs were NOT considered- they were neither male nor female by law). Plus, attractive eunuch slaves were used, quite unapologetically, as sex-toys. Beautiful androgynous eunuch fetched a huge amount in ancient Greece, Persia and Rome. Several Roman emperors (including Augustus and Tiberius) had a fondness for them and of course Alexander the Great had his Persian Boy. Sex with a eunuch was also looked upon as slightly more “manly” than sex with another man.

Yes, they were loathed by many. I would imagine it was something akin to homophobia or racism today (I wonder if they referred to it as a “lifestyle choice”?) and the rights of eunuchs fluctuated from era to era. They were consistently forbidden to marry since (by perception) they were neither male nor female (though they were referred to with masculine articles in some languages) but many did have marriage like relationships. In the movie Farinelli, the title character’s brother impregnates Farinelli’s girlfriend as a favor, which is actually based on a less famous castrato who had such a relationship.

As for how Roman the Byzantines were, they definitely referred to themselves as Roman, but they did so in Greek. So… argument either way.

Wouldn’t it be cool if a bunch of Eunuchs were hired by a computer company and used UNIX?

I wonder if that has ever happened??? Wow…would that be neat or what??

Already done in Dilbert:

Boss: “My boss says we need some eunuch programmers.”
Dilbert: “I think he means UNIX and I already know UNIX.”
Boss: “Well, if the company nurse comes by, tell her I said never mind.”

Haunting? Right this minute I find it impossible to think of anything except Grover from Sesame Street.

This little snippet(heh) in hanzimatters prompted me to do some further research into the exact physiological effects of castration, and I must admit that, assuming modern surgical technology has eliminated most of the risk, it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. I’m not particularly keen of fathering my own children, since I think there are already too many unhappy children in the world (I would adopt if I didn’t hate the little buggers), so the idea of both a reduced sex drive, more androgynous features, possibly longer lasting, more enjoyable and pregnancy-free sex, and a much lower risk of many male diseases such as prostrate and testicular cancer makes it pretty darn attractive proposition. The only thing that currently turns me off castration would be the reduction in physical strength. Sorry, but I’d like to be able to change my own tire.

There is also a “trial version” in the form of chemical castration, as often used in somestates on sex offenders. I imagine anyone who shares my opinion and doesn’t mind losing their muscles would do well to give it a try. I can’t see a downside! :slight_smile:

Not having balls would probably be it. :slight_smile: There’s just something about them- symmetrical, so perfectly weighted- the way they eclipse each other in a certain lighting and the way you can dress them up and draw little Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson faces on them and pretend they’re singing a duet wh…

Never mind.

Another advantage is you don’t have to shave as often. Those castrated young are a lot more limber as well, which offsets some for the lack of muscle mass. It is odd that when they rattle off the many advantages to having a pet neutered that they don’t take it to the next extension isn’t it?