Of dogs and eunuchs

The author of "Castration" talks about humankind's first attempt at bioengineering.


David Bowman
February 13, 2001 1:38AM (UTC)

My 4-year-old male English pointer, Snoot, reminds me of our culture's lack of cojones every time I walk him. Snoot is intact. His balls are pink and covered with white fur and black spots. Strangers are always stopping to challenge, "Why haven't you neutered him?" What they mean is "Why haven't your dog's balls been cut off?"

Gary Taylor, an authority on the subject, would use the simple word "castrate." In our penis-obsessed modern times, the c-word has come to mean removing the penis, but Taylor's recent book, "Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood," focuses on the word's essential and original meaning -- the removal of a mammal's testicles. Taylor's book returns the essence of manhood to the scrotum, recalling a time when men bragged about how much their balls weighed, rather than about the length and width of their penis.

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Taylor says castration was mankind's first attempt at bioengineering, and that the procedure has been perfected in modern times with the vasectomy. His book begins with a quote from a young woman shouting with joyful irony that her vasectomized boyfriend has been "fixed." Taylor himself is likewise "fixed." I discussed Taylor's "fixation" with him, and he even put his long-term lover on the phone to verify Taylor's personal eunuch power. Taylor then got back on the phone and explained how our willingness to castrate fellow mammals (such as our dogs) reveals that castration is both at the center of Western civilization and an issue we must deal with if humanity is going to advance spiritually.

In Salon's review of the book, Greg Villepique writes that Taylor won't "make anybody reach for the pruning shears." Don't be so sure. Taylor has invented what can only be called "eunuch chic." He may convince you that being ball-less is, in fact, the height of virility.

Castration really means having one's balls lopped off, right?

Definitely.

When you had your vasectomy, they didn't sever everything between your balls and the rest of you, did they?

No. Part of what I'm trying to get at in the book is that the motivation for castrating animals and human beings was contraceptive.

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If human beings back then really wanted to be efficient, why didn't they just whack off the penis?

The subject would probably die. Very few people survived total genital amputation. They'd bleed to death or get infections. They did do this sometimes in the Muslim world [in medieval times]. Some of the eunuchs in Islamic harems had everything cut off and they had a sort of pipe inserted. But those eunuchs were much more expensive because most of the people they tried to [insert the pipe in] died. There were two methods of cutting off the testicles that I mention in the book -- one was excision and one was compression.

When you're talking about very small boys, pre-puberty, you can actually put a boy in a hot bath and then crush the testicles. They sort of dissolve into powder inside the scrotum. Or sometimes, instead of cutting off the testicles, they would wrap a light string around them to cut off the blood supply. The balls would just wither even though their remnants would still be there as blackened remains of the scrotum. All of these are very simple technologies; they don't endanger the rest of the body in the way that radical genital amputation of the kind Freud was talking about would.

There's this cliché that eunuchs who were created after puberty could still get erections and thus safely service the concubine. Where does this come from?

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From two things probably. There was very little communication between the harem and the outside world. The eunuchs acted as the conduit to the outside world, so that there's actually little information about life with the concubines. This created all sorts of speculation, rumor and gossip. The second thing is that obviously it does not take an erect penis to pleasure a woman sexually. So it would certainly have been possible for eunuchs and concubines to engage in erotic activities that wouldn't have involved breaking the hymen or the risk of pregnancy or much that would have irritated the sultan in terms of the preservation of his rights to these women.

Would it have been more objectionable to the sultan to have lesbian activity?

There's speculation about lesbian activity in harems. Of course, one of the problems about lesbianism in the Western tradition is that nobody talks about it at all. There's even more silence than with male homosexual activity. How are we going to know about this in harems? The women weren't going to talk. Neither were the eunuchs. They were the only people who would have known. There is a story told about one of the sultans, who one day is said to have seen one of his geldings mounting a mare and been very upset about this in relation to the condition of the eunuchs in his harem.

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Isn't it simplest to imagine eunuchs as nonsexual entities like castratos [fellows who lost their balls before puberty]?

I don't think that's true. The all-important distinction is when the castration occurs. Someone who castrates himself for religious reasons does it after puberty. Castration does not get rid of the sexual drive, get rid of erections or any amount of sexual activity.

But it could. I could cut my balls off and be impotent forever. And you could cut your balls off and still have an erection.

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Being castrated as an adult has nothing to do with how horny you may be. There are factors that could lead a person to be impotent as an adult, and some of those factors are psychological. Even if they can't get an erection, there are people -- witness Viagra -- who feel very sexual but can't get it up. Whether you can get an erection has nothing to do with how horny you are or whether you are interested in sex.

Why castrate yourself for religious reasons if it won't abolish the sex urge?

To prevent yourself from reproducing, to dedicate yourself to God, rather than being interested in a family that you would have to support. In the ancient Jewish sects, and in many early Christian interpretations of Christ's message, there is an expectation of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God. Therefore you did not want to reproduce because the world was about to come to an end.

Hemingway said Jake Barnes' balls were intact in "The Sun Also Rises." So it was Jake's dick that was clipped?

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Yeah.

So Jake can be considered as "Mr. 20th Century" in regard to how castration now means "dickless" as opposed to "without balls"?

Mr. 20th Century, exactly. Jake Barnes has all the sexual desires but he can't perform. That's what we regard as the great tragedy.

Wouldn't the history of castration have been more "Freudian" if it had been easy to cut off a man's penis without killing him?

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All sort of histories might have been different if our physiology had been different. I resist the constructivist dogma in the academy at the moment that says, "Everything is decided socially. It's all language." My point is: No. Human bodies made it easier to do certain things than other things. It's a lot easier to cut a man's balls than his entire genital equipment. Also, it is incredibly difficult to cut out a woman's uterus or tie her tubes. Therefore you had to be at a much more advanced stage of technological evolution before you'd even think of making a woman sterile as opposed to making a man sterile. So it's no accident that human cultures learned to cut off men's testicles long before we were able to do other things.

There are modern examples of women cutting men's dicks off, like [Lorena] Bobbitt and pissed-off wives in Thailand --

Who tie their husbands' severed penises to balloons and let them float away.

But there is no history of women cutting men's balls off, is there?

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There are a few examples. In the late Roman Empire the gelding of human males was said to have been invented by a queen who wanted to have lots of sex and not get pregnant. What this demonstrates is that even when men got the facts wrong they were aware that women might be attracted to males who wouldn't get them pregnant. There's a poem by [Roman satirical poet] Juvenal, which I quote, about a woman being serviced by a eunuch, and she wants the balls not to be cut off until the boy is basically post-puberty, until his balls weigh a pound apiece. The satirist was exaggerating, of course.

Hey! Mine weigh that much.

What can I say? If this book is a success, then men will go around talking about whose balls weigh more instead of whose dick is longer. There's an example from the Renaissance in Germany, where it was claimed that a woman cut off her husband's equipment because she was jealous that he was having so many affairs. The point in my book is that the focus from reproduction to sexuality begins to happen around the time of the Renaissance and gradually builds up until the early 20th century, when Freud completely reversed the previous assumptions about castration.

If castration was the first human attempt at bioengineering, what is its future?

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I did an interview with a gay-oriented radio station out of Vancouver, British Columbia, and someone called in who had gone to a doctor to have himself castrated. He was calling to tell people that they shouldn't do this -- they should go into therapy instead. I made it clear that I wasn't advocating that men go get castrated. We no longer need to castrate ourselves for the biological reasons, but there is a sub-subculture of self-castration in the United States. I think it will become a personal body modification like piercing your nipples.

I feel like every day of my life I'm involved in castration culture because my dog still has his balls. There's a big dog myth that intact dogs are aggressive, but my dog is incredibly cooled out. It's castrated dogs that get enraged and attack him because of canine rage and jealousy.

Historically there was an enormous amount of bad blood between the two groups. The uncastrated didn't like the castrated, but you suspect the feelings were mutual.

Is there any historical example of friendship between a eunuch and an intact man?

Well, part of the difficulty is that if there was such a friendship, almost certainly people would have thought that it was sexual. Eunuchs were always accused of sexual perversions, but we don't know anything about these people's sexual practices. There were certainly very close friendships between emperors and their chief eunuchs.

Let's talk about your relationships. You've been the castration guy since the book came out.

Long before that actually.

What has it done for your social life?

What started happening long before the book came out was I would tell scholarly colleagues what I was working on and this would always produce lots of jokes. I suppose the result of this research on my social life is that I've become the center of a huge comedy network. I was on the Los Angeles comedy channel radio station doing a program called "Morning Sickness." And I'm talking to a pair of women on a comedy talk show in England. This has been fun. I can make jokes about this subject better than anyone else.

How about the woman you live with -- is she kidded about you?

She doesn't get kidded at all. The whole point is that it relieves her of the possibility of pregnancy. She's always loved the fact that I had a vasectomy.

No, no, no. I meant that you're the castration guy.

[Silence]

You're the expert on the history of castration.

Well, she's here -- you can ask her. Her name is Celia Daileader. She's a professor of English. [Taylor leaves the phone and Daileader picks it up.]

I just asked Gary how writing this book has affected his social life and how it has affected your social life.

Well, it's been a lot of fun, actually. The kind of people I hang out with all share my political sensibility and my feminism, and very few of them have children. And the women friends that I have tend to be professional. Actually they all are; most of them are academics and feminists. Only two of my close friends have children, and they each only have one child whom they had either very early in life and decided never to do it again or very late in life after kind of putting it off and having a lot of ambivalence about parenting. So they think it's great that I have this carefree sex life.

You're making the same mistake Gary did. I'm not talking about his vasectomy, but that he has become the world's expert on castration.

The two tend to -- I guess the two differentiate slightly. The book is a source of comedy -- and actually a lot of interest. It's just hilarious. People come up with a lot of good wisecracks. It's been very positive and fun.

It's a serious subject, but one's first response is to make a joke -- how many castrated men does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Hello. [Taylor has picked up another phone.] I just wanted to say that Celia is the one who spoke the first words of the book: "My boyfriend has been fixed." I don't know if you want to tell him how that came up.

[Daileader] Yeah. I was going in that direction. I don't know if that's relevant.

How did that come up?

I said, "My boyfriend has been fixed," in front of my whole family at a Christmas party, and it was a real effective way to get my father to stop badgering me about having children.

I already said this to Gary -- he is not really "fixed." Getting fixed is about chopping the balls off.

Yeah, yeah, that's true. They could make a vasectomy for dogs. As Gary's book says, the first vasectomy was done to a dog. Most people don't want to go through the trouble of making it more precise. That's a whole different question: Why do we care so little about our animals that we just --

Chop it.

I did think my comment was quite tasteless. There was probably all sorts of unconscious stuff going on there, getting back at my father. This had always been an issue for me because I was raised under his thumb and he's an archsexist, very traditional. This is one of the reasons I'm a feminist. So it had been this ongoing struggle with him. I think I was driven to an outrageous statement like that in public because I just didn't know how else to feel safe about the subject of children and pregnancy. I was really pushing his buttons. I totally shocked him and a lot of other people in the room. My father scolded me for it the next day. And I said, "Dad, you were pushing my buttons. I pushed your buttons right back."

Does your father have a copy of this book?

Not yet. I think Gary wanted to give him one, and I've been telling him to hold off. It's the sort of book -- my father is a Catholic Italian-American patriarch, and I don't think he's going to agree with a lot of the stuff in there. But that's just a guess. I've been trying to keep my own book out of my father's hands for years and he finally ordered it through Amazon. Fortunately he didn't have the patience to read beyond the first four pages.

What's your book?

My book is called "Eroticism on the Renaissance Stage." The subtitle is "Transcendence, Desire and the Limits of the Visible." From his point of view it's a book about sex.

Don't you and Gary get sick of talking about castration?

We have other things to talk about!

So what has the book done for your sex life?

Things are as great as they've ever been. The difference it's made for me is I'm a little worried about women coming on to him. He's kind of a perfect male -- risk-free in so many important ways. I don't even know if I've shared that with him.

What I was getting at is that I can't imagine working on, say, a chapter about a man getting his balls chopped off and then saying, "Hey, honey, feel like having wild sex?"

I guess if I were writing about clitoridectomies -- I see your point. Anticipating what his answer would be, when you throw yourself intellectually into a project it just -- I don't know -- it changes. Anything that I'm doing that's satisfying intellectually will always boost my sexual self-esteem.

[Taylor returns to the phone.] I suppose you have to have a certain amount of sexual self-confidence to write a book like this. But given that I'm an arrogant son of a bitch, it hasn't bothered me that way. The curious thing is that the response to this book has sexualized me publicly. I got sent a piece from an Italian magazine where the writer describes me as having "loose hair down to my nipples" and an "ambivalently predatory smile." I've never posed for a photograph where my nipples are showing, so the writer chose to imagine me that way. Reactions to the book have been very personal, whether they are negative or positive. They all want to say something about me sexually. This is like the sexual allure of the eunuch.

Oh, my God, now you've started a new trend: eunuch chic.

I suspect not!

I mean, I'm thinking about getting clipped [a joke].

If one of the responses to the book is that more men think about getting a vasectomy [that would be a good thing]. The male response to vasectomy seems to me quite ridiculous. It's such a very simple operation and so safe.

We haven't been on the same wavelength in this interview at all. You regard vasectomy as a good thing -- it's castration chic. For me, when a dog gets clipped, the scrotum is completely made missing.

One of the things that I became quite interested in when working on the book -- which I hadn't anticipated at all -- was how human beings treat their animals. We learned how to castrate ourselves by doing it to animals. The history of castration is tied to the domestication of animals, which is the beginning of civilization. The last person I quote in the book is bioethicist Peter Singer, who talks about other species being human, and how our definition of what counts as human we should clearly be applying to other species. This is how Freud got it completely wrong: He didn't see any connection between human and animal experience. It makes perfect sense to me that your response to castration is partly based on your relationship with your dog. The book begins with "My boyfriend has been fixed" and it ends with Singer's statements about the nature of humanity. I'm not sure you and I are on a different wavelength.

I just can't think of you as a castrated man.

The reason I insist on the connection is my point that castration originated from a desire to limit reproduction -- it was just a clumsy way of doing it. So the vasectomy obtains the same biological purpose without so much damage to the biological organism. There are important differences between the two, but there is that connection about reproduction. I want to insist on that because that was the thing that Freud didn't talk about at all. In both cases, it's all about testicles.

Ha! Consider putting this on your tombstone: "It's all about the testicles."

As I was saying to someone, "Castration: It's only your balls that you lose."


David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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