An elaborate lexicon has developed around the names of neutered animals . A barrow is a pig that’s had its genitalia removed, a capon is a chicken that has undergone a similar process, a gelding is a horse that cannot reproduce and a gib is a cat or a ferret that’s been desexed.
Castration of humans has a long and rich history of ritual and purpose. The Normans did it to their vanquished enemies. In China it was legitimised in 2281 BC as a punishment; victorious armies have been known to castrate the corpses of defeated soldiers in South Asia, Africa, West Asia and Europe.
Contrary to popular belief (and disappointingly), castration is not the same as the wonderfully-named Bobbitt process, which involves the involuntary (and forced) removal of the penis. It is in fact the procedure which involves removal of a man’s testicles (or a woman’s ovaries) resulting in an inability to reproduce, experience sexual arousal, or certain gender development induced by hormonal secretions.
The removal of the penis (that has so captured public imagination recently) is known as penectomy and there have been many approaches to it. In Korea, for instance, we are informed it involved daubing of the penis with human feces and having a dog bite it off; in the eunuch community in India, it is carried out after a great ritualistic ceremony which ends in slicing off the penis with a knife — of course, it has been known to have more spontaneous and less traditional methods in moments of rage and anger, especially when undertaken by members of the female gender.
Castration has been regarded as a useful tool to reform those found guilty of sexual deviance and crime like in the Czech Republic where sex offenders are surgically castrated. It has had its champion in no less than Thomas Jefferson who was a strong advocate for using it to reform sex offenders; its more civilised and modern form, chemical castration, is practised in many American states.
Of course, there cannot be mention of castration without that great Freudian theory of castration anxiety: the fear of emasculation, loss of manhood, loss of virility and power. A great canon of gender politics is the omnipotence and supremacy of the male genitalia, a loss of which is said to severely interfere with a man’s identity.
European parents used the threat of castration to reign in their errant progeny; in India, many insults involve the description of the person insulted as a eunuch, only good for wearing women’s accessories, for instance.
But worse than the anxiety of castration is the shame of it. To be neutered, gelded, cut off, unsexed, is for most men a fate worse than death. How much better to die than to live with the ignominy of being a man without a point — or a pointer. The mortification of such an existence, the humiliation and degradation of a life forced to be spent in poignant memory of what was and could have been, is one that can only be imagined.
But for all those of us advocating castration (or a penectomy actually) on the perpetrators of the unspeakable violence on the rape victim in Delhi, there’s not much solace.
Castrated men have been known to be spared of hair loss; past dynasties in China have managed to seize power and, most worrisome of all, have been found to live an average 14 years longer than their uncastrated brothers.
But given the circumstances — we’ll just have to live with this downside.
Malavika Sangghvi is a Mumbai-based writer