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castration

castration means removal of the testicles (testes). Sperm (spermatozoa) are made within the seminiferous tubules, which account for most of the volume of the testes. The male hormone, testosterone, is made by the ‘Leydig cells’ (named after a nineteenth-century German microscopist) which lie between the seminiferous tubules.

Because the testicles make spermatozoa and testosterone, their removal results not only in sterility but also in loss of testosterone-dependent characteristics, including sex drive and the more typically male aggressive competitive drive in life. Historically in some societies, these effects were deliberately achieved in the creation of eunuchs, who would pose no sexual threat when employed to serve, for example, the women in a Turkish harem or a Chinese palace. Castrated boys retain their unbroken voice, and the history of the ‘castrati’ is told below. Castrated men tend to put on weight and are more liable to heart attacks.

In medical practice castration is sometimes used in the treatment of prostate cancer. This is because prostate cancer grows in response to testosterone and most of the cancer cells die when deprived of it. The main benefit of castration for an elderly man with prostate cancer is that he does not have to remember to take any medication. Occasionally castration is necessary to treat testicular cancer when it involves both testicles; in this situation male hormone can be replaced by implants or patches and the typical eunuchoid characteristics can be avoided.

The term ‘castration’ is traditionally applied only to the male, but it is sometimes used also to refer to the removal of the ovaries in the female. The term ‘chemical castration’ may also be used to describe the hormonal suppression of the function of the testes, which mimics their removal.

Social and historical aspects

Castration was undertaken in earlier times because of the powerful, magical association with the genitalia. Thus the castration of the enemy or the enemy's corpse in some societies was a means of transferring the power of the male warrior to the victor. Slaves in ancient Rome and the Ottoman Empire could be castrated. Their castrated nature reflected their low social status.

Beginning in 1550–60 the practice of castration for musical purposes appears in Ferrara and Rome. In the musical tradition of the early modern period in Europe, the castration of young male singers provided a higher-pitched voice to sing soprano roles. The prohibition against women's voices in the Church had led to the attempt to create male parallels to women's voices. In the secular sphere, these voices became equally central to Italian opera in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, indeed the term ‘musico’ came to be an eighteenth-century euphemism for castrato. From the late seventeenth century the central male operatic role (primo uomo) in opera seria was sung by a castrato. The quality of the castrato's voice was unique. Castrati were considered to have ‘natural’ voices, as opposed to males who sang falsetto (whose studied voices were considered to be artificial). Many, such as the eighteenth-century castrati, Nicolo Grimaldi (‘Nicolini’) and Carlo Brosche (‘Farinelli’), became extraordinarily famous in their own times. Beginning in the eighteenth century (at the height of their fame) there was a concerted attack on the practice and under the rule of the Jacobins in Italy (1796) the practice was banned, albeit temporarily. The last such castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, died in the early twentieth century and an acoustic recording exists of his voice (made in 1902–3).

With the discovery in the 1830s that an implanted testis could produce an internal secretion, a ‘scientific’ basis for the magical thinking about the relationship of sexuality and power was established. Thus in the course of the nineteenth century ovariectomies were performed as therapy for pathologies such as ‘hysteria’. (The analogous procedure was the use of male circumcision as a surgical intervention for ‘masturbatory insanity’.) The famed cultural critic Max Nordau wrote his medical dissertation in Paris on the topic of De la castration de la femme under the aegis of the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot in 1882. In the late twentieth century, ‘chemical castration’ has become discussed as a punishment for sexually oriented crimes such as serial rape and paedophilia.

In psychoanalysis castration is the fantasy of loss of the penis by the female or the anxiety about actual loss by the male. In the development of this concept of castration and penis envy, there was a powerful association of castration with the origins of anti-Semitism in the act of circumcision. In Sigmund Freud's, An outline of psychoanalysis, which occupied his final months of life, Freud again returns to the ‘meaning’ of psychoanalysis in an extended footnote concerning the anxiety which the young boy feels when threatened with castration by his mother, a castration which is to be implemented by the father because of the child's masturbatory activity:
Castration has a place too in the Oedipus legend, for the blinding with which Oedipus punishes himself after the discovery of his crime is, by the evidence of dreams, a symbolic substitute for castration. The possibility cannot be excluded that a phylogenetic memory trace may contribute to the extraordinary terrifying effect of the threat — a memory trace from the pre-history of the primal family, when the jealous father actually robbed his son of his genitals if the latter became troublesome to him as a rival with a woman. The custom of circumcision, another symbolic substitute for castration, can only be understood as an expression of submission to the father's will. (cf. the puberty rites of primitive peoples.) No investigation has yet been made of the form taken by the events described above among peoples and in civilizations which do not suppress masturbation in children. (Standard Edition 23: 190.)

Two factors enter into this discussion: first, again, the theme of the unknown — here the unknown world of an unrepressed sexuality — and second, the universal claims of the phylogenetic model. It is this primary biological model which dominated Freud's biological thinking (as it did most of his contemporaries). Linked to this was the general acceptance of the view that acquired characteristics were inherited (the Lamarckian model). Indeed, Freud's biological model for this was a standard one for most late nineteenth-century biological scientists and physicians. The double model played itself out not only in the realm of the physical development of the genotype, but also in the construction of psychology of the group. It is in the real, phylogenetic experience of earlier generations that the psyche is formed, and it is in such group experience that the psychic development of each of us is mirrored. Employing Freud's theoretical matrix, Arnold Zweig in the 1930s noted that the Jewish prisoners in Rome had very low status because they had been vanquished and because ‘they bore the sign of circumcision which was associated in the eyes of the people with castration’. Powerlessness and circumcision are linked because of the involuntary nature of castration in Roman society and because of its association with the status of the slave. This is quoted in the standard German Jewish Encyclopedia of the 1920s. Such a ‘Jewish’ view echoes those such as Conrad Rieger's that male Jews have a peculiar pathological construction such as a ‘loss or absence of the testicles’. Both make the male less than a full-fledged man; a castrated man.

Tim Hargreave, and Sander L. Gilman

Bibliography

Barbier, P. (1996). The world of the castrati: the history of an extraordinary operatic phenomenon, (trans. Margaret Crosland). Souvenir, London.
Cheney, V. T. (1995). A brief history of castration. Crucial Concepts, Ozone Park, NY.
Gilman, S. L. (1993). The case of Sigmund Freud: medicine and identity at the fin de siècle. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.


See also sex hormones; sperm; testes.

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castration

castration, removal of the sex glands of an animal, i.e., testes in the male, or ovaries and often the uterus in the female. Castration of the female animal is commonly referred to as spaying. Castration results in sterility, decreased sexual desire, and inhibition of secondary sex characteristics. It is performed for the purpose of improving the quality of meat and decreasing the aggressiveness of farm animals; in pet animals it prevents unwanted mating behavior, reproduction, and wandering. Removal of the sex glands in humans is sometimes necessary to prevent the spread of certain hormone-dependent cancers. Castration as a punishment or deterrent for repeat sexual offenders is a topic debated both because of questions regarding its efficacy and because of questions regarding the relative rights of offenders and their victims or potential victims.

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castrate

cas·trate / ˈkasˌtrāt/ • v. [tr.] remove the testicles of (a male animal or man). ∎ fig. deprive of power, vitality, or vigor: [as adj.] (castrated) the nation is a castrated giant, afraid to really punish subversives. • n. a man or male animal whose testicles have been removed. DERIVATIVES: cas·tra·tion / kaˈstrāshən/ n. cas·tra·tor / -ˌtrātər/ n.

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castration

castration Removal of the sexual glands (testes or ovaries) from an animal or human. In human beings, removal of the testes has been used as a form of punishment, a way of sexually incapacitating slaves to produce eunuchs, a way of artificially creating soprano voices (castrato) and as a method of stopping the spread of cancer. It can also make animals tamer.

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Castration

98. Castration

  1. Abélard, Peter castrated by irate father of lover, Héloise. [Fr. Lit.: Héloise and Abélard ]
  2. Barnes, Jake castrated journalist whom Brett Ashley loves. [Am. Lit.: The Sun Also Rises ]
  3. Cybele hermaphroditic goddess honored orgiastically, usually by emasculation. [Phrygian Myth.: Parrinder, 68]

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castrate

castrate XVII. f. pp. stem of L. castrāre, f. *castrum knife; see -ATE 3.
So castration XV. — F. or L.

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castration

castration (kas-tray-shŏn) n. removal of the sex glands (the testes or the ovaries).

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