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The Cruelest Cut


Any talk of removal of the family jewels is guaranteed to cause an automatic and involuntary flinch in any male within earshot, even if such a subtraction is aimed at a domestic animal. So, guys, be forewarned: Talk is going to be about your prized possessions and the theft of them. If you're man enough to read on, prepare to flinch.

The chief cause of castration, human or animal, has always been to induce a state of greater submissiveness. When I spent unhealthy chunks of time at a racetrack, I remember looking at geldings and thinking, 'If you could just show them the video of what will happen if they don't calm down, all this might not be necessary.'

Now with dogs, it seems to be the price that boy dogs have to pay in order to join the pet market. Hey, maybe it's a choice many would make, but speaking for myself, it seems an excruciating trade in the name of a Milk Bone subsidy.

Now with racehorses, there is at least the rationale that, without love on their minds, they will be able to focus on running faster. This should be considered in the case of Olympic runners of distances less than 3,000 meters. Then again, maybe steroids do the same thing.

But in the case of thoroughbreds and puppies, we can at least say that, except in rare cases, they do not alter themselves or others like them. The same cannot be said of the human animal. Just let us see a task and calculate that some guy could do it better if he didn't have those appendages and out comes the whacking knife.

The Chinese have the longest history of the use of eunuchs. At some point, the Chinese system became formalized, and the Eunuch Entitlement Program worked out like this: The emperor was allotted 3,000 unlucky souls. His sons and daughters were given 30 each, with grandsons having to make do with 10 and great-grandsons struggling along with six. Since the emperor had thousands of concubines, his offspring could be quite numerous and the need for a steady supply of eunuchs large.

In what might be called a consolation prize, imperial Chinese eunuchs were allowed to keep what were euphemistically described as their 'precious,' so as not to be refused admission by the King of Heaven. As a lasting cinematic image, it's tough to top the one in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor: All those soon-to-be-unemployed court eunuchs standing in the palace courtyard holding the lacquered containers that contained their 'precious.'

But not only were the Chinese in the snip-and-stitch business. In 538 B.C., Cyrus the Great noted that, as in the case of horses, bulls and dogs, altered men could be good work animals. We are told that the queen of Assyria castrated male slaves and so did the queen of Sheba.

If candidates for the modern priesthood think celibacy is a high price to pay for a vocation -- and many apparently do -- then consider this: In ancient Egypt, Syria, Sumeria and Babylon, all priests had to be eunuchs. Most had to do it themselves, giving new meaning to the concept of self-help books.

Eunuchs were very common in Rome; the emperor Nero married one. Then again, Nero was never much of a poster boy for family values. And family values must have been behind this development: After Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it is estimated that its officials removed the most masculine portions of some 100,000 pagan statues. Couldn't fig leaves have been welded on?

Not that the new religions were shy about truncating the real thing. The use of eunuchs to guard women was common in the Byzantine Empire and adopted by the Ottoman Empire that replaced it. In the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs could rise to become generals or ambassadors -- but only the ugliest and most misshapen were chose for duty in the women's quarters.

A doctor who examined the throat of a eunuch found the larynx to be a third less developed than that of a normal male and the circumference of the glottis much smaller. This means singing high soprano. Soon castrati were the singers of choice in the Vatican and other chapels; by the end of the 18th century, as many as 2,000 boys a year were being shorn -- really shorn -- in Italian barbershops. When some places banned singing except by complete men, some castrati found a loophole by carrying their missing parts with them in Venetian glass cases.

Enough! There are still those among us -- you know who you are -- who glare and cast castration-wish looks. These looks make me flinch and cross my legs or put my hands in my pockets. I still want to sing life's sweet song, only I think I'd be a lousy high soprano.

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