James closes his eyes and smiles. Three years later he can still see the boy standing there. Alone. Unprotected. He must have been about 10, maybe younger. So adorable. So innocent. His short brown hair and cute little brown jacket. The red toy in his hand. James (he's asked that his name be changed) can still feel the prickly jolt of sex—white-hot lust—that shot through his groin in the Mississippi thrift shop that day. James wanted the boy, wanted to make those horrible thoughts in his head a reality.

He'd been taking Androcur—a drug that blocks testosterone—for a year. He knew where his mind tended to wander. But even as the pills watered down his longings, they wreaked havoc on his breathing, so he'd cut back his dosage. By the time that afternoon rolled around, James was carrying a loaded weapon between his legs.

He started trailing the boy.

"I resisted all I could," James, who's now 25, says. "I had never once violated a boy, though I dearly wanted to."

Luckily for that child, a friend pulled James into his car and made him go home. Later that night James stuffed himself with 1,200-plus milligrams of Androcur. All he got was a throbbing spasm in his prostate. After that, he started a long, slow downward spiral. Two years later, James fashioned a clumsy cocktail: seven bottles of dextromethorphan­-laced cough syrup, crack, pain relievers, and speed. He wanted to die. Instead, he saw God. Shortly before James was admitted to the local psych ward, God lifted up a light and showed him the way out of this personal hell.

"God wanted me castrated, or else I wouldn't get into heaven," James says, his voice a whisper of conviction. "And God can't be wrong."

And if he is, well, it's a little late. In June of last year James paid a board-certified urologist in Philadelphia $2,000 for an orchiectomy—the removal of his testicles. The doctor didn't ask for a referral or a therapist's note (most do), just a down payment and—snip—problem solved. "I don't care about sex as much as I used to," James says. "I'm still attracted to men—but now they tend to be my age."

Not exactly your dimple-inducing, all-American feel-good story. But for more than 50,000 American men each year, castration is a solution to a very serious problem. While the procedure is usually done to stave off the ravenous effects of prostate cancer, thousands of men around the world have it done voluntarily, for reasons that have nothing to do with medicine. Many already think of themselves as eunuchs or asexuals and want to make it a physical reality. For others, what's meant to be a temporary stop on the road toward a sex change ends up being a wholly comfortable (and quite permanent) way of life. And as with anything having to do with private parts, castration draws its share of fetishists. Ken, a 34-year-old from California who doesn't want to see his last name in print, had his penis and testicles removed because, he writes, "I like a smooth crotch, and tight pants with no bulge." HLaing1, as he's known on the Internet, had his testicles lopped off by his wife. As for Wifehasmyballs, another cyberspace handle, he was castrated by one of the three lesbians he lives with.

Perhaps the most sympathetic subset of eunuchs, though, are men like James—men whose dangling manhood is a millstone.

"These are people who never wanted sex running their lives," says Tom Johnson, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Chico State University in California. "This gives them relief."

Using the thriving community at Eunuch.org, Johnson has been conducting field research for the past two years, questioning some 1,000 voluntary castratees. "These are highly intelligent people who are fully functional in society," he says. "It may take a high level of intelligence to understand and accept that there are genders other than simple 'male' and 'female.'"

Johnson has become a caretaker of sorts, trying to talk people out of surgery, steering the truly determined ones through the process, acting as a sounding board, and making sure they realize what they are getting into. He stresses the side effects of hormone-replacement therapy (HRT, which helps men avoid menopause-like symptoms and allows them to keep achieving "wet orgasms," assuming they've left their penis intact). He counsels them on the possible aftershocks: osteoporosis, weight gain, loss of muscle mass, and man boobs. Most of these can be treated with medication and exercise. But there's not much you can do for a botched castration, which is why Johnson encourages pre-op therapy and—most important—hiring a reputable surgeon. Too many eunuchs, he says, go to underground "cutters." Some of these are generous (if unlicensed) souls, nurses who aren't supposed to operate or amateurs who downloaded their surgical expertise from Web sites, but others are freaks who get off on mutilation.

"There are butchers out there, sadomasochists who do this for their own pleasure," Johnson says. "There was this guy whose collection suggested he'd done about 30 men. And then there are the guys who castrate themselves—they almost always end up in the emergency room."

Those who don't do the proper research risk ending up like Steve. A Londoner in his 30s who would also rather not publish his last name, Steve used to be a banker. But while on vacation in the Greek Isles, he met an older man who became his boyfriend. The man fantasized about having him castrated, and Steve got off on the idea. "I got very excited about it, but it didn't have much to do about sex," he explains. "This was more about control. I guess I got too caught up in the fantasy."

That was four years ago. Now Steve spends his days sleepwalking through a mammoth New England farmhouse set on 2,000 acres, regretting the decision. Without HRT (his boyfriend wouldn't allow it), he suffered all the side effects—and gained nearly 100 pounds. "I wouldn't do it again," he concedes. "I've become a houseboy of sorts. But, hey, at least we still go to church—every Sunday."

Sometimes the Lord works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he's just plain twisted.