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.
Although his wife, Aimee, is against it, Brian Baxter Smith is set on castration. "I've come to think of testosterone as a toxin," he explains.
Pacing slowly over the ceramic tiles of his living-room floor, Brian Baxter Smith grips a microphone in one hand and his balls in the other. Eyes closed, portable karaoke machine cranked to 10, he latches on to the singsong beat of Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life" and begins to flow.
"I ain't perfect," Smith spits in a syrupy Louisiana drawl. "But I will be one day."
In two weeks—on his 26th birthday, to be exact—that mass of tissue and sinew gripped in his left hand will be gone. And Smith will finally be free—finally closer to perfection.
Not that Smith seems particularly yoked by the constraints of a raging hard-on. Like most 26-year-old college students, he is a study in easygoing econo-living. He delivers pizzas for dough, smokes copious amounts of pot, writes, raps, and considers himself a bit of an amateur philosopher. There's Dostoevsky in the bathroom, Anne Rice in the living room, brass Buddhas on the television, Bibles lining the shelves.
But beneath the numbing haze of pot smoke and deep thoughts, Smith is a man whose temper and libido have a tendency to take over. There was that time he jumped into the bed of a moving pickup, one hand holding on to the cab, the other punching at the driver's-side window. The driver was his father. And then there's the sex: The hours that evaporate while he cruises for Internet porn, the five or six times he masturbates each day, the barely harnessed urge to "fuck anything that moves." When he had his testosterone levels tested a few years ago, they were higher than normal, just as he'd known they would be. And so he will drive four hours on his birthday to an undisclosed location where a retired surgeon working out of his house will numb him from the waist down and slice away his testicles. It's illegal, but it's cheap. All Smith has to pay for are antibiotics and painkillers.
"I've come to think of testosterone as a toxin," he explains, picking at his wispy goatee. "Like alcohol or fatty foods. I'm seeking spiritual enlightenment as a Buddhist—sincerely seeking it." Smith even plans to become a vegetarian, quit cigarettes, and maybe—just maybe—stop smoking pot.
As Smith talks and rolls a forefinger-size joint, his wife smiles pleasantly, if not sincerely. Aimee understands his reasoning. She disapproves of his wrist-spraining porn addiction and admits that his demand for sex is nearly constant.
But still. "I want kids," she says, lamenting the high cost of semen storage ($722 for the procedure, $36 monthly locker fee). "I would prefer he wouldn't do this, but it's his decision."
Smith and his alter ego, a sexually charged redneck named Kentucky Johnson. "He's an outlet for all the shit that's stuck in my head," Smith says. "I'm afraid he may die when I'm castrated."
The only thing Smith seems worried about is losing the demons that fuel his creativity—most important, an alter ego he calls Kentucky Johnson. Part deranged redneck, part rapper (espousing what he calls "hick-hop"), Kentucky looks like a Confederate nightmare: picnic-blanket shirt, fire-truck-red suspenders, Burt Reynolds mustache, leather boots, and reflective state-trooper shades.
"Kentucky represents the parts of me that I don't like," Smith says before slipping into character. "Everything he says is sexual and perverse, and that's an outlet for all the shit that's stuck in my head. I'm afraid he may die when I'm castrated."
But if Kentucky Johnson has to die in order for Brian Baxter Smith to live, then so be it. Smith laughs. By this point, he's completely baked. "It takes balls, doesn't it?" Pun intended.
"I won't be running a marathon anytime soon," says Chris, a 35-year-old in the publishing business who asks that we refer to him by just his first name. While the rest of us were getting digital cameras and nose-hair trimmers for Christmas, Chris treated himself to a castration. Three weeks into the healing process, he's positively giddy.
"Imagine being so addicted to something that there's no stopping you getting your fix," Chris explains. Now instead of spending hours of prime time latched to a computer exploring his chopping-block fantasies, he can kick back and catch up with the shirtless jungle boys from Lost. "In a sense, I got my life back." Next up is introducing the 21st century to the three-bedroom 1950s-style rambler he just bought. And maybe even love. "I've met an incredible guy and hopefully we can make a life together," he says. "He's perfectly fine with the change I've made." Which isn't surprising—he's a eunuch too.
He doesn't even mind if Chris keeps the "leftovers" around. Chris won't say where he stores them, but it's fun to imagine them floating in a place of honor on the mantelpiece next to scattered pictures of nieces and nephews and sea-blue getaways. Just another snapshot of a place he'll never go again.