NeuteredBy Michael L. Tan
I’m feeling word-weary with the impeachment trial in the Senate, which is unfortunate because words should be enlightening, even entertaining.
Let’s take a break and look at just one word that made the headlines recently. It wasn’t a local event but I thought I’d feature it anyway because there’s some relevance to what’s going on here.
The word that caught my attention is “neutered,” which was used by US State Secretary Hillary Clinton last week when she condemned China and Russia’s veto of a UN Security Council proposal to impose sanctions on the Syrian government for its numerous human rights violations.
Specifically, Clinton said that with UN Security Council now “neutered,” it was time for other friends of Syria to unite and take action.
When I first heard Clinton on television I wasn’t quite sure if she had actually used that word. It’s not a term that’s known to many Filipino speakers of English but veterinarians know it all too well. When an animal is surgically sterilized it is considered to have been “neutered,” neither male nor female. In the context of Clinton’s speech, it meant the UN Security Council had been rendered powerless.
Another term for “neutered” is “fixed.” With female animals, there is a specific term, “spayed,” when the ovaries and uterus are removed. When a male is sterilized, the term that’s sometimes used is “to castrate” or, in Filipino, kinapon from the Spanish capon, which is the removal of the testicles or scrotum (bayag in Filipino).
If Clinton wanted to be blunt and crude, she would have declared that the male-dominated Security Council had been castrated or, in playful Filipino-English, kaponized. Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, once described as the only senator with balls because she was so feisty, would probably have dared to call the Security Council a bunch of eunuchs, which is the term used to refer to people who have been castrated.
I should warn readers feminists don’t like expressions like “with balls” to refer to courage because it equates bravery with masculinity. Nevertheless, in the past, removal of the balls meant a stop to the production of testosterone, responsible for the male libido, aggressiveness and other “male” traits. (Females, incidentally, also produce testosterone, but in smaller amounts.)
All through history, many societies castrated slaves and prisoners of war to create a docile work force. In other societies, particularly China, young boys, usually from impoverished families, were castrated so they could be offered to imperial households to guard harems. Castration for the Chinese was particularly mutilating, removing both the balls and, well, the cannon. The aristocracy, especially the emperors, had to have their many wives and concubines guarded and to entrust this role to “whole” men would have been insane.
The eunuchs were emasculated, literally meaning “masculinity removed,” which is another term Clinton (and Senator Santiago) could use. The term eunuch is itself derived from the Greek eune (“bed”) and ekhein (“to keep”), so a eunuch is a bedkeeper. But Clinton’s use of the term “neutered” did remind me that in a way, the eunuchs were the original Security Councils, at least in relation to harems.
The eunuchs were, however, far from being neutered in Clinton’s metaphorical use of the term. Eunuchs often became very powerful because they had direct access to the centers of power, including favored wives and concubines. Many even ended up as military commanders, which makes sense because without sexual distractions, they could concentrate on matters of war, and maybe peace as well. Perhaps the best known example of such a powerful eunuch was the 16th century Admiral Zheng He, who had fleets of ships that reached as far as Africa (and, according to one historian, even North America).
Castration also ties in with religion. From the 17th to the late 19th century, young Italian boys were castrated to preserve their falsetto voices. In a rather perverse twist, because women were not allowed to sing in Catholic churches, the castrati, whose voices were described as angelic, were used. The castrati would continue to perform both religious and secular music well into adulthood, and many were considered celebrities with many fans. It was not until 1861 that the Italian government made castration for musical purposes a crime.
Besides being used as choir singers in the Catholic Church, eunuchs ended up as religious practitioners in many societies. It wasn’t so much an imposed celibacy as with Catholic priests (who are far from being neutered, biologically or politically) than the creation of a liminal category, a male-female who was perceived as being more powerful than men or women. An example would be the hijras of the Indian subcontinent, who go around offering to bless newborn children with song and dance. Households rarely turn them away, fearful that if they do so, the child would end up cursed.
In a novel use of an old institution, the Indian state of Bihar began to use hijras in 2006 to collect taxes. The hijras would be sent to the homes of delinquent taxpayers and would post themselves outside the houses, singing out loud about the resident’s tax debts until they paid up. If we had hijras they could easily take over the Bureau of Internal Revenue, maybe even testifying, or singing, in the Senate, to shame the shameless.
Seriously, castration reflects a shameful and cruel side of humanity, still done sometimes in the heat of war to punish enemies. To be castrated is to be de-humanized. The hijras of India, said to number more than 200,000, live difficult lives, feared but ridiculed.
Castration was also horribly cruel, done way before anesthetics were available. I show portions of a BBC documentary film about the castrati to medical students when I lecture on gender and sexuality and I notice male students squirming in discomfort when it gets to a description of the surgery, including the tools used to cut, and to apply heat to stop the bleeding.
Those who were castrated as children had many problems with their physical development. And while castration meant an absence of libido, the eunuchs could still fall in love but were largely doomed never to have that love reciprocated.
One important clarification is in order. Surgical sterilization in humans is not the same as in animals. With women, the surgery is called a tubal ligation, where the fallopian tubes are clamped or severed to prevent ova (or eggs) from reaching the uterus for fertilization. In males, the procedure is a vasectomy, with both the penis and testicles retained. A vasectomy only cuts the vas deferens, which is the passageway for sperm. Testosterone is still produced so there is a libido and sex proceeds as usual, but without sperm, there is no fertilization. Vasectomized males are not neutered in the literal or figurative sense; in fact, many consider themselves quite empowered, and empowering.
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