Thursday, July 15, 2010
The Sex Lives of Eunuchs
Throughout history, there has existed basically three types of eunuchs: those where were castrated before puberty, those who were castrated after puberty, and those who had their penis and testicles removed during the castration. Those in the first group, who castrated during puberty, never developed mature sexual organs because they did not go through puberty. With the lack of mature male hormones, i.e. testosterone, their voices never changed, they had more feminine features, often gained weight very easily and lacked muscle tone, and they were totally impotent. The second group, those who were castrated after puberty, went through puberty and though many took on feminine traits, it was easier for them to gain muscle mass, and they had the ability to get an erection. However, because of the lack of testicles, they could not produce sperm and therefore could not reproduce. They did however, have the ability to ejaculate, though instead of the creamy white ejaculate most men produce, it would mostly be a clear viscous liquid composed of the parts of their semen not produced by the testicles. The third group lacked a penis and testicles and therefore were obviously not able to get an erection. They bodies could remain masculine, if the procedure occurred after puberty, but since it was a highly dangerous procedure during the years before modern surgery, it was often performed on young men.
In the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey, the Middle East, Northeast Africa, and the Balkans), African slaves who were bought for the purpose of guarding the harem were often taken into the desert on their journey from sub-Saharan Africa to the Sultan’s palace and the procedure was performed there. They young Africans’ penis and testicles were sheared off by a sharp blade, then a hot blade would cauterize the wound, and their bodies were buried in the hot sand up to their necks so that the bleeding could be staunched and the healing could begin. Many did not survive this horrific and barbaric procedure. If they did, they would be taken back to Istanbul as slaves to guard the women of the harem. Africans were not the only eunuchs of the Ottoman Empire. The conquered Christian communities of the Balkans in Eastern Europe were forced to pay a tax to the Ottoman Empire. Devşirme or devshirme (Serbian: Данак у крви and Bulgarian: Кръвен данък - tribute in blood) was the practice by which the Ottoman Empire conscripted boys from Christian families, who were taken from their families by force, converted to Islam, trained and enrolled in one of the four imperial institutions: the Palace, the Scribes, the Religious and the Military. The devşirme system humiliated non-Muslim societies controlled by the Ottomans and was resisted. Those who joined the military became part of the Janissary, an elite military corps that protected the Sultan. The other young men who would serve in the palace, as scribes, were castrated. These young men, generally, only had their testicles removed and according to how old they were and whether they had been through puberty, determined if they were impotent or not.
Being castrated did not end a eunuchs sex life. The first and last of eunuchs, those castrated before puberty and those who had their sexual organs completely removed, could not perform an active role in sexual relations; however, they could and often did take on the passive role. Eunuchs in history have often held high positions in society because they are seen as trustworthy since the lack of testosterone removes a great deal of aggressive tendencies. They could and did use their sexual abilities to gain favor in royal courts and the jealousies around their power could be used for or against them. Those who had fully functioning penises (i.e. they could get erections) could dominate others and gain favor with women, because they could provide a safe sexual partner without the risk of pregnancy. The downside is that most if not all eunuchs were slaves and just as African-American slaves were subject to the sexual whims of their masters, so were eunuchs in the ancient world.
There will be more posted about the sex lives of eunuchs and the Ottoman Empire later. I am also working on a few posts about Egyptian eunuchs and those in the Far East. There were some fascinating figures who were eunuchs, one Chinese eunuch may have even reached America decades before Christopher Columbus.