When a man loses his testicles it causes a variety of medical issues, and thus, hormone replacement therapy is common when possible. In contrast, most of us bring our male pets to the vet to have their balls removed, and after the pain of the surgery is gone, they seem to do just fine. So, what are the different affects here in humans vs. animals and why is the latter not seen as a big deal, while the former is the stuff of nightmares for almost every male currently watching this?
To illustrate the effects on human males, we’ll start by taking a look at a famous but now extinct career – the castrati singers of the 17th to 19th century, who give us perhaps the best look at what happens when human males are castrated at a young age similar to pets.
Until the 19th century women were not allowed to join a choir performing in a church. To make up for the loss of higher voices this rule brought on, either falsetto singers or young boys were employed as soprano and alto voices.
Both of these methods have distinct disadvantages. Falsetto is a way one can learn to sing which enables the singer to extend their notes beyond their normal vocal range via producing vibrations of the ligamentous edges of the vocal cords. The problem is that the singer is much more limited in the dynamic variation and quality that he or she would be able to use in their normal register. Also, the sound is slightly different, due to the lack of overtones- it has a breathy, flute-like sound. Thus, as an alternate, the prevailing strategy used was to fill the higher voices with young boys.
On this note, from the 6th century on the Vatican employed falsetto singers from Spain to sing the higher vocal parts, but in 1562 the first Spanish castrato singer joined their ranks. In 1599 the first two Italian castrati singers were also hired. Where they came from is not totally clear but there must have been a tradition to perform castrations in Italy even before that because just castration won’t make a great singer. Usually boys had up to 10 years of musical training after castration before they became the world famous singers that castrati often were.
But why is castration influencing the voice and why was it done to young boys?
When the testicles are removed or their functions are otherwise decapitated, the body loses its main production centre for the male sex hormone testosterone and their bodies experience the effects of that loss in various ways.
The effects vary depending on when the lack of testosterone starts – but the main question is: before or after puberty. In a male body testosterone play a key factor during embryogenesis – it basically turns you male in your mother’s womb and then it sends you into puberty and is responsible for the development of the secondary male characteristics.
So, if a boy is castrated between the ages of 7 and 9, some sources even give ages as late as 12, they never hit puberty. So, their bodies keep a boyish or even female look with no body or facial hair.
Beyond this, they often grew to a higher body height than average as the sex hormones also play a key role in stopping your growth. They also tend to put on weight more easily and are more susceptible to osteoporosis.
Furthermore, testosterone deficiency contributes to the onset or worsening of various diseases like cardiovascular disease, and it is strongly associated with diabetes and more aggressive variants of cancer. And, of course, due to the surgery done to them, the castrati singers were sterile.
Incidentally, this factor also led to some unfair treatment by the catholic church. In this one, Pope Sixtus V. was asked if castrati singers were capable of marriage. Until then lawyers and theologists considered a man able to marry if he was capable of performing penetrative sex with his penis – so he needed to be able to maintain an erection, and some also considered the ability to ejaculate to be needed. Pope Sixtus V. had a different opinion. He declared that regardless of their ability to get a hardon and shoot anything out of their penis, castrati weren’t capable of marrying and he even decreed that all such existing marriages had to be annulled. To get around this, some castrati singers switched to using protestant priests up north in Germany.
On this note, there are a lot of myths of the sexual prowess of the castrati singers. How true these myths are is difficult to ascertain. Of course, it would be quite advantageous for a woman who didn’t want the stigma of a pregnancy to start an affair with one of these singers who were the then equivalent of our modern celebrity superstars.
As you might have guessed from this, there are indications that at least some of the castrati had a sex drive while others didn’t. It seems that much depended on the timing of the surgery – boys castrated before the age of 10 often grew up with feminine features and a complete lack of sex drive. Those a little further along were more of a mixed bag.
But let’s come back to what is really important here – the voice. One of the effects of puberty in males is the deepening of the voice. This happens by the lengthening of the vocal cords. The vocal cords of adult men are 67% longer than the vocal cords of prepubertal boys. As a comparison, a woman’s vocal cord only increases by 24% during puberty.
So, if you have a castrati singer you basically have the vocal cord of a child but behind that the lung capacity and the fully grown resonating chamber of a man – which leads to the very unique and highly sought-after voice of the castrato.
We already touched upon castrati singers singing in church choirs but they also dominated the opera houses singing both male and female roles for more than 200 years. There they inspired a lot of famous composer like Georg Friedrich Händel, Domenico Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and many more to write their famous operas.
Which leads to some interesting problems nowadays. If you want to perform one of these baroque operas, where the male parts were written for castrati singers – how do you staff them today?
Especially as it was even quite common that the male lead voice was sung at a higher register than the female lead. In more recent times, it is quite common to just transpose the male voice into a tenor register. But of course, that doesn’t give you the “real” intended sound the composer wanted. So directors often choose to either cast a falsetto singer into that role or staff it with a woman which won’t necessarily give quite the same sound, but at least closer.
This little excursion into the history of the castrati singers might have given you a good impression of what’s the difference between the castration of a man and your pet.
There is none.
In both cases the male individuum will experience the effects of testosterone deficiency. The only difference is that these effects are nowadays mostly unwanted in humans but desired in pets.
Today Human men mostly get castrated for medical reasons, if they have a tumor in their testicles or their prostate for example. With this, hormone replacement therapy is helpful if they suffer from the effects of the low testosterone levels.
Unfortunately, that is sometimes not possible, especially in advanced prostate cancer, as testosterone is in this condition often a factor that helps the tumor grow.
For men undergoing these treatments and suffering from symptoms like gynecomastia – the increase in size of the male breast tissue, erectile dysfunction, and reduced libido which might challenge a patients’ self-identity, it might be important to know that sources taken from history, may it be Byzantium, Roman Antiquity, Early Islamic societies, the Ottoman Empire, Chinese dynasties, or the previously discussed Italian Castrati period, that castrated men consistently held powerful social positions often with great political influence.
Furthermore, they were often recognized for their loyalty, managerial style, wisdom and pedagogical skills. Also, in some cultures, they were considered the object of sexual desire for males, females or both and not consistently asexual and celibate as many think today.
So, lets now talk about animals – the story is a little different there. Pets are usually castrated for a reason – the most common being birth control. But it also often changes the social behaviour of these animals.
It is known that by 4500 B.C.E. humans were castrating cattle and sheep to change their behavior and make them more manageable. On this note, it is argued that the use of ox for ploughing a field, which was a contributing factor for modern civilization forming, was only possible due to the more docile castrated oxen.
The first known human castration followed not long after that. There are signs that the first men purposefully castrated began around 4000 B.C.E. in Uruk. While in Europe it was mainly done to preserve the unbroken male voice into adult life, in the far and middle East, castration was often done to obtain eunuchs as guardians of the harems.
Back to the animals: One study looking into the effects of castration on dogs which were older than 2 years and showed at least one type of problematic behaviour found that castration was most effective in altering objectionable urine marking, mounting, and roaming behaviors. In these behaviours a significant improvement was shown in more than half of the dogs. For other types of aggressive behaviour, castration may be effective in some dogs but less than a third of the dogs showed a marked improvement.
Beyond behavior, one very important factor for castration in animals we haven’t touched upon yet is that due to the sex hormone testosterone the meat starts to change in its taste and its smell when the animal hits puberty. So, to preserve a high meat quality you have two options- either slaughter the animal before it hits puberty or cut their balls off.
But, in the end, there really isn’t that much of a difference between the affects of castrating a human vs animal, it’s just that the effects of testosterone deficiency are mainly unwanted in human males, so hormone therapy is often advisable if possible to make up for the effects here. Whereas in animals, the side effects are mostly desirable, so nothing much is done after the balls are lopped off, other than maybe an initial application of the Cone of Shame to the animal.
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Not only singers used to be castrated, but also some priests. In some of the earliest records of human religion, undergoing a ritual of castration was seen as an act of devotion. Some even argue that circumcision is only a modified – less-invasive and bloody – ritual of castration as it has similar aims in human religions. Martin Luther also had a quite interesting take on clerical celibacy – he compared it to the self-castration of priests of Cybele.
Castration was, and is in some countries to this day, also used as a punishment mostly if men don’t adhere to what is though as normal sexuality at that place at that time. One famous example of that is British mathematician, codebreaker and the father of modern computing Alan Turning. His work was essential in breaking the code of the Enigma – the machine the Germans used to encrypt their messages during World War II. It is estimated that because of his work, the duration of the war was shortened by 2 years, and thus saved millions of lives. No good deed goes unpunished and when it became known that he was gay, he was convicted and given the choice between prison or to undergo chemical castration. He chose the latter but due to side effects of the treatment Turning became depressed and committed suicide two years later, shortly before his 42nd birthday.
A little late, but we guess better than never, on Christmas Eve 2013 Queen Elisabeth II issued a “Royal Pardon” for Alan Turning. Further, in 2017 Turing’s Law came into effect which pardoned the thousands of gay and bisexual men convicted for their sexual acts.
Expand for References
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- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTmsSG8OW5M 😉
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