The Modern Female Eunuch

Historically, low levels of testosterone seemed to make eunuchs ideal negotiators. Their highly specialized and respected roles are now being filled by women.
More
The_Qing_Dynasty_Cixi_Imperial_Dowager_Empress_of_China_On_Throne_Sedan_With_Palace_Enuches570.jpg
Qing Dynasty Imperial Dowager Empress of China with palace eunuchs [Wikimedia Commons]

Germaine Greer's 1970 The Female Eunuch gave eunuchs a bad name. Applying the term for castrated males to women's political and social disempowerment, Greer overlooked the fact that actual eunuchs -- and other men with low testosterone -- have occupied some of the most powerful positions in government and the military throughout history.

Only a few countries, and a handful of U.S. states, continue the practice -- long considered barbaric -- of actually castrating males. Even then it is voluntary. Today the term "emasculate" is typically used to imply political impotence rather than literally severed or nonfunctional testicles. Since eunuchs are without functional testicles, they are both sterile and deprived of the testosterone that promotes male characteristics.

Today the term "emasculate" is typically used to imply political impotence rather than literally severed or nonfunctional testicles.

Although Greer negatively equated women's disenfranchisement with castration, it is ironic that women, more than ever, fill roles historically and exclusively held by eunuchs. In fact, eunuchs ran the show in many settings and for a long a time. Historically, males were castrated before puberty to prepare them for governmental service. Classicists mostly agree that eunuchs served dynastic governments so well, and were not a threat to the dynasty, because they had no descendants of their own to favor. But they were also recognized for being more competent and accomplished in certain administrative areas than non-castrated males.

Eunuchs were not just bureaucrats and functionaries. They were the generals, diplomats, and negotiators in some of the most preeminent and enduring governments that ever existed. Castrated males were key to the functioning of some of the largest and longest-lasting dynastic governments across Asia from biblical times to the collapse, roughly 150 years ago, of the Ottoman and Chinese empires. They filled nearly all senior government posts. Many were warriors and military leaders. Indeed, Narses, the senior general under the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, was a eunuch. The world would be very different today if, 1,500 years ago, Narses hadn't destroyed the Ostrogoths and saved the Roman Empire.

Clearly, eunuchs were far from being "wimps" because they lacked "balls." Take, for example, one of the most brutal power-brokers known to history, the eunuch Mohammad Khan Qajar. Khan unified Persia in 1795 and set up a dynasty that ran the country for 130 years. Sir John Malcolm, a contemporary British historian, describes Khan as methodical and calculating, yet he also pointed out how insightful and knowledgeable Khan was about the character and feelings of others.

***

Both historical accounts and contemporary research on how testosterone affects personality reveal that eunuchs had traits that made them different from intact males, and in some ways more like females. Their astuteness and objectivity in assessing others' strengths and weaknesses made them particularly effective as bureaucrats, diplomats and tacticians -- quite the opposite of what most people now think of when they hear the word "eunuch."

It benefits senior strategists in both military and non-military situations to have low, or even castrate levels, of testosterone.

When researchers examine how males and females differ in personality, one of the most consistently documented differences has been in agreeableness.

Women in the maternal role, who have multiple offspring, need to be good negotiators in order to resolve conflict among their children in a way that maximizes their number of surviving descendants. It is thus not surprising that many studies show that agreeability is higher in women than men. That alone could lead natural selection to favor females to be low in testosterone. Indeed recent data from our own and our colleagues' labs on the effect of testosterone deprivation on adult males indicates that castration increases agreeableness and tends to push male behavior towards that of the female end of the spectrum.

High testosterone males are more disagreeable -- rather than only being more aggressive -- than females or low-testosterone males. In his book about testosterone and behavior, Heros, Rogues, and Lovers, James McBride Dabbs said that if there was one word that characterized an excessively high testosteronic individual, it was "obnoxious."

There is little doubt that testosterone makes many men more abrasive, insensitive, less contemplative, less empathetic, and less tactful than most women. These are not beneficial traits for someone in a position of power with the mission of solving problems by avoiding, rather than entering into, conflict.

Dabbs studied testosterone levels in men and women in a wide variety of professions. In his investigation of the military, he found that generals had the lowest testosterone levels and combat soldiers the highest. In the heat of a battle, in a life or death situation, acting fast is often more important than thinking about options; one needs to shoot first and (perhaps) think later.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Kirsten Kukula & Richard Wassersug

Kirsten Kukula is a research assistant in the department of anatomy and neurobiology at Dalhousie University. Richard Wassersug, PhD, is an adjunct professor in the department of urologic sciences at the University of British Columbia.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Fascinating Short Film About the Multiverse

If life is a series of infinite possibilities, what does it mean to be alive?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In