The sexuality and social performance of androgen-deprived (castrated) men throughout history: Implications for modern day cancer patients Academic Article uri icon


  • Androgen-deprivation therapy (ADT) via either surgical or chemical castration is the standard treatment for advanced prostate cancer (PCa). In North America, it is estimated that more than 40,000 men start ADT each year. The side effects of this treatment are extensive and include gynecomastia, erectile dysfunction, and reduced libido. These changes strongly challenge patients' self-identity and sexuality. The historical term for a man who has been castrated is 'eunuch', now a pejorative term implying overall social and sexual impotence. In this paper, we review key historical features of eunuch social performance and sexuality from a variety of cultures in order to assess the validity of contemporary stereotypes of the androgen-deprived male. Data were taken from secondary sources on the history of Byzantium, Roman Antiquity, Early Islamic societies, the Ottoman Empire, Chinese Dynasties, and the Italian Castrati period. This cross-cultural survey shows that castrated men consistently held powerful social positions that yielded great political influence. Many eunuchs were recognized for their loyalty, managerial style, wisdom, and pedagogical skills. Furthermore, rather than being consistently asexual and celibate, they were often sexually active. In certain cultures, they were objects of sexual desire for males, or females, or both. Collectively, the historical accounts suggest that, given the right cultural setting and individual motivation, androgen deprivation may actually enhance rather than hinder both social and sexual performance. We conclude that eunuch history contradicts the presumption that androgen deprivation necessarily leads to social and sexual impotence. The capabilities and accomplishments of eunuchs in the past gives patients on ADT grounds for viewing themselves in a positive light, where they are neither socially impotent nor sexually chaste.

publication date

  • December 2006