Saturday, March 01, 2008

Backstreet castrators

An unsettling glimpse into the world of men who have their testicles removed without medical assistance

I've been reporting on the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting for five years now, and it never fails to give a vivid insight into some bizarre cultural practices - usually ones that end up with people getting mutilated or killed.

This year's prize for the most eye-watering talk goes to Karen Berka Bruewer of KMB Forensic Consulting for "The ball's in your court: castration as a form of extreme body modification". According to Berka Bruewer, there are at least 100 "cutters" in the US willing to lop off a man's family jewels. Their fee is less than the $2,000 or so typically charged by medical professionals who perform the procedure, and of course with none of the rigorous screening and psychiatric support that would usually precede it.

In her talk (she says she will put the slides on her website at some point) she reviewed the handful of cases of illegal castration that have come to the authorities' notice in the past decade.

"Every forensic scientists should have at least one out of the ordinary memorable case," wrote Berka Bruewer in her abstract. For her it was Edward Bodkin, a cutter who had performed numerous castrations on willing men in his kitchen. His flatmate eventually turned him in to the police (if you share a flat with someone who is even slightly annoying you at the moment, just be grateful they're not a backstreet castrator).

When police searched Bodkin's home they found nine jars containing human testicles as well as video tapes of the castrations taking place, which he was selling through a publication called Ball Club Quarterly. He was convicted of practising medicine without a licence.

Videoing the act and keeping "souvenirs" is apparently very common. The cutters often have a farm background which got them interested in castrating animals.

In the human realm there is a whole language to describe the options. "Nullos" are people who have had their genitals removed and "smoothies" have been relieved of their genitals and nipples.

For those of you thinking "only in America", think again. Howard Shelley, a 42-year-old from Bletchley in the UK, performed the operation on himself in August last year using a kitchen knife. It took him just 6 minutes.

Apparently his now ex-wife had no idea he wanted to emasculate himself.

Incidentally, the tool of choice is not a sharp knife but the Elastrator, a device used by vets to castrate animals. The disturbing contraption fits a super-tight elastic band which constricts the blood supply to the scrotum. It takes around 6 hours for the testicles to shrivel and die. Needless to say the procedure causes considerable discomfort and is irreversible.

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