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9 October 2006
Chemical Castration: Freedom From The Madness Of Passion
by Paul Aitken

It's arguably the most famous episode of Seinfeld. Elaine, George, Kramer and Jerry make a bet to see who can last the longest without masturbating. Kramer predictably lasts all of five minutes. The rest make a contest of it and suffer accordingly. The defining visual for those still in the contest is tossing and turning in bed. For those who opted out, the defining visual is peaceful sleep. The brilliance of the visual is its simplicity. Every guy over the age of thirteen knows what its like to be all wound-up with no place to go.

Twenty-five percent of men masturbate every day and that's just those that admit it. Between the ages of 13 and 30 the figure is even higher. Most of us guys spend the majority of our day in a state of cognizable horniness. It's not oppressive, but it's there, like a low level buzzing, sometimes out-of-mind, but never completely. The only silence in our lives is immediately after orgasm in what is known as the refractory period. Mostly, women fail to understand this. They don't experience this buzzing in the same way and believe men exercise a degree of choice in their sexual urges. But we really are slaves to our dicks and our only emancipation from this incessant horniness is through sex, or masturbation. In a way our sexual behavior is an expression of our need to rid ourselves, if only for a few minutes, of the incessant buzzing. No guy ever said; "Jeez Louise, I wish I wish I was horny!"

The buzzing doesn't last forever. It quietens down as one ages. And many men don't really miss it. The aging poet Sophocles once referred to his waning sex drive as an "escape from the madness and slavery of passion." And in that post-orgasm refractory period that we all experience, we get a glimpse of what he meant by this. And to be honest, occasionally I wonder if life wouldn't better if I too were free from the "madness and slavery of passion."

There is plenty of evidence that the primary sexing hormone, testosterone, has a pernicious long-term effect on men. It causes baldness, acts as a fuel for prostate cancer and makes us behave like horny idiots. Those who have elected or been forced to undergo castration live longer thanks to the reduction in testosterone. Eunuchs of the Imperial Chinese court were famously long lived. Sun Yaoting, China's last imperial eunuch died in 1996 at the age of 93. Prisoners who had there testicles removed in the 1930's in a procedure euphemistically known as an orchidectomy (orchid bulbs look like testicles) lived an average of 13 years longer than those whose cojones remained intact. Women are also longer lived than men. This has normally been attributed to social factors; guys work harder, endure more stress and are more likely to engage in life-shortening activities. But could the corrosive effect of testosterone actually be the leading reason? Could horniness itself be a health hazard?

Despite its attendant discomfort and risk, most men wouldn't elect to banish desire from their lives. Sex is fun. I suppose whacking-off is too, although evolution has ensured that we will never be truly satisfied unless we get to do it with a real live partner. I'm sure that even Sophocles, living peaceably in his sexless emancipation, would have leapt at the chance to revisit the madness of passion.

But what of those for whom desire is a crushing burden? Men who suffer from paralysis or untreatable erectile dysfunction; or men such as pedophiles, for whom the expression of desire is a criminal act. Desire that cannot be met is no fun at all. For men who want relief from their insatiable desires, there are a number of options. The aforementioned orchidectomy is probably the most effective. Testicles produce the testosterone that drives sexual desire. Remove the testicles and sexual urges are vastly diminished. But any procedure that permanently separates us from a functioning body part is drastic. Save for men in the later stages of prostate cancer, for whom it is a life prolonging operation, few are willing undergo the procedure. And I don't blame them. There's a world of a difference between "not now" and "never again." Luckily, there are alternatives, most of which fall under the umbrella term of chemical castration. The expression is perhaps needlessly pejorative; both "chemical" and "castration" have decidedly negative associations, but it is accurate. Chemicals, in the form of hormone inhibitors are used and the effects are akin to castration.

The reigning champions of chemical castration are Depo-Provera and Tamoxifen, each of which uses a different mechanism to achieve its effects. Depo-Provera is a progestin (artificial progesterone), initially developed as a contraceptive for women, it's depressant effects on the male libido were discovered in the 1980's. Depo Provera works by inhibiting the release of pituitary hormones that activate the release of testosterone. Tamoxifen works by blocking the enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen. Now, if you're paying attention you might well ask why a drug that stops the conversion of testosterone into estrogen should have any effect on the male libido. Well, there is some speculation that estrogen is actually the hormone behind male sex drive! Recent experiments have shown that male mice deprived of estrogen have zero/nada interest in sex. Confused? So am I.

However, the bottom line is that they do work. Men taking these drugs for other conditions, (Tamoxifen for heart, Depo-Provera for prostate) report a significant loss of libido. Of the two, Depo-Provera is the more effective and has been used on pedophiles with considerable success. Recidivism rates for convicted pedophiles without hormone treatment are typically in the range of 65 percent. For those on Depo-Provera it is 5 percent. But the use of Depo-Provera for paroled pedophiles and rapists is extremely controversial. The American Civil Liberties Union objects on purely philosophical grounds. In its view, the administration of a drug should never be mandated as a condition of release. Other concerns are more practical. To be effective in men, Depo-Provera must be administered in high doses. Over the long term these can have significant side effects including weight gain and bone loss (no pun intended). Some of these effects can be treated by other drugs but when you're using drugs to deal with the knock-on effects of other drugs, you gotta problem, Jack.

A more recent drug introduced into the chemical castration medicine cabinet holds more promise. Triptorelin works the same way as Depo-Provera only its effects occur further upstream (understanding the endocrine system is a bit like reading The House That Jack Built). Triptorelin is more effective, has fewer side effects and can be administered on a monthly basis as opposed to weekly for Depo-Provera. In a recent study, pedophiles treated with a Triptorelin reported the complete cessation of sexual fantasies and when the study was over, almost all elected to remain on the drug.

Whatever your views on chemical castration, you can't deny the positive potential the drugs offer in the treatment of unwanted desires. Principles can never be absolute. They must always be weighed against pragmatics. Faced with a choice between long-term detention and drug-controlled parole, most sex-offenders opt for the latter. And why not? Not only are they free from prison, they're free from the madness and slavery of passions that should never be expressed. Idealists may gnash their teeth but Sophocles would have understood.

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