Academic journal article International Journal of Men's Health

The Language of Emasculation: Implications for Cancer Patients

Academic journal article International Journal of Men's Health

The Language of Emasculation: Implications for Cancer Patients

Article excerpt

Language can be used both literally and metaphorically. In this article, we explore the metaphorical use of terms including impotence, castration and neutered, to better understand how these words are interpreted by both the public at large, and by the approximately half a million men in North America who, at one time or another, take chemically castrating drugs to control prostate cancer. Specifically, we examine contemporary, publicly accessible sources for keywords related to emasculation; i.e., the Internet, jokes, films and printed news reports. We find that these terms are almost always employed negatively. We conclude that the language of emasculation often faults the subject and implies general dysfunction and powerlessness--socially, politically, and sexually--adding to the shame and "othering" felt by cancer patients who are castrated out of medical necessity. In addition, we show that recent efforts to refer to sexual impotence more narrowly as erectile dysfunction fail to separate the metaphorical from the physical meaning of impotence, and do not solve the problem of the shame associated with medical castration. Society's failure to recognize that castration is still common adds to the stigma of those who are emasculated for medical reasons.

Keywords: masculinity, impotence, castration, eunuch, shame, stigma, prostate cancer


According to Deborah Cameron's study, "Naming of Parts: Gender, Culture, and Terms for the Penis among American College Students" (1992), it took a small group of young males only half an hour to list 144 common monikers for the penis. The vast majority of these names--"Excalibur," "jackhammer," and "morning missile" are a few examples--identify the male member as an icon of potency and power. Such conceptualizations reflect negatively on those who find themselves with a flaccid penis. As Cameron summarizes: "the penis is recurrently metaphorized as a person, an animal, a tool, a weapon" (p. 369). Based on the rubric constructed by this language, a man with an erectile dysfunction (ED) is left respectively dehumanized, unnatural, impractical, and defenceless. As Susan Bordo (1999) writes: "these metaphors [...] set men up for failure. For men don't really have torpedoes or rods or heroic avengers between their legs. They have penises" (p. 64).

Despite the power implicit in its slang names, the penis, like the rest of the human body, is fallible--and about a third of all prostate cancer (PCa) patients will experience that as residual ED after primary treatment. If the disease progresses they will go on androgen deprivation therapy (ADT), which will guarantee partial, if not full, ED in greater than 85% of all recipients.

John Oliffe (2005) reports that "impotent men are marginalized and subordinate" (p. 2254) and blames the media, at least in part, for that positioning. He does not, however, examine how the vernacular itself may promote this marginalization. This is the topic we explore here. Cameron (1992) illustrates the prevalent suggestive and metaphorical nature of the many slang terms for the penis. But just as the language of masculinity carries with it certain expectations, the language of emasculation may connote equally entrenched imagery. Here we examine the media's use of terms such as impotent, castrated, neutered, and eunuch, and explore the thesis that in contemporary Western discourse, these words have come to imply far more than simply sexual dysfunction. The social and political weakness implicit in expressions such as "the neutered electorate," "emasculated Senate," "impotent figureheads," and "intellectual eunuch," (all recent quotes from the popular press) align actual emasculation with global dysfunction in ways that neither psychologically nor historically reflect the realities of androgen deprivation (reviewed in Aucoin & Wassersug, 2006; Wassersug, 2007, 2008, 2009).

In order to explore the meaning and message in the language of emasculation, we first ask: What is the language of emasculation that biologically impotent individuals face? …

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