Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Like Fire Through Bone: Writing Characters who are Eunuchs

Writing eunuchs as characters.

It started I think with an article on dick size over on Jessewave. Someone there made the comment, which everyone else agreed with, that "size didn't matter as long as the guy had a dick." ... which is problematic for all sorts of different reasons.

People went on for a few comments about this mandatory dick issue until someone said something about eunuchs and how that was the only way you'd have an m/m romance story without dicks in it (not quite true). The commenter phrased it in such a way as to indicate that only a crazy person would write a m/m romance story about eunuchs.

Well it just so happens that I am a crazy person.

More than that the comment sparked my curiosity.  Doing a quick search I discovered that there was little to no romances about eunuchs. In fact over all there is very little fiction with eunuch main characters.

This is surprising to me because eunuchs existed in many societies all over the world. Ancient Rome, the Persian Empire, The Ottoman Empire, The Byzantine Empire, Assyrian Empire, Ancient Egypt, Medieval China, Medieval Korea, 16th and 17th century Europe all spring to mind as societies known for there eunuchs.

Eunuchs were often valued, powerful and well educated. As members of court they could be some of the most powerful men in the country. Eunuchs served in the military, worked as bureaucrats, scholars, body guards, artists and entertainers.

Almost every religious tradition that has a gendered component to its observance discusses eunuchs. The Bible speak of eunuchs in both the Old and New Testament. 

Eunuchs could be made by either having their testicles removed or both the testicles and the penis. Full or particle castration depended on the time and place. Castration could be performed by cutting with a knife, crushing the testicles, or depriving the genitals of blood until the tissues died.  Eunuchs could undergo castration either before or after puberty. Being castrated before puberty tended to make a eunuch's voice higher, his body softer and more prone to weight gain. Being castrated after puberty also tended to soften up the features and could cause weight gain although it did not have any affect on an eunuch's voice. In some cases castration either before or after puberty could affect body hair growth, although that varied from person to person.

In some cases slaves or prisoners of war were castrated against their will in. In other cases boys or their families chose to have them castrated as a way of ensuring a better life and education for them.  

So the fact that eunuchs are often missing from historical fiction and historical fantasy is interesting.

There seems to be a strong modern social stigma against eunuchs. Castration of boys and men to create eunuchs is seen in modern society as unacceptable mutilation. Eunuchs themselves however are often not well portrayed. When they do appear eunuchs are usually not portrayed in a positive light, either as the butt of jokes or as dangerously manipulative and scheming. Very rarely are they the heroes and almost never the object of desire.

Although desiring castration or desiring ones partner to be castrated is a fringe fetish the most common reaction I found while doing research about both historical and modern eunuchs is that of disgusted. The modern audience tends to view the eunuchs body, not just the act of castration, as disgusting and unappealing. To refer to someone in our modern society as a eunuch is considered insulting in the extreme to the point where the editor for my blurb for Like Fire Through Bone worried that me calling Vasilios a eunuch would be seen  by readers as derogatory.

Yet with all this interesting and rich history around eunuchs throughout diverse times and cultures it seemed to me like a wasted opportunity not to explore their lives as people. Historically eunuchs were often objects of desire in their own time for both women and men. They also often inhabited a gender-grey area. In cultures were being a eunuch meant being well educated and having the possibility of social advancement they were often in the thick of things, whether it be politically, militarily so scholarly.

So I set about creating a world and story where eunuch would take front and center stage.

There are three eunuchs of note in Like Fire Through Bone.

Vasilios is the main character of the story. Taken as a prisoner of war in his early teens and castrated, he serves as a secretary for the rich merchant Panagiotis, also running his household and quite frankly most of his business. Vasilios has survived through his decades of captivity because he is a eunuch but more importantly because he is everything a eunuch should be.  Being a eunuch is a huge part of who Vasilios is, who he thinks of himself and how he interacts with the world. He is very comfortable inhabiting the social space of a household eunuch. Vasilios also sees himself as very much masculine however, even though as a eunuch he is no longer legally or socially one. He worries that his castrated status will keep his love interest from seeing him as fully masculine.

Ilkay was originally sold into slavery by his parents castrated before puberty and sold to the palace to be a concubine for the Emperor. Once he got the palace Ilkay was educated in the arts and became a veracious reader educating himself about everything else. Specially adapt at political and military tactics Ilkay became the late Emperor's favorite, rising to a position of second most powerful man in the Empire. Ilkay thrives on danger and when bored has been known to stir things up in court just for his own amusement. Ilkay has spent most of his life as an object of desire and uses his sexuality like a weapon. He is perfectly comfortable in inhabiting a more feminine space and holds onto a more gender ambiguous identity.

Xêgodis was also sold into slavery as a child and was also castrated before puberty and sold to the palace as a eunuch-concubine or jewel. Unfortunately for him the Emperor had little interest in concubines and when he did choose a companion for his bed it was always Ilkay. Xêgodis therefore became the favored play thing for the head of the Emperor's spies who trained him to work as an assassin. When the man was implicated in a coup against the Emperor and executed it was Xêgodis who was appointed to take his place. Xêgodis hates being a eunuch and has done everything in his power to disguise the fact that he is one.  For Xêgodis his status as a eunuch is a burden that holds him back from the social and legal rights he desires. Although an extremely powerful man his ability to move further politically or socially is blocked by his status as a eunuch.

Of course the elephant in the room when you're talking about eunuchs as characters, especially main characters, of a romance novel is the sex scene. Castration especially full castration does affect eunuch's sex drive specifically their hormonal response. However a large part of desire and sexual arousal is psychological not strictly physical and there is nothing stopping eunuchs from psychologically desiring sexual closeness and intimacy.

I actually really enjoy writing sex scenes with characters who are eunuchs. Having a character who no longer has a penis moves the action of the scene way from the usual types of sex acts and make me thing outside the box. It also makes me think about the reasons aside from the physical act of orgasm that people desire sex and have sexual relationships. There can be great pleasure and closeness in touching and being touched even if it does not end or including the physical act of orgasm.

Having a character or characters who are eunuchs is a ready made way of examining these issues and thinking about way of writing satisfying sex scenes that don't including getting hard and getting off.

All in all I loved writing these characters who are also eunuchs, designing the social roles and legal right held by the eunuchs in my world. I look forward to exploring the many different histories and social roles of eunuchs in future works.


  1. Wow, that was quite interesting to read! I've never given much thoughts to eunuchs before, but this really got me thinking.

    I'm gonna read your book when I'm back in the "zone" for that genre. ^^;; I'm currently all about contemporary, but it might change soon. ^_~

    1. eunuchs are a fascinating group no matter what culture you are studying them in.

      I hope if you do end up reading Like Fire Through Bone you enjoy it.

  2. This is awesome! It's such a great idea, and very intriguing. I'm excited to read it, and I'm certain a lot of other people will be too. Congrats!

    1. Thank you! I am excited and a little nervous for when it comes out on Friday.

  3. It's no secret that I loved this book and it was a real joy and privelege for me to beta for you. I hope it gets the attention it deserves and likewise, I hope everyone loves Vasilios, because he is such a wonderful character. (Though I loved Ilkay, too. He was a terrific secondary character.)

    1. I am both excited and nervous about it coming out on Friday and finally seeing what people's reactions are to it.

      and yay for Ilkay! I'm worried he's not in the story enough for people to really like him which would be sad since I love his craziness so much.