Ken, the original poster boy for nullos (Picture: Karol Serewis/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

March 5, 2024   7 mins

If one man asks another if he can cut off his penis, and that other man agrees, whose place is it to say they can’t go through with it? The UK courts faced just this question in the case of Damien Byrnes, found guilty last month of using a kitchen knife to remove the genitals of Marius Gustavson, who consented to the procedure, and paid Byrnes over £1,500 to do it. Byrnes, a male escort, said his motives were financial (he has been sentenced to 5 years in prison). This is not an isolated incident.

In fact, Gustavson himself — who is due to be sentenced this week after admitting conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm — maintained a now-defunct “Eunuch Maker” website, for men who are or aspire to be “nullos” (short for genital nullification). Not only did the site promote the niche fetish, it featured videos of these procedures for subscribers. Many of Gustavson’s co-conspirators have pleaded guilty to causing grievous bodily harm, their crimes ranging from freezing limbs for removal to the resection of nipples. But legal cases involving instances of consensual castration are becoming increasingly common.

In 2021, Oklahoman newlyweds Bob Lee Allen, 53, and Thomas Evan Gates, 42, were convicted of a variety of offences — including practising medicine without a licence — after they were found to have performed backyard castrations in their isolated cabin. That same year, an Australian named Ryan Andrew King, 28, was given a three and a half year suspended sentence for removing the testicles of two men with their consent in a backpacker hostel. At sentencing, both of King’s “victims” gave evidence that they had “no complaints” with the procedure, with one adding: “I am eternally grateful to Ryan for enabling me to enjoy life.”

Eunuchs, of course, are nothing new. In ancient China, imperial servants were commonly castrated while serving as high-ranking advisors to royalty. In ancient Rome, slaves were castrated in order to remain docile and subservient, their lack of sex drive making them ideal guards for harems. In 16th-century Italy, boys were castrated to preserve their youthful singing voices. The male psyche has traditionally been preoccupied with keeping one’s balls intact rather than lopping them off. The fetishisation of castration, combined with a growing subculture of nullos who have acted out their desires, is an entirely contemporary phenomenon — one worth taking seriously, given that it presents profound challenges to liberal ideals of consent and bodily autonomy.

“The male psyche has traditionally been preoccupied with keeping one’s balls intact rather than lopping them off”

Online communities catering to nullo fetishists — which have been around since the late Nineties — involve sexualising the submissive role of castrato. Men attracted to these forums post gruesome fantasy fiction and share castration tips. In one fantasy story posted on The Eunuch Archive, a young prostitute in Victorian London knocks to the ground a man they suspect is Jack the Ripper. The Dickensian dominatrix then swiftly removes the Ripper’s penis with a scalpel. In another, slave boys wriggle against restraints as they are castrated like cattle and sold off to servitude.

Focused as they are on the derivation of pleasure from pain and humiliation, nullos are part of the BDSM community — but they are of course at the very extreme end of the sadomasochistic spectrum. Like all kinks, fantasies of castration have complex roots. A 2007 survey of men who posted on The Eunuch Archive found that castration ideation often correlated with a history of child abuse (which may include parental threats of castration), exposure to animal castration in early years and/or religious condemnation of sexuality, and being gay.

Less is known about the self-described “cutters”, who perform the backyard castrations, although the limited evidence suggests they are often motivated by their own sexual preferences for domination and control, probably supplemented by the desire to make money. One survey found that cutters were more likely to present themselves as traditionally masculine, and have histories of self-harm and sexually inappropriate behaviour, compared with their submissive nullo counterparts.

None of this information necessarily enables the law to decide how to respond to cases of consensual castration. So far, the UK has relied on existing legal precedent, based on the House of Lords’ 1993 ruling on R v Brown — also known as the Spanner case — which upheld the conviction a group of gay men who had engaged in consensual sadomasochistic activities that led to injury. Recorded on VHS tapes discovered as a result of “Operation Spanner”, a police operation targeting obscenity, the activities included whipping, wax play and, much discussed in the tabloids, the nailing of one man’s foreskin to a block of wood — all of which were freely consented to. A 3-to-2 majority upheld the conviction on the basis that the unique harms of consensual sadomasochism were worthy of prosecution, regardless of the consent of all those involved. “Society is entitled and bound to protect itself against a cult of violence,” declared Lord Templeman. “Pleasure derived from the infliction of pain is an evil thing. Cruelty is uncivilised.”

This doctrine, that consent is irrelevant to certain extreme sexual activities, has been adopted wholesale in the UK’s recently passed Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which states that “consent to serious harm for sexual gratification is not a defence in circumstances where a person inflicts serious harm on another”. While one may be satisfied with the use of this principle in the case of Gustavson, it’s a peculiar feature of UK law that one’s consent to a risky activity is dismissed merely because there is a sexual component at play. In a liberal society, we accept that people can consent to all manner of activities that may harm them — from extreme sports to boxing matches to various forms of elective, unnecessary cosmetic procedures. Some, such as Dr Senthorun Raj from Manchester Metropolitan University, have argued that the Spanner case is nothing more than an expression of judicial disgust at unusual activities, particularly those pursued by gay men.

The 1996 Court of Appeal decision of R v Wilson certainly bares out this hypocrisy. In this case, consent was recognised as a defence where a husband was charged with branding his initials onto his wife’s buttocks with a hot butter knife. The court distinguished its reasoning from the Spanner case by categorising the activity as non-sexual and analogous to tattooing, despite the fact that branding is a known fantasy in the BDSM scene.

And yet, in 2018 Brendan McCarthy, the self-described “body-modification practitioner” known as Dr Evil, was successfully prosecuted for consensual procedures performed at his tattoo parlour. McCarthy was convicted of three counts of assault occasioning actual bodily harm for removing one customer’s ear, another customer’s nipple and splitting another’s tongue — all of which were done with full consent. Relying on the Spanner Case, the Court of Appeal found that consent to extreme body modifications is not a defence to criminal charges. In summing up, Justice Nawaz stated that “the personal autonomy of the appellant’s customers did not justify removing body modification from the ambit of the law of assault.”

One does not necessarily need to sympathise with the nullos or other extreme kinksters to quibble with the current state of the law. I’m of the view that the reasoning of the Spanner case and its recent codification in statute are not fit for purpose, as they wrongheadedly prioritise “social harm” over actual harm. A different model is required, one that understands the capacity for adults to consent to harm but allows some protection for the most vulnerable. Does this mean we should allow live-streamed castration surgeries without any recourse to the criminal law? Not in my view. Even the most ardent liberal understands the need to deter people from self-destructive behaviour and protect against exploitation.

It’s hard to see how the removal of a submissive’s genitals for sexual pleasure is anything other than gross negligence. However, that hasn’t stopped some groups from trying to legitimise the practice. The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) recently included fresh guidelines for the treatment of “eunuchs” in its Standards of Care. These guidelines disingenuously downplay the sexual motivations of nullos, choosing to frame their desires as coming under the transgender umbrella — a framing with which most self-described nullos do not agree. Most view themselves as men who wish to fulfil a sexual fantasy.

Before we start going down the road of medically approved nullo surgeries, which already occur to a limited extent in the United States, it’s worth stepping back to appreciate that this kink begins as sexual daydreaming. At least one online survey of nullos found that the vast majority of people who engage in discussions about these desires have no interest in actually being castrated. Once upon a time, keeping unsafe fantasies purely in one’s own mind would have been seen as the sensible and ethical choice.

One case I often raise to challenge the liberal sensibilities of my students is that of German cannibal, Armin Meiwes, who was convicted of manslaughter in 2001, after he killed and ate a man named Bernd Brandes — with his full consent. The pair met on a website called The Cannibal Café, which catered to individuals interested in eating a person or being eaten. Most people who hear this story tend to think Meiwes deserves to be punished by the criminal law, regardless of the consent involved — particularly because Brandes was not a well man, having suffered from depression for much of his life and having what prosecutors called “a strong desire for self-destruction”.

In cases of BDSM, it is clear that a duty of care is owed by the “dominant” (or “active”) party in the activity to the “submissive” (or “passive”) party: the dominant has an obligation to protect against unnecessary psychological and physical harm to the submissive regardless of consent.

This understanding of relational obligations had pride of place within BDSM communities under the banner of “safe, sane and consensual” — a motto coined in the Eighties. As a sign of our times, many BDSM groups have now moved away from the ethos of ‘safe, sane and consensual’ in favour of a model of ethical conduct known as “risk-aware consensual kink”, or RACK. RACK reflects a distinctly libertarian approach to BDSM, born out of a sex-positive turn that prioritises consent over considerations of health, safety or dignity. The removal of the “sane” element was justified on the basis it is “ableist” to deny people suffering from chronic mental health issues or severe trauma the pleasures of extreme BDSM. Under this model, many forms of extreme BDSM — from choking till unconsciousness to knife play — are legitimised as “ethical” merely because all participants are well-informed of the risks and fully consent. But the extreme cases filtering into the courts would suggest that this shift in the “rules” around BDSM has been dangerous.

As such, it seems appropriate for the law to define when the dominant’s disregard for the submissive’s wellbeing becomes so abhorrent that criminal punishment in warranted. In the case of Meiwes, clearly, he was aware that anyone seeking to be killed and eaten was vulnerable, yet he chose to end the life of another to fulfil his own deviant fantasies. This is objectionable, despite Brandes’s consent. When it comes to nullos, the actions of self-described cutters in performing unsafe, permanently damaging procedures on others — for the sake of a sexual kink — very much reflects the kind of gross negligence deserving of criminal punishment. The law needs to reflect the traditional, ethical model of BDSM: it would thereby allow for most “safe” forms — while protecting against unconscionable acts of violence.

Jarryd Bartle is a writer, educator and consultant on vice regulation.