Rapists: Is castration a solution?

Rather than knee-jerk reactions, we need a resurgence of solidarity based on the protection of the most vulnerable.

Sexual violence has been a focus of public attention in India since the fatal gang rape of a student on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012 [EPA]

“The bodies of two teenage Indian girls who had been gang-raped were found hanging from a mango tree on [May 28] in a village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.”

This report is the latest in a succession of recent news of repeated gang rapes in India that has brought to global attention to this heinous crime.

India is not the only country in which this horrid crime takes place. According to one report, based on UN statistics, the United States in fact leads by a very wide margin the ten countries in which the highest number of rapes are reported, with 80,000 cases of rape in 2010, followed by India (10,000), UK, Mexico, Germany, Sweden, Russia, Thailand, Columbia and Belgium.

The same report warns that the actual numbers might be much higher: “The United States had more than 80,000 cases of rape reported to the police from 2004 to 2010, according to UN data. But the US Justice Department estimates 300,000 American women are raped every year, and the Centers for Disease Control puts the number much higher at 1.3 million.”

The question of un- or under-reported cases of rape is of course always possible. Since a certain degree of shame and even taboo is associated with this crime it is quite possible that victims of rape or other kinds of sexual assaults might be reluctant to report it in countries that show a lower or no official number.

Is castration a solution?

There is no depth to the sense of outrage and contempt when one reads reports of rape and murder of young girls by murderous gangs who then proceed to kill their victim. The enormity of the violence simply defies any sense of proportionate punishment. It is perhaps for that reason that in societies such as the US, where this particular crime has a high preponderance, some very extreme measures have been considered.

One such extreme measure is physical or chemical castration.

“Testosterone levels and consequently men’s libidos,” according to some reports in the US, “can be lowered through surgically removing a man’s testicles or treating him with drugs. For that reason, castration has been used by psychiatrists and mandated by various states to treat some sex offenders.”

Europe and Americas, according to available data, lead the world in the number of reported rape offenders per 100,000 people, followed – again with a very wide margin – by Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

Castration, however, might not be an effective manner of preventing future rapes, even by the same rapist.

“You can be castrated and still have an intact penis,” says Dr Andrew Kramer, a urologist at the University of Maryland. “If he was castrated, his testosterone levels would drop significantly but not all the way to zero. Most testosterone is produced by the testes, but some is made in the adrenal glands above the kidneys.”

But what is a highly charged debate without a little bit of racism thrown in?

“Castration is … more Middle Ages and Middle Eastern than it is modern or American,” one US expert has declared. “It is comparable to cutting off the hands of thieves or drunk drivers, both of whom are more likely to re-offend.”

Medieval and Middle Eastern or not, the procedure is in fact quite common in the US.

At least one state, Florida, allows sentenced prisoners to choose surgical castration in lieu of prison time. In another case, “A Houston man charged with sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl won judicial approval … to undergo surgical castration. The decision would allow him to avoid a prison sentence.”

Other states are following suit: “Chemical castration may be required of repeat molesters in California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, Oregon, Texas and Wisconsin. Only Texas and Louisiana offer the option of cutting out the testes, where 95 percent of testosterone is produced.”

But will castration prevent future crimes? Some medical studies show lower recidivism rates for castrated criminals versus those who didn’t receive the procedures.


Is the laser beaming on the recent rape cases in India misleading us as to the preponderance of this crime around the world? If any fraction of the UN statistics is to be trusted, there are far more rape cases in the US than in India, and in US and Europe than in other continents. If so, might we consider a correspondence between the number of reported rapes and the degree of social anomie associated with militarism?

If indeed, as the statistics suggest, US and Europe lead the world in the number of rapes reported, two other factors might be relevant here. These are the two massively militarised interventionists around the globe, capable and assertive in the violence they perpetrate upon other nations, and the collapse of internal social cohesion and group solidarity.

Such brutal cases of rape and murder as that of the 14-year-old Iraqi girl Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi, gang-raped and burned on March 12, 2006 by US soldiers, brings the two sides of aggressive military interventionism and rape together. This highlights the increasing atomisation of individuals and the disappearance of community consciousness in which the absence of any sense of shame or guilt renders the social side of the crime entirely untenable.

This possibility must of course be immediately modified by the probability that there are more accurate reporting of rape cases in US and European countries and a far more accurate definition of rape that includes “date rape” and even “marital rape”. Be that as it may, the lower cases of rape in non-European and non-American societies may also be an indication of stronger communal and group affiliations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

But such megacities and their social anomie are no longer limited to those in North America and Western Europe, and thus the idea of castration in response to rape is now emerging in other countries too. In India just before the most recent election, “amidst continuing public rage against sexual crime against women, India’s ruling Congress party has decided to propose chemical castration of rapists, among other strict measures”.

In South Korea, authorities have decided to chemically “castrate a serial rapist who preyed on young girls”. In Zimbabwe, “Women parliamentarians are pushing for severe penalties which include mandatory life sentences or castration for rapists”.

What are the drawbacks to the idea of castration as a proper punishment for rapists?

Castration is viewed as cruel and unusual punishment by the ACLU and Amnesty International, among other groups. When we are freshly angered by the report of a ghastly rape case, the rapists’ “human rights” might be the last thing on our mind. But it is precisely at such moments that we need sober institutions like ACLU or the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International to keep their eyes on a more fundamental issue, namely the inadvertent delegation of even more power of violence to the state.

When the state becomes involved in legalised castration, the spectre of the forced sterilisation under the Nazis is immediately invoked.

Alternative thinking

The problem with both those who suggest castration and those who object to it is not its cruelty, effectiveness, or inhumanity. The problem is with the incessant over-medicalisation and the subsequent over-legalisation of the crime, which in turn leads to the ill-advised attribution of even more power to states, and thereby its politicisation.

As a social malaise, rape could not have a single mode of prevention, solution or punishment fair and applicable across the board. Circumstances and vulnerability of young women to such predatory violence vary. But certain credible statistics point to the social condition in which the crime actually takes place. According to one report, “99 percent of people who rape are men”, “between 62 percent and 84 percent of survivors knew their attacker”, and “42 percent of rape survivors told no one about the rape”.

These and many similar factors all point to the critical significance of familial and communal vigilance combined with radical educational reform openly addressing the severity of the crime.

Rape is a violence so heinous, so brutish, that no punishment can address it to anyone’s, especially the victim’s, satisfaction. The solution as a result is not in the knee-jerk reaction of indulging even more in the domain of over-medicalised, over-legalised, and over-politicised punishment, but far more in the realm of prevention, and the only solution in that domain is familial and community vigilance, organisation, mobilisation, activism, and above all a resurgence of organic solidarity based on the protection of the most vulnerable.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature a Columbia University in New York.