Why are Indian eunuchs warned about unsafe sex?

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Dear Cecil: According to the attached article, AIDS activists are concerned about unsafe sex at a gathering of eunuchs in India. Could you please elaborate on what sexual abilities eunuchs have? F.T., Danbury, Connecticut


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

F.T. encloses the following item from Chuck Shepherd’s “News of the Weird” feature: “In April, an AIDS activist organization in Madras, India, made a public plea that eunuchs convening for their annual festival near the city later in the month use condoms during their wild celebration. Many, but fewer than half, of the country’s 400,000 eunuchs retain their penises, and Community Action Network estimated that 10,000 sex acts would take place at the close of the 15-day gathering. An AIDS activist said that because most eunuchs were recruited by force, they are ‘angry’ and show little sexual restraint.”

A bizarre story made even more bizarre by a mistranslation: the festival in question is not a gathering of eunuchs, strictly speaking, but of hijras, as they are called in India. Hijras are men who live as women, or to put it another way, transsexuals with religion, being devotees of the mother goddess Bahuchara Mata. Many but not all have been castrated —voluntarily for the most part, although there have been reports over the years of hijras who were forcibly emasculated. A few are hermaphrodites —that is, born with both male and female plumbing, typically underdeveloped. Some hijras, or perhaps we should say parahijras, are normally endowed homosexual men who just like the hijra lifestyle.

The lifestyle is the thing, see. “What makes hijras hijras is not biology or anatomy but culture,” says Arvind Kumar, editor of San Jose, CA-based India Currents magazine, which has run stories on hijras. “Most hijras cross dress, i.e., wear women’s clothing, makeup, etc. Their public behavior and mannerisms are high camp, highly exaggerated feminine gestures, but they make no effort to mask their male voices. Most hijras are good singers and dancers and entertainers. Their presence at weddings is thought to bring good luck.

“There is not a birth in the country that goes unmonitored by the local hijra community —they visit the house and demand to examine the newborn. In the old days it is said that if the baby’s genitals were malformed, parents would not want to raise the child and the hijras would immediately take it away and raise it as their own.

“The coming of the British to India saw the downfall of the hijra community. [During Muslim rule of India hijras were harem guards and court entertainers and many enjoyed privileged status.] The British viewed them as freaks to be shunned, an attitude that prevails among westernized urban Indians. Today hijras are made fun of and avoided, but there is much greater tolerance of them in rural areas.”

There’s more to being a hijra than flaming for the yokels. While they support themselves to an extent by begging, their major source of income apparently is prostitution, for which purpose they are in much demand. Hijras are invariably the passive partner, taking their customers anally or between the thighs.

Although not all who call themselves hijras are eunuchs, many hijras say you cannot be a true hijra until you have been castrated. (I rely here on the research of anthropologist Serena Nanda.) The highly ritualized operation is done without anesthetic. Two quick cuts are made, severing both testicles and penis. A stick is inserted to keep the urethra open for purposes of urination. No attempt is made to stanch the bleeding or stitch the wound, which is treated with hot sesame oil to prevent infection. Despite all this, one veteran castrator claims that out of 1,000 patients he lost only one.

The number of hijras is uncertain. One researcher puts it at 50,000; a recent press account of the annual hijra festival says 200,000. Fifty thousand people showed up at the festival, of whom 10,000 were hijras. It was the 40,000 non-hijras (and the non-emasculated faux hijras) who needed the condoms the AIDS activists were urging upon them. Sex among the hijras isn’t completely inexplicable, but it’s still pretty weird.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.