is being a sexually active male killing you?
Like the vast majority of men around the world, I’m not an eunuch. And you can probably tell by some of the graphics on this blog that I’m hardly disinterested in anything sexual. But according to a trio of researchers from South Korea, this isn’t a good thing for my lifespan and if anything, my male hormones are really slowly but surely killing me. They base this conclusion on a study of historical records that detail the lifespans of 81 Naesi servants in Korea, who as you already guessed, were all eunuchs. When their lifespan was averaged and compared to that of similarly well off Korean aristocracy which was not castrated, the difference was 14 years. Royalty had a life expectancy of 56 years, eunuchs could count on living to be 70 and above, some of them reaching well past 100 and doing so at a rate the researchers say is 30 times greater than the centenarians in modern First World nations with access to highly advanced medicine.
Of course if I know my fellow male members of the species (hey, no snickering there in the back row, this is serious business), we’ll trade almost a decade and a half of life for the ability to have sex because after all, a life of celibacy is embraced by only 1% of the entire population and as far as nature is concerned, we’re here to reproduce. So don’t expect a whole lot of castration on the elective surgery schedules at your local hospital, and for good reason. This study shows an interesting anomaly, true, but there are a lot of missing factors. For one, the researchers state that a comparison with eunuchs in other societies is necessary to falsify their hypothesis, and in many societies there were a lot of eunuchs serving royalty and overseeing harems, living highly comparable lifestyles to the Naesi. Another issue is that the research only really accounts for the number of years lived by aristocrats and the eunuchs. It doesn’t really compare their lifestyles in other meaningful ways. Maybe the eunuchs were clean and sober while the blue bloods were all party animals and it’s unhealthy habits that did them in sooner, like with Chinese royalty?
Keep in mind that in many cultures, being an eunuch meant that you had to live to a strict code of religious and social conduct that emphasized purity and spiritual devotion. For example, the Naesi were regularly examined for their grasp of Confucianism, and in other cultures, they were held as transcendent above base human desires like fornication. In the meantime, regular Joes with their penises intact lived fast and hard, going to war, picking fights, drinking, and partying in a constant search of a sexual partner or two. Or three. Depending on their luck. Males who don’t live quite as hard tend to last only a few years less than women on average, something we often tend to attribute to our greater susceptibility to genetic defects. And overall, sex does prolong lives by several years and improve one’s quality of life as seen in many animal models and a lot of humans, so giving up on sex in an attempt to live longer might not be such a great decision in the long run. We don’t know if a lack of male hormones had adverse side effects in old age or if the eunuchs would’ve suffered from shaky health and depression on a regular basis.
Finally there’s the sample size issue. Over some 600 years there have been thousands of Naesi employed by the royal courts and yet the study covers just 81 of them from a single genealogical tome. It’s a convenience sample, and one that’s compared to over 3,000 aristocrats. Why were those eunuchs included in this tome? What results would the researchers get if they reviewed a few thousand Naesi lifespans? Would it smooth out the differences or solidify them? Less than a hundred eunuchs in one country just isn’t enough to make this hypothesis anything more than conjecture backed up by a few experiments in which castrated mice seemed to live longer for an unknown reason and a few rather vague historical records. It’s not just important to know if men lived longer as eunuchs, it’s also critical to understand their cause of death, something that very old records can’t provide us with any reliability since the medicine of the time wasn’t exactly all that advanced; even pronouncing someone officially dead back then was more of an art than a science. Though one could argue that this problem sometimes rears its head today…