Castration has been around for millennia and has meant different things to different cultures. The reasons why humans castrate one another vary from punishment to atonement to self-discipline to elimination of rivals. The history of castration might make you uncomfortable, but it wasn't always intended to be a bad thing. Sure, surgical castration before modern advances in medicine was extremely painful, but the end results could mean political advancement or religious salvation. At the same time, however, you could have been forced into a singing career to support your family or punished for a crime.
These facts about castration throughout history are both disturbing and interesting. Whether it was accidental or self-inflicted, people who were castrated play fascinating roles across a number of distinct cultures and time periods.
Starting in the 16th century, thousands of young Italian boys were deprived of their male sex organs so they would sing in high voices for their entire lives - they were dubbed "castrati." The Vatican employed castrati in the Papal choir and recruited them in droves after women were prohibited from being onstage by Pope Innocent XI in 1686.
The castrati were not unique to Rome or Italy, but the use of castration to create choir boys certainly was. Castrati existed in Eastern Europe as early as the fifth century, but many later became celebrities of sorts when they performed in opera houses and the like. By the 18th and 19th centuries, castrati were created by their parents or other family members to transform children who showed early singing skills into lifelong talents. Castrati supposedly happened through accidents, such as having been "kicked, bitten, born deformed [or]... gored by wild boars," although really parents purposefully had their children's genitals removed to preserve their voices.
Castration for sexual offenses in Western cultures has involved both surgical and chemical routes. In the US, surgical or chemical castration is a legal punishment for sex crimes in nine states, but voluntary castration is also an option for offenders. To avoid long prison sentences, sex offenders in states like California and Texas have asked for castration as an alternative. The debate over whether the decision can be considered truly voluntary is ongoing.
Chemical castration involves using hormones to reduce or eliminate a sex offender's sex drive. Chemical castration has been a voluntary option in Britain since the mid-20th century. Famously, mathematician Alan Turing voluntarily underwent chemical castration for homosexuality during World War II. Chemical castration is used in the United States, Portugal, Poland, Maldova, Macedonia, Estonia, Israel, Australia, India, Russia, and many other countries in various forms.
The Russian Skoptsy were a sect of Russian Orthodox Christians that began during the 18th century. The group's founder, Andre Ivanov, was previously a flagellant but castrated himself and 13 disciples in 1757. Ivanov was arrested and sent to Siberia where he died, but his followers kept the castration cult alive.
Ivanov's assistant, Kondratii Selivanov, was also sent to Siberia, but he escaped and returned to St. Petersburg. He declared himself to be the "Son of God" and was arrested several times before his death in 1832. The group's popularity and devotion to God through self-castration appealed to peasants and middling ranks of society alike. The male members of the group castrated themselves, and the female members removed their breasts.
By the middle of the 19th century, 515 male and 240 female members were forced to go to Siberia between 1847 and 1866. Because the sect had around 5,444 members, its numbers weren't severely damaged by the deportations. It wasn't until Josef Stalin's series of persecutions that the group was thought to be eliminated from Russia. There are "anti-sexuals" in Russia today, however, who are associated with Skoptsy and self-castration.
Like their Chinese counterparts, the Byzantine empire used eunuchs as army commanders, court officials, churchmen, and high administrators. In the Byzantine empire, two of the most successful generals were eunuchs, namely Solomon (d. 544) and Narses (480-574). Both men were sent to re-conquer areas of the former Roman empire by Justinian, who used eunuchs as soldiers because they didn't have ties to rival aristocratic families.
Solomon was accidentally made a eunuch as a baby and was used by Justinian to conquer the Moors in North Africa. It's unclear how Narses became a eunuch, but he went from imperial guard to grand chamberlain under Justinian, ultimately becoming one of his most loyal and trusted men. Narses was sent to Italy to fight against the Ostrogoth kingdom during the 550s and became the prefect at Ravenna.
Having a governing eunuch of Ravenna became a common aspect of Byzantine rule in the western half of the Mediterranean. From the late sixth century until the end of the exarchate in 751, several of the exarchs were eunuchs.