In 2018, William, a thoughtful, handsome guy in his late twenties with an eye for design and architecture, took a train up from his home in Baltimore to New York to meet a man he’d been chatting with online for a few months. They had dinner, checked into a hotel near Times Square with a nice view of the Hudson River, and got all showered up and clean. Then, the man placed a restrictive band around William’s genitals and injected them with lidocaine. Once William was fully numb, the man sliced open his scrotum, cut off one of his testicles, and cauterized the testicular artery. He would have cut out William’s remaining testicle as well, but his cauterizing tool died. So, he sutured William up instead.
This is not a horror story of an internet date gone Lifetime original movie-level wrong. The man William met was a cutter, someone who does underground surgeries on people who want to modify or remove part or all of their genitals. He had, to William’s knowledge, cut off over a dozen men’s testicles by that point, with few if any complications. William, who learned at 17 that he was born with XXY chromosomes and has intersex characteristics, identifies as a gender neutrois male, a non-binary identity, and uses he/him pronouns. He wanted this cutter to help him start a physical transition to align his body with this identity, a process he hopes will eventually leave him with a fully smooth groin.
Cutters have made sensationalist headlines on and off over the last 20 years, usually when people who sought them out turn up bloody in emergency rooms and lead authorities back to the sites of their underground operations. Just a couple of months ago, police in rural Oklahoma arrested two men for allegedly performing surgery without a license on a 28-year-old who nearly bled out during a testicle removal in their remote cabin. These stories are often chock-full of sensationalist details of alleged sadomasochist torture, jars of preserved gonads, and cannibalistic inclinations. They paint cutters as splatter movie villains—as rare psychopaths preying on vulnerable youths.
But the world of cutters, and the people who seek them out, is far more expansive and complex than that image lets on. If you know where to look—on a few select castration-focused forums like Eunuch Maker, and within some private encrypted messaging channels, for example—you can find a fair number of cutters active across the globe. Based on his own hunt for a cutter, William estimates “that there are at least a few in each state” in the U.S. alone. Many appear to fly under the radar of law enforcement officials in part because a fair number of their operations are at least successful enough to avoid the sorts of shitshows that make the news, and in part because when things do go wrong their clients make up cover stories for their injuries.
Some even continue to patronize cutters after mishaps—like William. His scrotum became infected after his hotel surgery, landing him in an emergency room on antibiotics. Yet within a matter of weeks, he went back to the same cutter to try to get his remaining testicle removed.
No one has, to The Daily Beast’s knowledge, seriously studied cutters, or people’s willingness to seek them out and cover for them despite mishaps and horror stories. However, according to several experts on gender diversity and surgeries, and to a handful of people who have pursued the kind of services cutters offer, whom The Daily Beast consulted for this article, cutters’ operations do not reflect some kind of collective pathology. Nor do they merit tabloid melodrama or major legal crackdowns. Instead, they are largely the result of society’s failure to fully acknowledge, truly respect, and adequately serve deeply marginalized gender identities.
Thanks to a rising—if piecemeal and still woefully insufficient—tide of awareness, most people today know at least the basics about binary transgender identities (i.e., male-to-female and female-to-male) and the surgeries that many, though not all, binary trans people pursue as part of their transitions. But most talk about gender still treats it solely as a binary, male or female, and involves cut-and-dry ideas about the physical traits associated with each of those labels. Even among medical experts, awareness of non-binary identities, which sit between, blend, or move beyond conceptions of male and female gender, remains low. There is also little awareness of people who still identify wholly with the gender they were assigned at birth, male or female, but for any number of reasons feel a deep need to remove some or all of their physical sex traits for a range of reasons including body integrity dysphoria; a profound discomfort with the sexual side of their being; or pure, intangible personal preference.
People’s own diverse and often idiosyncratic experiences and conceptualizations of gender can lead them to pursue surgeries that go far beyond the “traditional,” gender binary trans trajectories we most often see in the media today. Many, like William, want what they refer to as nulloplasty, a series of surgeries that will leave them with no sex traits whatsoever—and sometimes no nipples as well. Some people born with penises and testicles want to keep the former, but lose the latter—though some choose to keep their empty scrotums. (There is a dedicated Reddit forum for the latter group to share photos of their genitals: Empty Sacks, “for those who had the balls to give theirs up.”) Others want to keep the genitalia they were born with and add new genitalia on top.
In line with their diverse gender identities and surgical desires, and ever-evolving gender vocabulary, there is no set or singular term, or set of pronouns, for these individuals—not even an umbrella term. Some identify as non-binary trans people, or as gender non-conforming trans men or women. Others identify as non-binary but not trans. A fair number still consider themselves cis binary men or women even after having all of their genitalia removed. A few talk about their surgeries as purely cosmetic body modifications, unrelated to their gender identities—like tattoos or piercings, albeit more extreme. Even two people pursuing the same surgeries for the same broad reasons may use different self-identifiers and pronouns.
“Surgery on genitalia has been done for thousands of years,” Loren Schechter, a leading gender confirmation surgeon based just outside of Chicago, told The Daily Beast, whether for medical or ritual reasons or as part of other cultures’ recognition of gender identities and experiences that are not part of the modern, Western mainstream. So, doctors know how to safely perform many of the procedures that gender diverse individuals seek.
“An orchiectomy [or tactical excision of one or both testicles] can be done as an out-patient procedure,” said Richard Wassersug, a gender and health care researcher at the University of British Columbia with an apparent penchant for bow-ties and exacting academic precision. He was himself chemically castrated over 20 years ago to treat his prostate cancer and later chose to embrace a eunuch identity in order to help push back on the isolation and shame many castrated men feel in a society that thinks of eunuchs as historical oddities, if it thinks of them at all. (He also identifies as a cis man, though not all eunuchs do.) Now, he studies the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people born with testicles who undergo chemical or physical castrations for medical or voluntary reasons, and advocates for “these men to get the best health care possible.”
In recent years, a handful of clinics in America, Mexico, and a few other countries have started to offer diverse combinations of or variations on these surgeries to people of most, if not all, gender identities. These clinics remain scarce and often expensive, though, and thus inaccessible to the seemingly ever-growing number of people seeking their services.
But just two decades ago “even doing what’s now considered traditional binary gender surgery was quite difficult,” noted Schechter, thanks to high bias and low awareness among doctors and medical institutions. There was even less comfort with people who wanted anything else, and little literature or standard protocol on how to do so. A few surgeons, most notably Felix Spector, a Philadelphian who earned a reputation for offering clandestine abortions to patients in need in the 1940s, offered at least cheap and easy orchiectomies to people who weren’t specifically seeking trans surgeries in the late 20th century. By the end of his career in 2002, that was about half of his work. However, these surgeons faced intense scrutiny and official sanctions for their trouble. Most doctors told patients who came to them asking for non-standard gender surgeries that they were clearly mentally ill, and that no doctor would ever consider removing healthy tissue for someone who wasn’t trans.
“I was told it was medically illegal, both in the U.S. and in Canada,” said Rev. Brother Shawn Francis Benedict, a self-identified voluntary eunuch cis man who started seeking a physical castration in the 1980s.
Benedict has tried to be out and open about his identity for a couple of decades now, to help gender non-confirming people of all stripes find community and support. His openness is unusual. Most eunuchs never discuss their surgeries, and even those who do not identify as cis men often choose to pass as male in their everyday lives to avoid stigmatization. He leads the queer-affirming Ray of Hope Church in Elmira, New York, and advances queer readings of the Bible from the pulpit. Or, as he put it: “I work tirelessly to expose the false assumptions of the ‘religionists’ in the church world by communicating the now very large theological school of thought that finds no condemnation of any person of any sexual orientation or gender in the Bible.”
“I have found hundreds of books on the existence of castration, eunuchs, and other identities from every culture, every age, even every religion,” he said. “The only thing exceptional and weird about them is to be so uneducated to think that they are exceptional or weird.”
Into the 1990s and early 2000s, Benedict said, “If a person called a doctor to ask about, for example, keeping their penis and putting a vagina in behind it, that was an absolute hang-up-the-phone-on-you request.”
A few individuals have historically gotten around this by pretending that they were starting a more traditional and established binary transition, then selectively engaging with the process to achieve their desired results. But this process is often confusing, degrading, or just plain infuriating.
So, for lack of direct medical acknowledgment or aid, over the years many people have tried to remove their own testicles. Far fewer have attempted to remove their own scrotums or penises, or to modify their vulvas, as these surgeries can be far more complex and dangerous to pursue alone. But this does happen, too. Zach, a cis male who is comfortable with the gender he was assigned at birth, cut off his own glans about two years back with some lidocaine to numb his member, a sharp blade to make a cut, and rapid blood clotting agents, sterilizing gauze, and surgical staples to stop the ample bleeding and close the wound. He now regularly posts pictures of his anatomy on NSFW forums online, and seems to delight in people’s shock and fascination, sharing basic information about the procedure with those, like The Daily Beast, who ask.
Many more have attempted to do enough damage to their genitals, whether by cutting off blood flow to them long enough to kill tissue, injecting chemicals into them, or other forms of trauma, to allow them to go to an emergency room, spin some tale about a bizarre accident or kinky sex gone wrong, and functionally force doctors to safely remove offending parts. “If I ever wanted to go beyond what I can do myself, and get a total penectomy, I would be able to get it relatively easily from a medical professional, due to what I’ve already done,” Zach told The Daily Beast.
Drastic and brutal as this may seem to outsiders, it is rarely a rash decision. Most people The Daily Beast spoke to said that, in their experience, those who take action usually only do so after decades of self-examination and efforts to weigh out options. Zach, for one, has said that he’d wanted to do something like his glansectomy since he was about 13—it just felt like a deep-seated, core desire—but waited until well into his adulthood to act. That lines up with Wassersug’s research on voluntary eunuchs, who have diverse gender identities and some of whom go on to pursue other procedures, like full genital removal. In one survey, he found that these individuals waited 18 years on average between deciding they wanted a castration and taking any kind of action.
“In one of our studies, we quoted a person who said he knew by age 6 that he needed to be castrated,” said Thomas Johnson, an anthropologist who often collaborates with Wassersug. That child waited until he was in his thirties to pursue any kind of surgery. Johnson has extensive notes from interviews he’s conducted with numerous voluntary eunuchs. However, he said that academics rarely share such works on marginalized gender communities with journalists because they worry about the potential negative effects of “writings that describe them as ‘freaks.’”
Even people who make attempts much faster, and at younger ages, often do not actually show any signs of mental illness, and do not regret their decisions. “I interviewed one man who made a serious attempt at age 12,” Johnson recalled. “He was stopped only by the pain and the blood—and his mother unexpectedly walking into his room. He then went into two years of psychiatric counseling, but managed to arrange a proper surgery just after his 18th birthday. That was nearly 20 years ago. He is still happy with his choice. His only regret is that he failed at 12.”
But self-surgery is incredibly dangerous, not to mention painful, especially when done alone by someone with no prior experience or training. “The potential for shock, or making an error in the heat of the moment… accidentally not following sanitary procedures, not being able to close the wound due to fainting, and so on, is huge,” said Zach. “The healing processes can frankly be equally or more dangerous than actual cuttings, especially for penile procedures. An erection in your sleep could easily lead to death by blood loss, and the threat of an infection is ever-present.”
That is why many people, either after a failed self-surgery attempt or from the get-go, seek out cutters. It’s hard to say exactly how many cutters exist, or how active they are, in part because these individuals are, by legal and social necessity, extremely secretive, and in part because we don’t know how much demand exists for their services. Wassersug, for example, estimates that there are about 8,000 voluntary eunuchs in North America alone, and that over half of them practiced DIY surgeries or cutters’ services. These numbers could be off, as they’re just a best guess based on the communities Wassersug has access to. They don’t include people who have pursued cutters’ services but don’t identify or interact with the eunuch communities that Wassersug studies. And they don’t tell us anything about people who are still just considering going to a cutter. Still, we know enough to say cutter supply and demand are clearly non-negligible.
“I understand the choice to seek” cutters, said Schechter, who often seems to take a humble and empathetic perspective on these matters, in line with his self-proclaimed devotion to the development of a less paternalistic and judgmental medical culture. “The medical community has not always been an easy venue for people to express their identities and desires.”
Historically, people found cutters via contact networks embedded in extreme body modification or BDSM groups, or sympathetic doctors working off the books. (The Body Modification Ezine, an early online community, actually gave many people their first look at genital modifications or removals and led them to believe the thing they wanted might actually be attainable. It still hosts many images of castrations, penectomies, and other genital surgeries, as well as old interviews with cutters.) Later, chat rooms associated with these communities, and eunuch forums, became major cutter hubs.
Steve, a middle-aged cis man who’s fairly private about the details of his procedure, told The Daily Beast his journey to a cutter started after a partner took him to ModCon, an American body modification convention, in 1991 and introduced him to friends of friends. They eventually led him to a New York doctor who arranged an expensive trip to a hospital in Mexico where a doctor was willing to do a no-questions-asked, cash-up-front castration in a clinic—a common arrangement. But the procedure didn’t go well. A second trip through this network brought him to a hospital in Thailand. (Mexico and Thailand have both been hot spots for quick-and-easy but largely unregulated clinical castrations, penectomies, and similar procedures for at least a couple of decades now.) But he got too sick while there to go through with the surgery. Finally, the modification community connected him to a Canadian cutter who fully castrated him.
Many of the cutters Steve has encountered since then are, to his knowledge, medically trained, albeit only some as surgeons. A few are actually veterinarians. But William notes that a fair number are not medical experts. He’s encountered some who work in government services, some who work in banking, some who work in manufacturing. Still, they want to help—in more than a few cases because they received operations from cutters that they deeply valued. So, they study surgery as best as they can. William’s cutter told him in detail about the books he’d read and his “practice with suturing the skin back onto grapes, which requires fine stitch work.” Some cutters even offer to do procedures for free, so long as clients can buy and bring key medical supplies.
Cautious and conscientious cutters refuse to perform complicated procedures—which is why most of them only do testicle removals—and take pains to try to make sure their patients know what they’re stepping into and stay safe. Few people would seek out cutters for more complicated or risky surgeries, like penectomies, anyway.
“The risk of something going wrong is extremely high,” said William of his decision not to pursue a penectomy with a cutter. “I also don’t wish to look like Frankenstein at the end of the procedure,” with uneven flesh or highly visible scarring.
William’s cutter repeatedly talked through the details of his hotel orchiectomy and its potential implications with him, he said, right up until he was ready to make his incision. Then, the man monitored him for 48 hours after, ready with a plan to get him to an emergency room ASAP.
Planning for emergencies often involves formulating a careful cover story for one’s injury, or resolving to claim it was a DIY attempt, noted Steve, who’s seen a number of these arrangements play out in the past in communities he’s been involved with. (Some of these cover stories truck in sensationalism as well, spinning tales of sadistic kidnappers and torture. This may help people get sympathetic treatment in the short run, but it risks contributing to the popular stigmatization of queer and kink communities overall in the long run.) He stressed that he and others feel a deep sense of duty to protect the people who helped them feel whole and right in their bodies.
“Even if I was hard-pressed under oath, I couldn’t even begin to give people’s names to the authorities,” he said. “Because I never knew anyone’s names—if you understand what I mean.”
In any underground ecosystem, however, opacity and fragmentation creates a fertile space for over-promising amateurs and abusive creeps. Some just want to cause others pain—they may even find non-consensual sadism erotic. A notorious nullo man who goes by Gelding, a greyed yet still strapping bear who’s posted many nude photos online, has talked in the past about how he will only assist cutters, never performing procedures himself, because he does not trust his own motives, a bifurcated desire to help and to get off on the experience. The internet unfortunately makes it easier for people to meet random self-identified cutters on forums, rather than through established and verified contact networks, and work with them with little vetting.
Whether one ends up with a well-intentioned and trained cutter, or a bad actor looking to cause pain, medical experts stress that working with cutters instead of licensed professionals always carries a risk. They know that some feel they need to take the risk—and think it is tragic.
Over the last five years or so, Schechter notes, the field of gender surgery “has expanded our thinking beyond the gender binary.” Doctors have developed new guidelines for working with people with diverse gender identities and surgical desires, which, as Schechter put it, “place a greater importance on body autonomy and self-decision.” This shift opens experts up to diverse requests without making patients prove, over years of therapy, that they fit an established identity box, just so long as they can show they fully understand the long-term ramifications of the procedures they’re asking for. Well over a dozen gender surgery practices in America alone now openly advertise their readiness to perform all sorts of surgeries; running lists of these practices on eunuch and non-binary forums grow by the year.
“It’s nowhere near as weird and difficult to try to become a eunuch now as it was 30 years ago,” said Benedict, the castrated reverend. “Now, we have doctors who don’t even blink when you say you want to just remove your testicles, or just add a vagina. I never saw this coming.”
“I have certainly noticed an uptick in the pursuit of castration by young men in recent years,” he added, an observation that aligns with Wassersug’s findings that more “eunuch wannabes,” as he calls them, would pursue the process if it were cheaper and easier to access safely, in a clinic.
Everyone The Daily Beast spoke to for this story agreed that the greater availability of open and official care—far more than horror stories and crackdowns—has led to a drastic decline in demand for cutters, which means there are now fewer of them practicing than there were five or ten years ago. Even many forums where people used to solicit and chat with cutters, like Eunuch Archive, a major hub for people interested in voluntary castrations, now tightly police those posts and conversations, and redirect people towards licensed experts.
“At this point, cutters have been relegated to obscure forums on the deep web,” said Zach. Talks with them usually unfold only in the privacy of the most encrypted messaging platforms.
However, knowledge of new guidelines remains low and gender-aware support services for folks with less traditional surgical needs will take time to scale up, said Daniel Dugi, a gender surgeon in Portland, Oregon, who just started working beyond the world of binary trans surgeries this year. Far too many medical experts still tend to read people who are not binary trans but want to remove part or all of their genitals as mentally ill and to recommend institutionalization, noted Johnson.
Most surgeons who do more diverse procedures are still clustered in a few major urban centers, and the procedures, which can run upwards of $10,000, are not covered by most insurers. Even when they are, or when people pursue cheaper surgeries at clinics in Mexico and beyond, the costs associated with travel and recovery care can be too high for individuals living with limited means. Gender minorities are often economically and socially marginalized.
Wider lingering social stigmas against gender diversity also makes it difficult for many people to pursue official treatments, for fear of folks in their lives who they are not out to, and don’t want to come out to, figuring out what they’re doing. Even people who are secure in their identities and out to their friends may carry traumatic memories of their experiences with the medical system in the past. So, not everyone who can access legit surgery in theory really can in practice.
All of these limitations mean that, even if their ranks are declining, there is still an unfortunate need for cutters in the world. “I just talked to a man weeks ago through Eunuch Maker,” Benedict told The Daily Beast. “He lives in a red state, where health care is still not widely available. He just met a cutter in a trailer in Oklahoma… It’s just so unnecessary now, and so terrible. And yet… it is still necessary, because of the context in areas like that.”
“Regardless of how much progress we do eventually make in providing people access to quality health care,” William added, “some people will still seek out cutters” for more personal reasons.
Simply put, a number of people who seek genital modifications or removals want the experience to be erotic and intimate—a kinky, sexual experience. In fact, Zach says the only cutter he’s ever spoken to who claims to have done a full at-home penectomy “was an older man who did it to his partner about a decade ago” as part of a BDSM power play body modification dynamic.
Schechter acknowledged the potential legitimacy of this desire, while cautioning against pursuing it because of all the ways that non-professional surgeries can go wrong. But he did not have a clear idea of how to work with this sort of desire within an official medical context—how to bring these cutter users into the clinic.
However, overall Schechter believes that the existence of cutters speaks to a core reality: “People need care. And in desperate circumstances, to get that care, they may do desperate things.”
So, people active in this world argue, if tales of cutters slicing into scrotums in backwoods cabins make us uncomfortable, we shouldn’t gawp and call for major crackdowns on what may seem like unhinged predators from the outside. That sort of sensationalism only hurts the people who seek them out, they explain, as it drives cutters even further underground, making it harder to vet their knowledge and intentions, and casts the people who seek them out for lack of other care options as unhinged.
“What is important is that we have accurate information in the media about eunuchs, nullos, and other people” who go to cutters, Johnson argued, “rather than the look at the freaks sentiment that appears in nearly all popular depictions of these people and situations.” We need to fully understand and respect why people make the choices they do, and deliver the support they need.
Even more important, William said, is building a world where people “have complete control of their bodies, no matter how radical the procedures they seek or need may seem to someone else.”
A world without cutter horror stories is, simply, a world where it is safe to be whoever we are.
The names of William, Zach, and Steve have been changed in order to protect their privacy.