Greek and Roman slave owners tried various methods to prevent sexual activity between their slaves, or between slaves and members of the household. Substances, such as hemlock juice, for instance, would be applied to the male testes of slaves at puberty.
Far more often, though, they employed a sadistic means of genital control called infibulation. On the uncircumcised phalluses of boys approaching puberty they made a series of perforations in the foreskin, using a needle. After the holes healed, they inserted a fibula, a large bronze forerunner of the safety pin, through the foreskin. Sometimes the luckless wearer was fitted with larger bronze rings that were welded shut by applying red-hot charcoal.
This horrendous practice is on visual display at the Louvre Museum in Paris, where two larger-than-life, very nude statues of Roman slaves can be seen. They clearly show infibulation and what it did to phalluses—as well as what infibulated life must have been like.
Believe it or not, infibulation was thought to be the more “humane” approach. Masters ordered male slaves to be infibulated rather than subject them to castration, given the much higher likelihood of their death in surgery. It was also a common practice to infibulate gladiators—the rationale being to preserve their vigor. (Three-quarters of all gladiators were slaves and thus had no say in the matter.)
Flesh-crawling as it sounds, in Roman times a few free men actually infibulated by choice, to be hip and desirable. Comedy actors, dancers, and musicians did it, hoping to attract well-heeled sexual partners who would pay to play by unchaining them temporarily.
Members of religious sects, including the early Christian church and ascetics of various persuasions, also used infibulation to control their earthly desires.
From Greco-Roman times forward, the practice of infibulation has had staying power. Some statuary and art from the Renaissance, for example, depicts piercing of the male genitalia, often with oversize metal rings.
In the eighteenth century, population control advocates like Malthus and his followers lobbied for compulsory infibulation for anyone over fourteen years of age who was deemed unfit to procreate. His list included criminals, those with chronic diseases, beggars, unmarried servants (!!), apprentices, and rank-and-file soldiers.
During the Victorian era, prudish Western societies went hysterical over masturbation, again warming to the idea of locking up the sexual organs in a variety of ways.
The age-old desire to control or ruin the sexual capacity of others still exists today—now, however, mainly aimed at crippling women. From Greek times forward, there were reports of female slaves being infibulated with small metal rings but little in the way of evidence, other than some suspicious-looking metal remnants found in the graves of female slaves from Britain’s Roman era.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, prior to departure the crusaders often installed chastity belts on their wives. The name sounds more humane than the object. “Chastity belts” had chain-mail metal parts and locking mechanisms.
In today’s world, in parts of Africa, Asia, India, and the Middle East, a procedure even viler and more extensive than infibulation or chastity belts continues unabated. Operating under the guise of religion or tradition to protect chastity, this pharoanic or Sudanese circumcision, as it is known, produces dreadful mutilation in millions of young girls. Those who perform it completely remove the clitoris and labia minora, roughly sewing what’s left of the sexual organs together. Alternatively, they bind the victim’s knees and thighs together until the tissue heals into a scar. Often carried out under filthy conditions with unsterilized instruments, the operation has a high mortality rate. Females who do survive often suffer severe health problems, social shunning, agony during sexual activity, and high risk during child-bearing years.
Most of these women are not slaves, as the majority were among the infibulated victims of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Nevertheless, they are far from free to control what happens to their own bodies.