Have other men suffered from castration phobia?
February 28, 2014 3:10 PM   Subscribe

Ever since a particular childhood incident, I've had a fear of castration, which was pretty severe at some periods of my life. I've never heard anyone talk about this, so am wondering how rare or common of an experience it is.

When I was about ten my mom made the mistake of renting the movie Robocop for us to watch together. I don't know what she was thinking: I assume she thought it was just a cool scifi movie and had no idea just how violent it is. Anyway, at some point in the movie there's a scene where Robocop shoots a man in the groin. When I saw this I completely broke down, sobbing hysterically until my mom had to stop the movie. It felt like my world had shattered to pieces. I'd never imagined that anything so horrible could happen in the world, or that anyone could be so evil as to deliberately do this to another person, or that someone could actually find this idea entertaining and put it in a movie. It sounds a bit silly - it was just a movie - but I still think of that as the worst moment of my life.

For years afterwards I was traumatized by this scene, and others like it. Throughout adolescence it felt like I couldn't watch a movie without there being some scene where a guy gets kicked in the crotch, or something much worse. And these were usually in comedies: people found this stuff funny. People made jokes about castration, for crying out loud. My mind, by contrast, collected these scenes into a kind of horrific library which it would rerun in perverse orgies of self-torture. It would make up its own ever more terrifying castration scenarios to scare me with. Not a day would go by without these thoughts coming up in some way. I got into the habit of holding my legs close together whenever I was sitting down, because it felt too vulnerable otherwise, and well into my twenties I could only fall asleep on my stomach.

I've never felt able to talk to anyone about this, not close friends or therapists (and certainly not my mom). I'm grown up now and it's no longer such a big deal: I still have these thoughts, but they don't have as much of an emotional impact on me anymore. I'll still wince and wish I'd stayed home whenever there's a crotch-kicking joke in the latest light summer comedy, while everyone else laughs, making me wonder whether I'm the only sane person in a world full of psychopaths who find sexual violence funny. What I want to know is whether I'm alone in having these experiences and reactions. I've never heard anyone describe anything similar, but then this isn't something you'd bring up casually - maybe lots of guys feel similarly but keep it to themselves. Just how unusual is this story?

Throwaway email: amf022814@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Freud actually based much of his work around the idea that castration anxiety is a developmental phase that all boys experience, so I'd say that at least he experienced something similar to what you're describing. What you are describing is also a really typical description of a simple phobia, which is just an exaggerated fear of some object or situation. People who have these phobias recognize that the fear is unreasonable compared to the actual threat of the situation, but still experience very powerful fear when they are confronted with it. Phobias can attach themselves to all kinds of things, from tin foil to dogs to feet and on and on.

So the short answer is that there are probably lots of people who have experienced something similar, but probably not all people do. If it's getting in your way, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is really effective at addressing similar fears. I promise any therapist worth their salt will not be shocked or scandalized in any way by what you are experiencing.
posted by goggie at 3:20 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

What you're describing, at least as far as the intrusive thoughts of self-mutilation go, is very similar to how I've heard people with OCD describe their experience. The trauma you're describing is very similar to how I've heard people with PTSD describe their experiences. And the whole thing overall sounds exactly like what people with phobias describe. So I'd say it isn't very unusual at all, in the larger sense. I'm sorry that you didn't feel comfortable speaking to a therapist about it when it was a bigger problem in your life, but there's no reason why you can't start now.
posted by Jairus at 3:20 PM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm not a man, but I find that rape jokes and scenes to have had a similar effect on me. References to sexual violence can have an especially traumatizing impact.
posted by quince at 3:42 PM on February 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

As a data point: Personally, as a male, I think it's definitely a thing to be avoided, but Curly getting hit in the nuts doesn't bother me.

As for dealing with this, all of the aspects of this are totally things that psychotherapists are really good at dealing with.
posted by cmoj at 4:51 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is straight out of the pages of psychoanalysis and Freud. If you want to learn what's behind your experience, I'd suggest getting a good psychoanalytically-trained therapist. I know you haven't been able to talk about it with a therapist thus far, but perhaps over time you can develop a more trusting relationship, and eventually gain some insight. Because that's what I think you really want. And to get that you need to be honest in a therapeutic relationship.
posted by shivohum at 5:48 PM on February 28, 2014

Any intrusive thought that you fixate on can, in my opinion, be helped with the assistance of a therapist, especially one who deals with anxiety disorders/OCD. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a good route.
posted by xingcat at 6:20 PM on February 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't know how common it is, or if you should talk about it in therapy or anything like that, since I'm not an expert. And I haven't had the exact same reactions as you. But all I'd offer is: this is a good thing. After all, if you were saying you were upset at seeing violence against women, everyone would instantly understand it and even applaud you (even if — or especially if — it were done in a comical way). It's only because our culture sends this insidious message that violence against men — including sexual violence against men — is OK, that anyone would even think to describe it as a psychological condition if you have this reaction. What percentage of violent attacks displayed in the media are against men? Surely more than 90%, and probably closer to 99%. How often have you even heard the phrase I used — "sexual violence against men"? Probably not very often. But if kicking a person in the genitals isn't sexual violence, I don't know what is. If it seems odd to point any of this out, that's only because our culture's encouragement and even celebration of violence against men is so commonplace that it isn't noticed. Therefore, if you find it remarkable, then you come across as the unusual one. To me, what you're saying boils down to: you haven't been desensitized to violence the way most people have. Just because it's considered normal to lack sensitivity to suffering doesn't make it a good thing. Unless what you're describing is currently interfering with your day-to-day life, I don't see how this is a psychological disorder. I applaud you. You don't have a problem to be solved; society does.
posted by John Cohen at 7:14 PM on February 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

This sounds like textbook intrusive thoughts. I speak as someone who used to be very disturbed by them (on a different topic). I don't suffer from them anymore due to very effective cognitive therapy. I'm a layperson, so naturally take this with a grain of salt -- but I think the Freudian connection is totally irrelevant. A Freudian therapist would indeed have a field day with you, but CBT and/or SSRI are considered standard first-line treatments for the problem you're describing. See a psychotherapist or psychiatrist with experience in OCD.
posted by summer sock at 7:44 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

you haven't been desensitized to violence the way most people have

When it comes to witnessing (real or fictional) scenes like this, I also think it's good and normal to have a flinching/visceral sort of reaction.

But when it comes to:

My mind, by contrast, collected these scenes into a kind of horrific library which it would rerun in perverse orgies of self-torture. It would make up its own ever more terrifying castration scenarios to scare me with. Not a day would go by without these thoughts coming up in some way. I got into the habit of holding my legs close together whenever I was sitting down, because it felt too vulnerable otherwise, and well into my twenties I could only fall asleep on my stomach.

That's....not a great way to have to live. If I had these kinds of unwanted, un-get-riddable-when-I-want-them-gone kinds of thoughts about being raped (I am a woman), I would get help for them, because I don't want that shit running my life and being in charge of when and where I will think about that. There are techniques you can learn to control this, and you would not be weird for seeking out help with learning them. It's not like the culture at large is going to stop reminding us of how vulnerable we are; I would want to control how much my own brain got to remind me.
posted by rtha at 8:12 PM on February 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

I wonder if the castration anxiety is besides the point - at an impressionable age you watched a very violent movie that struck fear in your sense of safety and well being. You realized you could be anhilated; worse you realized you could be anhilated for fun. It happened to be set on the crotch but it could have been easily the heart or head. From then on, you were re-traumatized by other "humerous" crotch hit references.

This strikes me as PTSD-like in that you have developed a powerful association, and you re-associate the trauma each time it's mentioned. There are definitely trained professionals who can help you here.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:42 PM on February 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Data point: I have a friend (male) who is like this about castration; it extends to anything involving violence or pain to any kind of human genitals. He's a pretty sensitive guy in other ways, too, and has a very gentle sense of humor. We all know not to push it with him about violent stuff. In the past he's done therapy and taken meds for anxiety, I'm not sure if he's still doing any of that, but we've exchanged our various phobias and triggers and try to respect them. His, in particular, never surprised anybody. If your quality of life is lessened because of this problem, or it starts extending to other things too, it's definitely time to work on it, but I don't think it's that weird at all. Definitely no weirder than a fear of clowns, for example.
posted by Mizu at 8:42 PM on February 28, 2014

When I was about seven, we went on a family holiday to Wales & on a rainy day whilst waiting in the car for a museum to open my mother read us all the story of Bethgelert. That story traumatised me for years afterwards: it took me a long time to get over how awflu and unfair it was that the loyal dog who had done all the right things could be killed at the end because the men who were authority figures in his life couldn't see the truth. For a small child who was used to trusting authority this idea was a big deal at the time. I can well imagine that being exposed to viscerally violent imagery at a young age could have an even stronger effect on an impressionable child.

It sounds to me as if you have a textbook case of intrusive thoughts and OCD triggered by an initial traumatic experience. If you think that this is negatively affecting your life, then CBT or EMDR can usually help according to the NICE guidelines. In that case I would encourage you to find a CBT therapist who works with post-traumatic stress related issues.
posted by pharm at 3:22 AM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

You've never heard anyone talk about castration phobia, but it was central to one of the most talked about case studies in history, the story of "Little Hans" as presented by Freud. Lots of people have heard of this, talked about, and written about it. Modern psychology has largely moved on from Freudian explanations and theories, but the phobia is still a phobia.

I think you are right that people don't talk about this kind of thing, and that's probably because it's a sensitive issue in a couple of ways... it's not often considered "polite" to talk about one's genitals (outside of a healthcare or intimate setting)... but even more generally, people don't often talk about their fears and phobias. And lots of people have fears and phobias.

The people conducing this study from 2002 managed to find 10 people with castration phobia to conduct their study on. That tells me that there are a lot more than 10 people out there because it's usually pretty hard to find people to be in your study with a specific condition. And most people with phobias don't report it, like you.

Castration phobia is a form of "specific phobia" (as opposed to more general types of anxiety). According to info put together by the US National Institute of Mental Health:
Specific phobia involves marked and persistent fear and avoidance of a specific object or situation.

- Approximately 19.2 million American adults age 18 and over, or about 8.7 percent of people in this age group in a given year, have some type of specific phobia.
- Specific phobia typically begins in childhood; the median age of onset is seven years.
What I'm hoping you will get from all this is that you are not unique. Having this phobia does not make you an anomaly. People have irrational fears of all sorts of things-- birds (one of my friends), kittens (my cousin), the Three Stooges (my mom-- talk about gratuitous "entertainment" violence), conference tables (me, before treatment). But some of them are easier for others to find out about. My bird-fearing friend will run out of the room if someone opens the parakeet cage, and my cousin's aversion to kitties is similarly obvious even though she'd rather it not be. But nobody knew about my fear until I got over it-- with the help of a therapist-- and was comfortable to talk about it.

One more thing.. I don't find this type of violence funny or entertaining. Not even in cartoons. Plenty of people don't find it funny. Don't be fooled that everyone in the theatre is laughing at the crotch violence, because not everyone is.
posted by zennie at 5:49 AM on March 1, 2014

The reponders who referenced Freud are right on the money.

There's another aspect of what happened to you that's significant - the fact that it was your mother who chose the movie, and she watched it with you. It sounds like she hadn't seen the movie, and didn't realize it wasn't appropriate for you. But because she was there with you, your subconcious mind processed her passivity as apparent acceptance of the trauma blazoned on the screen and in your psyche - and you ultimately blamed her for it. It wasn't just a traumatic experience featuring a witnessing of a kind of castration that you had. To the mind of the child you were then, it was your mother herself who did the castrating.

Nothing to be alarmed about, though. This is all totally normal stuff, painful though it was. As others mentioned, a therapist might be helpful. Also, if you're inclined, do read some Freud (his work can be rough going in patches, but a lot of it is very readable and entertaining). Another superb author to check out is Bruno Bettelheim, especially his book The Uses of Enchantment, about the meaning (or meanings) of fairy tales. One of his most amazing insights is the vital importance of the mother, in terms of her engagement with the child as she reads the stories aloud. Her presence, attitude and interaction with her kid as the story is experienced by both of them, makes a huge difference emotionally. And it's just a really fun book. If there's such a thing as a page-turner in psychological literature, this is definitely one of them.
posted by cartoonella at 7:51 AM on March 1, 2014

Feel free to read Freud, but don't expect it to actually do anything useful for you :)
posted by pharm at 8:06 AM on March 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

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