THE temporary dismemberment of John Wayne Bobbitt by his (temporarily insane) wife Lorena will be remembered not so much for the media's discovery of the word 'penis', but for men and women's discovery that their reactions diverged so much. After Mrs Bobbitt's acquittal, many American offices reported that female workers cheered, while males retreated into gloomy silence.

This had been the tenor of the debate all along. Sidney Siller, founder of the American National Organization of Men, opined: 'It's a tragedy, but I'm afraid now it's open season on men'; while shock-radio DJ Howard Stern got closer to male mood with 'A guy's penis is his whole life.'

By contrast, women on both sides of the Atlantic explored the subject with more openness and less squeamishness. 'We are not all castrating feminists,' Jean, a 31-year-old waitress, told me. 'I sympathise with this woman, but only so far.'

Suzanne Moore of the Guardian caught the complexity of the female response: 'If Lorena mistook the symbol for the reality . . . she was in a demented way reinforcing the view of male sexuality that the penis has a life of its own . . . So if any of this makes men feel slightly anxious, let me reassure you that it's not your willies we are after. It's your symbolic bollocks that you really need to worry about.'

This pinpoints the general confusion about castration - what it means in terms of flesh and blood, and in terms of symbolism. What happened to John Bobbitt was amputation of the penis. To Tom McNicholas, consultant urologist at the Lister Hospital in north Hertfordshire, castration means the removal of the tissue producing male hormones. 'To stop cancer of the prostate, for example, you must either block the male hormone with drugs, or remove the source of it completely, ie, cut off the testicles. It's called an orchidectomy.'

Chemical castration is so- called because it reduces libido. This is the treatment persistent sex offenders often request. There is no hormonal effect in removing the penis. 'The penis is purely a conduit,' says Mr McNicholas.

'I don't know why he went through with the prosecution,' Tony, 40, told me. 'If it was me I'd just be grateful that the woman helped find it again.'

A eunuch, though literally a 'bed-chamber guard', is someone who has had his testicles removed, and in some cases the penis too. Many civilisations have had castrated slaves to keep them from breeding. Eunuchs' reduced sex drive made them good harem guards, but they often became high ranking civil servants (for example in Imperial China) entrusted with power by their owners who knew they could never cause problems of succession by founding their own dynasty.

Castration was not always enforced. Castrati in Italian opera and boys' choirs were common up until as late as 1878 when the Catholic Church outlawed the practice. Poor families often offered a son with some singing ability for castration - the child's sperm ducts were cut and the boy's voice would never break.

In India, the hijras - transsexuals best known in the West for being homosexual prostitutes - are actually holy people. Their combined penectomy and orchidectomy, enables them to identify with the goddess Bahuchara Mata, and they conduct fertility rites at births and weddings. So, their emasculation becomes a source of ritual power. In Freudian terms, transvestites are said to identify with the 'maternal phallus' - that is, the penis they discover their mother to not have. Transvestite night club promoter Nicky, who runs a club in Leeds, is more concerned with anatomical correctness. 'When we're dressing in tight clothes, we do what's called a strapadichtomy.' This involves taping the penis back, and attaching it to another loop of tape around the waist to keep it there. The testicles are split in two, but drag artists claim this does not hurt. 'And you don't get an erection - somehow being in drag you don't feel the same at all.'

The leg-crossing anxiety men felt at hearing about the Bobbitts taps into a primal fear. Brett Kahr, lecturer in Psychotherapy at Regent's College, says: 'An attack on the organ can provoke anxieties of total bodily annihilation in many men, because it is so potent and yet so vulnerable.'

Psychoanalyst Bice Benvenuto stresses that her profession is not concerned with physical castration. ''Castration is a technical term. To grow up, a child must separate fully from the mother, and this loss becomes symbolised deep in his or her mind by castration. At this symbolic level, castration is a gift, a crucial stage on the way to independence. Somehow it hadn't happened symbolically for Mrs Bobbitt, and in a psychotic episode she acted it out. I think the whole thing was a psychotic folie a deux, where two people are bound together to commit a crime '

'Personally, me and the wife agree on this one thing,' said Barry, 30, a London minicab driver. 'They both got let off in the end. It's like a nil- nil draw in football - sometimes it's the safest result for everyone.'