For a long time, I have been conscious of the odd habit of those writing about law of referring to the weakening, diminution or nullification of laws and institutions as ’emasculation’. It seems to be an obviously clumsy way of expressing these ideas, and one which identifies the good with the possession of male genitalia.

After doing some pre-tutorial reading for a cycle of land law tutorials on proprietary estoppel some time ago, I could contain my annoyance no longer: why are academics and lawyers so keen on the imagery of emasculation, and why they are not more frequently ‘called out’ on the implications of using a word which assumes that that which is good and useful has male genitalia, and that its goodness and usefulness are located in the aforesaid genitalia? I started collecting examples. 

The one which started me off was a well-known case comment entitled ‘Emasculating Estoppel’ ([1998] Conv 210), but I soon saw that it really is pretty common, and is often used in rather odd ways. A quick database search threw up examples relating to the emasculation of:

  • various statutes and statutory sections (including a section of the Equality Act – particularly inappropriate?:  The Queen on the Application of Mrs JH, Mr JH v Secretary of State for Justice [2015] EWHC 4093 (Admin) at [22]; See also, e.g. Gold Nuts Limited and others v. Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs [2016] UKFTT 0082 (TC) at [218])
  • ‘all the provisions of the statute’: Hudson v Parker (1844) 1 Robertson Ecclesiastical 14; 163 E.R. 948 at 40.
  • other regulations (‘Emasculating TUPE: transfers of undertakings and the concept of the “economic entity” L.T. 2002, 3, 23-28
  • a tax (The Queen on the application of: Veolia ES Landfill Limited et al.[2016] EWHC 1880 (Admin) [182]
  • the beneficial principle of proprietary estoppel: Thompson’s article, and also Thorner v Major [2009] UKHL 18 at [98](Lord Neuberger combines an emasculation image with ‘fettering’ here – all a bit S & M sounding).
  • the doctrine of restraint of trade (‘EC competition policy: emasculating the common law doctrine of the restraint of trade?’R.P.L. 2007, 15(3), 419-431
  • the doctrine of legitimate expectation (R v IRC ex p MFK [1990] 1 WLR 1545 at 1569–70
  • the option (‘Emasculating the optionVAT Int. 1997, 15(1), 1380-1383).
  • a regulation’s purpose (M v W [2014] EWHC 925 (Fam): [34]
  • a sanction (JKX Oil & Gas Plc v Eclairs Group Ltd [2014] EWCA Civ 640 [124] and [126]
  • a right (Neil Pattullo v The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs [2014] UKFTT 841 (TC) [85].
  • ‘the meaning of the deed’ (meaning to distort? Westlaw Case Analysis, Adedeji v Pathania, Chancery Division 22 April 2015).
  • the concept of ordinary residence (Regina (Cornwall Council) v Secretary of State for Health and another [2015] UKSC 46 at [145]
  • incentives (Lloyds Bank Leasing (No 1) Limited v The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs [2015] UKFTT 0401 (TC) at [14])
  • the High Court’s role: Ghosh v GMC [2001] 1 WLR 1915 at [34]
  • obligations in a mortgage deal (Mark Robert Alexander (as representative of the “Property118 Action Group”) v West Bromwich Mortgage Company Ltd  [2016] EWCA Civ 496 at 81).
  • warranties (P &P Property Limited v Owen White & Catlin LLP, Crownvent Limited t/a Winkworth [2016] EWHC 2276 (Ch) at [101])

So – we see pieces of legislation and various less tangible things and ideas portrayed as damaged male bodies – decidedly odd at best.

Perhaps the oddest and most jarring use of this imagery is in Regina v “RL” [2015] EWCA Crim 1215 in which a barrister is said to have indicated (at [12]) that ‘the combined effect of the judge’s rulings was so to emasculate his cross-examination of boys A and B that he was in effect reduced to putting a bald proposition and having to accept the answer given by the boy concerned without further elaboration.’ Hard to know what to say to that – just – really? Best choice of words?

There may be some hope that people are beginning to see that this might be best avoided – applause for the appearance of a set of “” around the word in  Miss S C Hall v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police 2015 WL 5202319, before Mrs Justice Elisabeth Laing DBE, at [32] in her judgment. So, other judges, academic commentators, barristers, what about trying out ‘undermine’, ‘weaken’, ‘render useless’ or some such non-violent and not unnecessarily gendered phrase? Go on – it won’t ’emasculate’ your scholarship.

Update 24/02/2017

More Land Law preparation, more emasculation!

Fundamental human rights are ‘at risk of emasculation’ in Lord Neuberger’s judgment in Mayor of London (on behalf of the Greater London Authority) v Hall and others [2010] EWCA Civ 817 at [37]. And we have an act ‘emasculating’ a doctrine (the Land Registration Act 2002 and adverse possession, respectively) in: M Dixon, ‘The reform of property law and the LRA 2002: a risk assessment’ (2003) Conv. 136, at 150 and again at 151, See also Conv. 2005, Jul/Aug, 345-351; Conv. 2011 335  at 338 and (on prescription this time) Conv. 2011, 167 at 170. The use of ‘emasculation’ in relation to adverse possession has a slightly different character to many of the uses noted above, at least 2003 Conv 136, 151, the emasculation of the doctrine by the LRA scheme ‘does of course, mean the end of adverse possession as a threat to the security of registered title.’ So removal of the doctrine’s metaphorical male genitalia = removal of a threat/danger. Intriguing.

Watching out for more, and would specially like to find the bingo row of ‘emasculation’ plus a ‘mistress’, plus a cricketing metaphor in the same case or article.

Update 14/10/2018

Possibly the most incongruous use of the language of emasculation in the context of legislation relates to the eventual Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919– an important Act which, however, did not go as far as an earlier version, the Women’s Emancipation Bill. As was pointed out in A. Logan, ‘Building a New and Better Order’? Women and Jury Service in England and Wales, c.1920–70’, Women’s History Review, 22 (2013), 701-16, at 702, ‘Cheryl Law claims the Act [Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919] was an ‘emasculated’ version of the Labour-sponsored Women’s Emancipation Bill’. [C. Law,  Suffrage and Power: the women’s movement 1918–28 (London, 1997), 97.] Another author preferred the ‘broken reed’ metaphor for the Act’s subsequent effectiveness [M. Pugh, Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke, 2000), 90.], which might just about be construed as a touch phallic, but is certainly an improvement.

Update 25/11/2018

Oh dear – just found another one. Reading over some chapters from J.W. Cairns and G. McLeod, The Dearest Birth Right of the People of England : The Jury in the History of the Common Law (Hart: Oxford and Portland Oregon, 2002), I came across an ‘emasculation’ in an account of alterations in the role/power of juries.

It’s in c. 11, J. Getzler, ‘The Fate of the Civil Jury in Late Victorian England: Malicious Prosecution as a Test Case’, on p. 218: ‘The emasculation or diminution of the civil jury was then followed in the second stage by its elimination.’ So – emasculation is more or less synonymous with diminution (and a preliminary to elimination. Nice imagery. What are the implications for the study of early women jurors, I wonder: was their inclusion actually all about some long-drawn- out phobia of jury male genitalia?

There are also a few more recent uses of emasculation in litigation to note. We have:

·         the risk of ‘the emasculation of fiduciary duties’ (Mrs Justice Cockerill, para. 72 of Recovery Partners v Rukhadze [2018] EWHC 2918 (Comm) [because trust and trustworthiness are male-genital related, and there’s no particular reason that women should know better …]

·         the danger of ‘the total emasculation of the civil law’ (HHJ Saffman, para. 9 of Durham County Council v James Bradwell 2018 WL 05823332 [because private law is characterised by its possession of male privates …]

·         the worry that a previous case will be ‘emasculated’ (with diminution of particular rights) if this case goes a certain way (counsel in Goddard-Watts v Goddard-Watts [2016] EWHC 3000 (Fam), mentioned at para 73 [because more male = more expansive, better etc …]

·         the concern that a proposed solution is based on the ‘emasculation’ of a statute section (Blackwood v Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust  [2016] EWCA Civ 607, para. 56) [because there is no special inappropriateness in using male-genitalia based imagery in a SEX DISCRIMINATION CASE …]

Those academics, lawyers and judges who care about such things might consider the many alternatives to ‘emasculating’ language – why not try ‘evisceration’ (we all have, and need, viscera) or nullification (because – big news – it isn’t actually necessary to use a violent physical metaphor at all!). For a more traditional and picturesque feel, at least in relation to legislation, why not go back to the old favourite ‘driving a coach and horses through [insert name of Act]’? Daft but at least not sexist-daft. And you may be able to style it out as knowing and retro.

(I have been watching out for emasculation-talk in relation to Brexit, but it seems that the inappropriate imagery of choice there is that of slavery, vassalage, colonialism. No better, obviously, but an interesting difference.)

Update 12/7/2020

Oh dear – here we are once more – counsel general of Wales, Jeremy Miles apparently thinks Boris Johnson plans to ‘emasculate’ the devolution settlement.


Must we? Must we read about weird metaphorical portrayals of good legislation as having male genitalia, weakened legislation as lacking them? Grim. Sexist. Nonsense. Also in the context of ‘union’, (and indeed Boris Johnson) getting into genital metaphor mode brings up all sorts of unpleasant images and consequences. Best not.

The level of distraction (from an entirely plausible and righteous objection) is not helped by the additional corporeal metaphor of Brexit, or the UK government, bringing a big fist down on devolution – fist or men’s bits, make your mind up. Or is the ‘emasculation’ being done (somehow) with a ‘big fist’? And Miles apparently gets another legislative cliché in by talking about ‘driving a coach and horses’ through the relevant legislation. A little tiny bit behind the times?!

Update 2/9/2020

And one which jumped out in my sifting of articles for ‘Blended Learning’ preparation for undergraduate Legal History … W. Swain, ‘The classical model of contract’ Legal Studies 30  (2010) 513-32, 532  the emasculated law of restitution.’ Always did find restitution a bit of a macho thing …

… To be continued.