on the sexiness of testosterone and unquestioned assumptions

Last weekend I was listening to a program on “Testosterone” on “This American Life” (archive) and, predictably, my interest in the topic was equaled or surpassed by my exasperation and annoyance at its handling. “This American Life” is a one-hour show, that aims to do something rather cool: Shed some light on a topic by telling several different stories related to the topic. But at the end of this nuanced hour, all I wanted to do at the end of it is say, “Jesus, it’s more complicated than that.”

First of all, on some level, the mere existence of a show on this topic annoyed me. Testosterone is just so over-exposed. Testosterone is a sexy hormone, and by that, I don’t mean that it is a sex hormone or that it is responsible for the sex drive. I mean that people love talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it, and attributing all sorts of amazing qualities to it.

Testosterone — “T” — is also trendy in certain circles. In the Bay Area, lots of former dykes are now on T. Lesbians used to complain that their exes were all dating men, reminding me of some of my ex-boyfriends who used to complain that all their exes were now dating women; now in a new iteration on an old refrain, it is not uncommon to hear people comment on how their exes have all become men.

It’s also incredibly romanticized. We live in a T-centric world. All kinds of amazing powers are attributed to T. People talk about testosterone like it’s the hormone. Testosterone is the love drug, the drug of energy, enthusiasm, passion — even physics, as I heard on Sunday. A real wonder drug.

Also, and I too am guilty of this, testosterone is virtually the definition of masculinity. How do we describe men who are macho to the point of annoyance, or who exhibit negative traits we associate with masculinity, such as sexism, aggression, overbearing conversational styles, or arrogant unquestioned cockiness? Victims of testosterone poisoning.

So, T racks up tons of publicity, good and bad, in a rather unpleasant recapitulation of everything to do with manliness and this male-centric world. We define the rest of the hormonal world in relation to T, it sometimes seems. We are all T-totalizers, we have all drunk the T.

For instance, one of the speakers yesterday talked about how he felt when a medical condition zeroed out his T. This was totally interesting, Oliver Sacks-level interesting: He walked around the world, feeling passionless and disinterested, but had a generalized objective aesthetic appreciation of everything. Everything was “beautiful”, but he didn’t care about any of it. He could lay in his bed for hours without doing anything. In the entire segment, neither this speaker nor the host, Ira Glass, ever discussed how this compared, or not, to the experiences of people with other hormone deficiencies. Of course, zeroing out almost any hormone or important chemical can produce some strong effect — and the same or similar effect can be produced by zeroing out thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), serotonin, and probably others as well.

Similarly, T’s role in the public mind is as the arbiter and definer of sex and secondary sex characteristics. The presence or absence of T defines one’s masculinity or femininity. Sometimes women get a little “equal time”: testosterone defines men, estrogen defines women. Even in this more “equal” and “gender-neutral” form, this equation is ridiculous, and false, and deeply skewed. Both formulations — T and not-T; T & E too — utterly ignore complex hormonal cascades and interactions; ignore that testosterone doesn’t act alone and its effects may be exacerbated or minimized or suppressed by other hormones; ignore that secondary sex characteristics are caused by a pattern, a cluster, a profile, a cocktail of hormones — in short, an interaction of multiple hormones. Insulin resistance, for instance, relating to fat and estrogen and blood sugar, causes a number of side effects in women: growth of facial hair, lowered fertility, irregular menstrual cycles. It also leads to symptoms of fatigue and depression that are not dissimilar to those described by the zero-T guy. What’s the interplay between testosterone and insulin, estrogen, and fat? I would have no idea if I only read information from people talking about T the miracle drug.

So, frankly, I’m annoyed with the obsession with “T”. To me it’s like the obsession with all things male. Because we identify testosterone with masculinity (although of course testosterone is present in and essential to women, and estrogen, the “girly” hormone, is present in and essential to men), we think way too much about it. We fetishize it, frankly. T this, T that. Whatever! T is not equivalent to manliness, and neither T nor manliness are the be-all and end-all of interesting conversations in the world. Get over yourselves, T fetishists!

Secondly, the show triggered yet another round of the perennial question “Why don’t people think critically”? Or, paraphased: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

I am perpetually surprised and disheartened by the extent to which people fail to critically engage their own beliefs; fail to question and interrogate what they think they understand about their own experiences.

The obvious example is religion. How many of the people who claim to believe in some aspect of religion have seriously interrogated that belief? If they strip away the parts that they were raised with (some would say brainwashed as children), and then question it, do they come back to their beliefs? I’m certain some of the people who critically interrogate their beliefs do come back to some of their beliefs, while many do not. I’m equally certain that the vast, vast majority of people who claim to believe in God, or in Jesus, have never even seriously considered the alternative. The real alternative, not “going to hell”.

But this failure to question is true of so many other beliefs. And it is by no means limited by political opinion. My partner recently ran into someone who had been pro-choice, and was now pro-life, after having had children. Her original pro-choice “belief” came from what, and where? Apparently, unquestioned assumptions and ideas. While “pro-choice”, and pre-pregnant, she had never actually challenged herself with the idea that many women would feel inclined to love the fetus developing inside them, that our concepts of “life” and “human life” are slippery slopes, and other pro-life arguments. So when she had a new experience — pregnancy — it significantly challenged her ideas and beliefs. She properly adjusted her “beliefs” to account for her new experience — but she still didn’t engage with the ideas behind her new (or old) so-called beliefs.

Now, identified as “pro-life”, she has basically recapitulated her pro-choice experience. She hasn’t considered the questions of autonomy, the fact that many women have very different emotional responses to their pregnancies, the fact that women may have very different financial and economic and life situation realities that affect their pregnancies, and other pro-choice arguments.

I simply can’t take seriously the professions of belief of people like that. I take the experiences she had while pregnant seriously — that she loved her baby, wanted her baby, felt it as a cherished human life — but how can you take seriously the arguments and beliefs of someone who hasn’t taken their own beliefs seriously enough to examine them?

Another example. I’ve known a number of feminist women who, once they had children, began talking about how girls and boys are intrinsically different. Even as their children were watching TV and going to daycare and being exposed to a myriad of adults with beliefs and attitudes about girls and boys, all of which shape even infant behavior — even then, as soon as they encountered different behaviors in their boy and girl children, they overthrew their “beliefs” about nature versus nurture, gender socialization, essentialism, and so on. These are hardly experimental conditions, but they felt that their own experiences were different than their beliefs, so they adjusted their beliefs.

Apparently, they had never challenged their own beliefs. Their beliefs were, at least in some part, more ideology than reasoned position. They hadn’t seriously considered that of course their own boy and girl children were going to behave in a gendered fashion, even though they were being raised in a feminist home. Perhaps they were unwilling to consider that there are possible differences in the sexes, or that hormones make a difference. So when confronted with gender differences, that they couldn’t clearly attribute to their own parenting, they turned directly back to the old sexist standards of essential, biologically-based, differences between the sexes. Disregarding many plausible explanations, they chose explanations for no real reason that I can see, other than that these were more familiar and more comfortable.

Note, I’m not stating whether there are, or are not, such differences. There certainly may be such differences, based on different times or levels of hormone exposures, or other biological differences. But how on earth can we know, at this point, from raising our children? Children who, with every waking moment, are confronted with images of girls with long hair and dresses, sitting or sewing, or using dolls, and with pictures of boys with short hair and dungarees, playing or running or doing sports or holding swords. Little girls whose decor in their bedrooms includes dolls and statues of girls and women that have no function but to wear some colorful “native” costume. Every picture of a girl holding flowers and every picture of a boy engaged in some active pursuit is information that helps kids build their images of “types” of people that are male and female.

And then of course kids’ behavior is responsive to people who coo “oh aren’t you the prettiest little thing?” or say in a chipper tone, “oh I bet you’re going to be a politician when you grow up!” And then of course when the kids are two or three or four they start figuring out that they, too, are one or the other of those “types” of people. And most kids are eager to define themselves in relation to the world, and you’d sort of expect them to be happy to find a really important identity that they can claim even as very little people.

But how on earth can anyone conclude, from observing the behavior of children immersed in a gendered world, that gender has to do with biology (and biological environment) rather than social environment? It’s utterly beyond me. Sadly, it leads me to the conclusion that the certainty about gender non-essentialism that people displayed before their children (“BC”) was as unquestioned as the certainty about gender essentialism that they displayed after their children were born (“AC”).

I’m picking on folks who share my current or former beliefs, of course, because that’s my example set (and what’s interesting to me). But obviously my friends and acquaintances are simply manifesting the human tendency to see patterns, and to fit evidence into patterns. Society has given us a lot of preexisting patterns: Racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, xenophobia, self-centeredness … So in the absence of rigorous questioning and critical examination of these patterns or frames or preexisting beliefs and ideas, we’re going to fall back on them. Every time. Sexism and racism are always there to provide ready explanations for experiences that don’t fit within our less-well-thought-out “beliefs”. If we have areas of our beliefs that are not well thought-out, where we just “accepted” an idea or assumption without really questioning it — well, then, we will, inevitably, some day encounter information that contradicts those accepted ideas. At those times, some people ignore the evidence and take a “leap of faith”, acknowledging that their faith is irreconcilable with the evidence (ignoring contradictory evidence is also popular, as is lying to oneself about contradictory evidence). Other people fall back on ready pre-made explanations, like gender essentialism.

So I heard more of the same on “This American Life” on Saturday. The second segment was an interview with Griffin Hansbury, a transman who initially began transitioning by taking a superhigh dose of testosterone; this was juxtaposed with the first segment, the guy with the medical disorder that led to zero testosterone. I really respect Ira Glass for many things, although he drove me friggin’ nuts on this episode, and this is an example of brilliant editing and production: An incredibly interesting slice of people with differing experiences around testosterone.

So the transman, formerly identified as a butch dyke, comes on and talks about how T transformed his life and experience. Now, on T, his libido is very high and almost uncontrollable; he has trouble controlling his desire to ogle women on the streets; he suddenly developed an interest in science and he understood physics so much better (this was especially annoying and I will explain shortly). For me, this segment was nothing new: I’ve read a number of articles from transmen extolling the virtues of T, and simultaneously lamenting the sad state in which they now find themselves. “Oh how I now understand and sympathize with adolescent boys.”

Ira Glass’s response to his guest completely pissed me off. Because listening to Glass, he was so obviously caught up in the throes of seeing his own experience through the comforting lens of people who reify his experiences, and agree with his prior, perhaps unvoiced, beliefs. And he seemed to happy to talk with a transman and have this mano-a-mano identification, in which he could feel pleased with himself for successfully relating to the transman as just another guy, while simultaneously recognizing the complexities of trans identity. Combining a moment of transcendent political correctness with a moment of utter masculine self-absorption. It was the nerdy, PC, literate guy version of the fist-knocking moment that Pam Noles wrote about a year and a half ago — men, essentially, congratulating themselves for being men. Honestly the whole tenor of their chuckling interaction annoyed the fuck out of me, even as I felt ruefully happy for Hansbury that he could have this moment of sexist privilege.

Back to “T is the center of the universe and all things good or sexy or uncontrollable in ways that women just can’t understand”: The guest tried to cover his ass by saying that of course he didn’t know that T caused these feelings, but they happened when he started taking T; he left it to the audience and Ira Glass to draw the obvious inference. A correlation! OMG CAUSATION !!!!

Neither Ira Glass nor the guest explored this correlation at all, or considered whether, you know, maybe correlation doesn’t always really equal causation? Neither of them considered, even briefly, whether one’s own sexist assumptions — because all of us have sexist assumptions, even if we’re feminist — would affect one’s expectations of and therefore experience of taking testosterone.

The science and physics thing outraged me as a perfect storm of muddled thinking. Okay, so the guy developed an interest in science, when he started taking testosterone. Which certainly also coincided with the time when his visible appearance was changing and causing more people to interact with him as a man, and his own identity was reshaping itself around being this thing called “a man”.
As for his new “ability” with physics, well, interest goes a long, long way toward creating ability. I accepted long ago that I just am not going to really understand things until and unless I’m interested in them. I don’t understand accounting or tax law now, and I really didn’t understand poetry even the slightest bit until I got interested in it.

Now, there are multiple perfectly plausible explanations for Hansbury’s newly found interest in science — in addition to “testosterone directly changes my brain so that I can have manly interests and understandings”, two other highly plausible explanations suggest themselves: social influences caused by changes in his physiological appearance, and his own attitudes about masculine interests asserting themselves. You know, that while interacting as an equal with a bunch of people who grew up being expected to like science, he started to share their interests. Or that, in coming to see himself and see that others saw him more as a “man”, he started to become more interested in things that he has been taught since infancy to associate with manliness. Who knows what combination of factors were at work in this one individual, affecting his interest in science?

But rather than saying “this is my experience” and “here are several possible reasons”, he suggested, and apparently believes for himself, the explanation that correlates most neatly with sexist ideas that continue to have popular currency. The ideas themselves — that men have some innate ability for mathematics or spatial reasoning, possibly caused or influenced by hormones — are, unquestionably, widely accepted; but they are hotly disputed by scientists who work in the field. So maybe there’s a fire there, or maybe it’s more sexist and racist smoke of the sort so beautifully debunked by Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man, Carol Tavris in The Mismeasure of Woman, Anne Fausto-Sterling in Sexing the Body, and any number of other excellent works on the science of “essential” race and gender differences. Either way, Ira Glass and his guests just blew more smoke, failing to critically interrogate any of the ideas embedded in their “stories”.

It’s not a really big leap to at least consider these kinds of things, but instead the two men chuckled to themselves about how awful it was that they were betraying their feminist principles by speaking these unpalatable and politically incorrect truths aloud, setting us back a hundred years.

The good news is they haven’t set us back at all. They have just continued to move forward in the same old way that so many people do, changing their old unexamined “beliefs” for new unexamined beliefs, without critically thinking or challenging any of their old or new assumptions along the way. The bad news is that nice, “feminist”, politically correct guys can be, and often are, just as uncritical and unthinking as people brainwashed into religion as children.