Testosterone, placebo, and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

One of the things I always hate to read are critiques of male sexuality from the “testosterone poisoning” genre.  I came across a pair of such writings on Friday, by Andrew Sullivan (who once wrote a long essay about the placebo effect), and Joe Klein(1), who began his piece by talking about the misdeeds of Dominique Strauss-Kahn:

There is every likelihood that DSK’s high-priced lawyers will be brutal; there is every likelihood that this will devolve into an unprovable he said/she said affair… Unless there is some stunning, dispositive piece of evidence, DSK will probably walk.
I find this infuriating. As I get older, and farther removed from my own hormone-addled salad days, I find maleness–the blind, bullish insensitivity of it–to be as much a disease as a gender.

The problem with the analysis here is that DSK’s behavior ought be viewed as an example of  psychopathy or some other kind of pathology, but not maleness.  And it’s troubling when he implies that the reason he finds DSK’s predations so infuriating is because he’s older and removed from his hormone-addled salad days.  He seems to say that, were he younger, his own moral sentiments would be blunted by the disease of maleness.  And following from this idea, maleness being a disease, he hopes for the ascendancy of women:

With any luck, [women] will be the dominant sex in a generation or two. Why luck? Because, over time, I’ve come to prefer the way women think and talk, write and sing; I’ve come to appreciate their attention to detail and their less-petulant maturity, and to envy their capacity for friendship.

This idea is common among male editorial writers who are educated, civilized, and well into middle age.  And it’s also an idea that’s very destructive when taken to heart by teenage boys and young men – young men who are continually being told that their personalities are forever being deformed by TESTOSTERONE – the shit-for-brains hormone.

Consider this:  How do people develop their sense of who they are?  To a large degree, our sense of self comes from other people, and who they say we are.  For example, if a child’s parents tell him that he is responsible and thoughtful, there is a good chance he’ll try to live up to that expectation.  But if he’s treated as though he were a thief, sooner or later he’ll start putting his hand in the cookie jar.  And that’s the problem with telling young men over and over again that maleness means being emotionally stunted, petulant, incompetent at thinking and singing and – of course – not good at forming friendships.  It’s harmful to think of emotional seriousness as a woman’s domain and to define men’s strengths as – roughly speaking – mead drinking, back slapping, and loud talk.  Because a young man’s sense of who he is comes in large part from other people’s sense of what young men can be.  And unfortunately, other people’s sense of what young men can be seems to be continually shaped by the idea of testosterone as the out-of-control-derangement-hormone.  Here’s Andrew Sullivan:

As a gay man, I have lived in a world created, propelled and dominated by testosterone. I have loved it, been entranced by it, obsessed by it, crushed by it, exposed by it, humiliated by it and also exhausted by it. The gay male world is in some respects women’s revenge on men – because everything women deal with on the testosterone front is doubled and then inflicted on other men.

In the long run, it makes sense to settle down and see this raging, deranging horniness/temper decline in one’s life, whether you’re gay or straight. Marriage has had this effect on me in ways I never fully expected. Yes, men can domesticate men, even if not as effectively as women can. But in the short run, especially when young, surging testosterone offers unparalleled sexual excitement, constant no-strings-attached adventure, risk, ecstasy, thrills, passion and a form of psychological escape from the ordeal of consciousness that is, to my mind, unmatched.

But what he’s talking about here is not so much testosterone as youth.  Yes, testosterone matters and yes, men and women are different.  But rage and derangement in youth is not an inevitable result of “testosterone” – unless we insist on telling teenage boys that rage and derangement is an inevitable part of their youthful sexuality.

Looking back on my own youth, I absorbed more of the blind-bullish-insensitivity narrative, and it affected my own self-perception, more than I realized at the time.  It wasn’t that I tried to be “macho”, it was that my sense of possibility in terms of who I could be was limited in ways that it didn’t need to be.

And so Andrew Sullivan’s masculinity narrative, while interesting, is troubling in ways that can hardly be unpacked in a single blog post – especially the way he conflates maleness, testosterone, and thuggish behavior.  He speaks of sexual excitement, ecstasy, and passion as though it were inextricably bound up with shit women have to deal with on the testosterone front.  And as for fights “breaking out” over rivalries, and men who won’t take “no” for an answer…

Very few fights break out in gay bars over emotional rivalries. Aggressive, unwanted pursuits of beloveds are less likely, because guys can tell guys to fuck off and mean it much more successfully than less physically imposing and more decorous women.
…The best check on testosterone can be testosterone.

…he’s talking here about men who try to physically intimidate other men, and men who refuse to respect sexual boundaries, and categorizing this behavior as “testosterone.”  In categorizing the behavior this way – as the anticipated effect of a hormone most young men have in abundance – he’s normalizing behavior that ought to be considered as pathological when engaged in by anyone beyond the age of fourteen or so, and furthering the idea that a man’s desire for sexual pleasure is always bound up with rage and derangement.

Here’s a counter narrative:  Male sexuality isn’t inherently deranged and maleness isn’t a disease.  We should put to bed the idea of “testosterone poisoning” and realize that men do vile things because they’re vile people, not because they’re in thrall to a magical hormone.


(1)  Joe Klein is a columnist for Time Magazine, not to be confused with “Time Advanced”:

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4 Responses to Testosterone, placebo, and the self-fulfilling prophecy.

  1. Sungold says:

    This is a terrific post. You put your finger on exactly where Sullivan goes astray in his post. Men only behave well when they terrorize each other? Really?? testosterone is a good thing. Men need it to feel well; deprived of it, they are prone to depression and often act testy (sorry about the bad pun). We women need it too for optimal health.

    Have you ever read Robert Sapolsky’s essay, “The Trouble with Testostone”? He breaks down many popular misconceptions, including the idea that T dives aggression in some simplistic way.

  2. B405 says:

    There’s a lot to be said about this subject. For instance, hormones don’t just appear out of nowhere; a person’s behavior influences how much of a hormone is produced in their body. So when someone goes out to a bar, gets loaded, screams at a football game on TV, and surrounds himself with like-minded people, hormones don’t deserve anywhere near all the blame for what they do.

  3. ballgame says:

    Good post, Miguel.

    Consider this: How do people develop their sense of who they are? To a large degree, our sense of self comes from other people, and who they say we are.

    I’m a little curious if anything specific prompts you to write this. I’m a big fan of the neglected psychologist R.D. Laing, and that was one of his key insights.

  4. The Real Peterman says:

    “To a large degree, our sense of self comes from other people, and who they say we are.”

    It’s an interesting thought. For instance, how can you know if you are strong or shy without comparing yourself to others? I also think that a lot of what people say we are is not always said clearly and out loud; people aren’t always even aware they are telling you what they think you are.

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