Testosterone Rex

From the opening joke about testicles as a key-fob, Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine is a lively read. It argues that gender roles arise not from testosterone, or from our evolution on the savannahs of Africa, but from Patriarchy, by close analysis of scientific studies showing that expected gender differences do not manifest in results, and that results found do not justify the large claims made.

There lies the difficulty for me. I am unable to delve into the primary sources. I would not know where to start. Political interests drive the confirmation bias of researchers, on both sides, and patriarchy affects the theorising which makes researchers or funders choose particular projects. Fine quotes Lewis Wolpert, CBE FRS FRSL FMedSci, the author of a number of popular science books: There is no doubt that biology, via evolution and genetics, has made men and women significantly different. Fine disagrees, and has assembled impressive evidence. I am aware of Wolpert, more as an author of popular science books than for his work on intracellular positional information that guides cellular development, but he is an eminent man. Why should I believe Fine over him?

She shows that research has been based on the idea of masculinity and femininity as opposite ends of a spectrum. In 1936, the Attitude Interest Analysis Survey asked 456 questions, each of which had a “masculine” or “feminine” answer. In the 1970s, the Personal Attributes Questionnaire, with two sets of questions to measure stereotypically masculine and feminine traits separately, showed one can have both “masculine” traits of “instrumentality”, like self-confidence, independence and competitiveness, and “feminine” traits of “expressiveness”, being emotional, gentle and caring. Or, neither. But also the masculine and feminine traits don’t necessarily go together. Always the argument that women can have gifts or interests thought masculine is fighting the assumptions of researchers. The concepts of masculinity and femininity get in the way of seeing how men and women actually are.

She shows how children are indoctrinated into gender, by the pink and blue toy aisles, and by peer pressure. I told my great-niece she was strong, as well as beautiful, for standing up and learning to walk. If girls were feminine at her age of ten months, one would expect them to work on talking first, to express themselves, and boys on walking for instrumentality. There is no such clear difference. Yet there is a great backlash against gender neutral toy-marketing, as if that were the indoctrination.

She describes the White Male effect. Are men more willing to take risks? In the US, a survey showed that men are; but not ethnic minority men. Privileged men are more likely to take risks. And it depends what risks are named, for people take risks where they are familiar with the matter. A risk of high taxation might provoke privileged male fear. And the “funnel plot”, a way of excluding publication bias: where studies show greater female risk-taking, they are less likely to be published. In Sweden, men and women were equal risk takers, but again immigrants, subject to discrimination, would take less risks. Of course: they are less safe.

Are men more competitive for mates, or less likely to be faithful? She accepts that men invest less in producing a baby, a few sperm rather than forty weeks’ incubation, but not that this means men want to spread it around, which might not produce children anyway. In evolutionary biology, sexual selection is in an exciting state of turmoil.

Does testosterone make men more likely to take risks? Not necessarily. Higher testosterone levels in men who take risks is correlation, not necessarily causation. The way testosterone fluctuation in the blood affects the brain is unclear, and women have testosterone too.

She ends with a call to arms. We can continue with our polite, undemanding panel discussions about gender equality, our good intentions and gentle tinkering, and patiently wait out the fifty to one hundred or so years it’s regularly predicted to take to achieve parity in the workplace. But… maybe it’s time to be less polite and more disruptive, like the first- and second-wave feminists. They weren’t always popular, it’s true. But look at what they achieved by not asking nicely.

And look at what she promises: valuation of your gifts as a human being, separate from preconceptions about how a man or woman ought to be. We could see ourselves more clearly. Women freed to express their gifts would benefit all.

5 thoughts on “Testosterone Rex

  1. We must be wary of testost-erroneous conclusions. I’ve been saying, for years, that trans women who suffer through male puberty end up Testosterroneous Wrecks. Of course, I’m nearly 67, so that makes me a dinosaur in the current age of gender identity, anyway. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • The “something else” could be an internalized homophobia. As a teenager, I was so unsure of what my gender dysphoria meant, but I was sure that I was not attracted to men sexually. I was afraid to expose any sign of my femininity to the outside world, for fear of being considered gay. There were two gay boys of my age in my immediate neighborhood, and I had no fear of them at all. I would say that my attitude toward their homosexuality was an indifferent one. And, although I never revealed my gender identity to them, I think that they may have sensed something was different about me, as well. I’m not so proud that I basically shunned both of them when other people were around, as I was always careful to maintain my macho and athletic persona. For me to be seen as a soft male, I imagined, would be to be seen as the third gay boy in my neighborhood. That was fifty-some years ago, however, so I don’t know that I would have approached things the same way had the societal climate been as it is today.

        As far as feminine personality is concerned, I believe that my personality has freed-up since I began living as a woman. I do not express myself nearly as femininely as did my neighborhood friends, but I enjoy the feeling of being a strong and capable woman. I never felt comfortable being a weak and incomplete man.


          • The effeminacy of one who is unabashed by it, especially while accompanied by some displayed talent, is often deemed acceptable by society as eccentricity. As a child, I often saw Liberace on TV. Although I remember my mother occasionally making a slur about his sexuality, she tuned in to the program because she was entertained by him, despite whatever he might have been doing with other men off-camera. He was no Vladimir Horowitz, who was also rumored to be gay, but Liberace was definitely more entertaining and popular.

            Rock Hudson, who had an affair with Liberace, was seen as anything but effeminate by the public. While they both eventually died of AIDS, Hudson finally admitted to his homosexuality and Liberace never really came out. The public was surprised by Hudson’s admission, but many would have been astonished had Liberace come out. Some people believe what they want to believe, I suppose.

            I don’t think Liberace could have hidden his effeminacy had he tried. I also don’t think Rock Hudson was ever really naturally effeminate, although he quite possibly played up his manliness for the sake of his career. My perception of him was always that he was not only a gentleman, but a gentle man.

            Some other gay (out or not) entertainers who are, or were, seen as eccentric would be Little Richard, David Bowie, and Elton John. Their effeminacy varies, but they all might be considered more androgynous than effeminate.

            None of this is necessarily related to ones gender identity, however. The fact that my gender identity is woman makes it impossible for me to be effeminate, because the word refers to a man having or showing characteristics regarded as typical of a woman.


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