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The Lie Hormone

Andrew Sullivan’s ode to testosterone is rooted in stereotypes, not science.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

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Andrew Sullivan and I have something in common. He’s a big name in writing, former editor of the New Republic, early advocate for legalizing same-sex marriage, current columnist for New York magazine, while I’m just a trans guy who occasionally writes things. But both of us take regular injections of testosterone—his was prescribed for low testosterone levels related to HIV, mine for gender transition—and both of us are fascinated with the psychological and behavioral effects of the hormone. Sullivan thinks testosterone explains most of the societal inequality between men and women, and that this truth must be spoken in opposition to feminist thought police who seek to hoodwink us into denying nature, particularly through the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault. I’m not convinced.

In his latest column for New York, Sullivan wrote that testosterone injects a “rush of energy, strength, clarity, ambition, drive, impatience and, above all, horniness” into him, and he credits the hormone with “the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman.” It’s not the first time he’s tackled this ground either; in 2000, he wrote The He Hormone, a love letter to a chemical he believed literally made him “more alive.” As a trans guy, I experienced firsthand the hormonal balance of a natal woman, and for the past two years I’ve had my testosterone levels adjusted to be what nature more commonly gives males of our species. If Sullivan’s beliefs about testosterone’s properties are correct, it should hold true for me as much or more than anybody. My verdict: It doesn’t.

From a scientific perspective, the psychological effects of a drug are much more difficult to study than physical effects are. Science can say with certainty that testosterone has grown hair on my face, lowered my voice, broadened my neck and shoulders, and redistributed fat away from my hips and towards my middle. It can’t, however, say anything with certainty about what it’s done to my thoughts and feelings. This is partly because thoughts and feelings are hard to measure, but it’s also because our beliefs about what testosterone might do inevitably influence what we think it has done. This in turn affects both how we actually feel and how we report on what we’re feeling.

Scientists have attempted to study the cognitive and behavioral effects of testosterone, and the picture is far from the clear-cut natural differences that Sullivan imagines. For example, higher testosterone is correlated with more aggression—but research in animals and humans suggests that experiences related to aggression may raise testosterone levels, not necessarily the other way around. Studies of cognitive differences as they relate to testosterone are all over the place, with most studies finding a limited effect on cognition at best. Science certainly doesn’t say that testosterone gives men clarity, ambition, drive, or impatience. And even studies of horniness suggest a role for testosterone in male competition more so than in male sexuality writ large.

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When I started testosterone therapy two years ago, I can say with absolute certainty that the hormone didn’t turn weakness to strength, passivity to ambition, or ambivalence to clarity. That is plain nonsense: I had the same strength, ambition, and clarity before I began HRT had I have after it. I did experience a change in horniness, but it was a change in frequency, not in kind. Since starting HRT I’ve tended to get horny more often, but I did not experience hitherto unknown vistas of horniness. I have never felt so horny I couldn’t control myself, nor have I lost my ability to read my partner’s responses, or to care about her pleasure or her happiness. There’s a common belief among men that male sexuality is a completely different animal than female sexuality, and this is understandable because they’ve never known anything different. I lived with a female hormone balance for more than 30 years, and so I know that someone with estrogen and progesterone and a bit of testosterone is capable of feeling the exact same horniness. It’s not like being in a different world, or even like being in a different neighborhood. It’s horniness more often, or perhaps more likely to rise up unbidden. That’s all.

Beyond horniness, I’ve noticed other subtle emotional effects in myself. I cry less easily since starting testosterone. My range of emotions, for the most part, seems to have been very slightly blunted—I feel the same things, but a bit less strongly. I’m slightly calmer and less anxious. The one exception to this phenomenon is anger or irritation—I find I get irritated just a tad more often and more easily. Picture a painting where a few hues have been adjusted slightly; some browns are slightly redder, a few blues a bit less vibrant, but the brush strokes are still the same, and the landscape is still fully recognizable. The effects of testosterone—and, in my opinion, the differences between most men and women—are like the subtle changes to that painting.

My subjective experience can’t speak to testosterone’s effects in all humans or all mammals. Like Sullivan, I may be influenced by my prior expectations. I may also be influenced by whatever factor caused me to be transgender—a cisgender woman who took testosterone might have very different effects, due either to different biological factors or to her discomfort with the masculinizing effects on her body. However, my experience (and scientific studies) help limit what can be ascribed to the hormone by itself. If testosterone gave men some unique experience that separated them completely from women, surely I should have experienced that by now. Instead, I find I’m much the same person as I ever was.

Incidentally, testosterone therapy has also been studied in men who, like Sullivan, have low testosterone levels, with mixed results. Compared to a placebo, men on testosterone show slight improvements in mood, and in sex drive (although less improvement than with Viagra). Testosterone doesn’t seem to improve cognitive function or memory, reduce fatigue, or cause men to walk further, compared to placebo. Sullivan may have experienced something more dramatic, but the research does not support such major shifts for other men.

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Testosterone is a real hormone that occurs in very different levels among natal men and women, and there are real differences that result from that. There’s a broad consensus about this among feminists and anti-feminists alike. But we diverge from the science when we start with our stereotypes about men and women—for instance that women are weak, communal, self-effacing, and sexless while men are strong, independent, aggressive, driven, sex-monsters—and lay these assumptions at the feet of one hormone. Sullivan has convinced himself that testosterone makes him stronger and more driven much like Dumbo convinced himself that he could only fly with the aid of a magic feather. More power to him—but he should leave the pronouncements about human nature to those willing to look at the question of sex differences through the lens of science, not stereotypes.