Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Reactions to "The He Hormone" ...

venn diagram's picture

& musings on "science" writing.

I was immediately interested in the article “The He Hormone” by Andrew Sullivan. After reading the sections in Evolution’s Rainbow that touched on human reactions to injected testosterone my interest was peaked, especially for a more in-depth personal account. Sullivan definitely delivered, eloquently explaining the many ways he believes testosterone affects him. In addition to his personal anecdotes, he enters into a more global discussion about testosterone and its implications for the “nature vs. nurture” debate. It also can have large-scale implications for Butlerian “gender as construct” arguments as well.

From a scientific standpoint, Sullivan references many different types of studies, some more scientifically powerful than others. In many of the studies, the lack of controlled comparison, often creates more questions than they solve. Sullivan, however, anticipates these objections and is quick to point out the shortcomings of the studies. Every time I was tempted to call “sensationalism!” against Sullivan, he usually backed it up a sentence or two neutralizing the point with a critique or with an opposing study. I was impressed by this tactic within journalism, where there may be more leeway to argue a point and be less thorough (whether we agree with it or not) than within an academic text.

Although upon first reading I found the piece to be a little too moralizing and preachy near the end, a few days later I seem less bothered by this, and I wonder if it is because I largely agree with his points. His argument that the difference between men and women “is so obvious that we sometimes miss it,” defended by “without that difference, it would be hard to justify separate sports leagues for men and women” I think is a valid one, albeit preachy one. I also find that, whether it comes out of a hope to be PC, or out of an actually thought out position on gender/sex differences, the differences between men and women are overlooked or ignored entirely. I, like Sullivan, think that it is okay that men are better suited to be better at baseball than women (or more likely to enter a military profession, etc, etc). Do you?

This reminded me of the "anything you can do I can do better" Gatorade commercial with Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan. Apprently, Gatorade made dozens of other versions of this video including mostly same-sex matchups. I clearly remember this one most from my childhood, though.

Mia Hamm vs. Michael Jordan "anything you can do I can do better" Gatorade commercial


jfwright's picture

Hormonal Determinism?

I had a fairly different reaction to this reaction than that of Venn and sel. First and foremost, I know some NoHo trans men (trans men who don't use hormones) who would take great offense to the idea that "manhood" could be bottled and injected. Sullivan agrees that a man is not defined by the presence or absence of a penis, but saying that a man should be defined by the presence or absence of certain hormonal levels seems excessive. Certainly, it brings about physical and mental traits that are more along the lines of the Western view of manliness; but, the definition of masculinity in a vial? I flatly disagree. In addition, what about women with testosterone-based systems? This view assumes that all trans women will act like men, or, that all trans women ARE men. No. I can't agree with that at all.

I also don't like his suggestions about how testosterone forces men to enact 'manly' (by whose standards?) and aggressive behavior. Reading through this article, I was reminded of a famous piece of medival Jewish theological commentary regarding the nature of free will. I've been unable to find the source, but the argument basically stated that humans must have some sort of free will even if their god is omnipotent, because if all of their actions were predestined by their god, criminals would not be able to be prosecuted: if god had pre-ordained that they would commit their crime, how could they be blamed for their actions? The way I read Sullivan's article, a similar argument is being made: men have testosterone, so they may be permitted to behave aggressively. How big of a step is that from saying that rape is just an instance of "boys will be boys"? How could you EVER prosecute someone for a crime if they had a testosterone-based system; were they just doing it to satisfy their biological urges for risk-taking?

I also didn't much like the idea that individuals in poorer areas are biologically predisposed to crime and rampant sexuality. As Sullivan says:
"It may be no accident that testosterone-soaked ghettos foster both high levels of crime and high levels of illegitimacy."
Later, he cites a few statistics about black men having higher levels of testosterone than white men. I cannot imagine a way to read this that doesn't have HUGE implications for supporting views of biological superiority of certain races and classes, and the inherent immorality of others. It implies that behavior is encoded in race and class, and that try as one might, their behavior is predetermined by their biology. In addition, he may be saying that black men are more dangerous than white men: if testosterone makes men more aggressive, and black men have more testosterone, and aggressive men with testosterone are more likely to commit crime, who is more likely to commit crime, black men or white men? He's framing racial determinism as a logical consequence of biology. Maybe I'm taking this too far, but that was just how I felt about this piece.

sel209's picture

Reaction Diffraction

It’s funny, Venn- while you say that the more time you spent reflecting on Sullivan’s last several paragraphs, the less they bothered you, my reaction was quite the opposite. When I read the article for the first time, I was in agreement with the author almost through the entire piece. I found myself initially trusting him because of the open and honest nature of his writing; he was quick to tell his readers why he took the hormone in the first place, which gave his writing a sense of transparency, and while he pointed out his own biases, he seemed to readily acknowledge the ways in which his perspectives could be challenged. Plus, he has clearly experienced firsthand the power this hormone has over the body and mind, so if I should trust anyone about the effects of testosterone, it seemed like I should trust him.

And then…well, then towards the end of the piece he started writing about politics and how women are not biologically suited to lead in our electoral system because of their internal chemistry. I re-read this statement and decided it wasn’t really offensive. Our current system is grounded in aggression, and if the author is making the argument that increased testosterone leads to increases in aggressive behavior, it logically follows that those with more testosterone will be more successful in the political arena. However, the more I processed his words, the more Sullivan’s tone seemed to say, “this is the way it is, let’s find equality elsewhere” with an implied shoulder shrug of resignation. It started to get under my skin; our system could use a lot less aggression and a lot more empathy regardless of what gender brings it to the table, and it’s definitely not beyond our power to recognize that and make the appropriate changes. So here, my trust in his critical expertise began to waver. Then, he lost my trust in his biological expertise when he referred to the role of gender in athletics and stated that, “Women could compensate for this [the fact that they’re weaker than men] by injecting testosterone, but if they took enough to be truly competitive, they would become men, which would somewhat defeat the purpose.” This statement says a host of things about Sullivan's beliefs, the most pronounced of which is that he believes a certain level of testosterone can draw the line between being male or female. What?! Maybe testosterone injections in what we typically refer to as a female body would induce physical changes, like the development of more muscle and the alteration of female sex organs, and maybe it would also induce more aggressive behavior. But does being more aggressive and muscular than the “average” female make you male? To reference Venn’s awesome Gatorade ads, if Mia Hamm is more muscular and aggressive than the average woman, does that make her male? No. I'd like to ask Sullivan if in his opinion one has to “look the part” to be male or if a sufficient amount of testosterone is enough to qualify. While I readily acknowledge the role biology plays in gender differences and agree with the author to a point, I don't buy his final claims that this one particular hormone so drastically influences our conceptions of appropriate gender roles in society.


**On the topic of gender and sports, here’s a website that deals with “gender verification testing” and presents some tests that used to be undertaken to determine whether or not an athlete was allowed to compete as a female: