When he appeared on Channel 4’s After Dark to discuss “Do Men Have to Be Violent?” with radical feminist Kate Millett, actor Oliver Reed was drunk. “A woman will never, ever forgive a man if he fucks her,” he explained. “You are the receivers, you take our seed… Look after our babies and we’ll go do the hunting for you.”
It was 1991, the height of the Gulf War, and the debate on militarism, masculine stereotypes and violence towards women was punctuated with references to testosterone. At one point, after he had nipped to the loo and topped up his glass, Reed leant over to kiss Millett — much to her disgust — leading one male guest to pronounce: “A man can never have too much [testosterone].”
In her new book, Testosterone: The Story of the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us, Carole Hooven explores how the hormone is often presented as both a justification and excuse for male dominance over women. Women have far lower levels of testosterone, so it has often been argued that housework and childrearing come naturally to them. Men, on the other hand, are programmed to be hellbent on impregnating as many women as possible, fighting off male rivals and dragging a carcass home for dinner.
But as Hooven acknowledges in her fascinating book, despite the undeniable effect of the hormone on our behaviour, how we relate to others is based on evolving and complex external forces.
Both sexes produce testosterone, though men create up to twenty times more. Testosterone, then, is at the heart of the nature versus nurture debate. For feminists, it is our culture, rather than hormones, that most influences gendered behaviours. There are, for instance, enough studies which show that women enjoy plenty of sex and risk on par with the most testosterone-fuelled men.
It’s the same with male and female behaviour, neither of which can be reduced to binary Ken and Barbie stereotypes. As a lesbian and gender non-conforming feminist, I know this only too well. When I rejected traditional female toys and dress, I was frequently told I had too much testosterone and that was what made me a tomboy. Even into adult life, I have lost count of the times I have been told I’m a lesbian — or that I will grow a beard and never feel a desire to reproduce — because I have “too much testosterone”.
It’s a load of nonsense, but it raises an important question: how is it that the genetic and hormonal components of sex can create two distinctly different reproductive systems, and yet human male and female behaviour shows itself to be flexible, diverse and often surprisingly similar?
Hooven’s expertise is in natural sciences and biological anthropology — and the answer, she suggests, is that testosterone might strongly influence how we behave; too much of it can make males more aggressive, and those with raised levels often end up taking too many risks so they tend to crash and burn.
That may seem logical, but it does not explain violence against women or rape. As Cordelia Fine, author of the acclaimed Testosterone Rex (2017), points out most men are not violent, which leaves a hole in the theory that testosterone drives behaviour.
Nevertheless, if we are to properly understand sex differences, we still need to educate ourselves about testosterone. Crucially, the controversy around trans women in sport — namely that going through male puberty results not just in far higher levels of tesosterone but also greater bone and muscle mass — is tackled head-on by Hooven. “You may be wondering if natural variation in T [testosterone] levels has anything to do with being transgender in the first place,” she writes. “And given what we know about testosterone, that’s a logical question. The answer is, we don’t know.”
Indeed, Hooven found that there is not much relation between higher testosterone levels and performance among professional athletes when compared to others of the same sex. Between the two sexes, however, “the link is very much stronger”. And this is because “T levels are dramatically higher in males, and have a lot to do with the fact that they are stronger, faster and more aggressive than the vast majority of their female counterparts.” That is, of course, why we have sex-segregated sports in the first place.
If we accept that testosterone can cause aggression in males and change behaviour, which Hooven does, should it be used as an excuse in cases of male sexual assault? No, says Hooven, because even behaviour related to biology is not hardwired and unchangeable. Even if biology is a factor in social ill, it does not make it determined.
Yet it is disappointing that Hooven relies on questionable data to challenge the reality of male violence. For example, in picking apart the trope that male violence towards women is inevitable because it is hormone-driven, she looks to the violence perpetrated by women on male partners and concludes that, with caveats, women are as likely to be violent to male partners as vice-versa, but less likely to kill. I have campaigned to end violence towards women and girls for 40 years, and every bit of evidence from around the world concludes this is simply not the case.
But how much does testosterone affect the way men view women? One example Hooven relies on is that of trans man Griffin Hansbury and his reaction to T injections during the early days of his transition:
“I remember walking up Fifth Avenue, and there was a woman walking in front of me,” says Hansbury. “And she was wearing this little skirt and this little top. And I was looking at her ass. And I kept saying to myself, don’t look at it. Don’t look at it. And I kept looking at it. And I walked past her. And this voice in my head kept saying, turn around to look at her breasts …. It was like being in a pornographic movie house in my mind. And I couldn’t turn it off. I could not turn it off. Everything I looked at, everything I touched turned to sex.”
While even I, a hard-line social constructionist, concede that testosterone can cause strange behaviour and be as potent as oestrogen is for females, I strongly suspect there are other explanations for his behaviour. Surely, for example, we should put at least some of it down to the privilege and arrogance afforded to men, including trans men.
After all, Hansbury is still living in a world where male entitlement and lack of punishment can lead to the dehumanising and over-sexualisation of women. Hansbury’s testosterone-induced journey from his previous life as a self-described “butch dyke” who used to perform poetry about street harassment cannot be blamed on T alone.
As Hooven observes: “To bring about changes in male behaviour it is not necessary to depress testosterone. Changes in attitudes and culture can do that all by themselves.” She is right, even if the likes of Oliver Reed may suggest otherwise.