Testosterone is not what you think it is, and it is decidedly not a "male sex hormone". Here is the debunking life story of a molecule we thought we all knew.
Testosterone is a familiar villain, a ready explanation for innumerable social phenomena, from the stock market crash and the overrepresentation of men in prisons to male dominance in business and politics. It's a lot to pin on a simple molecule.
Yet your testosterone level doesn't in fact predict your competitive drive or tendency for violence, your appetite for risk or sex, or your strength or athletic prowess. It's neither the biological essence of manliness nor even "the male sex hormone". This unauthorized biography pries T, as it's known, loose from over a century of misconceptions that undermine science even as they make urban legends about this hormone seem scientific.
T's story didn't spring from nature: it is a tale that began long before the hormone was even isolated, when nineteenth-century scientists went looking for the chemical essence of masculinity. And so this molecule's outmoded, authorized life story persisted, providing ready cause for countless behaviors – from the boorish and the belligerent to the exemplary and enviable. What we think we know about T has stood in the way of an accurate understanding of its surprising and diverse functions and effects. Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis focus on what T does in six domains: reproduction, aggression, risk-taking, power, sports, and parenting. At once arresting and deeply informed, Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography allows us to see the real T for the first time.
Introduction: T Talk
1. Multiple Ts
Conclusion: The Social Molecule
Rebecca M. Jordan-Young is a sociomedical scientist and Professor in the Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. She was a principal investigator and deputy director of the Social Theory Core at the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research and has been sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.
Katrina Karkazis is a cultural anthropologist who spent fifteen years at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, working at the intersection of science, technology, gender studies, and bioethics. She is Carol Zicklin Endowed Chair in the Honors Academy at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and Senior Research Fellow with the Global Health Justice Partnership at Yale University. Her writing appears in the New York Times, The Guardian, and Wired, among other outlets, and her piece The Masculine Mystique of T was published in the New York Review of Books.
"A beautifully written and important book. The authors present strong and persuasive arguments that demythologize and defetishize T as a molecule containing quasi-magical properties, or as exclusively related to masculinity and males."
– Linda Roland Danil, Los Angeles Review of Books
"A deeply researched and thoughtful book that adds a fresh perspective to a growing body of work aiming to debunk myths about hormones."
"In [the authors'] hands, testosterone provides fruitful ground for understanding what it means to be human, not as isolated physical bodies but as dynamic social beings."
– Erika Lorraine Milam, Science
"Jordan-Young and Karkazis tear through influential studies, ripping apart notions such as that high levels of testosterone help businessmen make the risky deals that win fortunes [...] Fascinating."
– Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist
"A critique of both popular and scientific understandings of the hormone, and how they have been used to explain, or even defend, inequalities of power."
– The Observer
"Debunks common myths about the functions and foibles of testosterone."
– Mary Rosillo, Cooper Square Review
"A fascinating attempt to cast doubt on some of the more popular ideas about testosterone, but the book is really more about the messy complexity of science itself, and how science interacts with the wider culture and is shaped by it."
– Robert Stirrups, The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology
"Tells not only a more accurate story about testosterone but also an infinitely more interesting one [...] An excellent book."
– Lisa Wade, Men and Masculinities
"Karkazis and Jordan-Young seek to expose several false narratives about their subject [...] Testosterone is an extended exercise in myth busting."
"Offers an intricately researched and fresh illustration of testosterone's narrative, one that has been long overdue for a makeover [...] Testosterone is insightful scholarship for critical researchers and an approachable read for enthusiasts."
– Anna Posbergh, Sociology of Sport Journal
"Given the increasing attention to these issues, the book's auspicious timing and deeply researched foundations are already having a huge effect on an important cultural conversation today."
"A refreshing counternarrative to the urban legends that have muddied the waters between fact and fiction [...] A powerful testament to the continued need for an interdisciplinary dialogue surrounding the study of sex hormones."
– Wendy Kline, Journal of Interdisciplinary History
"Eye-opening [...] Readers interested in the messiness of the relationship between hormones and behavior, and willing to consider that science can be far from neutral and objective, will find high-density food for thought in [this] stimulating work."
– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"It's stimulating fun when the assumptions and interpretations of scientific findings must undergo major revision. It's more than just fun when that revisionism concerns a subject rife with sociopolitical implications with a history of doing harm. Jordan-Young and Karkazis ably take on this task with respect to the perpetual misinterpretation of what testosterone has to do with behavior, a subject at the intersection of masculinity, gender, aggression, hierarchy, race, and class. This subtle, important book forces rethinking not just about one particular hormone, but about the way the scientific process is embedded in social context."
– Robert M. Sapolsky, author of Behave
"With Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, we can add testosterone folklore to the mythology claiming that biology determines our character, behavior, and status. Jordan-Young and Karkazis brilliantly show how a wide range of popular beliefs and scientific research about testosterone support dangerous gender, race, and class stereotypes that blame biological differences for inequalities of power. They compel us to think more critically not only about T, but also, more broadly, about the fraught relationship between biology and social identity."
– Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century
"A brilliant book. With a rare combination of meticulous scholarship and page-turner style, Jordan-Young and Karkazis unravel, dissect, and ultimately explode the traditional story of testosterone. This book provides a revelation on every page, and readers will finish with a far richer understanding of the complexities of both testosterone and science."
– Cordelia Fine, author of Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society
"Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography shines an urgently needed light on our collective, troubling myth-making about a hormone blamed for everything from male aggression to unfair advantage in athletic competition. Through rigorous analysis and a transcendent examination of cultural narratives, it not only reexamines and challenges some of our core beliefs about T; it also traces the way bias about gender is foundational to the science used to uphold those narratives. Eye-opening, accessible, and intelligent, this book will change the way you think about masculinities, race and class, and maybe even your own body."
– Thomas Page McBee, author of Amateur: A Reckoning with Gender, Identity, and Masculinity
"Testosterone science does not mix well with biases, social preconceptions, and politics of all sorts. Jordan-Young and Karkazis provide a thoughtful overview of testosterone myths – their deep roots and grave consequences."
– John P. A. Ioannidis, Stanford University
"Everyone knows that testosterone is what makes men men, and too much testosterone is what makes some men toxic – or is it? In this timely and urgent book, Jordan-Young and Karkazis take us on a roller-coaster ride through what we know, what we think we know, and what we need to know about that most quixotic of substances: testosterone."
– Sari van Anders, Queen's University