Books

Rebecca M. Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis
Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography

Testosterone, we thought we knew you. All those scientific studies, and all those reports in newspapers and magazines over the years, have told us you were directly linked to violence, aggression, athleticism, libido, focus, risk-taking, power and even the misdeeds of Wall Street. Many find you repulsive. Others are attracted to your bad-boy mystique. Now along come two self-described “party poopers”, scholars Rebecca M. Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis, to tell us you may have less to do with male violence than with women’s ovulation. Some “male sex hormone” you are!

In this “unauthorised biography” of testosterone, or T, the authors survey “T talk”, their term for the “authorised biography” presented by popular media, including an episode of the podcast This American Life and a much-watched Ted Talk that birthed an entire industry for teaching “power posing”. Jordan-Young and Karkazis forensically demolish the key scientific studies that inform T talk. They do this by scrutinising the methods by which the studies’ authors gathered their data, how they defined qualities such as aggression and how they “tortured the data until they talked”. Such analysis is hard work, and it doesn’t make for easy reading. But Testosterone is an important and even urgent book: the “zombie facts” about T, those that refuse to die, have real-world consequences. T, the authors tell us, is a bit like Atlas, “bearing not a world but a worldview on his back”.

This view is expressed in cultural beliefs about race and class as well as masculinity and gender relations. Permeated with a “pungent elitism” and a whiff of white supremacism, T talk informs everything from policing practices to expectations of men as fathers. In one foundational study, scientists examined T levels in prisoners exhibiting violence and aggression, relying on sketchy definitions of both, and the sketchier testimony of prison guards. That study, referred to by many who came after, came to conclusions that ignored asymmetries of power and structural disadvantages, especially those attached to being poor and/or black. It also relied on unreliable means of testing T levels.

T talk can be false, misleading and socially harmful. So why is it so resistant to correction? Jordan-Young and Karkazis call it the “Mulder effect”, named for the UFO poster in Agent Mulder’s office in The X-Files: “I want to believe.”

Linda Jaivin

Harvard University Press, 288pp, $64.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Rebecca M. Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis, Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Linda Jaivin