Testosterone Rex

While most of the reading I am doing at the moment is either history research or Tiptree-related, occasionally I have to read books because they are relevant to doing trans awareness training. This means that I get to read Cordelia Fine for work. Result!

The latest book by my favorite Australian feminist is Testosterone Rex, a scathing excoriation of the idea that everything about Patriarchy; from the supposed superiority of men over women, to the supposed innately violent nature of men; from the idea that men can’t look after children to the idea that trans women can never be women; all of this is explainable by one central fact: that men’s bodies are suffused with testosterone and women’s are not. The subtitle of Testosterone Rex is, “Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds,” and the book aims to deconstruct the idea of men being from Mars and women from Venus with the same ruthless efficiency that Fine’s previous best-seller, Delusions of Gender, destroyed foolish ideas about gendered bodies.

But wait, Cheryl, I hear you say, surely this does you no good. Surely the cause of trans people is crucially dependent on their being actual, fundamental differences between men and women. Shouldn’t you and Ms. Fine be enemies?

Well, no. Firstly there is the entirely practical point that I can’t think of anyone I’d less like to get into a philosophical debate with than Professor Fine. She has a mind like a laser cutter and I know I’d end up in tiny pieces. Besides, she doesn’t argue that men and women are identical; that would be foolish. What she does argue is that the differences between men and women are by no means as all-encompassing as is generally claimed, and that what differences that do exist are rarely explained solely by chromosomes and/or hormones.

What Fine argues against is biological essentialism. And it so happens that biological essentialism is also at the root of the TERF argument against trans women. Because we have Y chromosomes, they argue, and because our bodies have, at least for a while, been suffused with testosterone, we have an innate and inescapable violent nature that we can never shake off. That, they say, makes us a danger to women, and makes it important that we be excluded from women-only spaces. It is rather ironic that the arguments TERFs use to claim superiority over trans women are rooted in the same fallacy that men use to claim superiority over women.

So I see Fine as being on my side. She’s arguing that the biology of gender is much more complicated than most people think it is, and that’s fine by me.

She’s also not averse to poking fun at the whole nonsense edifice of gender mythology. Here’s an example:

Over the past eight years or so, I’ve taken part in a lot of discussions about how to increase sex equality in the workplace. Here, I would like to clearly state for the record that castration has never been mentioned as a possible solution. (Not even in the Top Secret Feminist Meetings where we plot our global military coup.)

Elsewhere in the book she explains how a biological catalyst called aromatase that exists in human cells is capable of turning testosterone into estrogen. She notes, “even the ‘sex hormones’ defy the gender binary.”

Talking of which, did you know they female gonads make testosterone as well as estrogen? Most women do have testosterone in their bodies, just at a much lower level than men. No one is entirely sure why. It occurs to me, however, that trans women are different. Those of us who no longer have testes are on hormone replacement regimes that only supply estrogen. Trans women thus eventually end up have less testosterone in their bodies than cis women.

The book is full of fascinating and very accessible explanations of cutting edge scientific research that blows gaping holes in the nonsense ideas of evolutionary psychologists and shows us just how weird the natural world can be. My favorite set of stories involves an East African fish called Haplochromis burtoni, a species of chiclid. In a series of elegant experiments various biologists have shown that large body size and high levels of testosterone are a product of, not the cause of, social dominance. You can take a “submissive” male chiclid from one colony, put it in a different tank where it has more chance of winning fights against the local males, and it will magically take on all of the biological characteristics of a “dominant” male.

Even better, one experiment identified a lone male chiclid who, despite the fact that he won fights more often than not, did not establish a territory or a dominant social position among the other fish. His testosterone levels were way down compared to his fellow bruisers. The scientist who discovered this fish suggested that he didn’t have sufficient self-confidence to believe that he was a winner, even though his fighting record was good. I suggest a possible alternative explanation: that they simply didn’t identify as that sort of fish.

There’s nothing in Testosterone Rex that specifically supports the validity of trans identities. However, the more evidence we have that biology, and in particular human biology, is way more complicated than tabloid newspapers pretend that it is, the better, as far as I’m concerned. Social inequality is based on the idea that certain groups of people are fundamentally superior to other groups of people. If such differences don’t really exist, and no one is better than Professor Fine as dispelling them, then the cause of equality is advanced.

I’d like to end with one more scientific anecdote. It is about the idea of “failure-as-an-asset”. Here’s Fine:

It turns out that presenting men with evidence that they have done poorly at something at which women tend to excel provides a little boost to their self-esteem, because incompetence in low-status femininity helps establish high-status masculinity.

Fine goes on to explain that men can increase their chances of getting a job by talking about how bad they are at “feminine” activities in their resumes and interviews.

Which is all very well if you are actually hunting for a job, but it just goes to show that sexist nonsense means that there are activities that men are effectively barred from because of sexism. If we get rid of the nonsense, the barriers go away. Equality: it is better for everyone.