We may be in a new decade, but we are far from eradicating gender stereotypes. Is testosterone a true measure of manliness?
For decades, and we mean decades, the hormone has been sold to us all as the key to strength, fortitude and masculinity. But do your t-levels really dictate what kind of man you are?
We’ve been researching all of the facts and myths.
On 1 June 1889, a French-Mauritian physiologist and proto-life-hacker named Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard gave a presentation at the Société de Biologie in Paris. He reported that he had been experimenting with something he called a “liquide testiculaire”. He made this by mixing water with blood from the testicular veins, semen and a “juice extracted from a testicle, crushed immediately after it had been taken from a dog or a guinea pig”. Then he injected himself with it.
At this point, if you’re not holding your crotch and squirming, we don’t trust you.
Monsieur Brown-Séquard was happy to report that, at 72 years old, he felt like a new man. He estimated that he could project his urine 25% further than he could before. So they even had pi**ing contests back in the 1880’s. He also found that his brain was rejuvenated; he now felt as sharp as he had when he was young. He warned that the effects were short-lived, which was of course a major clue that he was experiencing a placebo effect, but no matter. By the end of 1889, it was estimated that as many as 12,000 scientists were shooting up testicle smoothies. Chemists made a fortune from selling the “elixir of life”.
It was, of course, bollocks. No pun intended. But to be fair to Brown-Séquard, his hunch that there might be some sort of “substance or substances” produced in our glands, running through our bloodstream, influencing everything from our penises to our brains, wasn’t so wide of the mark. This is what hormones do. Hormones are molecules that flow through our endocrine systems and attach themselves to receptors in our cells, delivering messages that influence sex and fertility, energy levels, the strength of our muscles, mood, metabolism, memory, sleep and everything in between.
The first hormone to be discovered was secretin, in 1902. Over the next few decades, oestrogens, progestogens and androgens – the hormones that determine sexual development – were identified, too. By 1935, the American biologist Fred Koch had performed enough experiments with bulls’ testes purloined from Chicago abattoirs to establish the existence of the androgen testosterone – the big T – which soon became known as the “male hormone”. What followed was something of a testicle rush. When cockerels were injected with testosterone, their droopy cockscombs became perkier. There is a cocktail called a Monkey Gland (gin, orange juice, grenadine, absinthe), named in honour of Serge Voronoff, a Russian surgeon who advocated grafting monkey testicles onto humans to increase energy and longevity. In short, it appeared that the essence of life had been located – and it was male.
Fast-forward a century and, despite the advances in science, it seems that this is still something that many are willing to believe. In the US and increasingly over here, testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is touted as a cure for the so-called “male menopause”, a miraculous way to restore youth and alpha-maleness. Meanwhile, “low T” has become an insult aimed at men perceived to be lacking in energy, resolve and manliness – often used synonymously with terms such as “soy boy” and “snowflake”.
Again, all of this is, to put it bluntly, balls. Testosterone doesn’t predict how liberal you are, let alone your sexual success, or whether you’ll beat your wife, live forever or be a good prime minister.
There is some real science in here somewhere. Testosterone is the prototypical “masculine” hormone, as Professor Pierre-Marc Bouloux of the Society of Endocrinologists notes, but that doesn’t mean it’s the essence of masculinity. All foetuses begin life as female phenotypes, but at six weeks or so, male foetuses experience a surge of testosterone. “It is very important in helping to masculinise the baby in the womb – it gives him a penis – and when you reach puberty, it enables the deepening of the voice, increases the size of the penis, and so on,” explains Bouloux.
“There is no dredible link between high T and supposedly masculine traits like risk-taking”
After puberty, our testosterone levels remain more or less constant until our mid-forties, when there’s a slight drop. “A small proportion of men, perhaps 10-15%, will have a significant reduction in testosterone. But whether that’s enough to cause symptoms is another matter,” says Bouloux.
Testosterone is often contrasted with oestrogen, supposedly the “feminine” hormone. But men have oestrogen and women have testosterone, just in different concentrations. Testosterone also acts differently on different men, and no one has ever established a credible link between high T levels and supposedly masculine traits such as assertiveness, bravery, or risk-taking. Simply put, more testosterone does not necessarily make a man more of any of these things. It does promote muscle growth – but there’s more to a man than his biceps.
Credit to Mens Health for some fantastic research on the topic.