Interview with the author – Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography

11 June, 2019


Eszter Kismődi, Chief Executive of Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters (SRHM) interviews Katrina Karkazis, anthropologist, bioethicist and SRHM editorial advisory board member, on her upcoming book, Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, co-authored with Rebecca Jordan-Young.

This interview took place at reconference- rethink, reimagine, reboot– a global conference organised by CREA

The book will be out in October 2019 with Harvard University Press.

How did the book come about?

I have a long history about thinking about controversies over medical interventions for children with intersex variations, basically children who are born with what is commonly thought of as male-typical and female-typical traits. Testosterone figured in those debates, especially in how it was understood to masculinize bodies and behavior. So in some ways I’ve been tracing this hormone for quite some time.

That led to a project on testosterone regulations in sport and the desire to limit women’s natural testosterone levels for eligibility to compete in the female category. Basically, testosterone has been used as a biological criterion not only for eligibility, but as a litmus test for whether a woman has what is considered to the appropriate level and hence biology for a woman. Women with high levels, have been banned from sport unless they lower their levels with medically unnecessary interventions.

It was during the course of that work that there was a short interview that I had done on the BCC with my co-author Rebecca Jordan-Young. Over the course of about 10 minutes, the interviewer asked three times why testosterone levels were not a good way to divide men from women and why higher levels didn’t make a better athlete or produce a better performance for women with higher levels over their peers with lower levels. The first time she asked it, it seemed a perfectly fine question. By the third time she asked it, I felt like we had hit up against folk wisdom about the hormone, where what we were saying was hard to believe or hard to accept.

And so from there, we set out to write a book that tried to deal with a lot of sedimented ideas about this hormone. The idea that it’s a sex hormone, that it’s a male sex hormone specifically, that it only affects sex traits and that higher levels result in particular behaviours, behaviours very often coded as masculine, like risk-taking, aggression, athleticism, things like that.

What the book does, chapter by chapter, is to look at these various domains of research, assessing not only what the research actually says but how folk wisdom about the hormone, which are deeply tied to ideas about gender, race and class, for example, shape not only what the researchers understand and the knowledge they produce about testosterone, but also what they ignore.

How is your book most relevant to recent political events?

On the one hand, there isn’t necessarily anything in the book where we say, “Well, there’s a certain political event that’s happened and it’s been explained by testosterone”. What instead is happening is more pernicious and pervasive. It’s really this idea that so many things or behaviors that we understand to be naturalised should not be understood as rooted in testosterone, let alone biology. For example, men’s generally higher status in gender hierarchies, their greater presence in fields such as STEM, men’s aggression, and the belief that men take more risks, can all be traced to the scientific literature on this hormone. And that research, does so much work in the world to shape ideas about how men and women are the supposed natural order of things. We thought let’s go back to the research and show what it actually says. Without giving away the punchline, let’s just say that many things that people think this hormone does, it doesn’t do and it certainly doesn’t do in any clear and simple way.

If we could wipe the “testosterone drives all things masculine” framework or the story, then we have a much deeper and long-standing problem: if biology or testosterone do not explain these sedimented social hierarchies, these inequalities, the way that women are second status in so many areas, or not understood to take risks (when actually child-bearing is one of the riskiest activities that you can undertake), then we’re left with a much more difficult problem which is the social work, the political work, of undoing inequality because it’s not based in nature, it’s socially created. And that’s our hope: to turn our attention to that more difficult work, which will take significant effort to revamp and undermine.

If you could have one takeaway message from your book, what would that be?

There are a couple, but I think one of our main ones or our hopes for this book is to really change the conversation about this hormone, and to start to have people question its connection to masculinity. That not only would the hormone not be thought of as masculine but the things that get attributed to this hormone, like competitive drive, like athleticism,not be understood as masculine but rather as behaviors shared among people and not the domain or the province simply of men.

Once we sever that, I think we’re able to see all of the ways that women have and use power, the ways that women are risk-takers but in ways that researchers don’t understand to be risk-taking because they’ve understood it through a masculine frame. This could lead us to be more expansive and curious about what this hormone might contribute to—including things we understand as feminine or feminising—and to expand our knowledge of what it does in all different kinds of bodies, not just male bodies. For example, we have a whole chapter on its relationship to ovulation, which is not understood to be masculine at all and yet testosterone is critical in that function.

Many thanks to the film team at reconference 2019 and to Vaishali Sinha and Fuzz Factory Productions for their support.

Please note that blog posts are not peer-reviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views of SRHM as an organisation.