Even before I read Cordelia Fine’s 2010 book Delusions of Gender I believed gender to be a social construct. But as the parent of children of both sexes I thought I could see differences that meant something more than social contingencies.
But Fine’s book explained and demonstrated how pervasive, subtle and insidious gender conditioning is; and, vitally, how it can be challenged and undermined.
In her latest book, Testosterone Rex Fine turns her attention to the question of sex hormones with a focus on the titular beast testosterone.
You know the story? From an evolutionist’s viewpoint the males and females of any species develop different behaviours because of their specific role in reproduction. Female human brains are programmed by sex hormones to be nurturing, to seek stability/monogamy, to avoid risks. The male human brain, meanwhile, is dictated to by testosterone, leading to male predilection for multiple sexual partners, higher levels of aggression and risk taking behaviour — the reproductive drive requires males to spread their seed.
We see this story replicated everywhere, in countless books and articles attempting to explain the sexes to each other, working on the assumption of real and hardwired difference driven by sex hormones. It has its mirror in some feminist thought, where a biological essentialism paints males as inherently aggressive. That is also straight from the “Testosterone Rex” myth.
Cordelia Fine takes apart key pieces of historical research on which much of this mythologising about testosterone is based.
She starts by debunking early studies which entrenched evolutionary principles such as “male promiscuity”; demonstrating how previously unrecognised cultural bias led to selective interpretation of data to fit preconceptions about male and female roles.
Angus J Bateman’s founding study using fruit flies receives the Fine treatment. Fine argues this study, which claimed to demonstrate that male promiscuity maximised reproductive success, when stripped of bias, actually shows that reproduction is maximised when both males and females have multiple sexual partners.
Such bias is found aplenty in many of the pioneering works on sex difference.
One of the strengths of Fine’s book is that she does not say there are no differences between males and females. She concedes that differences exist, but her argument, articulated with clarity and evidence, is that the differences are neither decisive nor solely attributable to sexual hormones.
Fine argues that behaviours, rather than being hormonally determined, can be shown to be adaptive. Behaviours evolve according to the conditions in which animals find themselves. Within this, testosterone-attributed behaviours can be seen in both males and females to greater and lesser extents depending on social context.
Her point is, “the incredible diversity of sex roles across the animal kingdom: across species, biological sex is determined by gamete size but this, in turn, doesn’t determine arrangements for mating or parental care”.
In critically examining key experiments into human male and female sexual behaviour she makes some vital observations relating to both the question of female promiscuity and sexual pleasure.
A 1989 study entitled ‘Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers’ involved attractive men and women propositioning people on a college campus. The greater likelihood of men agreeing to go to a woman’s apartment to have sex that night is cited as a test of real, testosterone-driven, sex differences in regards to sexual promiscuity.
But as Fine points out, what the study actually shows is women’s disinclination to be raped or murdered by heading off to the home of a complete stranger. There is also the social consequence of slut shaming for promiscuous women. Finally, while a one night stand may guarantee an orgasm for a man, women often find themselves left wanting.
As Fine observes “some of the gap between the sexes’ enthusiasm for casual sex might close if the event left men sexually frustrated the majority of the time, but women almost invariable enjoyed full sexual relief”. Fine lays bare the clumsy gendered bias in the construction of many of the key studies into human sexual behaviour.
Fine also throws a light on the differences in risk taking behaviour between males and females. Another thing put down to “Testosterone Rex”.
She illustrates that whether a risky behaviour will be undertaken, or even if a said behaviour is perceived as risky by an individual, depends greatly on how safe and secure that individual fundamentally feels socially.
Analysis of statistics about people more or less likely to take risks shows not just a sex or gender disparity but a race and class one; the group most likely to take risks are rich, white, conservative-minded, males. This risk-taking isn’t a result of sex hormones but wealth, power and privilege.
Our sexual and social behaviours and choices are revealed by Fine to be a result of a rich web of factors in our cultural and biological make up; and while there may be marked sex differences in the brain, these by no means have a marked effect on behaviour.
Fine makes a brief but important mention of the fact that biological sex differences are not as binary as society would have us believe and that sex development is a complex interaction of factors across the genome. This has some relevance to the on-going discussion on the left about transgender . While supporting the view that sex differences are not binary or just related to external genitalia, the book also supports the view that gender is a construct and not something innate.
The book doesn’t make a special case for humans breaking the evolutionary mould of hormone driven sexual behaviours. Fine illustrates the huge variety of sexual behaviour right across the animal kingdom and how those behaviours are mutable. However, Fine does identify the unique way in which human beings are able to adapt to environment and the infinite complexities and myriad of ways in which our personalities and behaviours present.
The reason for human adaptability she explains, with the warm wit that flows through the book, that there are a million ways to be a woman, “but there just aren’t that many ways to be a female baboon”.
It is the human capacity to adapt and consciously change and mould ourselves and our environment that bring the hope in this book. In the last section, looking towards the future, Fine examines the ways that strong adaptive behaviours in animals can change if different environments are selected, illustrating the potential for human beings to revolutionise our own developmental systems. In a discussion about gender stereotyping , children’s toys, and development of gender identification, Cordelia Fine argues that while it isn’t easy we should look to a transformation which “involves the reconstruction of the social structures, values, norms, expectations, schemas, and beliefs that penetrate our minds, interactions and institutions”. No small task!
This book should give socialists reason to be optimistic as it is an affirmation of socialist feminist theories about the artificial nature of gender and sexual constructions and the intricate relationship to societal structure and power relations, both social and economic.
Most, importantly it shows how these are things we can change.