Testosterone Means Boys Will Be Boys?

Men and women are from Earth, it turns out.

Men and women are from Earth, it turns out.

Goodbye, beliefs in sex differences disguised as evolutionary facts. Welcome the dragon slayer.

So declares Uta Frith, professor of cognitive development at University College London.

That dragon slayer emerges in the form of Cordelia Fine, a University of Melbourne associate professor specializing in the sociology of science.

Prof. Fine uses iconoclastic wit to examine the widespread belief that testosterone means boys will be boys, while the lack of it means girls will be girls in her new book, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society.

A taste:

Women are monogamous, men are polygamous?

In the 1940s biologist Angus Bateman experimented on fruit flies and concluded that males are naturally promiscuous while females are naturally monogamous.

Producing eggs, he theorized, involves more investment than producing sperm, so females maximize their reproductive success by being cautious and selective while competition and promiscuity aid male success. Hence, women are monogamous and domestic, while men are competitive and promiscuous.

It’s elegant, it’s intuitive, and it’s wrong (to quote the Guardian).

Unfortunately Bateman excluded data that, when included and re-analyzed, told a different story. Turns out, promiscuity brings both males and females more offspring.

Yet promiscuity won’t increase reproduction as much as you’d think. After all, women are fertile for a very short time each month, and some women are already pregnant. Quoting The Guardian again:

A man has more chance of being hit by a meteor than fathering 100 children with 100 different women in a year. The player who says it’s in his genes is missing a vital part of the story.

Men are risk-takers?

Based on survey responses men seem to be bigger risk-takers than women. Yet risk-taking activities included in questionnaires are gendered masculine, involving things like betting on sports, financial investment, and extreme sports.

Actually, women routinely take risks too. While half of marriages end in divorce women are still more likely to quit their jobs — and risk economic insecurity — to care for kids. Women risk going on dates even though they could be sexually harmed. And pregnancy is 20 times more likely to kill than skydiving is.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus? Not.

Our stereotypes allow, and even encourage, men to behave in ways that create more status, power and freedom. But which also pressure men with high expectations that cannot always be met. And then men must deal with the fallout while pushed into emotional straitjackets.

It is all unnecessary.

Many might agree with an academic Fine quotes: “Psychologically, men and women are almost a different species.” Yet she points out that we are all so different from each another as to seem members of multiple species.

To the extent that we are different we must keep in mind that from the time we are born girls and boys are socialized very differently from each other. Boys are encouraged to explore more, the media role models aggression more for boys, their toys are more aggressive, boys are treated more aggressively, and they are punished less when they are aggressive… I could go on.

But Prof. Fine adds,

To be very clear, the point is not that the brain is asexual, or that we shouldn’t study sex effects on the brain. The point is rather that, potentially, even quite marked sex differences in the brain may have little consequence for behavior.

I loved Prof. Fine’s Delusions of Gender and look forward to reading her latest: TESTOSTERONE REX: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society.

_____

Sources: The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and W.W. Norton & Co.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on March 8, 2017, in gender and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.

  1. “Unfortunately Bateman excluded data that, when included and re-analyzed, told a different story. Turns out, promiscuity brings both males and females more offspring.”

    That’s obvious.

    It’s also completely irrelevant.

    The number that matters is offspring who survive and reproduce, not raw numbers of offspring. And you can’t analyse that with fruit fly. If you get pregnant with poor genetic stock that’s going to cost you at least 9 months, and possibly 5-10 years of wasted effort until your poorly child succumbs to evolutionary pressure.

    “women are still more likely to quit their jobs — and risk economic insecurity — to care for kids.”

    What makes you think that women perceive it as more risky for your kids to care for them personally than to have a stick them with a stranger in child care? You’ve got no data on that right?

    “Women risk going on dates even though they could be sexually harmed.”

    The issue is MORE risky remember, not NO RISK.

    “And pregnancy is 20 times more likely to kill than skydiving is.”

    My guess is 0% of women have heard that, therefore it’s irrelevant in assessing propensity to take risks.

    “Our stereotypes allow, and even encourage, men to behave in ways that create more status, power and freedom. It is all unnecessary.”

    It’s necessary because of women’s behaviour – they are hypergamous.

    “Psychologically, men and women are almost a different species.” Yet she points out that we are all so different from each another as to seem members of multiple species.”

    Kind of, but behaviour is strongly correlated with sex. No correlating factor is perfect, but sex is the biggest.

    “The point is rather that, potentially, even quite marked sex differences in the brain may have little consequence for behavior.”

    • I always have issues with data from fruit flies, and the like. Since humans are qualitatively different. But this is data that has been used by mainstream writers, academic and otherwise, to insist that men are polygamous and women are monogamous. And even the fruit fly data doesn’t pan out.

      You are right about this:The number that matters is offspring who survive and reproduce, not raw numbers of offspring.

      And children are much more likely to survive to adulthood if fathers are monogamous and stick with the family. Buy that count both men and women should tend toward monogamy.

      When you are looking at risk of quitting your job to care for children you were looking at of from the child’s perspective not the women’s perspective. When a woman does this she risks falling into poverty if her husband dies or leaves her. And I know women who have fallen into poverty for this very reason.

      I won’t bother with your other points because of course going on dates and pregnancy increase risk to life and health.

      Not all societies encourage men toward seeking high status, power and more freedom than women. Patriarchal societies do. And I have sent you links about that in the past. And so of course it isn’t the case that in all societies men are more open to “marrying down” and women are more open to “marrying up.” You find that in societies that are patriarchal and in people who have internalized patriarchy. Where you find it it is equally true of both men and women. I have sent you links on that too — like the man who cut off his wife’s fingers because he was so upset that her status would increase with education.

      Some researchers trying to figure out which traits you could determine just by knowing sex. “You have X trait — is this a man or woman?” About the only thing you could predict accurately was strength, And that was due to testosterone.

      Otherwise, it’s remarkable how much women and men overlap given how differently they are socialized, Which exhibits our common humanity. See this for more:

      Men, Women not from Mars, Venus
      https://broadblogs.com/2013/02/27/men-women-not-from-mars-venus/

  2. Interesting discussion, Georgia, on male-female differentiation and the role of testosterone therein. Chemically, it stands validated that higher levels of testosterone accounts for greater physical strength and aggression. That it also results in decreased verbal ability is new finding for me. I would like to hold that there need not be any significant difference between the genders, other than biological, in attributes and capabilities provided societies can modify deeply entrenched patterns of culture and stereotypes. Just another fifty years of revised attitudes and patterns in societies everywhere may well suffice to throw up females and males with similar capabilities and similar superiorities in skills and attributes. Women opting to join combat positions in the military and becoming pilots of fighter jets and commercial airlines in India with all-women crew comprising pilots, flight engineers and cabin crew flying longhaul passenger jets on non-stop 18 hour transits ex New Delhi to San Francisco may be one of the many shining examples.

    • Testosterone definitely creates greater physical strength in men. Though of course a woman could be stronger than a man because she works at it and he doesn’t.

      But things get murkier when you turn to aggression. Men can have a lot of testosterone and not be very aggressive. Men on average have much higher levels of testosterone than women and yet I know a number of women who are much more aggressive than men.

      But then, estrogen is also tied to aggression. Think of mama bear who is protecting her young. Scientists bred mice so that they no longer had estrogen and the mice lost their aggression.

      Plus, as I said, the media role models aggression more for boys, their toys are more aggressive, boys are treated more aggressively, and they are punished less when they are aggressive… I could go on.

  3. I tend to think socialization plays a major role in the differences between genders. I’ve seen the world change a bit during my life, but a long ways to go before people can be what their instincts push them to be. Very nice post.

    • Yeah, because of socialization we get social patterns. And because people are born with their own unique personalities we also get individual differences. So I know a lot of women who are more aggressive than a lot of men I know. But if you look at the overall social pattern guys tend to be more physically aggressive. But then (as I said) the media role models aggression more for boys, their toys are more aggressive, boys are treated more aggressively, and they are punished less when they are aggressive… I could go on.

  4. After all, women are fertile for a very short time each month, and some women are already pregnant. Quoting The Guardian again:”

    Yeah but if a man is having sex with many different women. Odds are that, the time of the month the women are fertile are going to fall on different days in regards to who the man is having sex with. Therefore, chances are, a man can have sex with many women and they are lined up on the fertile days he happens to have sex with them, It actually would seem that women not being as lustful or sex driven as men was natures birth control. I mean, holy shit, the amount of sex that would happen if women were as horny and visual as men. There would not just be sex but probably orgies (well I know the ancient times had much of that). But like every day, ever minute. I could just see a ton of illegitimate children everywhere.

    • Maybe. My biggest problem is trying to create theories about humans based on research on fruit flies. But since a lot of people have relied on this research I think her findings are interesting.

  5. When you start adding up the number of women who are pregnant at any given time & the number of women menstruating at any given time, the fact that men are more promiscuous becomes obvious. Women are 15 to 25% out of the running. Men have greater opportunity. I wonder when those factors are adjusted, if the results somewhat even out?

    Socialization & gender roles may set the tempo & suggest the footwork of the love dance but risk taking is either calculated or foolhardy and I think foolhardy is often the winner in matters of promiscuous sex. There comes a point where two people move from flirting in a social manner to a more exclusive & arousing manner. The reason why I think foolhardy sex is the winning half of promiscuous sex is because Testosterone leads men to a sense of urgency. Though people certainly may be calculating about sexual promiscuity, I think that is more confined to a smaller personality group than the population at large.

    Not sure how on point my comment is but I thought about this after reading you last post ‘Men: Forget Your Own Orgasm’ and it seems to fit here.

    • You bring up some interesting ideas. But mathematicians can’t figure out how men can be more promiscuous and women. They’ve thought maybe prostitutes don’t fill out surveys so keep that in consideration, and maybe Whang are going out of the country. But the mouth still won’t work. Men can’t be promiscuous if women are Monogamous.

      In another study researchers told people they were wiring them up to a lie detector and suddenly the number of partners men had and the number of partners women had ended up the same.

      Otherwise, I’m not sure about the fool hearty part but it’s an interesting point. I do know that on college campus kids often drink to help them do hook ups. Some drink to get courage, some drink so their partners will look better, and some drink so they can tolerate doing something they feel they are supposed to do (Following college norms) but don’t really want to do.

    • @Missy,

      “the fact that men are more promiscuous becomes obvious. Women are 15 to 25% out of the running. Men have greater opportunity. I wonder when those factors are adjusted, if the results somewhat even out?”

      This is totally false and evidence flawed logic. Studies show that women have far more sexual partners than men over their lifetime. While most women indicate significantly lower numbers of sexual partners when asked about their “number”, reality is clearly the contrary. Hence, the joke today is whatever number a women gives a man for her “number”, a smart man will multiply that number by 3 or 4.

      It is not men who have greater opportunities for sex. If this were remotely true, then why are there so many prostitutes? Women are the ones who have the greatest opportunities for sex. Look at data from dating sites. Women get far greater numbers of replies than men do.

      Maybe it it because women think the men they are having sex with are indicative of most men.

      Btw, if men were more promiscuous than women, then why are women always complaining about slut shaming? Women can slut shame men if they wished. However, women don’t do it. Why? Because women do not appear to have issues with being promiscuous. Playboys, cads, and other similar type men are favored by most women for sexual partners. Yet these same women will opt to marry “beta” males and offer marginal sex to them. So, who is REALLY more promiscuous here?

  6. Remaining monogamous can, at times, be quite an effort for women too. Women are generally offered more opportunities and attention from men than men are offered from women, even when in a serious relationship or married. I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes women feel temptations that are strong.

  7. From now on, I’m just not going to come to any conclusions based on the behaviour of fruit flies.

  8. I don’t get why those studies are so controversial. Here they are trying to prove that men and women are alike without many differences and yet there are so many studies trying to prove that most men are heterosexual whereas most women are bisexual aka having “fluid sexuality”.
    So if women get to have more fluid sexuality then men get to be more promiscuous. What’s fair is fair.

    Besides what’s said about testosterone is true regardless fruit flies.
    Wall street investors are taking testosterone supplements because it makes them more aggressive in making more profits.
    Female athletes from east Germany who took many steroids, their appearance and behavior changed to more manly.
    I haven’t yet see a study trying to prove that men and women are by average at the same height. Maybe because that’s too obvious to try to disprove it.
    If men and women had the same levels on hormones then there would be no difference between men and women at all.
    All embryos begin as “females”. On the 3rd month it’s the increase of the testosterone levels that makes the embryo a boy.

    Testosterone makes all the difference. Even the biggest female bodybuilder is nowhere near at the same size as an average amateur male bodybuilder.
    On the other hand high levels of testosterone has shown that drop the levels of linguistic skills.
    Women on average have more intuition and empathy and are better at dealing with people.

    • Testosterone definitely has an effect on size and strength differences between the sexes rendering men about 6 inches taller on average and with greater muscle mass.

      Those physical differences — strength in particular — is one of the few things you can predict just by knowing the sex of two people.

      Otherwise, you can predict almost nothing. Men, Women not from Mars, Venus
      https://broadblogs.com/2013/02/27/men-women-not-from-mars-venus/

      But things get murkier when you turn to aggression. Men can have a lot of testosterone and not be very aggressive. Men on average have much higher levels of testosterone than women and yet I know a number of women who are much more aggressive than men.

      But then, estrogen is also tied to aggression. Think of mama bear who is protecting her young. Scientists bred mice so that they no longer had estrogen and the mice lost their aggression.

      Plus, as I said, the media role models aggression more for boys, their toys are more aggressive, boys are treated more aggressively, and they are punished less when they are aggressive… I could go on.

  9. And the point of comparing a man who has sex with 100 women and fathers 100 children to getting hit by a meteor is not correct.
    The point should be this: compare a man who has sex with 2 women and a man who has sex with 100 women. Who gets more chances to father more children?

    And as far as the point that the man should be protecting the children to survive proves why most women care more about men’s abilities and what he can provide than they are interested in his appearance.

    • Actually the point of comparing a man who has sex with 100 women and fathers 100 children to getting hit by a meteor is mathematically correct.

      And “compare a man who has sex with 2 women and a man who has sex with 100 women. Who gets more chances to father more children?” Well, how many of them survive to adulthood and reproduce? Children are much more likely to survive and reproduce if their father stick around and provide resources.

      And men can’t be more promiscuous than women. It’s mathematically impossible.

      Plus, fruit flies are terrible Measure because they are so different from human beings. But of course people have been making claims that men are more promiscuous than women based on fruit fly data for many years so it’s interesting to see that the data isn’t even correct.

      The extent to which men and women care about resources versus looks varies from culture to culture. The more women are able to make their own money the less they care about men’s resources. And the more men care about women’s resources. And many a Jane Austen novel has been based on the fact of upper class men caring very much about women’s resources.

      • Most men would like to be more promiscuous but they can’t. So they settle with one woman so they will get sex often.
        Do most women want to be promiscuous? If they did then that would be easy for them but they don’t want that.
        Remember we are talking about #most, not all.
        Same with aggression. Some women are aggressive. Some men aren’t aggressive.
        But most men are more aggressive than most women.

        There are many studies that prove that men and women are different. Meredith Chivers for one did a study that showed that.
        If women get to have more fluid sexuality then men should get to be more promiscuous.

      • Culture does create average differences between men and women. And there are some sex differences too. And yet there is still a tremendous amount of overlap on most traits.

        Interestingly, I saw at least one study that showed men and women were pretty similar in terms of how monogamous versus polygamous they were. Researchers had thought there would be a bell curve with some people growing more and more interested in sex with a lot of people. Instead the findings were very polarized. About half of both men and women were polygamous an about half of both men and women were monogamous in their preference.

        But women are still more reluctant to have sex with men they don’t know, partly because they’re more fearful since men are more likely to sexually attack women. And partly because women have stronger brakes on their sex drive, which is no surprise given the greater repression they undergo. And some women seek out multiple partners because they want to feel attractive. I’ve posted blog posts from at least three of my students talking about that. Other research has found a similar tendency.

        Based on everything it seems that about 3/4 of us want committed relationships even though about 25% of both men and women within those committed relationships would also like to have sex with other people.

      • “And men can’t be more promiscuous than women. It’s mathematically impossible.”

        This is not true, statistically. Men can be and so can women.

      • Mathematicians haven’t been able to figure it out how that could be true (and logically men can’t be promiscuous if women are monogamous — simply is impossible). Check this out:

        Are Men Really More Polygamous?
        https://broadblogs.com/2013/06/03/are-men-really-more-polygamous/

      • It’s the testosterone that makes men more eager to pursuit women than women to pursuit men. That’s why men are willing to invest resources to attract women. Men have to pay for dinners and gifts and they do it willingly. I know guys who are very very “scrooge” but when it comes to dating women they spend a lot of money on gifts and dinners.
        I don’t think women would be willing to spend money on trying to date men.
        Testosterone makes men more horny. That’s why there are so many female escorts and prostitutes all over the world in every culture. Ironically the very few male escorts have mostly male clients.
        So yes, men are willing to take more risks trying to have sex than women would.

      • Testosterone does seem to affect sex drive. Men’s sex drive appears to be high and strong pretty much all the time and that seems to be due to biological reasons. Women’s is lower when they aren’t ovulating and higher when they are. Now add to that sexual repression which leaves about half of American women with almost no interest in sex. No wonder men have to try so hard. In sex-positive societies it’s not the same variation between women and men.

  10. I find it interesting to say that woman takes risk giving up their jobs to raise the kids–it reminds me of a saying of a Chinese feminist who claims that marriage is gonna disappear. Her reasons are–1. more and more affairs in marriage shows the not trustable essense of marriage 2. Because of the increase of the life span, it makes marriage become a longer period, which causes it hard to maintain the relationship consistently. 3. Female has independent economic resources now so they don’t need to rely on marriage anymore. 4. The cost of divorce is too much, will cause obstacles for marriage. 5. Modern people do not need to get married to have sex, the purpose of marriage has got away from pregnancy.—I know it is kind of off topic, but I think her opinion is interesting so I want to bring up here…Hope you can share your opinion!!

  11. Aaron Burr, Sir

    Mmmmm yeah testosterone has nothing (or at least very little) to do with “boys being boys”. As someone who regularly injects testosterone, I can confirm that I’m no more aggressive, promiscuous, or willing to take risks than I was before. If I am any of these things, it’s because I have more confidence. I don’t inject it and suddenly want to fight people, screw people, and jump off a bridge for fun. Perhaps I do have a higher sex drive, but it’s not uncontrollable by any stretch of the word.

    I usually see “boys being boys” used as an excuse for men physically or emotionally harming women. Yet oddly enough, while taking the hormone blamed for that, I have no desire to harass or harm anyone, especially not women who’ve done nothing but exist. Hmm, wonder what that’s all about. (It’s more likely it’s just men using their largest biological difference from women as an excuse to bully them.)

  12. This article is quite interesting. You bring up many times arguments destroying the “boys will be boys” statements. It is all about what the person is brought up to. If one is brought up in a violent, unstable environment, that person is more subject to be unstable and violent as well. The solution to stop boys from being aggressive then would be to reprimand and teach them the same as girls.
    I loved the example you brought up for the player — and how quickly you showed the fault in people’s reasoning that being a player can be ok.

  13. I am one of those people that believe that men are more free to do what they please. From passed experiences, men impregnate a women and leave when they wish with no consequence. Men are more likely to cheat since women are the once at home taking care of the baby and men are “working”. I also believe it is ran down in their blood because it starts with their dad and his customs. Every child follows into his parent’s footsteps and if they see their dad sleeping with other women, they are more likely going to do that as well. I don’t believe their promiscuity is due to their levels of testosterone because if that were the case then it were be the same for women who produce more testosterone than normal. Some women produce more and I don’t think they should be judged by that because testosterone does not make one a man.

  14. I completely agree with this post, gender socialization is the biggest factor on behavior, we are taught from the very beginning that we are to act a certain way depending on our genitals. This is such a frustrating concept, my son wanted to play with dolls from a very young age, for the same reason that girls are encouraged to play with dolls, he wanted to be a good dad and yet others looked at him like there was something wrong with him. If we began treating boys and girls as people and allowing them to decide what their personality and individuality should be based on for themselves as opposed to what society says, then maybe we could have a more accepting and inclusive society. Traditional gender roles have created a society where men have all the clout and power and women are submissive and struggling to keep up, if there is to be equality society must throw these outdated ideas out the window and start fresh, stop blaming our reproductive organs and begin looking at the societal structures.

  15. I like the points made about men being socialized and conditioned from a very early age. Boys are generally more aggressive in life, and I think that aggression is encouraged from an early age in ways we don’t always stop to consider. The toys given to boys are generally more mechanical and loud, promoting a “macho” image. Boys are encouraged to be “tough” and praised when they succeed. If this is the message boys are given from such an early age it’s no wonder they become more aggressive, it also explains why society is more accepting of aggressive men than women. A saying like “boys will be boys” proves this, because both men and women use it. Men shouldn’t be able to explain their inappropriate or patriarchal behavior by saying “boys will be boys”, nor should they blame their own aggression on anyone other than themselves. All men have testosterone, but not all men are patriarchs

  16. The statement that women are monogamous while men are polygamous doesn’t really work because regardless of gender, we are all human. It doesn’t make sense to have conflicting mating habits among the same species like that. The theory they brought up does make sense if you’re trying to prove the statement true, but as the data shows, it’s not. The reason why we have come up with this idea is just due to socially constructed views about each gender, resulting in more promiscuous men than women, or at least more men that are open and proud about it. Also, the statement that boys will be boys is another form of gender reinforcement that adults place on children, praising boys for their actions, while girls would be scolded if they were to act the same way. If we allowed children to develop their own gender naturally without the influences from family and society, I’m sure men and women would be much more similar than how they’ve currently been trained to be.

    • Basically it’s a double standard that privileges one sex over the other. And it is certainly not grounded in good science. And it actually ends up hurting men in a long run. Privileges, oddly enough, sometimes do that.

  17. Testosterone and estrogen are what really differentiates male and females in many ways and what will no matter our gender identity. I wouldn’t consider testosterone an excuse as to why boys act the way they do because just like any child, an excuse will only make them do it more because they think they can get away with it. There are such things that differ between male and female like you stated above, such as promiscuity, which leads to men being more polygamous than females. I think this also helps them be more adventurous and take more risks because they don’t believe they are as vital to this life cycle as women because we are the ones to bear children. This is what helps women be cautious and much more monogamous, and I think this stems from our estrogen and not having testosterone.

    • Hmmm, well it seems that men actually aren’t more polygamists than women. It’s mathematically impossible. (Think about it. But mathematicians can’t figure out how men can have more partners than women can on average.)

      Men can have an lot of testosterone and yet still be very gentle.

      About the only thing testosterone is consistently tied to is muscular strength.

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