Testosterone leads a double life. In biology, this molecule, which exists in all bodies, is primarily understood as a sex hormone and anabolic steroid produced in men and male animals. In its cultural mythology, the molecule, simplified as T, continues to perpetuate social hierarchies through its association with power and success. But T’s entangled reality is one full of binaries and misconceptions. Not only is the molecule the most abundant steroid hormone in all human bodies, it reacts to its circumstances rather than predetermining them.
Rebecca Jordan-Young is an interdisciplinary feminist scientist and science studies scholar, whose work explores the reciprocal relations between science and the social hierarchies of gender, sexuality, class, and race. Through her work, Jordan-Young tells us what science doesn’t about gender and sexuality. We met with Jordan-Young to speak about her research, work, and most recent book Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography (2020), 8 coauthored with Katrina Karkazis. In the book, Jordan-Young and Karkazis describe the tensions and misinformation surrounding T in relation to female reproduction, violence, risk-taking, power, sports, and parenting—depicting how stories about T not only naturalize gender differences, but also class and racial distinctions. In our conversation, we move seamlessly from the history of science to the scalability of molecular study, the effects of T as a bio-social tool, sedimented thinking, and how our misconceptions reinforce binaries. Jordan-Young accounts that T is not a solitary molecule, but one that is responsive and mutable, acting with and through a synergetic multiplicity.
— Roxana Fabius, Patricia Margarita Hernández, Mindy Seu
SCALABILITY PROJECT: How do you see and define T? Could you discuss our binary understanding of it, and how the molecule functions outside of our preconceived notions?
Rebecca M. Jordan-Young: One of the things that we try to do with this book and that critical science and technology studies people, especially feminists, have been doing for a long time is to break down binaries. There are so many binaries that regulate the way we think about the world. One of the most potent tools of social justice organizing and critical thinking is to try relentlessly to find and break down binaries that don’t match the way the material or social world is structured. We treat these binaries like they’re helpful heuristics, but, in fact, they’re only helpful in holding up the status quo of power relations. The binaries that we try to break down in this particular book exist around the opposition of biology and the social world, the hard material facts versus the stories that we use to interpret and understand those facts.
SP: In the binary of “narrative versus science,” how did the study and story of “sex hormones” originate?
RJY: There’s a brilliant feminist historian of science, Nelly Oudshoorn, who wrote Beyond the Natural Body: An Archeology of Sex Hormones. 9 She documents that even before endocrinology existed as a discipline, scientists expected that there were going to be two different hormones: a male one and a female one, made by male bodies and female bodies, respectively. Disruptions of sex would likely be caused by having the wrong hormone or the wrong balance of hormones.
It didn’t take long to find massive contradictions to the sex-hormones idea in early studies. One of the well-known shocks in the 1920s was when scientists found massive amounts of estrogen in the urine of stallions. There were all of these signals from bodies and from the chemical world that contradicted the paradigm. Over the course of a few years, it became clear that, first of all, there weren’t only these two hormones. And second, the hormones that they were finding existed in all bodies. It was not the case that only “unhealthy,” or homosexual, men had estrogen in their bodies. Rather, it was found in “healthy” heterosexual men, stallions, etcetera. And yet, the scientists didn’t let go of that sex-hormone idea. Despite the data that broke down the binary and showed both hormones in all bodies, the concept of the sex hormone held on, and it is still holding on.
As a scientist, I find it really interesting and troubling. It’s crucial that we understand how that determinism happens so that we are not forever stuck in these loops of confirming what we already think when we begin. Research like this, that begins with an obsession about sex difference, has a particular kind of social and political valence to it that makes it especially urgent to take apart. In certain ways, preconceptions like these also make it especially hard for scientists to innovate and to see where they’re wrong. This is a domain that’s so taken for granted and treated as obvious, ahistorical, common sense, universal, cross-cultural… The people who do this work are not only not trained to think critically and analytically about sex, gender, and sexuality, but think that doing so is frivolous and a waste of time.
SP: It seems like the molecular scale is replicated on larger scales. How does T work on these different levels?
RJY: Some years ago, I wrote “Homunculus in the Hormones?” 10 because I wanted to first mark the “authorized biography” of T in which biologically oriented psychologists and biologists believe—sometimes implicitly, sometimes as a fully articulated belief—that the so-called sex hormones literally have sexual personalities, that they have intentions and purposes that are related to scalable social differences, that the lifework of testosterone is to differentiate the developing body, not only genitally, but also in the brain. Through that brain differentiation, these scientists held, we get feedback driven largely by that differentiated body and brain, which seek out different kinds of masculine experiences, relationships with people, etcetera.
In my first book, I looked at ideas about how early testosterone exposure orients young children towards people or objects and enhances play. Here, the idea of scalability is really literal. Ideas about testosterone keep expanding, and then ultimately, these ideas affirm the sex differences in occupation, the different ratios of women and men doing particular things out in the world, whether it’s paid work or what people do with their leisure time, how many elected officials there are who are women versus men, why rape is such a pervasive problem, everything around sexual violence—I could go on and on and on. Every single gender pattern that you see in the world has been laid by quite a few scientists at the feet of testosterone.
With The Scalability Project, I think, the goal is to think about scalability and how it is a process of deconstruction or reconstruction of a narrative. How can we simultaneously take seriously the material world and the social world and how they have shaped together? That’s a very trickle-up view of this molecule. My scalability vision is much more about looking at the structures and seeing the way they get projected inward.
SP: So it seems like this internalized narrative of T overdetermined the results of a lot of experiments. Could you expand on the impact of testosterone as a tool for bio-social development?
RJY: In our latest analysis, masculinity and power are also racialized, and testosterone becomes a troubling player in naturalizing racial differences and naturalizing different forms of masculinity. Some men who wield power and dominance are the natural corporate titans and leaders of the universe, the narrative goes, and other men who wield that by virtue of being racialized men, Black and brown men who are not supposed to have that kind of power, are problematic. For them, that same attachment to testosterone that white men have becomes a criminal attachment. This idea forces that molecule to be a tiny little man with a life plan that looks very much like a Western, heterosexual white man’s life plan.
One of the really interesting things that we know about testosterone right now is that it is an extremely social molecule: testosterone production responds to the social circumstances that a human being finds themselves in. For example, there’s a pretty consistent pattern that testosterone levels drop when new parents are caring for an infant or a young child. Intense weight-bearing exercise, on the other hand, can not only raise testosterone, but, in the course of half an hour, double it.
I’m beginning to glimpse how testosterone is an example of the entanglement between biology and our social worlds. I think, “What would the scalability of that mean?” I would be interested in scaling up the narrative of entanglement so that people understand that the physical world doesn’t exist prior to and drive the social world, but that the social world gets deep inside our bodies and is material. In the humanities and social sciences and arts in daily life, we need to take seriously the materiality of our social relations.
SP: When we started thinking about the Scalability Project, we came across an exhibition called Dialectics of Entanglement: Do we exist together? 11 Entanglement helped us think about material and immaterial relations, relationships in space, but also relationships in time. It propelled us to start thinking about more complex systems or non-Western models of knowledge making.
In T: The Unauthorized Biography, the bio-social understanding of research enables flexibility, malleability and complexity. How do we shed those infinite layers of what you call sedimented thinking to release ourselves from these old patterns or ways of understanding?
RJY: If we see a relationship between a social context or a behavior or the development of a physical trait, we can begin to understand that it’s not fixed. There’s a possibility that the social part came first and that the biological part was stimulated by that. And that in itself is already an innovation in our biological thinking.
There is a set of problems that feminist scientists and feminist philosophers of science have been thinking about for a long time. The philosopher Sandra Harding wrote about “strong objectivity,” 12 the idea that doing standard science more rigorously and more carefully is never going to get us where we need to be. The tools of science are not strong enough to actually remove the blinders we have on. The greatest minds have been working for more than a century on steroid hormones, and yet they won’t let go of the sex-hormone concept, even though it is patently wrong, demonstrably misleads and blocks information. Harding suggests that we need to develop additional tools for the scientific that enable us to take a critical look: Who is this science for? What forms or social structures might be invested in this way of framing a problem?
SP: It seems like a reframing of the research question is essential. Throughout the book, you continuously return to agnotology, or the study of ignorance, and why what we do not know is actually political.
RJY: Yes, we talk a lot about epistemologies of ignorance in the book, and the idea that the sex-hormone concept is actually not a mechanism of knowledge, but moreso a mechanism of ignorance. It systematically blocks a lot of information about what these hormones do, from anybody’s view.
We have this habit of volumetric thinking, the idea that more of something means that it’s more important or better. When it comes to steroid hormones, this notion is profoundly misleading. The idea of T as the male sex hormone is justified by saying, “Well, there’s so much more of it in male bodies. Men make much more testosterone than women do.” But what is the most abundant steroid hormone in women’s bodies? Testosterone. If you read authoritative sources, they say small amounts of testosterone are found in women’s bodies, but they never say that there is more estrogen than testosterone.
The level of a hormone is meaningless. It’s about the interaction between the hormone and the receptors. So how many receptors do you have? Where are they and how sensitive are those receptors? When you see someone with a really elevated hormone, it might be because their body isn’t very efficient at using it, so they produce a lot more in order to get the same kind of effect.
Steroid hormones are always on the move. They’re dynamic. They’re not single static entities that then cause reverberations. They’re constantly transforming and they are different depending on what other hormones or enzymes are in their immediate environment. If testosterone encounters aromatase, it transforms to estrogen. Fluidity and constant interchange and transformation is a different kind of problem for the question of scalability.
SP: That’s incredible because it replicates what you mentioned before in terms of the social scaling. It not only affects the larger social picture, but also what’s happening inside the bodies and how we connect with each other. Everything is about balance and interactions.
RJY: Yes, exactly. We need to break down binaries, break down static thinking, break down sex. At the molecular level, there is so much evidence against a binary, and there’s so much fluidity, transformation, cooperation, and unpredictability.
Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015↩
Le Guin positions the container, rather than the spear, as the first human tool, following the writings of Elizabeth Fisher. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, 1986↩
In “On Non-Scalability,” Tsing establishes that a primary critique of scalable frameworks is of their inability to maintain diversity. Taking that intrinsic flaw into account, we aim to not promote the amplification of a singular feminist framework. Anna L. Tsing, “On Non-Scalability,” 2012↩
In an interview with Jorge Cotte, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun states, “Every form of communication is based on a fundamental leakiness.” These leaks can be seen as moments of possibility. Wendy Chun, “Reimagining Networks,” The New Inquiry, 2020↩
Anna L. Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 2015; Anna L. Tsing, Roxana Fabius, Patricia M. Hernandez, Mindy Seu, “Big histories are always best told through insistent, if humble, details,” The Scalability Project, A.I.R. Gallery, 2020↩
In Glitch Feminism, Legacy Russell sees the glitch as a catalyst rather than an error, a “correction to the machine.” Legacy Russell, “Digital Dualism And The Glitch Feminism Manifesto,” Cyborgology, 2012↩
Here we are drawing from Judy Wajcman’s definition of interpretive flexibility. Wajcman describes technology’s malleable character, emphasizing that there is nothing inevitable about the way technologies evolve. Users have the power to radically alter technologies’ meanings and deployment. Judy Wajcman, TechnoFeminism p.37↩
Nelly Oudshoorn, 1994, Beyond the Natural Body: An Archeology of Sex Hormones, Routledge↩
Sandra Harding, 1992, Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What is “Strong Objectivity?”, The Centennial Review, 36(3), 437-470↩