Jewish World Review

May 1, 2000/ 26 Nissan, 5760

Preoccupation with difference can obscure truth --- and often does

Cathy Young
Jewish World Review

ONCE, THE FEMINIST REVOLUTION made it politically incorrect to talk of innate psychological distinctions between the sexes. On numerous college campuses and in major segments of the media, this taboo lives on. At the same time, perhaps as a reaction to the unisex dogma, interest in biological difference is becoming quite fashionable. But while lifting political constraints on the discussion of scientific facts is certainly a welcome development, preoccupation with difference can also obscure truth.

A striking recent example of the biology-as-destiny revival was an essay in the New York Times Magazine by former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, titled "The He Hormone," about the wonders (and perils) of testosterone.

Sullivan, who is HIV-positive, started getting testosterone shots after his hormone levels had plummeted due to the infection. He says that besides building up muscle mass and vigor, the injections make him more self-confident and spirited, but also edgier and more combative.

Citing both his experience and studies that link high testosterone levels to aggressiveness and dominance, Sullivan concludes that "the Big T" is the key to the difference between the sexes. (Men have about 10 times more of the "he hormone" in their blood than women.) He concedes the evidence is complex -- thus, high T levels may be the result rather than the cause of aggressive behavior -- but still paints in broad strokes: competitive, risk-taking, action-oriented, power- and thrill-seeking men versus pacifist, empathetic, relationship-oriented, safety-minded and somewhat dull women.

Well, it's more complex than that. For one, while the association between T levels and aggression in men is fairly consistent, it is hardly absolute. In one study of prisoners cited by Sullivan, 54% of high-testosterone men had been written up for insubordination, but so had 43% of low-testosterone inmates. In a large sample of army veterans, about 20% of high-T men and 10% of low-T men had engaged in antisocial behavior, from family violence to traffic offenses to crime; but this effect showed up only among men of lower socioeconomic status. What's more, one of the biggest differences between high-T and low-T groups was in marijuana use -- a transgression that is not at all uncommon among women.

Surprisingly, most research finds that variations in testosterone levels, within normal range, are unrelated to a man's level of interest in sex.

Finally, in a recent study, only 15% of healthy men receiving supplemental testosterone experienced any personality changes (and only 5% showed a strong response).

What about women? Sullivan invokes a few studies linking higher T levels to assertiveness and aggressiveness in women as well; but on this, the evidence is scant and mixed. It is also worth noting that men and women have roughly equal amounts of the hormone estradiol, into which much of a man's active testosterone is metabolized. But in a 1991 study, higher estradiol and testosterone were linked to more aggressive behavior in men and less aggressive behavior in women. (This is not to say the women didn't exhibit a good deal of aggressive behavior; it just wasn't associated with the same hormones.)

As Sullivan notes, barring severe hormonal abnormalities, a man will always have higher testosterone than a woman. If "the Big T" explained everything, no individual woman would be more competitive, dominant, or combative than any man -- yet not even the most committed believers in "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" would maintain such a claim. Yes, these traits are more common in men, and testosterone may has something to do with it. But there is also much overlap. Up to a third of those who engage in risky and thrill-seeking behavior, from extreme sports to heavy gambling, are women. Female boxers and trial lawyers have less testosterone than male grade-school teachers and stay-at-home dads. So what?

Of course sex differences should not be dogmatically denied, or viewed as an evil to be eradicated. But people should be treated as individuals first, without trying to fit everyone into a neat box labeled pink or blue.

JWR contributor Cathy Young is co-founder and vice-president of the Women’s Freedom Network and author of Ceasefire! Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality. Send your comments to her by clicking here.

©2000, Cathy Young