Testosterone, what are you making these men do?

Maybe masculine aggression springs from testes. After all, injecting testosterone, at least to some extent, spikes levels of aggression in not only human males, but chimp and other monkey males too. So maybe the gendered aggression we find around us is the fault of human bodies. There are a lot of apologetic posts these days, asking if men being aggressive is a biological problem. Or at least, a partially biologically problem.

Old Tricks

Well, it is not. Patriarchy always tries to distract attention from social structures to the human body and excuses itself from the problem. When people at the margins voice legitimate complaints, it is quite often labelled as them “feeling hormonal.” Legitimate, spontaneous and restless expressions of anger from women are often explained away as “hormonal” and as not indicative of social conditions. This is an old trick. To find physical phenomena that co-occurs alongside unpalatable behaviour and say that the behaviour is just being caused by that physical phenomena. If there is a certain cocktail of hormones that shows up often while someone is angry, one can lazily reduce the cause of anger to that cocktail. It is the classic fallacy of confusion causation with mere correlation. The problem with this is that it immediately hides the social reasons that might have contribute to a given phenomenon.

A Matter of Patient and Open-Minded Research

This same strategy is also used to explain away masculine aggression that could be driven by structures of social domination. By blaming it on testosterone. However, direct correlation between biological phenomenon and any social behaviour is nearly impossible to find. It is never, ever so direct. External social conditions have shaped everything “bodily” and, at the same time, bodily structures have shaped external social conditions. To find out what is causing what is a matter of patient and open-minded research. That’s why, when I recently heard about an online discussion about whether it is testosterone that’s been causing all this male sexual aggression, I thought that there several crucial steps were missing in this line of thinking. Surely, it cannot be so simple. So I quickly began to look up what my go-to Neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky has to say about this. He recently wrote a new book called Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. It is sort of a compendium of fresh, up-to-date biological explanations of human behaviour.

Fabio Issao, Unsplash CC

So it turns out that testosterone, at best has a weak relation with aggression. It definitely isn’t the only thing that’s causing aggression. If you chopped of a male’s testes – human males – aggressive behaviour would still remain. Suck out all testosterone from the body and if the chap has been aggressive in his life before this event, he will continue to be aggressive. Therefore, testosterone is not an obvious culprit. However, to some extent, this notorious hormone does increase aggression. In a hierarchical community of monkeys, if enough testosterone was pumped into a middle-ranking monkey, you’d find that monkey engaging in increased level of aggressive behaviour towards monkeys who are in the lower social ranks.

We Have the Tools To Dismantle Inequality

But, think about this: why towards monkeys from lower social ranks? Why not monkeys above his social rank, from the dominant group? Obviously, that chap would not have the guts to do that. It is much more convenient to dispose off your aggression unto monkeys from the dominated group rather than unto the powerful. And there is not much biological about it, it is purely how monkey societies are structured. Social structure is what determines who gets what social rank and therefore upon whom it is easier to dispose your testosterone fueled aggression upon. Social structure is also what chooses that the direction of masculine aggression in humans go towards women, transgender and gay communities. Who bears the brunt of aggression is not decided out of thin air, it is enabled by pre-existing pathways of domination and power dynamics that we continually reinforce in our societies. And maybe monkeys don’t have the tools to dismantle these structures, but we definitely do.

Seth Doyle, Unsplash CC

We Reward Aggression

Secondly, and most importantly, testosterone does not cause aggression. That is just not the lesson you would want to draw from what the hormone did to those monkeys. What do I mean by this? Let’s see what happens if you play around a bit with the social structure of the subjects involved in testosterone experiments.

Christoph Eisenegger and Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich did a gorgeous experiment with 20 humans that Sapolsky talks about in the same book. These participants were part of a game. In it, they had to decide how to split money between themselves and another player. The other player can either accept the share of money or just reject it. If the other player rejects it then no one gets anything. This whole scenario is set up in a way where such a rejection is a bad thing for your reputation. The game carries on and on with other players and the reputations of your deal-making also carries over. Basically, in this whole scenario, your social status and reputation rest on being fair. You make fair splits of money and you have a good reputation.

Fill up these subjects with a good amount of testosterone. What happens now? People with high testosterone in this scenario made more generous offers! They split the money in a way that’s more considerate towards the other player, more kind. What just happened? Wasn’t testosterone this macho aggression boosting thing for the monkeys?  

Your Social Status and Reputation Are on the Line

Well, apparently not. Tests after tests are beginning to show that testosterone doesn’t increase aggressive behaviour – it increases those behaviours that enhance or maintain your social status. It just happens that in the monkey universe, aggressive behaviour is what you want to choose if you want to keep your social status intact. So a testosterone-high is going to increase aggressive behaviour.

It just so happens, that in this human universe of ours too, aggressive behaviour is what’s rewarded with an insured or enhanced social status. As Sapolsky puts it: “In our world riddled with male violence, the problem isn’t that testosterone can increase levels of aggression. The problem is the frequency with which we reward aggression.” What this means is that if you engineered social structure in the right way, it is not aggression that high testosterone would boost, it could be kindness, generosity and helpfulness. Therefore, masculine aggression is not a problem of what the hormone is making people do, it is the manner in which we’ve structured our society. More importantly, the way we attach value to aggressive behaviour. Culpability for such behaviour is therefore plucked out of the body, into the structures of power and domination where it really belongs. No excuses.


In 2018 Feministeerium is focusing more on different men and masculinities. We are dealing with questions like what does it mean to ‘be a man’? And what does that have to do to be accepted as ‘real man’? What are the harmful effects of toxic masculinity — the set of standards our society holds for men that end up damaging both their lives and others? Here is a quick way to catch up the articles in the issue (in English, in Estonian).