Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography

Written by Will Lighthart ’21, History major

On February 24th, Katrina Karkazis, a bioethicist at Brooklyn College CUNY and senior research fellow at Yale, and Rebecca Jordan-Young, a professor of Women and Gender Studies at Columbia University who studies the intersections of science with dynamics of gender, sexuality, class, and race, presented their research and fielded questions regarding their co-authored book, Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography.

Karkazis presented an overview of the history of testosterone research. Beginning with the initial testings of Dr. Brown-Séquard, the pioneer in testosterone testing and injections. Even before the initial phases of testing, testosterone had long been regarded as a magical component of the body’s biological makeup. Brown-Séquard buttressed this mythical notion by reporting increases in his own strength and stamina after he injected a combination of animal testosterone and other bodily fluids. These claims were eventually debunked on account of the paradoxical and anomolous nature of the data Brown-Séquard and other early researchers were able to gather. Karkazis highlighted that the subsequent research after Brown-Séquard’s death was motivated by aims to increase strength, as well as cure cancer and homosexuality. Regardless of the goal of the research, testosterone remained characterized as an omnipotent elixir with healing powers for a wide ride of ailments. Other continuities in the research Karkazis discussed was the persistence of the idea that testosterone belonged to one sex and estrogen to the other. Thus, a narrative of heteronormativity was maintained through the dichotomous pair. To end her presentation, Karkazis clarified that the nature of her work with Jordan-Young was to take science seriously but not literally, in that they maintain respect for scientific research conducted via the scientific method and in conjunction with the appropriate processes.

In a slightly different vein, Jordan-Young discussed their research in terms of the real-world events that research into testosterone attempted to explain. The first example Jordan-Young referenced was the shameful, egregious actions of American soldiers towards Vietnamese people during the Vietnam war. Research into testosterone was used to attempt to explain why soldiers committed violence to a degree that may have otherwise been ungraspable. The American government also promoted research into testosterone as an explanation for the particularly gruesome nature of the Vietnam war, because blaming testosterone helped undermine the position of anti-war advocates that the United States was taking part in an unjust war. Jordan-Young also discussed research that attempted to solidify a strong correlation between high testosterone levels and repeated violent crimes committed by, especially men of color. Despite conducting analysis on the background of offenders, as well as their behavior records while incarcerated, no definitive link was established between the levels of testosterone and the intensity or frequency of violent behavior. In more recent studies, testosterone has been used to justify harsh, physical measures taken by police towards men of color, in particular. Research published as recent as 2016 asserts that black men with little education have disproportionately high rates of testosterone. This study was conducted with little social information or context, no account for racism, and the absence of any actual monitoring of black men living their day-to-day lives. Jordan-Young explained that the intent of studies like this is not to obtain substantial, scientific evidence, but rather to perpetuate black men as scapegoats for cycles of violence. Current research shows that strength, stamina, and aggression have no credible link to “T.”

Karkazis’s and Jordan-Young’s research into the methodological and ideological underpinnings of scientific research about T demonstrates how strong ideas about gender and behavior has shaped our understandings of testosterone and masculinity.

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