Tuesday, August 9, 2016

On Emotion and Masculinity (Part 1 of 2: 'This American Life' on the Effects of Testosterone)

The public radio show This American Life did an episode that was all about testosterone way back on August 30th, 2002. (Unfortunately, the HTML code they give for embedding the player doesn't seem to work, so CLICK HERE to listen to the program instead.) I recently listened to it, and took notes. (For those who don't know, T.A.L. episodes are divided into an introduction and four acts.)


• (2:09) The quote at the beginning of the episode, from the feminist novel The Women's Room, written in 1977:
You think I hate men. I guess I do. […]My feelings about men are the result of my experience. I have little sympathy for them. Like a Jew just released from Dachau, I watch the handsome young Nazi soldier fall writhing to the ground with a bullet in his stomach and I look briefly and walk on. I don't even need to shrug. I simply don't care. […]
Marilyn French was, apparently, a horrifyingly sexist writer.

• (4:12) Alex Bloomberg, the show's producer, who read the novel as a young boy, talks about feeling tremendous amounts of guilt because of the sexual urges he felt growing up, partially as a result of what French implied in her novel. As the rest of the podcast explains, those urges were brought on in large part by his testosterone, something that was largely beyond his control. He felt like the men in the novel, who were being compared to Nazis. He still feels that shame in his adulthood.

Act I

• This act is about a man, Alex, whose body had stopped producing testosterone entirely for four months, because of a medical condition.

• (5:44) He begins to describe how not having testosterone affected a tremendously wide range of personality traits, including things that he had considered fundamental to his sense of self. Even the quality of his speech was affected.

• (9:10) Ira Glass, the host, describes how testosterone is the hormone of desire – any kind of desire, not just sexual. Alex describes what life is like without any sense of desire. Absolutely no desire for entertainment, for companionship, or even for interesting food.

• (11:53) Alex talks extensively about how everything he saw while he was without testosterone could be described as "beautiful" – not in a passionate sense, but rather in a cold, disconnected, analytical sense.

• (14:52) He describes the overall experience as being strangely pleasant – in that a life utterly devoid of desire leads to an almost Buddhist monk-like level of serenity.

Act II

• This act is about a transgender man born as a woman, who was given an incredibly massive boost in testosterone as part of his female-to-male transition.

• (16:32) Griffin, the transgendered man, went to a woman's college before making the change to become male. "She" strongly identified not only as a woman, but as a feminist and a stereotypical lesbian at the time.

• (18:20) He describe the change as being almost instantaneous: within a few days of his first testosterone treatment, he explains that the most overwhelming change he felt was a massive increase in libido, and changes to the way he perceived women and thought about sex.

• (19:25) He describes how, after having the testosterone injections, simply seeing a woman was enough to flood his mind with very intense images of lust and sex – and there was no way to turn it off. Everything triggered a sexual reaction. He talks about how it made him feel like a monster, but he also began to understand men in a way he never had before.

• (20:43) He talks about seeing a woman in a small skirt on Fifth Avenue and being unable to stop looking at her in a sexual way. An inner voice, from his female, feminist background, berated him for it, and made him feel like a sexist pig. That voice tried to fight his urge to gaze at the woman with sexual desire. It lost.

• (21:20) He talks about how he used to do "edgy" feminist poetry readings about how awful men are for looking at women in such a sexual way, before he understood the male perspective on such an intimate level. He talks about getting into arguments with friends and co-workers who didn't know that he used to be female, and would be called misogynistic by them for the way he looked at women as a man. He had no way to truly explain how he had come to that point in his life. He points out that it's far more complicated than simply labeling a man "misogynist".

• (23:15) Griffin mentions that after he began taking testosterone, his interest in science skyrocketed. He found it much easier to understand concepts like physics. Griffin and Glass are dismayed by how that could play into the lack of women in STEM fields, and all of those accompanying stereotypes.

• (24:24) Glass asks him if the testosterone had changed the way he perceived his feelings at all. He talks about how it's much, much harder to cry now that he's taking testosterone. He does not see this as an improvement in his emotion, he finds it very frustrating.

• (25:22) Glass asks him if he knew what kind of man he would be before he made the transition. Griffin says he had anticipated become a very cool, smooth, masculine man – but after the transition, he's largely seen as a nerd, instead. He finds this immensely disappointing. He went from being seen as a very masculine woman, to being seen as a very sensitive, effeminate man.

• (27:25) He talks about how he still has a great deal left to learn about being a man. He talks about how even just walking down the street as a man is a kind of constant struggle, or battle, for dominance against other men.

• (30:03) Glass asks him what he misses most about being a woman. He replies that he misses having close relationships with women, and misses the ability to make new female friends.


• This act is a contest between nine people (five men, four women) who work on This American Life, to take a scientific test to determine who has the most testosterone.

• (36:30) An expert on testosterone talks about how the chemical most often leads to boldness and confidence, but that the downside is that it causes people to pay less attention to other things happening around them.

• (41:41) When the radio staff starts to predict who has the highest levels of testosterone, the women feared the idea of having high levels and "winning" the contest, whereas the men all hoped to have the highest levels to "win".

• (42:33) The gay Canadian male, a fan of Martha Stewart, had the highest testosterone among the men (almost twice as much as the other men); the 'pushiest' and 'most decisive' woman (according to everyone during the prediction phase, including her herself) had the highest among the women.

• (42:40) I think it's very telling that when Glass announces which male had the highest testosterone, the women immediately began cheering for him in a congratulatory way.

• (43:22) When Glass announced which woman had "won", she was fairly disappointed. The male with the lowest levels of testosterone was even more disheartened by the results.

Act IV

• This act is about a mother of a 15-year-old boy asking him questions about his own maleness (and more often than not, failing to get answers from him).

• The biggest takeaway from this act is the son's reluctance to communicate his answers to his mom's questions. This is understandable, given the nature of the relationship and the awkwardness of the questions. But perhaps the son's difficulties in communication are also greatly influenced by the fact that he's male, and how males are taught by society to deflect rather than to talk through how they feel about different things. This hypothesis seems to be supported when the mom talks about how eager his younger sister is to talk all about how she feels and what she experiences.

• (54:58) The mother notes that even when her son tried to comfort his sister by reassuring her it's hard to be a girl, she's "not sure it's any easier to be a boy". The mother notes that it's been years since she's seen him cry, and that she wishes she could read his private notebook.

• (55:17) When the mother asks him if there's anything about girls that he envies, he initially deflects, and then admits (after some prying) that he envies their ability to talk about their feelings.

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