Image of a couple sitting outdoors, having an intense conversation.

How understanding testosterone will help you understand yourself (and everyone around you) better

Harvard professor Carole Hooven’s new book, Testosterone: The Story Of The Hormone Which Dominates And Divides Us, untangles the science behind the myths that surround the hormone. 

In a normal term, when I had what I now realise is the privilege of being in the same physical space as my students, I would tear up occasionally as I taught. Students don’t expect their professor to do this. But nor do they expect the profound insights that science can provide into some of the most intimate aspects of our lives, such as sexuality, gender, relationships, stress, trauma, and health. What I teach about – how hormones shape who we are – bears on all of this, and much more.

But the last few terms have been anything but normal. I had taken a year off to write a book (on the hormone testosterone, or “T”), which I finally finished, and then went right “back” to work in the middle of a pandemic. I spent long hours revamping my teaching plans and recording lectures to suit remote learning, meeting with students and faculty via Zoom, answering a bajillion emails, while doing what I could to keep our house together and support my family, all on little sleep

These Covid-related challenges were pretty standard, and although it was tough, I had it good. Many of my students did not, and struggled to focus on schoolwork while coping with financial and mental health issues, and even the loss of family members. It all weighed on me. Despite my best efforts to keep them hidden, my emotions would repeatedly rise to the surface, where the many students who filled my screen could see them, close up. Students have told me that my “authenticity” helps them connect to the material, but I still harboured concerns that my raw emotions would diminish my authority, or just make students uncomfortable.

You could say I’m on one end of the emotional expression spectrum. My husband Alex is too – but the opposite one. I can remember him tearing up once or twice in about 15 years (once when we thought his cancer was terminal). And it’s not just showing sadness; he rarely raises his voice in anger, furrows his brow in sympathy, or jumps for joy. You can almost always tell what I’m feeling by looking at me, and if not, I won’t hesitate to describe it in graphic detail. But what on earth is my husband feeling? Often, even he seems not to know. 

Image of author and academic Carole Hooven
Author Carole Hooven

Being the expressive, assertive woman that I am (appropriate in a relationship context, if not a professional one), over the years I have pressed Alex to determine the source of his emotional defects. Is it his British upbringing? Did he experience some childhood trauma in which he was shamed for showing his feelings? Shouldn’t we work on this in therapy?

Long story short, we did work on that in therapy. But Alex, or at least his emotions, remained recalcitrant, and I became even more frustrated.

It should come as no surprise that, on average, the rough pattern that my husband and I exemplify is the norm. (Needless to say, we vary! Lots of men are leaky faucets like me, and plenty of women keep their emotions in check.) That is, relative to men, women cry more and express a greater range of emotions, everywhere in the world. And while in all cultures studied men cry less than women, the stereotype is accurate: relative to people in other cultures, Brits are emotionally reserved and crying rates in both sexes are extremely low. Culture matters.

We don’t start out this way: boys and girls, even baby ones, don’t differ in their rates of crying. The difference opens up as sex hormones begin to diverge as adolescence – the transition from childhood to sexually mature adult – approaches. As testosterone rises in boys, the expression of emotions related to fear and vulnerability, like crying, fall dramatically. But as females mature, rates of crying don’t change much from childhood. It could be that the rising T is only associated with reduced crying; perhaps the social expectations that come with burgeoning manhood lead young men to learn to keep their emotions in check. But other evidence suggests that the increase in T directly influences the expression of crying.

Some of that evidence comes from the effects testosterone changes have in transgender people. As part of the research for my book, I dove into the scientific literature about how changing one’s T levels after puberty, as part of a gender transition, can change one’s body, feelings and behaviour.

This “cross-sex” hormone therapy usually involves either blocking the relatively high, male levels of T and taking oestrogen (for trans women), or blocking oestrogen and taking high levels of T (for trans men). I also interviewed several transgender people to hear from them about what it is like to cross the testosterone line – to go from living with female to male levels, or vice versa. Do sexuality, aggression and emotionality change, in typically masculine or feminine ways that are consistent with the changes in sex hormones? In short, yes. Big time. 

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When people born female take male-typical levels of testosterone, along with experiencing physical changes like a deepened voice, increased muscle mass and facial hair, libido also spikes up, orgasms become less of a full-body event and more focused on the genitals, and emotional expression diminishes – particularly crying. 

One trans man I interviewed described having cried a few times a week before his hormonal transition, to almost never crying (once a year or less) post-transition. Another person (born female but who does not identify as trans), who increased their T levels in order to ’virilize’ [the development of masculine characteristics such as a deeper voice, increased facial and body hair and smaller breasts], recently told the New York Times that they still had a desire to cry, but it was an impulse that “peters out before it reaches my tear ducts. There seems to be a thicker layer of insulation between my emotional core and my surface.”

And when people born male block testosterone and take female-typical levels of oestrogen, the reverse happens, and newfound avenues for emotional expression, including crying, open up. Interestingly, these emotional changes begin well before the altered sex hormone levels sculpt bodies to become more masculine and feminine looking.

All of my knowledge about testosterone and sex differences failed to immunise me from the effects of the cultural Kool-aid I’d evidently imbibed: as a woman, I was the one who was in touch with my emotions and had it right, and my husband, like most men, had it wrong. He needed to change; to be more like me emotionally. Not all men are like Alex, and not all women are like me (thankfully). But Alex’s emotional style undoubtedly attracted me to him from the start; when my life and my internal world feels unsteady, as it so often does, I can regain my footing with the support of a solid, reliable partner. 

Book cover for Testosterone by Carole Hooven

It took writing a whole book on testosterone, and thinking about little else for over a year, that got me to see the light. I can’t know whether Alex in particular would be more emotional if he lowered his T levels, or whether his genes or culture or family is the primary driver of his emotional style. It almost doesn’t matter. Science gave me one explanation for sex differences in emotional expression, and it made complete sense. Somehow just having a potential explanation for his emotional style gave me license to reconceive of how we function as a couple. I don’t need to fix something that isn’t broken, and I can take the gifts that come with being different.

None of this means that anyone should put up with behaviour that is hurtful or damaging, or that we shouldn’t work to improve our relationships. But it is an example of how learning about how we work and how and why we’re different can help to replace judgement with understanding, and maybe even acceptance. And when that happens in a relationship, partners – male or female – tend to feel more loved and secure, and reveal more of their true natures. 

Testosterone: The Story Of The Hormone Which Dominates And Divides Us by Carole Hooven is published by Octopus on 8 July, £16.99.

Images: Getty / Tom Werner and courtesy of Octopus Books

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