What being a man means to Andrew Sullivan


It’s all about the testosterone. Testosterone is magic.

…in the years of being HIV-positive, my testosterone levels had sunk, and I decided, given my lassitude, depression, and lack of sexual desire, to go on hormone replacement therapy to get me back in a healthy range for a 30-something male. It was a fascinating experience to witness maleness literally being injected into me, giving me in a sudden jump what had been there all along, and what I now saw and felt more vividly. You get a real sense of what being a man is from an experience like that, as the rush of energy, strength, clarity, ambition, drive, impatience and, above all, horniness overcame me every two weeks in the wake of my shot. It was intoxicating. I wrote about this a couple of decades ago, in an essay I called “The He Hormone.”

Gosh, I’m glad he’s feeling well. But wait — all those things he describes are normal healthy human traits. Why is saying they are what being a man is all about? That’s weird. He’s not going to…he’s not saying…oh, crap, he is saying it.

The visceral experience opened my eyes to the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman, and helped me understand better how nature is far more in control of us than we ever want to believe.

So Andrew Sullivan now knows what it’s like to be a woman: it’s when your testosterone is low, and you feel lassitude, depression, and lack of sexual desire. That experience qualifies him to identify the difference between men and women. Men have “energy, strength, clarity, ambition, drive, impatience and, above all, horniness”. Women lack those things. I guess you ladies just swan about limply, not knowing what to do with your lives, passively accepting whatever penis comes your way. I did not know this. I had to read the musings of a gay Catholic man to learn about the true nature of women.

I do at least agree that nature, i.e. your endocrine system, has a great deal of control over your state. This is no surprise. The problem in his ignorance is that he’s assigning positive, healthy feelings that men and women can and do experience to masculinity.

Maybe I need to explain that hormone replacement therapy is not just for macho men. Women also get HRT — only they get estrogen, not testosterone. And it can have the same kind of energizing effects on libido and activity. Both estrogen and testosterone decline with age, so getting a boost in those hormones sends a physiological signal that you’re a younger you. The mistake is to assign the advantages of youth to just one gender. Well, one mistake — Sullivan doesn’t seem to be at all concerned about side-effects of testosterone, like increased heart disease and potential effects on prostate disease. I might also worry that, given the example of his writing, testosterone shots might make you stupider.

And, oh, man, his article does get stupider. It evolves into the usual ill-informed whine about #metoo.

I mention this because in our increasingly heated debate about gender relations and the #MeToo movement, this natural reality — reflected in chromosomes and hormones no scientist disputes — is rarely discussed. It’s almost become taboo. You can spend a lifetime in gender studies and the subject will never come up. All differences between the sexes, we are now informed, are a function of the age-old oppression of women by men, of the “patriarchy” that enforces this subjugation, and of the power structures that mandate misogyny. All differences between the genders, we are told, are a function not of nature but of sexism. In fact, we are now informed by the latest generation of feminists, following the theories of Michel Foucault, that nature itself is a “social construction” designed by men to oppress women. It doesn’t actually exist. It’s merely another tool of male power and must be resisted.

In addition to now understanding the natural differences between men and women because he experience lassitude and depression, like a woman, he has now also spent a lifetime in gender studies classes to know that they never ever consider taboo subjects like chromosomes and hormones and all those biological thingies like genitals and breasts and Man’s Natural Energy and Strength. All the differences between men and women are non-existent, you see, imposed on women by the Patriarchy.

This is amazing bullshit. We seem to be oscillating between two ridiculous interpretations of feminism from people who despise the whole concept.

On the one hand, feminists are all man-haters who are all about the power of the Sisterhood, working to overthrow male dominion and turn all men into sex-slaves or eunuchs. They go on and on about the feminine power of their vulvas and put on non-stop propaganda like the Vagina Monologues. They all voted for Hillary because they know in their hearts that women are the superior sex.

On the other hand, feminists don’t believe in chromosomes or hormones, think all people are exactly alike, and consider their human ideal to be an androgynous hermaphrodite — which is what we’d all be, if it weren’t for that damned Patriarchy forcing people with a certain arrangement of chromosomes (which don’t exist) to wear pink frilly clothes and hate math.

As someone who supports feminism, and who has feminist friends who have never expressed anything even close to those caricatures, I’d appreciate a little consistency, clarity, and intelligence from critics of the movement. They seem to alternate between those two views while never recognizing that they’re mutually contradictory.

Here’s what I understand. Feminists think men and women have a range of biological differences, and they aren’t just matters of chromosomes or gonads; there are differences in behavior, sexual interests, and social interactions. All of these differences are real and should be respected, just as differences between individual men or individual women are real. There are also imaginary differences forced on people by culture; those are not “real” in the sense that they are not intrinsic to male or female bodies.

Feminists are not in the business of denying reality, like conservatives. Most women have breasts, some don’t; most men do not have breasts, others do. These are totally undisturbing facts. The problem is that some people like to insist that all women must have breasts, and no real man is allowed to, ignoring the reality and trying to force compliance against nature. That strict binary division is an example of a social construct.

Similarly, the imposition of certain expectations that must correlate with biological roles is also a social construct. Women should have long hair, but men with long hair are weak hippies. Math is masculine, sociology is feminine. Women are depressed and uninterested in sex, men are energetic and horny. Sullivan’s essay is a textbook example of this kind of reification of social constructs, equating them falsely with intrinsic biological forces. When women like sex or are good at math, they are violating Sullivan’s imaginary boundaries, and they must therefore be destroying all differences between the sexes. It’s a bizarre absolutist insistence on strict dichotomies and fixed social roles.

It’s also really stupid. Maybe Sullivan should lay off the magic hormone shots, it’s turning him into an even worse meathead.

Comments

  1. nomadiq says

    That’s weird, amphetamines gives the exact same effects – except we would call those ‘side-effects’ of a drug. Why not claim that amphetamine makes you more ‘male’ while methamphetamine makes you super-male. Presumably because it’s not ‘natural’. Granted. It’s also not natural to have testosterone artificially injected on schedule. So is admitting that one ‘needs’ testosterone injections to feel a man means that without it Andrew Sullivan is not a man? Or any less a man? Of course not.

  2. rietpluim says

    There was a time, and in some circles it is still the case, that homosexuality is not considered very man-like.
    There you go, Sullivan.

  3. says

    They seem to alternate between those two views while never recognizing that they’re mutually contradictory.

    Sounds a lot like “doublethink”.

  4. David Marjanović says

    Totalitarian ideologies just love to ascribe contradictory properties to the enemy. For the Nazis, the Jew* was both way too cowardish, weak and stupid to do anything and a barely stoppable ruthless supergenius at the same time…

    * Singular. The enemy is always a single monolith.

  5. pocketnerd says

    It’s hilarious when people who wouldn’t come within a mile of a gender studies class assume they know exactly what those classes entail. “I bet gender studies classes teach that penises are just a social construct used to justify male dominance! And numbers were invented by The Patriarchy to oppress women because women don’t understand math. And I heard there was this one class where the final exam was just one question: ‘KILL ALL MEN Y/N’ and the professor flunked everybody who circled N!”

  6. pocketnerd says

    @David Marjanović, #4:
    To be fair, totalitarian ideologies also love to ascribe contradictory properties to themselves. The in-group (however it defines itself) is both in immediate danger of total extinction AND an unstoppable juggernaut that is poised for ultimate and final victory. Dear Leader is both a superhuman with borderline mystical powers AND just a regular guy like you.

    It’s because authoritarianism inevitably rejects the very notion of objective evidence or fact; the truth is whatever Power finds convenient. If that changes from day to day or even minute to minute, well, you’d better develop a severe case of amnesia if you know what’s good for you.

  7. Ed Seedhouse says

    “I do at least agree that nature, i.e. your endocrine system, has a great deal of control over your state.”
    Or, in the words of the Firesign Theater, “Your brain is not the boss”.

    As I age into my later seventies it is becoming clearer just how little say my so-called “conscious self” has over what I say, do, and think. Or maybe I am just getting senile…

  8. Owlmirror says

    @PZ:

    I’d appreciate a little consistency, clarity, and intelligence from critics of the movement. They seem to alternate between those two views while never recognizing that they’re mutually contradictory.

    Dead and Alive
    Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories

    Abstract:

    Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1 (n = 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2 (n = 102), the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2). The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

    (PDF)

    I would suggest that in many cases, bigotries and biases form the bases of monological worldviews similar to conspiracy theories.

  9. leerudolph says

    Wait…all those years we were being assured that women couldn’t be Presidents or CEOs or whatever, because they have hormones; and now it turns out that reason Presidents and CEOs and whatevers have to be men is because they have hormones???

  10. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The question that is really raised by Andrew Sullivan and so man on the right is this:

    How does one become such a fucked up excuse for a human being in just one lifetime. It kind of makes one see why the Hindus embraced reincarnation.

  11. thirdmill says

    Even if it were true that *in general* men are better at math than women, so what? Shouldn’t any individual woman who likes math and is good at it still be treated like an individual, and encouraged to live up to her full potential?

  12. says

    “I do at least agree that nature, i.e. your endocrine system, has a great deal of control over your state.”

    Hmmm, and getting a massive shot of them at once isn’t much like the way it happens in a healthy organism.

    as the rush of energy, strength, clarity, ambition, drive, impatience and, above all, horniness overcame me

    Thyroxine has a similar effect on me.
    Oh, wait, maybe it’s just that when modern medicine brings your hormone levels to what is healthy, you feel better.

    BTW, dude, I bet you I win the orgasm contest.

    PZ, you left out the best part of that nonsense:

    My suspicion is that it’s more about nature than about society, and one reason I believe this (apart from all the data) is I because I’m gay. I live in a sexual and romantic world without women, where no patriarchy could definitionally exist

    *falls over laughing*

    Yes, that’s definitely somebody who knows about gender studies.

  13. says

    Your endocrine system has some control over your state, so does your norepinephrine and serotonin levels.

    Gomer ought to try cocaine. That shit really makes you feel like a raging asshole of manliness!

  14. antigone10 says

    @11 Because if men “naturally” like math more than women, and it’s just the random outlier woman who does, we don’t have to worry about the math gap. We don’t have to adjust anything about work culture to accommodate women, they can just put up with the sexual harassment, bias (both implicit and explicit) and maternity penalty.

  15. thirdmill says

    Antigone10, I don’t see that that follows. Whether women who like math are outliers or not, nobody should have to be put up with harassment at the work place. How is harassment any more acceptable just because the person at the receiving end is an outlier?

  16. octopod says

    Dammit, comment 1 prined me with “amphetamines” so now every other comment that says “math” I keep reading it as “meth”. Men naturally like meth more than women! >_<

  17. gorobei says

    Gosh, I’m so confused now. Just last night I invited myself over to our neighbors. The husband was gracious and made sure my drink was refilled whenever it got low. The wife regaled us with anecdotes about thriving at the top of a Fortune 500 company. I guess they must have mixed up their hormone shots and each took the wrong one or something.

  18. says

    They are not well-developed breasts make visible bumps in my clothing though.

    Also, my point is that not all women have them either. And some men do have large breasts. It’s really silly to build a case for gender identity on a variable anatomical feature.

  19. says

    Yes, I got your point, and agree. I do think breasts are one of the features in which there’s an unrecognized amount of general similarity in addition to general differences. (I didn’t know until I went to link to that article that men’s breasts had milk ducts.)

  20. Tethys says

    Some women also take testosterone as part of HRT. The sheer stupidity of this statement though, quoted just because it packs so many errors in one sentence.

    I live in a sexual and romantic world without women, where no patriarchy could definitionally exist

    No dude, just because you personally aren’t sexually attracted to women does not mean they cease to exist. Is it possible to be any more entitled and self-centered as to declare that there is no such thing as Patriarchy in his all-male glory hole expert opinion?

  21. Helen Huntingdon says

    @20 PZ, yeah, I’ve always wondered why men with bigger boobs than mine can go topless in public but I can’t.

    I’m not surprised by the Andrew Sullivan inanities, for two reasons — one is that he’s always had very confused and muddled notions of sex and gender, as far as I could see.

    As for the other, well, according to his doctors and things he has told me, my father has been abusing supplemental testosterone when he can get his hands on any for at least a decade. You can tell when he’s scored a supply just by listening to the amount and fervor of AAAAAAAAAWIMMENSaaaaagrrrrRRRRRMETARZAN word salad that comes out of his mouth/pen/keyboard.

  22. davsmith4156 says

    Since I began HRT I feel my brain power has increased. For example, my opinion of Andrew Sullivan has plummeted.

  23. cartomancer says

    Funnily enough I’ve been asked to give my talk on ancient Greek conceptions of masculinity to the sixth-formers at a school I’ve been teaching at. It’s scheduled for tomorrow. I would ask Mr. Sullivan along in the hope he might learn something about the variety of conceptions of masculinity that every society fosters, but… well… I’m not sure I could stomach being in the same postcode as the man.

    Suffice to say that impetuosity and immoderate sexual desire would have been seen as definitively feminine psychological traits by most Athenians in the late fifth century BC. True masculinity, to them, would involve continence and the ability to rule the passions with reason – something women can’t do because their rational faculty lacks the authority of a man’s. Too excessive a desire for sex might even be grounds for disfranchisement in Athens (as Aeschines’ speech in the case against Timarchus argues), because it marks one out as irrational, and thus unable to engage seriously with the difficult issues of state. Like a woman is, by Athenian lights.

  24. billyjoe says

    “The visceral experience opened my eyes to the sheer and immense natural difference between being a man and being a woman, and helped me understand better how nature is far more in control of us than we ever want to believe”

    Yes, three problems:
    – to say that, he would have to know what being a woman feels like.
    – he should have said: the difference between being a man with normal levels of testosterone and a man with low levels of testosterone.
    – even then he would be only partly correct, because going from low to normal testosterone is not the same as having normal testosterone all along.

    Therefore,the “sheer and immense difference” is probably overstated as, therefore, is the conclusion that “nature is far more in control than we ever want to believe”. And so too his later statement that:

    “My suspicion is that it’s more about nature than about society”

    The thing is that no one is saying “nature not nurture” or “nurture not nature”. They are giving different emphasis to one or the other. Andrew Sullivan over-emphasises nature, and there are those who over-emphasise nurture. And, of course, there is that normal distribution with the influence on some individuals’ characteristics lying towards the “nature” end of the spectrum, and others lying towards at the “nurture” end.

  25. unclefrogy says

    @26
    given that we can not agree on what is clearly nurture and what is nature seems to me that that is a large part of the argument is distinguishing nurture and nature.

    of course living in a world (life style) that is that is devoid of women and completely focused on males and maleness could never be thought of a patriarchal on no ?!
    is this guy a self parody?

    uncle frogy

  26. militantagnostic says

    SC @21

    I didn’t know until I went to link to that article that men’s breasts had milk ducts.

    And can (in rare instances) produce enough prolactin to lactate.

  27. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    When I was a kid, I would occasionally get a shot of adrenaline to overcome a severe asthma attack. Aside from the relief at being able to breathe again, I’d feel most of the effects that Sullivan mentions (minus the horniness, but I was only a kid).

    As far as I know, there’s nothing particularly masculine about adrenaline.

  28. robro says

    I’m no endocrinologist, but I’m pretty sure men have estrogen and women have testosterone. Wikipedia says so, for what that’s worth. So, just maybe hormones are a lot more complicated than Sullivan and a lot of other people think.

  29. rietpluim says

    I guess they must have mixed up their hormone shots and each took the wrong one or something.

    Do I sense an opportunity to close the pay gap…?

  30. DanDare says

    They put fluride in the water to rob men of the Purity Of their bodily Fluids. It robs them of their Manly Essence. I realised this during the physical act of love.

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