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The Testosterone Curse (Part 1)

How much does testosterone control a male's behavior?

Source: fxquadro/123RF

"It's His Testosterone Talking"

Women who've become cynical about men's motives have frequently claimed that a man's brain can be found between his legs. To get a bit more specific, I might add that this brain can be located directly in the testes—the male's "testosterone factory." Aside from any confounding psychological factors, what primarily determines a man's sexual appetite is, pure and simply, the amount of testosterone (T) in his system. And if his T-levels are high, expect him to show tendencies to objectify, demean, or exploit the opposite sex.

Generally speaking, our sex drive—or libido—is defined by how much testosterone we produce. And this is true for both sexes, although on average men secrete at least 10 times as much of this chemical as do women. And while it's certainly true that for women a little testosterone goes a long way, it does appear that men generally have a stronger, more irrepressible sex drive than do their female counterparts.

Testosterone, by inducing a biological urge that sooner or later demands expression, literally guarantees the survival of the species. So it must be seen positively, and it can hardly be taken lightly. Still, given the constraints of civilization, and the nature of the human psyche, it also guarantees enormous frustration and grief—and probably as much for men as for women. So it's clearly to be lamented, as well.

When a male's T-levels rise beyond a certain point, he can hardly help but have sex on his mind virtually all the time. That's why it's not at all uncommon to hear a male's behavior described as "testosterone-driven." And unquestionably, for males in their later teens and early 20s (when their T-levels peak), their thoughts and feelings are influenced mightily by what really is going on between their legs. They experience an almost constant stirring in their genitals—sensations that clamor for attention but that society disallows being fully expressed. But, regardless of such restraints, the very sight of a female (real, or merely "fabricated" in their mind) can't help but fan this not-to-be-denied libidinous flame.

Adolescent girls, and women in general, rightfully complain that they feel de-valued when men see them, or treat them, as "sex objects." But could it not be argued that to a great extent adolescent boys and men, "seduced" from within by elevated T-levels, can't much help it? Very much like animals in heat, males "under the influence" may have great difficulty in perceiving females other than one-dimensionally—as objects for lustful gratification.

It may be something akin to a person in the throes of starvation, whose senses are naturally concentrated solely on food. Sorely deprived of a fundamental need, the desperate quest for sustenance overrules any other consideration, which in the moment must feel utterly beside the point—immaterial, extraneous, and irrelevant. The expression "hunger has no conscience" poignantly characterizes such an urgent state of affairs. Ethical considerations become secondary (if, in fact, they're reflected upon at all) in situations where the excruciating ache of starvation must override any other thought.

It's easy enough to blame a T-driven male for his one-track mind. But what, finally, might Darwin say? After all, is it not part of "evolutionary wisdom" to make certain that the virile sperm-bearer be preoccupied with spreading that sperm? A male's conscious motives may not be (and, in fact, typically aren't) to propagate his seed. Experiencing an almost overwhelming sexual tension—which is indistinguishable from carnal desire—he may simply feel compelled to alleviate it. After all, his physical organism (and unconscious mind) has evolved precisely to make him focus on fulfilling this natural function. So ultimately, how much can we blame him for reaching his "genital prime" many years before he's attained the maturity and ethical development to deal with it in a way that adequately takes into account the needs, wants, and feelings of the "objects" he lusts after?

Doubtless, it's regrettable that puberty comes so early in life—way before, frankly, either sex has developed the judgment and self-control to have children, let alone raise them well. Many centuries ago, when our life span was far shorter than it is today, it made good evolutionary sense for us to be ready to conceive as soon as we physically could—even before our minds had matured to the degree that we could handle such procreative capacity responsibly. Back then, prior to modern medicine, life was extremely fragile; and so it was clearly adaptive to be able to "deliver" babies (as, well, "replacements") as promptly as possible. Thus, unfortunately, did nature contrive to have us arrive at sexual (or reproductive) maturity much earlier than we could possibly acquire commensurate mental or emotional maturity.

And, alas, now we're left—biochemically—with the legacy of our forefathers. We live on a planet dominated by males all too often preoccupied with scratching the nagging biological itch embodied by their gonads. Absent any dire necessity to re-populate Earth with replicas of ourselves, the planet is still dense with males in frantic search of a female whose wondrous "opening" is perfectly contrived to accommodate their unruly organ of desire, and allow it to express—or better, discharge—the barely containable arousal of a T-driven libido.

Perhaps we should be thankful that this "biological imperative" is so insuppressible. As I've already indicated, it certainly offers us the most powerful imaginable defense against extinction. Yet I can't help but see it as predominantly a curse, for while it may assure our survival as a species, it also seriously interferes with males' ethical evolution. After all, how can a male's basic humanity toward the opposite sex not be hindered when the primitive message he's getting from his decidedly amoral sex hormones is that women are to be pursued not for their selves but for their bodies?

How, that is, can males (especially those with high T-levels) learn to treat the opposite sex with kindness and consideration—with empathy and genuine appreciation, interest, and respect—when they're "fated" to regard them (however unconsciously, or "primally") as repositories for their sperm? Notwithstanding the fact that, biologically, women have evolved to be attractive to males, it's still blatantly unfair for them to be perceived in such animalistic fashion. And, perhaps less obviously, it's also unfair that nature has designed males to perceive women this way—if not through their entire lifespan, at least throughout most of adolescence and young adulthood.

Can males help it, for example, if looking at erotica or pornography so activates the pleasure circuits of their brain that returning to such stimuli repeatedly can for many of them be almost irresistible? Consider, for example, the statistics on how extraordinarily common it is for males to visit pornographic websites? And to actually abstain from getting oneself aroused in this way when the stimuli for doing so is readily available is much more difficult than, say, resisting a chocolate doughnut.

In the case of the doughnut, with a little effort most of us can establish a safe-enough distance between ourselves and the otherwise all-too-tempting stimuli to avoid capitulating to it. But how much harder is it for males to conquer their libidinous appetites when the original stimulus is a hormone inside them literally beckoning—imploring, at times, even screaming—at them to pursue what, as a person living in civilized society, may really not be good for them (and surely doesn't benefit the girl or woman their T-levels are causing them to lust after).

Taking the most extreme example, the act of rape is one of the most abusive, abhorrent, heinous crimes I can think of. And such a radical violation of a woman's most intimate boundaries is routinely seen as much more a crime of violence, hatred, and rage than it's viewed as a crime of passion. Doubtless, there's nothing at all romantic, or erotic, about such a degrading, dishonorable deed. It's predatory, savage, barbaric—an act devoid of the slightest empathy or compassion. Yet to argue that rape is not an expression of sexuality but simply one of violence is to deny that the rapist is in fact highly aroused by such behavior—that, however perverted, forcing his sexual will on another can be linked to substantial libidinous gratification. And this behavior is hardly less deplorable when it happens in a far more intimate context—that is, when a man (overcome by anger, passion, or both) forces himself upon—that is, rapes—his own wife.

Again, we must look at testosterone—the "ethics-free" chemical of desire—as at least the biological culprit of such an intimate crime (and, sad to say, it's not even considered a crime in some cultures). Regardless of how inhumane, or dehumanizing, rape may be, it yet can be seen as a byproduct of a hormone-generated lust.

Note 1: Part 2 of this post moves beyond the present biological/evolutionary emphasis to focus more on the many unenviable traits associated with high-T males.

Note 2: In a response to this post, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha make the point that in prehistoric times, if an individual made it through infancy, he or she stood a good chance of reaching their 60s or 70s. So I stand corrected on this point, and am glad to have the opportunity to acknowledge this.

To check out a variety of other posts I've written for Psychology Today, click here. I invite readers to join me on Facebook and to follow my psychological musings on Twitter.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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