Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Male Sexual Misconduct and the Testosterone Curse

How might men’s sexual misbehavior be governed by a lawless libido?

Photo by Timothy Hale/US Army
Source: Photo by Timothy Hale/US Army

Male sexual domination and privilege—especially as it relates to men with wealth, fame, or power—has lately pervaded the news media. The ranks of those accused include Hollywood and TV stars and executives, politicians, journalists, and even comedians. So if asked, “What do Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Roy Moore, Louis CK, Al Franken, Bill O'Reilly, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and (most notably) Donald Trump have in common?”, you could certainly answer without hesitation.

In various ways all these men have sexually imposed themselves on women (sometimes even adolescent girls), who’ve been left feeling bewildered, demeaned, harassed, and humiliated. And the psychological damage—even trauma—inflicted on females by lust-filled, or power-hungry, men is clearly reprehensible, if not downright heinous.

Psychosocial forces, including a sexism that appears to have existed from time immemorial, as well as the patriarchal society we still inhabit, play a major role in this longstanding sexual oppression of women. And these factors are being increasingly discussed today. This article, however, will focus on what I believe is an even more essential contributor to such ethically deplorable subjugation. Moreover, it’s one that has been almost totally neglected by writers and political pundits alike. Namely, it’s the pressing hormonal influence that degrades principled behavior in males. . . . And, in the end, degrades our culture itself.

Please note that none of my characterizations below are meant to justify male sexual misconduct. Nonetheless, what’s sorely missing from present-day discourse on the subject is the slightest compassion for men in their sexual struggles. And that lack only serves to divide our already polarized nation all the more.

If we lived in a truly humane society, deeper understanding would promote compassion—one operating in all directions. The more charitably we explored our all-too-common flaws, the more likely we’d foster a sense of connection and community, become more united and, well, more “civilized.” And to say this isn’t to deny our ethical obligation to speak out against men who barbarously violate a woman’s physical/sexual boundaries.

My hope here is that individuals of both sexes who read this piece will take from it a more empathic stance not just toward the victims of men’s indiscriminately lustful, controlling behavior, but also toward the men whose primeval, “between-their-legs” brain temporarily got the better of them.

Of course, a further—and crucial —distinction needs to be made between, say, narcissists who’ve demonstrated a chronic pattern of sexually exploiting women vs. those who were so seduced by, enticed with, or overpowered by a woman’s sensuality that in the moment they lost control of themselves and acted dishonorably (as though they were little more than animals in heat).

Still, I believe that the solution for many of the world’s ills is in developing greater empathy, compassion, and forgiveness for everybody —by grasping that our behaviors, as shameful as they may sometimes be, don’t really define our humanity either. And it is in this spirit that I offer readers what, I trust, will be viewed as a more evenhanded discussion of males’ sexual misbehavior.

"It's His Testosterone Talking"

Women who've become cynical about men's crasser impulses have frequently claimed that their brain is to be found between their legs. And, more specifically, that old, survival-based cranium is located directly in the testes, the male's "testosterone factory." Aside from all the confounding psychosocial factors at play here, what primarily determines a man's sexual appetite is the amount of testosterone (T) circulating inside him. And if his T-levels catapult to the ceiling, you can pretty much expect that, assuming he’s heterosexual, he’ll betray ignoble tendencies toward objectifying, belittling, or exploiting the opposite sex.

Physiologically speaking, our sex drive—or libido—is defined by how much testosterone we produce. And this is actually true for both sexes, although on average men secrete at least ten times as much of this chemical as do women. And while it's true that for women a little testosterone goes a long way, much research has shown that men typically 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. In that sense, at least, it must be regarded positively. Yet, 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 to be lamented as well.

When a male's T-levels elevate beyond a certain point, he can hardly help but constantly have sex on his mind. And for males in their late teens and early twenties (when T-levels peak), their thoughts and feelings are influenced mightily by what’s coursing through their veins. They experience an almost constant stirring in their genitals—sensations that clamor for attention, but which social mores disallow full expression. Despite such constraints, however, 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 devalued when men see them, or treat them, as sex objects. But it could be argued that to a great extent teenage boys and men—"seduced from within ” by high T-levels—can't much help it. Animalistically under the influence, they may have great difficulty perceiving females other than one-dimensionally, as objects for lascivious gratification.

It may be something akin to a person in the throes of starvation, whose thoughts and feelings center wholly on food. Painfully deprived of an essential need, the desperate quest for sustenance overrules all other considerations. And in extreme cases, it can even lead to cannibalism. The expression "hunger has no conscience" poignantly characterizes such urgency. Here “higher” ethical considerations simply drop out as irrelevant; immaterial. They’re simply extraneous to the excruciating ache of starvation.

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 disseminating that sperm? Experiencing an almost unbearable sexual tension indistinguishable from carnal desire, the compulsion to alleviate it may be overwhelming. After all, his physical organism—and unconscious mind—has evolved precisely to make him focus on fulfilling this natural function. So ultimately, how much should we shame him for his inability to take into account the needs, wants, and feelings of the "objects" he’s mindlessly lusting after?

Max Pixel/CCO Public Domain
Source: Max Pixel/CCO Public Domain

Certainly, the harm done by a male’s aggressively acting-out his lust on non-consensual others deserves censure. But can we really view his sexual drive as itself shameful, degrading, or opprobrious? (And this may constitute the strongest argument yet for masturbation—and, at least in some ways, the male’s substitute gratification of erotica and pornography.)

However poor this analogy may seem, consider many of the symptoms women commonly exhibit during PMS—which, interpersonally, aren’t very admirable. For they, too—powerfully and irresistibly influenced by hormonal upheaval—are prone to display such ornery features as irritability, anger, aggression, mood wings, distractibility, and at times an almost hostile social withdrawal. But given what they’re having to cope with, does not their external behavior deserve to be understood empathically, with considerable compassion? After all, their more engaging traits may have temporarily been “hijacked” by their biochemistry. So their displeasing behaviors can’t be seen as voluntary; freely chosen. And it would hardly be fair to criticize them because their reactions weren’t outwardly provoked (and, in that sense, unfair to those around them).

Returning to males’ unruly organ of desire, though we might be thankful that their "biological imperative" is so unrestrainable as to offer the most powerful guarantee against extinction, their lustful predilections also warrant appreciation as something like an “unearned” moral curse on their gender. For their sexual propensities seriously undermine their ethical evolution—and in a way that women are simply less vulnerable to.

And how can a man’s basic humanity toward the opposite sex not be hindered when the primitively insistent message he’s getting from his decidedly amoral sex hormones is that women are to be pursued not for themselves but mainly for their orifices?

How, that is, can males (especially those with high T-levels) learn to treat the opposite sex with kindness and compassion—with genuine empathy, appreciation, interest, and respect—when they're “primed” to regard them, however primally, as repositories for their sperm? Given that women seem to have been biologically designed to alleviate a (heterosexual) man's sexual tensions, it's not exactly fair to refer to men’s wolfish tendencies as themselves condemnable—though, admittedly, they’re not at all praiseworthy. In short, nature predisposes men to objectify women.

Can males help it, for example, if ogling at erotica or pornography on the Web so activates the pleasure circuits of their brain that they can hardly resist returning again and again to leer at such dopamine-releasing stimuli? (Not to mention the fact that the stimuli so powerful in teasing and tantalizing their brains’ reward center is not only typically free but also available with just a few mouse clicks.)

Peter Paul Rubens/ Wikipedia Commons
Source: Peter Paul Rubens/ Wikipedia Commons

Again, we must look at testosterone—the "ethics-free" chemical of desire—as at least the organic culprit of men’s regrettable objectification of women. Moreover, regardless of how cruel, or dehumanizing, the extreme act of rape may be, it yet can be seen as a by-product not only of various cultural degradations but of a hormone-generated lust that may exceed what some emotionally unbalanced or disturbed males have the capacity to control.

The Almost Inescapable Woes of the High-T Male

Psychologist James McBride Dabbs' Heroes, Rogues, and Lovers (2000) is one of the best books investigating not just the physical ramifications of high testosterone in males, but its mental and emotional effects as well. And most of the points I'll be making here relate to the numerous studies covered in his book, including some of his own. For, as one early reviewer opined, Dabbs "is to testosterone what Oliver Sacks is to madness."

One of the characteristics of high-T males most frequently documented is their drive toward dominance, and this correlation is quite strong. Undoubtedly, advantages (at least temporary) do accrue to those prone to dominate others. After all, heroism and leadership generally link to this typically masculine trait. Additionally, dominance is commonly associated with self-confidence—and believing in oneself is routinely seen as beneficial. Nonetheless, in terms of personal relationships , those males more likely to deal cooperatively and collaboratively with others are usually the happiest, most contented, and successful.

Additionally, as much literature on high-T males attests, dominant individuals also tend to be extremely competitive. And they’re frequently empowered by a "killer instinct." In sports, such a trait can be quite advantageous, as it may be also in business—particularly in cutthroat fields where it can be almost compulsory. But again, as regards getting along well in more broadly defined contexts, it's most often a liability. For a driving need to compete with others undermines the empathy, understanding, and compassion required to sustain caring relationships—especially with the opposite sex.

At its worst, high-T dominance and competitiveness can involve brute force and violence. Males’ more tender feelings hormonally "blunted,” they tend not to be particularly concerned about—or, for that matter, interested in —the emotions of others. And persistent feelings of lust or rage can easily overwhelm, or preempt, softer feelings of love, compassion, and forgiveness. It's similar to men on steroids, especially susceptible to being “taken over” by powerful feelings—the reason that the term "roid rage" has become popular in the press.

Sadly, there's seems to be something about high testosterone levels that contributes to an almost predatory frame of mind—at least for those who weren’t adequately nurtured in childhood. (And since T-levels are typically heritable, the risk of such beastliness from having been subject to abusively shaming or neglectful parenting is very real.)

At a minimum, high-T males have been blessed—or better, cursed —with the raw energy to do things to the extreme. And so they're in danger of abusing this energy—to act imprudently, rashly, or recklessly. A large variety of research findings indicate that high-testosterone males are more likely to be impulsive, impatient, unreliable, and (as Dabbs pointedly puts it) "single-minded to the point of obsessiveness." Competitively, or confrontationally, leaning toward raucous, rough, or rugged physical activities, they frequently don't perform well academically.

High testosterone can't by itself predict a male's behavior (or, for that matter, a female's either). For the fearlessness, or willingness to take risks, so common in high-T individuals doesn't reveal what kinds of risks that person might take. All the same, high T-levels have been associated with higher rates of delinquency. And given the greater impulsiveness of males with high-T—and the impaired judgment linked to such mindlessness—they're obviously in greater danger of veering toward the dark side. It’s hardly a coincidence that high T-levels have been linked to psychopathy and the tendency to ignore the rights of others—treating them in careless, if not outright harmful, ways.

To end this discussion, I'd like to elaborate on some of the points I made earlier about high-testosterone males’ difficulty treating the opposite sex with the consideration and respect due them. Insufficiently sensitive and responsive to female feelings, they typically make poor marital partners. And the statistics available on this topic indicate that high-T males are more likely to divorce and actually less likely to marry in the first place.

Additionally, their strong need for dominance virtually guarantees that their marriages will be problematic—if not turbulent. Overall, they report less satisfaction in their marriage than do lower-T males. And their difficulty in accepting their mates as worthy, non-competitive equals is accompanied by a stubborn self-righteousness ill-suited to a healthy union. Here Dabbs citing an article on the work of marital theorist John Gottman (perhaps the world's preeminent authority on what makes intimate relationships work) notes his findings that egalitarian marriages are the most likely to succeed. High-T males, with their propensity to be overbearing and provoke fights, hardly fit the picture of Gottman's ideal husband, willing to share chores, responsibilities, and control.

Not to say that being a male with elevated T-levels is all bad. As already noted, on the football field and in the boardroom (and sometimes, in the bedroom as well!), it definitely has its advantages. But finally, the various woes of the high-T male substantially outweigh its benefits. And nowhere are these disadvantages more psychologically and socially lamentable than in the abusive ways high-T men are apt to treat women.

Which takes us right back to the beginning of this post.

And here I could talk about the vital importance of modifying our educational system—from grade school on—so that it’s more likely to make male children and adolescents more sensitive to the opposite sex (and vice versa). Plus, better teach them the fellow feeling and empathy that so many of them lack, particularly when they hit puberty. And it’s every bit as imperative to train men in the workplace to develop greater sensitivity to issues regarding sexual molestation and harassment.

In both cases, if we’re to effectively counter males’ largely lust/hormone-inspired transgressions, it’s imperative that they learn how to emotionally identify with the abusive experiences inflicted on the opposite sex. So they can begin to experience—“first-hand,” as it were—the adverse effects of their carnally callous behavior.

But, alas, that would be a different article altogether. And, no doubt, a more pivotal one.

Note: Parts of this piece are adapted from an earlier two-part post I published called “The Testosterone Curse” (2009).

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.