The Myth of Testosterone

Dr. Katrina Karkazis and Dr. Rebecca Jordan-Young are the authors of the forthcoming ”Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography.”

On Wednesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that female athletes with naturally elevated levels of testosterone could not compete as women unless they made efforts to reduce the hormone in their bodies.

The ruling came in a case brought by the middle-distance runner Caster Semenya against the International Association of Athletics Federations that challenged longstanding myths about the presumed masculinity of testosterone and its role in the body. Her loss demonstrates just how entrenched those myths have become.

For a century, talk about testosterone as the “male hormone” has woven folklore into science, so that supposedly objective claims seemingly validate cultural beliefs about the structure of masculinity and the “natural” relationship between women and men.

The International Association of Athletics Federations’ own analysis of testosterone and performance, involving more than 1,100 women competing in track and field events, shows that for six of the 11 running events, women with lower testosterone actually did better than those with higher levels.

Labeling testosterone the male sex hormone suggests that it is restricted to men and is alien to women’s bodies, and obfuscates the fact that women also produce and require testosterone as part of healthy functioning. Even the earliest hormone researchers understood that testosterone has wide-ranging effects on metabolism, liver function, bones, muscle, skin and the brain in both sexes.

But because early hormone researchers were fixated on sexual anatomy and reproduction, they gave short shrift to testosterone’s myriad effects, treating it as both oddly narrow — that it is about things men have more of — and overwhelmingly powerful.

Of course, it’s one thing for myths to persist in the public imagination. But what has puzzled us in nearly a decade of research is how these ideas have gained so much traction among the organizations that regulate sports, when the evidence needed to support them is largely absent or contradictory. Read more via New York Times