Our Birthright of Love
Reader Question on OxyCalm and Labor

You Say Estrogen, I Say Testosterone

Mike sent me a rant from craigslist recounting a guy's frustrating conversation with his girlfriend. From his point of view, she was being ridiculously illogical and emotional. I thought it was pretty sexist.

Why do women and men so often dislike each other? We really are as different as cats and dogs. And that is due to the differences in our estrogen and testosterone. (Men's and women's bodies produce both hormones, but men have a whole lot more testosterone and vice versa.)

Max Wolf Valerio is someone who can illuminate how different men and women are. He's a female-to-male transsexual and an insightful, expressive writer. I just finished his book, The Testosterone Files, and it eliminated any lingering doubles I had about biology as destiny.

The subtitle is "My hormonal and social transformation from female to male." It's clear from his experience that the hormonal and social can't be separated.

In the first five years of his transition, Valerio found his emotions, his reactions, his very thoughts changing.

It’s not only that lust becomes stronger and more direct. He finds himself behaving in ways we might think are stereotypical of males, or the results of cultural conditioning. He actually find it harder to articulate his feelings.

He feels more amped up on testosterone, more alive. And when he remembers his emotional state as a woman, he writes, "I remember that soporific quality. Dreamy, nearly beatific in contrast to the charged, energized feeling I experience now."

He admits to a heightened urge to dominate situations. "I've noticed that I do take up more airspace in conversations now, especially with women, and have to hold myself back, watch that I'm not soaking up all the airtime without realizing it, in a roll, spinning out, a slight euphoria …"

Anger became quicker and stronger, more visceral. "Flares of hot anger shooting up from my feet through my solar plexus into my chest, flaming and swelling, shooting out into my head. I act: a primal, elemental impulse. Taking control through the loss of control."

What does this have to do with oxytocin and bonding? Estrogen enhances the effects of oxytocin while testosterone mutes them. The battle of the sexes is triggered by hormones -- men and women do love differently.

While Valerio charts the changes in his body, his mind and his relationships with women in depth and with great awareness, I was disappointed that there was not much about bonding in the book. I wish that he could have taken me along as the nature of his feelings of desire and commitment within a relationship -- or even within a series of relationships -- changed with the tide of testosterone.

Instead, the women come and go, relationships form and dissolve rather mysteriously. It's possible that Valerio's oxytocin response, that release of oxytocin in times of intimacy that can so firmly connect us, wasn't strong enough to tie him to another, even when estrogen was his guiding neuropeptide.

Or maybe it’s just his new, manly self. In one part, he bemusedly remembers the "lesbian bonding rituals" he used to go through with his girlfriends, holding each other and crying with emotion.

It’s not that boys don’t cry, he realizes. Boys can't cry - not as easily as girls, at any rate.

"I’d believed that men could cry as much as women if they'd just let themselves go. Men were victims of a masculine ethos that forbade tears, that made them into unfeeling, seething septic tanks of repressed pain ready to lash out.

I was wrong.

Emotionally, I do have a thicker skin now.  … I can shrug off hurt feelings a lot easier than I ever could before. … What might have upset me as a female for a few days, might now upset me for a few hours."

I admit that I have often looked at men as emotionally repressed, seething septic tanks of emotion. I've thought they'd be better off if they could be more like me.

Reading The Testosterone Files makes me wonder how men and women ever do get together and stay together. It’s like getting elephants and horses to do circus tricks together.

And yet, we do. Oxytocin binds us both to each other. That's the same bond in both of us, even if all the other parts of our bodies and brains cause its expression to be so different.

I think everyone should read The Testosterone Files. It should be required reading for 12-year-olds, but it can help all of us understand each other better.

Here is Valerio's blog, The First Steps.