PODCAST: Cordelia Fine pokes holes in old-fashioned ideas about testosterone and sexed brains

Despite feminists’ best efforts, many people today believe that inequality between the sexes is natural, not cultural. They will often point to the behavior, clothing, or play of girls and boys to prove this; or they will point to hormones, like testosterone, as evidence that men are inherently violent, sexually aggressive, or more adventurous than women. Cordelia Fine’s work throws a wrench into all of that. In her new book, Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds, Fine paints a far more complex picture of brains and the impacts of hormones on human beings.

Fine is a psychologist and is also the author of Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. I spoke with her over the phone last week.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Martha Zawacki

    Thank you for this! I love Cordeila Fine’s work. It is scientifically sound, understandable, not tendentious (I don’t care but for purposes of reaching a wider audience, it’s a wise tack to take) and unassailable in its logic. And Meghan Murphy, you are one of my favorite feminists around, FemCurrent is one of the bright points of my day and I am immensely grateful for it. I live in the US where even in NYC only about 200 people turned out on a beautiful day for International Women’s Day, there is a total dearth of radfems. Your column, apart from enlightening me and keeping me in the loop as no US publication can, makes me feel less isolated. Bravo and best of luck with future ventures! I believe you have a book coming out and can’t wait. Let me know if you ever need any volunteer work, I am not totally useless.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thank you so much for your kind words, sister! (Totally recommend Cordelia’s new book, if you haven’t read it… Totally engrossing.)

    • Cassandra

      I know how you feel. NYC is libfem central. Look into Meetup though.

    • genny

      I can relate. I live in Philly in a working class area where most women are not feminists at all, so it’s very hard to find women to hang out with who have radfem/second wave beliefs. I don’t know how true it is, but I hear Boston has a large radfem following.

  • Kendall Turtle

    I really need to read her books.

  • Cassandra

    This was great. Not sure I followed her entirely but I think I got the gist of it. Great work!

  • Americus91

    Thanks for this! A book I’m interested in reading for sure. I’ve been learning so much listening to your podcasts.

    So this had me re-visiting my detailed notebook from abnormal psych. We learned and discussed gender dysphoria and the prof also had specialized in cultural studies so enjoyed adding information regarding other cultures during our course.

    What I come across often in debates online regarding transgender issues – “There are people like us all over the world! There always has been!”

    Which I never suggested there wasn’t. But nevertheless they say it but stop at explaining any of that in further detail. Why are there third genders in other cultures? How did they come to be? I suppose they believe that people reading have no idea what all is behind the existence of a third gender in other cultures.

    For example I learned about one where the economy was highly dependent on male work – and when there was a shortage of males they permitted females to volunteer to live and work as a male – it was based on economic conditions and needs of the culture. The female didn’t change their sex – but lived and worked as male – was not permitted to ever change back to living as a woman and was not permitted to marry.

    Another example was a culture where a child was born male but the parents could choose to raise it as female to do “women’s work” if needed. They were permitted to have sex and marry other males or females but it was mentioned by the prof “But if they had sex with a male it wasn’t considered homosexual because they were a third gender NOT male.”

    In Indian tribes there were “two spirits” males and females who switched gender expression and there were specific rules depending on each tribe regarding sex and marriage.

    The point is though – in these cultures it was an institutionalized third gender – given a very specific name – and they weren’t recognized as exactly the same as a man or a woman. And there were very specific reasons for it based on the needs of the culture. And very specific rules associated.

    So it seems those examples point to the how the person was raised, the culture, the economic and social needs of the culture – not inherent differences.

    And as far as the rules regarding sex and marriage and what would be considered homosexual or not – whether you could marry or not marry etc. – who in each culture got to determine and make the rules regarding that? That info wasn’t included in the examples given.

  • Meghan Murphy
  • Raven

    When I was in college my then girlfriend was on the basketball team. She tore here ACL and couldn’t run for about 9 months and thus lost most of her muscle in her left leg. Unbeknownst to me she started taking steroids to build muscle quicker because she was scared she would lose her scholarship. She became hyper-sexual and violent. She literally beat me up and raped me several times. Before all of this she had a low sex drive and was very even-tempered. It was an extremely traumatic time in my life. I hate making an excuse for her but I truly do believe the steroids really messed with her brain chemistry.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I’m not sure what specific commentary or arguments you’re responding to?

  • Kendall Turtle

    She isn’t denying physical sex so idk what the issue is.

  • Hanakai

    There are vast individual differences between people in terms of temperament, abilities, personality. Some of these are genetic, but not sex-linked, such as temperament; some boy and girl babies are born with sunny temperaments, some with cranky temperaments; some infants are more active than others. We are not born entirely blank slates, coming as we do with a complete set of genes and being influenced by the maternal environment (e.g., a pregnant women who drinks alcohol affects the fetus, often lowering its intelligence for life).

    Nonetheless, the sex differences in infants, aside from genitalia and sexual morphology, are otherwise trivial or nonexistent. They have the same brains and organs and are open to learning what their world and culture teach them. One of the first things taught is language and people’s brains form different sets of neuronal connections and cognitive biases based on the language they learn. And another thing cultures start teaching children early on is sex roles. These are learned.

    I do not know that anyone is saying that there are no innate sex differences. Certainly genitalia and the sex chromosomes differ. But the reality is that both women and men are capable of intelligence, kindness, compassion, cruelty, courage, cowardice, doing math, mastering astrophysics, applying reason, writing poetry and the sex roles and stereotypes that have their origins in patriarchy and the antediluvian ideologies of monotheistic misogynistic religions are total bullsh*t.

    Personally I suspect that with pregnancy and childbirth some innate sort of sex differences kick in; mothers become intensely, sometimes exclusively, hyper-focused on the infant, and of course breast-feeding must tickle a part of the brain that never gets activated in males. There is data that in most of the world, the women are making food and taking care of the babies, children and elders, and spend their money on feeding and educating their children, while men spend money and occupy themselves with drinking, gambling, chasing sex and games involving balls and sticks. Are these innate or learned, inborn or cultural?

    I am inclined to think, based on the evidence, that males are biologically, psychologically and genetically the weaker sex. And sometimes I think that males have an inherent tendency to violence as a result of the interaction of limbic system and testosterone; other times I think the violence is learned — for now I am continuing to look at the data and withholding a conclusion until there is more evidence.

  • Hanakai

    Wikipedia is so useless. It is mostly written and edited by males between the ages of 18 and 25. Most have no journalism training and are unqualified to write on the topics. Wikipedia is full of errors and is also very male-biased. Whenever I have made contributions about women’s achievements or male depravity, they have been disallowed or removed. Seriously. I do not see it as a credible source.

    Now, back on topic, it has long been known that if you give an organism androgens, male hormones such as testosterone, the organism starts developing male features and often becomes more violent and aggressive. If you given an organism estrogens, the organism becomes more peaceable. Basically, Nature provided us with a normal hormonal balance to allow societies to exist and it is not wise to mess with steroids in the absence of a medical indication for their use.

    Years ago an anthropologist named Ashley Montague wrote a book called The Natural Superiority of Women; he argued, inter alia, that, in critique of the conventional wisdom of women as the “weaker sex,” the reality was that women’s biological, genetic, and physical makeup made her not only man’s equal, but his superior, and better suited for leadership.

  • Mancheeze


    Radfems understand basic biology. We understand chromosomal sex. What is at issue here is brain sex, which doesn’t exist. Females are not born with a female brain. We’re born with a unique brain.

    You’re wrong about the gender identity movement. Transgenderists claim what YOU DO, which is that males who claim to be women have a female brain and that’s why they engage in the sex role stereotypical behaviour of femininity. You actually AGREE with transgenderists regarding this point.

    Radical feminists know that gender roles aren’t innate, that there isn’t a female brain pre-programmed with an innate preference for pink toys and becoming a sex object.

    Radical feminists understand that what transgenderists do is engage in behavioural sex role stereotypes, which they then claim makes them the opposite sex.

    We radfems know that simply putting on a dress, injecting hormones and/or having surgeries don’t change your sex.

  • MsTerry

    M, I’m always impressed by your ability to attract such notable people to your podcasts. Thanks!

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks for listening!