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Dismantling gender myths in Cordelia Fine’s latest book, Testosterone Rex

Sarah Biggerstaff

As a woman, and, moreover, a feminist one, it has always been one of my major bugbears that boys and girls, men and women, are treated differently in so many realms of social, educational, and professional life.

Social expectations of acceptable behaviour are so inherently bound up in our socially ascribed gender that if, as a woman, we act assertively we are perceived as being ‘bossy’, nay, even ‘bitchy’, and if a man shows emotions outside of strictly circumscribed contexts he is likely to be called ‘a wuss’ or ‘a big girl’. I don’t even want to imagine how difficult it must be for people who don’t fit neatly into either one nor the other gender category to successfully navigate the waters of socially inscribed gender norms. But are these norms dictated by our upbringing, our backgrounds, our experiences? No, they are dictated solely by the genitalia we possess, and the biological sex we are determined to have at birth, or in many cases, even prior to this.

I don’t even want to imagine how difficult it must be for people who don’t fit neatly into either one nor the other gender category to successfully navigate the waters of socially inscribed gender norms. But are these norms dictated by our upbringing, our backgrounds, our experiences? No, they are dictated solely by the genitalia we possess, and the biological sex we are determined to have at birth, or in many cases, even prior to this.

Cordelia Fine’s latest book, Testosterone Rex, looks at why this is so, and what we as a society can do to unmake the age-old myth that men and women are inherently different, not only at a biological level, but at a neurological one, too. Drawing on decades of scientific research on the links between gender and sexual behaviour, Fine argues what any reasonable person can already see: that differences that emerge in people are a product of many, many factors, from cultural background, to education, to socialisation, to individual experiences, and NOT in some way inherent in the possession of XX or XY chromosomes.

Just to clarify, she does not suggest that there are not biological differences between men and women. Only a fool would claim that two people of the same sex could reproduce without scientific intervention if they wished to, if only they tried. What she says is that many of the differences often observable between men and women – like levels of overt aggression, risk-taking behaviour, and the tendency to nurture – are expressed, not because of some underlying chromosomal reason, but because we are socialised to behave in certain ways on the basis of our gender.

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Fine strategically disproves much of the key ‘evidence’ – read ‘socially inculcated lore’ – of the myth of gendered brains, to illustrate that it is possible to ameliorate the inequalities between men and women, from the sexual double standard, to the pay gap (which, no matter what the old white men tell you, is in fact a reality) if only we stop assuming boys are like this, and women are like that.

Many studies on sex differences are cited throughout the book, and several of the examples Fine unearths which ‘prove’ behavioural sex differences are a real thing in humans are simply laughable. As Fine observes “a major headache for sex researchers is that men reliably report a larger mean number of other-sex sexual partners than do women. This is logically impossible, since heterosexual coitus requires the presence of both a man and a woman.

Why this didn’t occur to researchers who claimed that men are naturally more promiscuously inclined than women several decades ago is beyond me, but here Fine irrefutably disproves that (alternative?) ‘fact’ once and for all. This is just one example of the many assumed sex differences between men and women that Fine decimates in the course of her book, but illustrates the kind of scientific, social, and historical baggage she has to wade through in order to make her point.

I found this book really interesting, though at times, I admit, a little research-heavy. However, the insight and acerbic humour with which Fine approaches her subject makes it a seriously enjoyable read. Testosterone Rex is an elegant and scientifically sound refutation of the old argument that ‘boys will be boys’, and women are underrepresented in high-ranking professional roles because we’re ‘just less competitive than men’.

The take home message, for me, was that while women may not be in possession of the same testosterone levels as men, we should not see this as a disadvantage, because the only real difference that matters is between those who are willing to fight for what they want – social expectations be damned – and those who aren’t.

With a little awareness and an open mind, hopefully, we can do something towards correcting the social imbalances between men and women for the next generation. Because it may be true that ‘boys have a penis and girls have a vagina’, but we both have brains, and what matters is how we use them.

Feature image: Future Vintage Studios

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Sarah Biggerstaff

Sarah Biggerstaff is a literary enthusiast, from Canberra, with a Masters degree in English Literature from the University of York in the United Kingdom. She is currently in her first year of an English PhD, the focus of which is British women’s fiction from the inter-war period, with a particular interest in feminist readings of these novels. Sarah hopes to one day write books, as well as review them, and in the meantime, is happy sharing her passion for books with others. More about the Author

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