Sex, libido, mood: the awesome power of testosterone


Sex, libido, mood: the awesome power of testosterone

ANNELIESE BURGESS reports on the insights in a new book on the powerful role the hormone plays in libido (and emotion) by looking at the latest research and insights from transgender people when they cross to the other side of the testosterone line.


A SURGE in interest and new research over the past three decades has led us to the conclusion that testosterone — or “T" — is not just a sex hormone for male reproduction. It is much, much more — critical in developing embryos, muscles, female and male brains and red blood cells. It even plays a role in women's ovulation!

But in her book Testosterone, Carole Hooven pushes back against an ever more vocal narrative in the nature vs. nurture wars that seeks to downplay the power of testosterone and the impact it has on men's sexuality and inner emotional landscapes. She argues that testosterone remains a major invisible player in our relationships, sex lives, athletic abilities, childhood play, gender transitions, parenting roles, violent crime and much more.

“Those who think that T is an important factor often find their positions caricatured," she says. “The popular press is full of attempts to bring King T down, to show that he is too big for his boots, or more generally, to dismiss biological accounts of psychological and behavioural differences between the sexes."

While it is true that women also require testosterone, the levels in healthy men and women do not come close to overlapping: men's are 10–20 times those of women. In puberty, the gap is even wider — pubescent boys have about 30 times as much T as girls.

“Unless you’re living under a rock, you might suspect that stereotypes about men being hornier than women and wanting more sex without strings have some truth to them. And they do," says Hooven.

She references a 2009 study by psychologist Richard Lippa that analysed data from a massive internet survey conducted by the BBC in collaboration with scholars worldwide. About 200,000 people responded, from 53 nations, including Pakistan, Brazil, Russia, India, Singapore and China (most were from the UK and the US). Taking the responses at face value, the researchers showed that, on average, men have a significantly higher libido than women, even if they can’t always act on their sex drive with an actual partner.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

The penis does not lie

Men's greater desire for sex without commitment is one of the largest of all psychological sex differences in humans, says Hooven.

“To give you a better idea of the size of the difference in sociosexuality averaged across all of the countries, if you were to select a woman at random, there would be a 70% chance that she would be less interested in casual sex than a male picked at random."

In a section titled “The Penis Never Lies", she looks at the latest sex research using a penile plethysmograph, which involves strapping a ring onto a man’s member that registers changes in its circumference as he watches nature documentaries or pornography, or listens to erotic recordings or classical music.

“When men — mostly college undergraduates in Europe and the Americas — come into the lab for one of these experiments that include more ‘objective' measures of arousal like those from the plethysmograph, the results match their self-reports," says Hooven.

“In other words, what the penis says about how turned on a man is matches his verbal reports about how turned on he is. As a man watches pornography, his sexual arousal (as indicated by changes in penile tumescence) wanes over time if the actors in the movie don’t change. But it pops right back up when new actors come on the scene.

“One group of researchers included other measures of participants’ arousal in response to watching pornography: the amount of time it takes them to ejaculate, the volume of that ejaculate and the hardiness of the sperm (the portion that were good swimmers). All of these measures show that, like in the rat, a hearty sexual response returns in men who have sexual access — or the virtual suggestion of sexual access— to a new mate."

Transgender insights

Hooven looks at the role of T in gender transitions, saying this gives us new insight into how life changes when people cross to the other side of the testosterone line.

The number of people who identify as transgender has been rising quickly, she says, although the reasons for this are unclear. A recent literature review estimates that in the US in 2017, 1 in 250 people identified as trans, double the figure a decade earlier.

The effects of male testosterone when taken by “natal" females can be spectacular. This is because both sexes have androgen receptors (the gene that codes for the receptor is on the X chromosome, and females have two of those); females thus have the capacity to respond to high levels of testosterone.


Alan is a trans man. He explains how radically his libido changed after starting to take testosterone:

“When I went on T, my libido definitely increased pretty quickly. Before starting T, I didn’t understand the concept of an erection. But after starting T, I began having what I would call an analogous sensation that I’d describe as a sudden, intense feeling of pressure in the clitoris when I felt sexually aroused. Arousal also definitely happened more frequently than before starting T."

Kallisti is a trans woman. Her transition required blocking T and increasing oestrogen.

“The experience of my sexuality changed dramatically. I wasn’t consumed with thoughts of sex like I was before. The loss of that intense libido wasn’t something I minded; it was a relief, and I enjoyed sex much more. And not just because I was more comfortable in my body as a woman, even though that was part of it. Everything just worked better. Better orgasms — maybe less intense at the peak, but not as limited, not as confined to the genitals and then just over. My whole body has become a sexual organ, sexually responsive, and the orgasms last longer and kind of affect my whole body. And I was pretty emotionally engaged and aware before, but now the emotional connection to my partner (my fiancée) plays a bigger role in my sexual response and enjoyment."

Stella is a detransitioned woman — first going onto testosterone and then off it again.

“As far as sex drive goes, I knew that it would go up, but it was like night and day. And after being on T for a few months, I went sexually crazy for guys, even though I still liked women. I spent more time thinking about who was looking at me and wondering whether I liked them. If they appealed to me, it felt like a need that I needed to satisfy, like, right now.

“Being in a relationship was great, and I had really good orgasms on testosterone. They felt like a quick, concentrated release, as opposed to a slower, more full-body experience that I had before I transitioned. My sex drive vanished for months when I went off T but it’s come back now, albeit in a very different way.

“Getting turned on is different. It was very obvious when I was turned on, and the need to release was more urgent when I was on T. The release was also a lot more physical and gratifying after a single orgasm. I would become extremely sensitive when I had an orgasm on T. It almost feels incomplete now if I only have one orgasm. It’s not a release; it feels more like the building of something bigger."

Hooven says that what Alan, Kallisti and Stella told her confirms that libido generally follows T. Transitioning from female to male using T grants entry into what can be a shocking new world of sexual desire that takes time to adjust to. Male-to-female hormonal transitions often result in a lowering of libido. That doesn’t mean a complete loss of sexual desire, but with the addition of oestrogen, sexual enjoyment may be softened and become more of a “whole body" experience.


Hooven also interrogated what changes T brought to the internal emotional landscapes of Stella, Alan and Kallisti.

Stella told her she felt emotionally numb after going on T but it felt normal after a while — “just a part of me. I cried a total of three times during the whole three years I was on T, where I used to cry every day."

She said anxiety, joy, depression and excitement were all amplified in their own ways after going off T. “The only emotion that seems duller now that I’m off T is anger, which used to be my most vivid emotion. I experience anger differently, more tied in with sadness than rage."

Alan says that before T, he cried what he thought was a normal amount. “In retrospect, I cried relatively easily. Now, I might have the emotion but it doesn’t come out in tears, even if I’d like to cry. I can have even more of that sad or moved emotion than would have led to tears before, but I still won’t cry. It is usually years between episodes of crying. It can happen, but it takes a lot. The threshold is just much, much higher."

Kallisti says that after she transitioned by going off “natural T and on oestrogen at 33", she no longer feels the spikes of rage she sometimes felt before and her emotions are more balanced.

Hooven concludes that the transgender experience has a lot to teach us about T. “Trans people’s experiences with changing T levels confirm the conclusion of a vast and diverse amount of research that has been accumulating for more than a century: the power of T is truly awesome … but acknowledging testosterone as a potent force in society doesn't reinforce stifling gender norms or patriarchal values. Testosterone and evolution work together to produce a huge variety of human behaviour, including many ways to be masculine and feminine."

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.