The ‘Manosphere’ and the Testosterone Cult

The ‘manosphere’ refers to a group of websites and online forums dedicated to promoting masculinity and (in most cases) misogyny. I say “in most cases” because it is a loose coalition which includes various groups; ‘men’s rights activists (MRA), incels (involuntary celibates), Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), pick-up artists (PUA), fathers’ rights groups’ — not to mention conspicuous ties to the ‘far-right and alt-right communities’.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the manosphere is the subsection obsessed with testosterone — or more specifically, what is known as testosterone-maxing.

The basic premise is this: masculinity is under attack. There is a global conspiracy against men, attempting to feminize them, making them weak, docile ‘soyboys’. Proof of this ‘conspiracy’ is found in the studies reporting a steady decrease in men’s testosterone levels (declining by about 1% per year since the 1980s) and the overall fertility rate. Through hormone-disrupting microplastics, anti-meat-eating propaganda and the general acceptance of many unhealthy habits, these men believe that they are being endocrinologically engineered, and that the only way to prevent their feminisation is to maximize their testosterone — the biochemical source of masculinity.

Testosterone is an androgenic hormone. (The word ‘androgen’, from the Greek andro-gen, means man-making). It is the primary male sex hormone, responsible for all of men’s dimorphic traits; bone density, muscle mass, hairiness — even behaviours like aggression, one’s mood, and cognitive abilities: ‘During development, testosterone fuels the growth of a brain region involved in mathematical thinking, and giving adults testosterone enhances some math skills’ (Sapolsky). Both sexes produce testosterone but ‘men have ten to twenty times as much as women’ (Hooven). It is, in a nutshell, what makes a man a man.

The men of the manosphere lament the decline of this vital substance — and they should! Testosterone is, in many ways, ‘mythical’ (Hooven). It is often demonized for generating aggression (and internecine ‘dick-swinging’ competitions). But without the motivating force of testosterone, men have less drive and ambition, hindering pursuits of excellence and self-transcendence. Testosterone fuels great feats — and perhaps more significantly, in the words of the neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, ‘testosterone makes effort feel good’ (hence its ‘close relationship’ with dopamine — the molecule of motivation).

One contributor to the manosphere, who writes under the pseudonym ‘Bronze Age Pervert’, argues that the centrality of hormones in human history warrants a new materialism; an endocrinological materialism:

Hormones hold the key to the meaning of life in the most fundamental way, and if this sounds “reductionist” to you, if you think I demystify things too much, it’s because you think you know what you don’t, or you think scientists know, when they actually don’t. These substances, seen with fresh eyes, are pure Big Magic. They govern all cycles of an organism’s growth and its decay. They can turn small calf or baby gorilla into giant elephant or half-ton silverback on diet of greens, they can turn skinny man into Herculean half-god or make strong man take on the aspect of woman, and change tendencies and feelings (BAP)

The Bronze Age Pervert, whose two main influences are Nietzsche and Camille Paglia, asserts that ‘Life has a thing inside it that reaches beyond itself’, and that this ‘thing’ creates Great Men:

Among the Greeks the man of power was called aner, who was different from the other word used, anthropos, which referred just to some shadow-being, indistinct, some kind of humanoid shape. The real man was rare, and most males were not and are not real men! The word in beginning was used only for demigods and superhumans like Achilles or Diomedes or Odysseus […] In the Iliad Diomedes in his moment of glory is compared to lion whose spirit has been aroused by anger at wound, and scatters the shepherds and dogs before him. Athena kindled a fire on his head and shoulders and marked him as one possessed by the true inner force inside all things. This burst out of him now and made itself light up above all others. The real man was a man filled by courage and daring that all came from an excess of being (BAP)

Compare this mythical description of Diomedes with the science-speak of evolutionary biologist, Carole Hooven (hint: there is little difference):

High T further prepares a stag in anticipation of the rut. It promotes the growth of muscles around a stag’s neck, doubling its girth. In stags, as in humans, the girth of the neck is a pretty good indication of one’s fighting ability — but it’s even more important in the stags. Larger neck muscles help put those strong antlers to good use, such as when they are deployed to twist an opponent to the ground, where more serious damage can be inflicted. T also encourages the growth of a shaggy mane around a stag’s neck, exaggerating its size, making him look even more intimidating. And there’s yet another effect of T in the stags: it increases red blood cell production, increasing oxygen transport. More oxygen to working muscles helps stags stay in the fight by increasing stamina during exhausting battles (Hooven)

Although they are suspicious of experts and the scientific literature — which they believe ‘is corrupted by money, career, and other interests of all kinds’ (BAP) — the manosphere relies heavily on such literature in order to optimize testosterone levels scientifically. This means that most of the advice, in this regard, is quite sensible. They usually recommend some combination of the following:

What is not often mentioned but is crucial for testosterone production is winning. Accruing wins is by far the best way to endogenously increase testosterone: ‘Many studies have found [that] T rises prior to a competition in both the eventual winners and losers, but T remains elevated for longer in the winners than the losers’ (Hooven). The literature on this is clear; when it comes to testosterone, the governing principle is the ‘Matthew Effect’: ‘For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away’ (Matthew 13:12).

Aside from the conspiratorial aspect, the only problem I have with testosterone optimization is that it is often misinterpreted as testosterone maximization (which almost always leads to doping). Not only is there a point of diminishing returns, there is also a holistic need for hormonal balance. Estrogen is demonized by manosphere men in the same way testosterone is demonized by misandrists. The fact is, estrogen, in the correct quantities, is just as necessary for men as testosterone:

Remember that all estrogen comes from testosterone, with the help of the enzyme aromatase. The important role of estrogen in bone growth for boys went unappreciated until the 1990s, when a small number of boys with the very rare disorder of aromatase deficiency were studied. A mutation in the gene for the aromatase enzyme meant that those boys could not produce estrogen — without aromatase they were unable to convert testosterone into it. These estrogen-deficient boys, and the men they became, had similar bone issues as the eunuchs. These boys were tall, with long limbs and weak bones (along with some other metabolic issues, demonstrating the importance of estrogen in male growth and health) (Hooven)

Moreover, dips in testosterone can be beneficial. (Testosterone naturally wanes throughout the day, ‘declining from 40 to 50 percent or more from morning to night’). According to Hooven, there are such things as ‘high-T losers’, who are too busy directing attention toward ‘rivals’ and ‘new sexual prospects’ rather than toward ‘one’s mate and children’. The result: low reproductive success. One study she cites demonstrates this well. A group of researchers observed the mating habits of a lizard that mates seasonally (in the summer) and found, unsurprisingly, that ‘T increases bellicosity and horniness’ and thus, in the summer, when their T is at its highest, those with the most T have greater mating opportunities. The researchers then set out to discover what would happen if certain lizards maintained high levels of T throughout — not just the mating season but — all year round:

At the end of the summer, they compared the lizards whose T had been increased to the “control” lizards […] with the normal Goldilocks, middle-zone T levels. Eighty percent of the Goldilocks lizards were still alive. They did what these lizards usually do in the summer. They spent about three hours a day outside of their hideouts, basking in the sun, chowing down on their favorite insects, and defending their territories. Meanwhile, the jacked-up lizards more than doubled the amount of time they spent out and about, patrolling their territories, attacking other lizards, and showing off. More time spending energy, and less time resting and eating. Many of these high-T lizards did manage to increase the size of their territories. But they failed miserably in their preparations for the fall mating season, when those large territories would have paid off. Relative to the Goldilocks controls, the high-T males were now quite thin, or worse, dead. Half of them had met an untimely demise. They had come out of the gate too fast and spent their precious energy early and unwisely. The Goldilocks guys were rested, fattened up, and prepared for the arrival of the females. They got their more sensible genes into the next generations. Who’s the loser now?

A parallel exists between these territorial lizards and the fascistic element within the manosphere. The irony is that many men in the manosphere are traditionalists who pay lip service to family values and present themselves as protectors.

They may have the best intentions but they are thwarting themselves, guarding their territories from phantom rivals. All of that effort would be better spent raising real men — then maybe there would not be such a crisis of masculinity.

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Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’