Hormone research has been greatly influenced by cultural assumptions about the dimorphism of gender. Much of the scientific data produced and taken as ‘knowledge’ reaffirms social ideologies already thought to be true and uses this data to essentially prove these ideas. In the case of hormone
research, ideas about the innate differences between males and females were imposed upon the scientific methodologies and the conclusions made. The misconception of estrogen and testosterone projected cultural ideas about femininity and masculinity, and implied difference. The fact that these hormones
are secreted from ‘sexual organs’ gave scientific license to claim them as sexual hormones: the explanatory factor of the male female difference. This essay will discuss how the study of hormones reaffirmed culturally constructed notions of the innate difference between male and female and the idea that this fact is biologically determined.
The early 1900s was a time of social and political upheaval regarding developing thought on feminism and equal rights, the hormone studies and ideas of “sex antagonism” by the physiologist Eugen Steinach greatly show how this science was influenced by cultural notions (Fausto-Sterling, 159). As asserted by Anne Fausto-Sterling, Steinach’s “entire life’s work was premised on the unexamined idea that there must be a sharp ‘natural’ distinction between maleness and femaleness” (Fausto-Sterling, 158). Instead of observing these hormones without bias and looking to understand how they function, Steinach sets out to prove a difference. The language which he uses to define the characteristics of these hormones reflects the thought process
of the times. Describing the interaction of hormones in “militaristic terms” he relates on the “battles of the antagonistic actions of sex hormones” and marks their “sharp antagonism” (Fausto-Sterling, 159). The language used to describe this study outlines his agenda as he uses loaded terms like antagonism instead of the more appropriate term, inhibition. This study dealing with the transplantation of ovaries and testes in guinea pigs uses the study of the abnormal or the object of study out of its natural context to understand it. The evidence and the conclusions made by Steinach illuminate his ideas as his data as his data can have many interpretations. This study, though valid in some ways to the understanding and effects of ovaries and testes essentially projects the “political story of human sex antagonism that paralleled contemporary social struggles” (Fausto-Sterling, 162). These studies and the terms used to define them create a degree of ‘fact’ which leads to further study along with living on in popular thought. Another scientist, de Kruif, decades later would expand on the ideas of Steinach and hormone antagonism, calling it a “chemical war between the male and female hormones… a chemical miniature of the well-known human war between men and women” (Fausto-Sterling, 169).
Though it is now understood that men and women possess both hormones, estrogen and testosterone, in their bodies when hormone research first discovered this it was considered “disconcerting and anomalous” (Fausto-Sterling, 182). If research was being conducted in a manner which sought to neutrally understand the nature of these hormones, then these findings would never be deemed “surprising” or “paradoxical” (Fausto-Sterling, 182). In fact because scientists found hormones to be sex hormones, creating the solution and proof of the inherent differences between man and woman, social roles culturally ordained for them were reaffirmed to be true. The dualism between man and woman asserted by research on hormones is then annulled by these findings of the “sex hormones” of the wrong gender “where they ought not to be” (Fausto-Sterling, 182). If men and women both possess testosterone and estrogen in their tissues, then how can the idea that these hormones are “sex” hormones continue to be asserted? The idea of hormones linked to sex needs to be reconceptualized but is so engrained in the ideas of gender where hormones are really in fact growth promoters.
The idea of hormones as strictly male and female starts with the notion of male and female as binary categories instead of a more understandable and less rigid continuum of gender. The problem with this binary system is that if something does not fit into one slot or the other all the exceptions are considered abnormalities. The explanation for the poor research on hormones links directly to the notions and social ideas of the times in which the studies were conducted. The subjectivity of science needs to be realized as knowledge production is not outside social influence. The studies of hormones sought to create a biologically deterministic solution in which the chemical make up of our bodies could explain the social situations of our culture. This reaffirmation of social thought and the superiority and inferiority complexes of male and female sought to create a solid fact behind the fiction. It is interesting to think how the studies would have been different if they set out to look for similarity instead of difference. The hormone studies reaffirmed the cultural ideas of the dimorphic nature male and female and the engrained ideas of hunter/ gatherer, aggressor/ nurturer, and rational/emotional. The standardization of what these complex hormones do in the bodies of males and females shows the influence of knowledge produced by what is thought should be instead of looking to understand the true nature.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. Basic Books. New York, 2000