Being Honest About Male Hormones

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday we heard from a mother of two daughters who worries about the role that alcohol often plays in sexual assaults on campus. A father writes:

I did indeed just drop my daughter off at college last week and had this conversation with her. She didn’t have much exposure to guys or alcohol in high school, and I wanted to give her my opinions on both.

When I was in high school, I said, people focused on the moral dimensions of drinking, as if alcohol was a sinful thing unto itself. It felt great to drink, especially because I was thumbing my nose at the Bible thumpers.

I told my daughter that the issue with drinking isn’t the act; it’s what come next. People treat it as a license for all kinds of bad decisions. The moral rebellion I felt then is now a rebellion of human decency and norms.

On assault, I told her that sex is something she should do 1000% on her terms and no one else’s. Also, sometimes, women are assaulted on campus and then try to hide it because they are afraid of telling their parents that they were drinking or in bed with a boy. I said, no matter what, we’ll support you. Regardless of the circumstances, if she feels assaulted, that’s all that matters to us.

Tough conversation to have, but critical in this day.

His remarks about drinking being a rebellious act made me think of a reader email sent a few months ago by Jack. He essentially argues that there’s a risk in being too alarmist about college drinking and sex—that some young men will blindly rebel against overheated rhetoric and throw sensibility out with the bathwater:

As a kid, I was taught a lot about alcohol, drugs, and sex—insistently and repeatedly—and didn’t listen to much of it. I think it’s worth looking at why.

Have you ever heard of AlcoholEdu? [Sample video above.] It is a common “alcohol education” program for incoming freshmen, and it is the most alarmist, hilariously exaggerated shit of all time. It said having one (1) shot of liquor was “binge drinking” and “extremely dangerous.” I’d had seven beers my first night at college, and woke up feeling great. I used AlcoholEdu’s BAC calculator to see how drunk I’d been. It listed one symptom I should have from drinking that much: death.

Similarly, I got the full experience of the “just say no” era of drug education. I was convinced that weed would kill you, or at least give you profound, permanent brain damage. I had no idea that marijuana was less dangerous than, say, cocaine, until some friends told me. (And people wonder why kids listen to their friends for advice on sex stuff. Sometimes, the friends legitimately give more accurate information! How sad is that?)

Importantly, I’m sure they never said weed would kill you, since it won’t. But they gave us a blizzard of symptoms for a long list of drugs, and death came up multiple times, and it was all scary, and I didn’t know to make negative inferences from omissions.  So I came away with that impression.

By college, I saw all of these lessons as adult handwringing about “kids these days.” Drinking and drugs was rebellion against oppressive, restrictive authority that was often wrong anyway. And I probably did more bad stuff than I would have, given non-alarmist information.

And I had similar experiences with sex ed, although more about STDs and hookups than rape. I eventually saw concern for STDs and waiting until you’re in a relationship to have sex in the same way as the drugs and alcohol “education”—because they were taught by the same people, in the same alarmist, overly conservative way, with the same moralizing.  

I suspect hookup culture is partially a response to sex ed that says sex without a serious relationship is unusual and morally wrong, that I and presumably others heard.

And I received anti-rape education at various times. I knew people who believed all the “rape myths,” who were walking embodiments of “rape culture.” They saw the anti-rape education the same way they saw the alcohol/drugs education, as get-off-my-lawnism.

I wonder how I would have reacted if told that “Consent is a voluntary, sober, imaginative, enthusiastic, creative, wanted, informed, mutual, honest, and verbal agreement” (that’s real).

There are many unspoken rules for boys about how to pursue girls:

  • Don’t objectify or be creepy.
  • Be nice but not a “nice guy.”
  • Don’t be too upfront, but don’t hide the ball too long, etc.  

The way people discuss objectifying in particular bothers me, as people often act like it’s wrong to want to have sex with someone due to physical looks. As if they don’t want that all the time.

We talk about teaching “everyone” consent, but really we view girls as the arbiters of sexual morality, who pronounce the true meaning of an encounter, and the boys as the suspect, just waiting to mess up and meekly walk home—not just rejected, but shamed or possibly punished. This all takes place in a general environment of teenage bewilderment about anything sex related.

And like with drugs, the overall message I got was one not always explicitly told: As a guy, just wanting sex from girls makes you suspect. Predatory. Gross. The problem.

It’s not surprising, then, that red-pillers exist. [Background here] It’s an alternative narrative, that society is wrong. You’re not the problem—the girls are! You’re not a bad guy. Society is already wrong about many other things—stands to reason, this too. If there’s no way to want sex without being immoral, then you either swear off sex, or accept your immorality.

I think a solution is education that treats boys with more sympathy, that sees boys not just as potential violators, but as kids trying to figure it out, who themselves can be treated badly while in the role of pursuing and trying to win over girls. We should have conversations that don’t always segue to rape when sex comes up.

The reason I didn’t listen to my alcohol/drug/sex education is because it seemed unrealistic and unfair. If consent education seems unrealistic and unfair, it won’t matter how many times we drill it into boys; they won’t listen. But if it treats boys sympathetically, and isn’t overly alarmist, I think they will.

If you’d like to respond, drop us a note. Here’s one more reader, Steve, who recalls the dark subconscious thoughts of his adolescence with brutal honesty:

Teaching young boys to play nice is good and useful. Modeling behavior toward women is also good and useful. But we need to do much more than that; we need to acknowledge that as these young boys grow into adolescence and early adulthood, they are going to bombarded by a combination of compelling physical urges and physical power while simultaneously achieving broad license to govern their own behavior, and that they must learn to channel and sublimate those things if they are not to harm others and themselves.

Nothing in my childhood prepared me for what happened as I entered puberty, and then physically matured into manhood. My unconscious night dreams went from being about toys and play, with an occasional nightmare about fire or powerlessness, to being violent and aggressive (with me in the central, powerful role) that still, 50 years later, astonishes me.

By the time I was 16, sex joined the nightly parade of dreams, and combined with daytime fantasy that involved more forms of penetration and domination than I could ever have imagined a few short years before. My body and mind seemed to be telling me that I needed sex, and I had everything else I needed to get it.

All of this is true, notwithstanding that I grew up in a home where any kind of disrespect toward girls or women was firmly frowned upon, and without any serious trauma at all in my life. I certainly heard about domestic violence in our neighborhood, but you didn’t see overt sexuality on TV or in print in those days, and there was certainly nothing modeled among the adults around me that would have led to these images; they came to me almost completely out of the blue.

And, when I became old enough to have access to alcohol, I quickly learned the toxic combination of urgency and permissiveness that alcohol fuels.

We need to help young men understand their responsibility to not “be themselves” when the potent combination of sex, power, and diminished social inhibitions come together, and we should start by at least admitting that these things are latent in many, if not most, young males. I could certainly have used some frank assistance with it in my youth.

Nothing about getting older has been more a relief to me than the eventual ascendance of control over the chaos that puberty and its aftermath introduced into my life.

Testosterone, of course, is the crux of what Steve is talking about. One of the best episodes of This American Life was devoted to the male hormone, and the segment featuring Griffin Hansbury was the most fascinating. Hansbury is a trans dude who, before transitioning with hormone therapy, “strongly identified as a woman at the time [attending Bryn Mawr College], as a feminist, and as a dyke.” Here’s a key part of the transcript:

Alex Blumberg: You have the testosterone of two linebackers.

Griffin Hansbury: Exactly. Exactly. That’s a lot. That’s a lot of T. And what’s amazing about it is how instantaneous it is, that it happens within a few days really. The world just changes.

Alex Blumberg: What were some of the changes that you didn't expect?

Griffin Hansbury: The most overwhelming feeling is the incredible increase in libido and change in the way that I perceived women and the way I thought about sex. Before testosterone, I would be riding the subway, which is the traditional hotbed of lust in the city. And I would see a woman on the subway, and I would think, she’s attractive. I’d like to meet her. What’s that book she’s reading? I could talk to her. This is what I would say.

There would be a narrative. There would be this stream of language. It would be very verbal.

After testosterone, there was no narrative. There was no language whatsoever. It was just, I would see a woman who was attractive or not attractive. She might have an attractive quality, nice ankles or something, and the rest of her would be fairly unappealing to me.

But that was enough to basically just flood my mind with aggressive, pornographic images, just one after another. It was like being in a pornographic movie house in my mind. And I couldn’t turn it off. I could not turn it off. Everything I looked at, everything I touched, turned to sex.

Anything you’d like to add this part of our discussion? Let us know and we’ll post.