“Testosterone Rex” meets the U.S. Congress

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There has been no more interesting contrast in recent history than to see side-by-side photos of the swearing in of the 2019 U.S. House of Representatives. On one side, a diverse mix of young and old, men and women, and of various ethnicity. On the other side, a bunch of mostly-old white men like me, all dressed in dark suits:

2019 Democratic Congress

2019 Republican Congress

At least five congressional women have announced their intention to run for the presidential nomination in 2020. This is a wonderful thing, but this Congress and these female candidates bring to the front of the line the issue of sexism still deeply embedded in American politics, culture and religion. And much of that lingering sexism is based on scientific and mathematical illiteracy, which is the subject of this post.

Cordelia Fine is Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at The University of Melbourne, Australia. In 2018 she published an award-winning book titled Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society. “Testosterone Rex” is Fine’s term for “the giant elephant testicles in the room” that color all of our discussions about the differences between men and women. [1] The Republican “class picture” above is a great illustration of this concept in action, where certain males are awarded leadership roles in society based on perception of their “maleness” and its perceived leadership qualities.

In her book, Fine looks at where sex-related biological differences have some validity and where they do not, from a scientific and mathematical point of view. As you can likely guess, the “do not” part is much larger than most people think it is. We mistake judgments on genetic diversity for “fitness,” when they are two separate concepts. Indeed, contrary to common perception, Charles Darwin did not coin the term “survival of the fittest,” and the phrase was not in the first four editions of his book On the Origin of Species. When he did include it in the fifth edition, his intended meaning was “better designed for an immediate, local environment, ” or in other words adaptable to a changing world. That definition does not bode well for old men in dark suits.

The myths Fine takes on include the much-believed “natural promiscuity” of men. She breaks down the math to demonstrate that, in the “real world,” any difference between the sexes is actual marginal at best. She also cites studies demonstrating that more than three-quarters of purported sex differences studied are so small, or have so much “overlap,” that any presumption of sex from blindly judging one particular characteristic would find you wrong at least 40% of the time, and often your odds of guessing correctly are closer to a 50% even-up coin flip. [3]

With most sex-related characteristics, the variability among persons of one sex is much greater than the variability between sexes. Yet culture and religion have traditionally placed more power in dominant-race, older males, and even today a large percentage of women have accepted that judgement without questioning it.

The “Testosterone Rex” party

The Republican Party, in both congressional representation and in predominant national attitudes, clearly depends on the “Testosterone Rex” viewpoint, and sees its challenge as a threat. Even the elected women of that party choose to support this notion, for instance Maine Senator Susan Collins’ support of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which was a public display of a lifetime of male “Testosterone Rex” behavior, [4] or Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney trashing her own sister’s same-sex marriage in order to gain approval of traditionalist Wyoming voters.

The open sexism of President Trump is legendary, and even his praise of his own daughter’s talents has frequently, and creepily, gone well into sexual innuendo. The thrashing that the Republican Party took in the 2018 elections seems to have only caused the party to “double down,” as the more moderate members of the party, those who tried to represent more culturally-diverse and educated districts, were mostly defeated, leaving the most stereotypically-aggressive males with free reign to hold fast to the party’s traditional sexism.

The fundamentalist religious coalition

My contention is that this “Testosterone Rex” viewpoint is also the prevailing factor in Trump’s continued support from fundamentalist and evangelical Christians despite his open flouting of traditional Christian personal and social norms. Christianity itself has been in a decades-long inter-denominational struggle in dealing with sexual and social diversity.

While many “mainstream” Christian denominations have evolved their ministerial composition and ministries to include women and (less frequently) LGBTQ people into more equal roles, the modern evangelical movement emerging since the 1970s has put an acceptable social face on continuing open traditional sexism. I wrote a post awhile back that dissected the support of President Trump by these Christian bodies as a political power trade-off reminiscent of Emperor Constantine’s “deal” with the early Roman church. The “Emperor” gets “control over Earth” in exchange for giving certain favored religious leaders “control over Heaven” (i.e., people’s personal lives).

Indeed, when the media use the generic term “Christian” in their reporting, they almost always mean “fundamentalist or evangelical Christian,” ignoring the many other strands of Christianity that have rejected this “new normal.” As I have said in the past, there is little common ground on either social or doctrinal issues between a Massachusetts Episcopalian woman and an Alabama Baptist man, yet both would describe themselves as “Christian.”

Let me suggest that the greatest fear of “Testosterone Rex” Christian leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., is that they might one day lose their powerful and very profitable positions, and that fear has squashed out any remembrance of the “Matthew 25 Jesus” from their public preaching:

Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:44-46 (NRSV)


Notes:

  1. Fine, Cordelia. Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society. W.W. Norton, 2018, p. 22.
  2. Ibid., p. 30ff.
  3. Ibid., p. 101.
  4. During that nomination I wrote about Kavanaugh’s history as an example of “moral luck.”

 

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