Testosterone poisoning is a pejorative neologism that refers not to actual poisoning, but to a negative perception of stereotypical aspects of male behavior. This speculative and controversial expression is based on a belief that men and boys with more masculine traits have more negative traits than they would otherwise. The term capitalizes on the perception that masculinity is controlled by the androgen testosterone.
An early printed reference to "testosterone poisoning" came in 1975 from actor Alan Alda. He said:
"Everyone knows that testosterone, the so-called male hormone, is found in both men and women. What is not so well known, is that men have an overdose... Until recently it has been thought that the level of testosterone in men is normal simply because they have it. But if you consider how abnormal their behavior is, then you are led to the hypothesis that almost all men are suffering from testosterone poisoning."
Ten years later, that same sentence from Alda's article was quoted in the 1985 book A Feminist Dictionary
A book of searing analysis and cries from the heart on the madness of war. Why is the half of humanity with a special sensitivity to the preciousness of life, the half untainted by testosterone poisoning, almost wholly unrepresented in defense establishments and peace negotiations worldwide?
Bruce Tremper used the term in The Avalanche Review, stating that being "a man" is best proven by dying "a stupendously violent death."
Testosterone poisoning is not an actual medical or psychological condition. A 1996 Psychology Today article refers to the phrase as "only a joke," but notes, in reference to several studies about testosterone and male employment, that testosterone levels were lower for successful new male employees at a southern U.S. oil firm.
Mazur et al. (1998) stated that males with higher testosterone levels tend to be slightly more aggressive, and argue that this appears to be due to the way acting aggressively raises testosterone levels rather than the reverse.
McDermott (2007) found a significant positive relationship between levels of testosterone and aggression.
References to testosterone poisoning are often used to criticize men. Magazine editor Tina Brown uses the phrase thematically in a 2005 Washington Post essay about the downfall of Harvard University president Larry Summers and the problems of Disney's former embattled CEO Michael Eisner. Beth Gallagher's Salon.com essay "Road Sows" about the drawbacks of sports utility vehicles describes those vehicles' growing popularity as having spread beyond testosterone poisoned men to soccer moms. Dr. Karl Albrecht makes testosterone poisoning a synonym for male chauvinism in his 2002 book The Power of Minds at Work: Organizational Intelligence in Action where he describes it as one of 17 basic syndromes of dysfunction.
Occasionally this perceived moral decadence of men turns against women, as in Kay S. Hymowitz's sarcastic reference to Western feminists in a 2003 Wall Street Journal essay chiding them for neglecting the rights of Third World women in Muslim countries:
Many feel the phrase plays into the hand of abusive men. Abusive men, and women who support abusive men often want to put forward propaganda that says being abusive or violent is manly. This is often used as an excuse for doing violence or abuse.
Antonia Feitz has protested the use of the expression in a 1999 essay in the Australian Daily Issues Paper, calling it hate speech. Neuroscientist Christoph Eisenegger at the University of Zurich has conducted a study and concludes that the evidence debunks the myth that testosterone causes aggressive, egocentric behaviour, suggesting instead that the sex hormone can encourage fair play, particularly if it improves a person's status.
According to a study published in Nature, "a single dose of testosterone in women causes a substantial increase in fair bargaining behaviour, thereby reducing bargaining conflicts and increasing the efficiency of social interactions. However, subjects who believed that they received testosterone—regardless of whether they actually received it or not—behaved much more unfairly than those who believed that they were treated with placebo."
- Alan Alda, "What Every Woman Should Know About Men", Ms., New York, October 1975
- A Feminist Dictionary, ed. Kramarae and Treichler, Pandora Press, 1985.
- Women On War, Daniela Gioseffi.
- "In Academe, Misogyny Meets Its Match: Misandrosy", by Father Patrick M. Arnold, SJ, assistant professor of theology at the University of San Diego, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 1990.
- "The Trouble with Testosterone", by Peter Doskoch, Psychology Today, Dec. 1996.
- Mazur, A. & Booth, A. (1998) Testosterone and dominance in men. Behavioral & Brain Sciences 21:353--397.
- Reinisch, J.M (1981) Prenatal exposure to synthetic progestins increases potential for aggression in humans. Science 211:1171--1173.
- Berenbaum, S.A. & Reinisch, J.M. (1997) Early androgen effects on aggression in children and adults with congenital adrenal hyperplasia Psychoneuroendocrinology 22:505--515.
- McDermott, R. (2007) "Testosterone and Aggression in a Simulated Crisis Game" The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 614, No. 1, 15-33.(2007)
- "Why Can't a Man Be More Like a Woman?" by Tina Brown, The Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2005.
- "The Women Feminists Forgot", by Kay S. Hymowitz, The Wall Street Journal, Mar. 7, 2003.
- The Atlantic, Word Fugitives, Barbara Wallraff, June 2001.
- Weiss, Elaine "Family and Friends' Guide to Domestic Violence", page 47, 2003
- Bancroft, Lundy "Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men", page 30, 2003
- "Demonizing Men", by Antonia Feitz, The Australian Daily View, Feb. 9, 1999.
- Archer, J. (1991) The influence of testosterone on human aggression. British Journal of Psychology 82: 1-28.
- White R.E., Thornhill, S. & Hampson, E. (2006) Entrepreneurs and evolutionary biology: The relationship between testosterone and new venture creation. Organizational behavior and human decision processes 100: 21-34.