So far this year there have been more than 260 mass shootings in America. If all of the perpetrators had been black or undocumented, the response from white America would be immediate and chilling.
Like in the early 1990s, when a spike in youth violence lead to sensationalized fears of the superpredator—black boys lacking empathy and impulse control—and prompted cities around the country to impose draconian laws that allow children as young as 13 to be charged as adults.
But because mass shooters are men, mostly white, we shrug our shoulders as we count the bodies. Violence in men, we are told, is inevitable. As natural as the birds and the bees. It’s testosterone, you see. It makes men bad: violent, aggressive, willing to take foolish risks for sex and other savage pleasures.
The narrative is repeated endlessly in newspapers and on TV. Perhaps it rings true because it fits so neatly with original sin, a Christian doctrine that says you are tainted by birth and only through constant struggle can attain a state of grace.
There’s only one problem. Everything you know about testosterone is wrong.
Born to Be Bad
Testosterone is a sex hormone with a bad reputation. Low status and high testosterone is a combustible combination that leads to mass shootings, according an article in The Conversation that was reprinted by Psychology Today and I Fucking Love Science!
“Nature fuels the fires of male violence by equipping young men with the high levels of testosterone necessary to get the job done…Researchers such as myself who study the relationship between testosterone and aggression in humans have concluded that testosterone-fueled violence is more likely to occur when males are competing with other males, or when the social status of a male is challenged in some way. The increased testosterone facilitates whatever competitive behaviors are needed to meet the challenge, which could mean physical violence.”
Testosterone is part of the “intoxicating formula” that enables terrorist groups like ISIS to lure young men into their ranks, according to the Daily Beast.
“On the first element, one can understand testosterone almost literally as “biological explosive material,” Anne Speckhard, a professor of psychiatry and director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism in Washington, D.C., told the Daily Beast.
Whew. Testosterone is dangerous stuff.
Lost in the analysis is homegrown terrorism, which is far more frequent than acts of violence by foreign organizations. From Sept. 12, 2001 to Dec. 16, 2016, there were 85 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Nearly 75% of those attacks were perpetrated by violent extremists, including white supremacists and anti-government militias.
Even jihadist attacks are often committed by U.S. citizens or longtime residents, such as the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which was perpetrated by a man who was born in the United States.
Men Are Not Animals
Let’s add a little reality to the lurid headlines. In men, testosterone is primarily produced by the testicles and plays a vital role in bone and muscle mass, fat storage, and sex drive. Although women’s bodies produce testosterone in much smaller amounts, the hormone helps maintain energy levels, mood, sex drive, and bodily functions.
In non-human animals, there is a well established relationship between testosterone and aggression. Castrate male rodents and combativeness is reduced. It has long been assumed the infamous hormone has the same effect in humans.
But the most current research does not support this simplistic view. Scientific American put it best: “Indeed, the latest research about testosterone and aggression indicates that there’s only a weak connection between the two. And when aggression is more narrowly defined as simple physical violence, the connection all but disappears.”
Testosterone encourages fairer behavior if it enhances your own status, according to a 2009 study published in the journal Nature. In the study, 120 test subjects played a negotiating game where participants could win real money. Surprisingly, people with artificially enhanced testosterone levels made fairer offers than those who received the placebo.
Even more interesting? People who believed they received testosterone made conspicuously unfair offers, perhaps enacting the popular wisdom that testosterone causes aggression.
“It appears that it is not testosterone itself that induces aggressiveness, but rather the myth surrounding the hormone,” said University of London economist Dr. Michael Naef.
Your Body, Your Choice
Instead of causing aggression, recent research suggests testosterone promotes behavior that enhances social status. What that looks like depends on the individual, context, and culture. Testosterone increases generosity when it enhance your social status, according to a 2016 study.
When you’re in charge, testosterone promotes dominant behavior, according to a 2017 study. But when you’re low-status, it promotes “strategic submission,” a complicated term for currying favor with someone who has power over you. Like when you let the team captain get her way even though she’s wrong. You have more to gain when she like you.
Yes, humans are animals. But men are not beasts driven by instinct alone, and testosterone doesn’t make you a monster. Just ask our closest relative, the bonobo. The infamously sexual species that is far more peaceable and egalitarian than the more well known chimpanzee, with whom we also share virtually all of our DNA.
Testosterone and Racism
If you believe the testosterone myth, male violence is biological and inevitable. None of it’s true, but that doesn’t matter. It suits our purpose by explaining what we don’t want to change: Nearly 60 percent of mass shooters are white men.
There is a persistent pattern of violence among white men, but we call it a biological inevitability. This short circuits any analysis of cultural factors that lead to violence, beyond superficial hand wringing about high school bullying, violent video games, and easy access to guns.
It’s the biggest problem with the myth, and the most offensive. The testosterone myth supports a cultural narrative that excuses violence by white men and allows them to escape culpability for the crimes that are used as an excuse to persecute all men of color. When white men commit violence it can’t be helped because all men are bad.
When men of color commit violence, their entire race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion is bad—and white America must take immediate action to protect itself. Just look at the rhetoric after 9/11, which portrayed one of the world’s major religions as a factory for terrorism. Anti-sharia law bills have been introduced in 43 states. Last year alone, 14 states introduced anti-Sharia law bills, with Arkansas and Texas enacting them.
Look at the rhetoric from our illustrious president, who campaigned on promises to protect American citizens from urban crime—code for black—and rapists from Mexico.
Men of color are demonized even when they’re the victim of violent crime. Botham Shem Jean, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot by a Dallas police office inside his own apartment last September. As family and friends gathered to celebrate his life, a Dallas Fox affiliate announced that marijuana was found inside the dead man’s apartment.
“[Jean] was not only never convicted of a crime, he was never even accused of a crime, never arrested,” Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who represent’s Jean’s family, told The Washington Post. “It took a white Dallas police officer to break into his home and shoot him to death for him to become painted as a criminal.