Testosterone Dreams

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

In Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping, author and sociologist John Hoberman investigates modern attitudes toward improving the mental, physical, and sexual abilities of humans. Testosterone, a fountain of youth of sorts, has inspired dreams of running faster, thinking quicker, enhancing sexual pleasure, and bulking up diminishing muscle mass. Termed as a “charismatic hormone,” synthetic testosterone has become increasingly available and accepted in mainstream America; it is sold as a rejuvenating drug, a sexually stimulating drug, and as a doping steroid drug that builds muscle mass and vastly increases athletic performance.

Hoberman provides a comprehensive overview of the hormone’s synthesis, begun in 1935, by raising and then answering such highly charged questions as: When have testosterone drugs been viewed as harmful? Why now, and not when it gained first attention in the 1940’s, has testosterone become fashionable? How does the pharmaceutical industry market such drugs? How are changing medical technologies affecting how men and women think about their respective sexual identities?

The mass market failed in its original efforts to market testosterone after World War II (a time that, amazingly, saw women taking the drug to increase factory work performance) for religious and moral reasons. Testosterone formulas, which today are readily available via mail order or the Internet, have been on the market since the 1930’s. The synthetic male hormone was touted as far back as 1937 by those seeking to profit, as sports fans watched records being smashed by athletes on testosterone-based anabolic steroids. Methyltestosterone, available in pill form and marketed as testosterone replacement therapy, was sold to promote sexual stimulation and enhance productivity at work for aging males.

However, the hormone was viewed early on as dangerous and failed to become a mass-market phenomenon, Hoberman hypothesizes, because of the era’s sexual conservatism. Doctors of the day saw little advantage in providing a method for their aging male patients to increase sexual activity and enjoyment. Today, thanks to major changes in social perception of sexual enjoyment into old age not as an embarrassment but as a right, and marketing strategies that define the natural decrease in testosterone and estrogen as “deficiencies,” hormone therapy has become legitimized as a socially acceptable form of enhancement. Its money-making potential has also been discovered.

In Olympic competition, doping has increased tremendously over the last forty years. Hoberman insists that while the media might portray steroid abuse in terms of isolated incidents, the truth is that abuse runs rampant throughout the whole Olympic structure and includes not only athlete dopers but also medical practitioners, sports officials and federations, and even, in the second half of the twentieth century, the International Olympic Committee (IOC). According to the author, it is not just at the institutional level that testosterone-based drugs are abused. Indeed, pharmacological performance enhancement has become normal for increasing numbers of athletes, while the doctor/patient relationship inherent in athletic doping serves as a model for physicians who now offer to enhance their everyday patients’ mental, physical, and sexual lives.

The use of testosterone enhancement will precipitate a crisis of human identity in the twenty-first century, says Hoberman. Among its social and ethical implications, of primary concern is the idea that as pharmaceutical companies find more and more uses for enhancement drugs, the boundaries between illicit doping and socially acceptable forms of drug-assisted productivitysuch as drugs to help tired workers stay awake and more productive at workwill shift, together with the perception of such drug use, from acceptable to compulsory.

Numbered among the reasons people could come to feel obligated to dope themselves are military, professional, and sexual. The author compares pilots on long flights under the World War II policy of dispersing Benzadrine to professional Tour de France cyclists. In no way does he paste the heroic Lance...

(The entire section is 1724 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The New Yorker, April 18, 2005.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 1, 2005, p. 31.