This is a bit intimate, perhaps, but between you and me: a few months ago, out of the blue, I started having problems climaxing during sex. It wasn’t bugging me particularly, but everyone likes a nice conclusive ending to things. I was living healthily and my head seemed happy and uncluttered – with no obvious signs of stress or anxiety. So I googled around the subject (“I’m having problems coming during sex”, “why can’t I ejaculate?”) for about 10 minutes one evening, and then got distracted, moved on and went to bed. From the next day onwards, I was under siege.
I started getting repeated adverts for testosterone-checking kits and testosterone supplements on social media and elsewhere online. I initially tittered at the overdramatic stock pictures used to get my attention, often of a man cradling his head in a despairing, woe-is-me pose (it’s treatable, chill dude). But very quickly the adverts seemed to gain momentum. It felt like they were aggressively competing for my attention – ironic, given that testosterone is regarded as a hormone that exists to encourage cisgender men like me to procreate, by being competitive and aggressive to love rivals.
Taken as a treatment (either injections or a gel, which can cost up to around £30 a month), it’s said to help with things beyond sex, such as fatigue. Actor and TV personality Ayda Field revealed in 2018 that her husband Robbie Williams had the testosterone levels of an 80-year-old man, and that injections had freed him from depression. Testosterone exists in small amounts in most women, just as oestrogen exists in small amounts in most men. High levels of oestrogen in men can also cause related sexual issues, but of course I didn’t get any adverts for oestrogen-checking kits. Ultimately, this is about retail, and testosterone has quite an incredible, all-conquering brand – a fact referenced in the title of philosopher and science writer Cordelia Fine’s 2017 book Testosterone Rex. It’s the Marlboro Red of hormones.
I definitely didn’t feel like I had a waning libido, but I couldn’t provide hard data. So, I caved. For the first time ever (OK, second – damn those irresistible sunset lamps of 2021), an advert on social media – something cravenly tailored to my intimate needs through a nefarious system of data brokers – groomed me into being an obedient chump of capitalism.
I splashed out around £30 on a testing kit that measured my testosterone levels. It was a simple blood test, much like an STI testing kit. Easy peasy, once you ace how to milk the blood from a fingerprick into a 450mm microtainer. One reason I folded was out of an almost grudging respect for the advert’s tenacity. The sheer force of these ads made me appreciate a very modern truth: someone had gone to great lengths to try to monetise my inability to ejaculate. I don’t know why I was surprised: female friends have told me for ages about being trapped in a loop of adverts for fertility checkers or collagen products.
But I also got it done because I was interested in – apologies for the lofty language – “having a conversation” with my testosterone, the way a lot of my peers currently do. No, not men. By and large, men seldom have to think about testosterone – even during puberty, when testosterone rates shoot up about 30 times higher than previously (and we tend to get 30 times smellier). No, in my head were the small handful of people in my life transitioning from female to male, for whom testosterone arguably means a whole lot more.
In the past few years, I’ve casually dated a few people who are transitioning from female to male. I was lucky enough to see small parts of very big journeys, happening to people who were lucky enough to be taking a life-affirming hormone that – despite the often short supplies – worked for them really well. “T”, as it’s colloquially known, is a wonder drug.
Seeing someone delight in growing hairs in new places, vocal tones lowering – even sexual behaviours changing – really exposes you to the power of T. Yes, it can slowly transform a body (it can make fat sit in different places around the body, even in the face) but it can also transform a person’s spirit and soul too. Remember the woe-is-me man from the online adverts – gender dysphoria tends to create a despair that I suspect that guy could barely conceive of.
Anyway, with a rather delicious irony, my test result came back and it was quite literally an anticlimax. It turns out I actually have quite a high level of testosterone, thank you very much. I’m absolutely jacked up to the eyeballs with the stuff. It’s a miracle I don’t secrete a natural ooze of testosterone whenever I walk, like a passing slug. Lovely. But what does it mean? And what does it matter?
In the realm of malehood, it provokes a rather poised question: does my high testosterone define me as a manly man, even if I was struggling to do the archetypical manly deed? The problem went away, by the way – upon closer introspection, I realised looking back that I was broke, tired, had family problems and was worried about 77 tiny things that seemed to loom way larger than I’d realised. Having gone through the testing malarkey, I realised how little I care about the idea of testosterone. Nobody should feel anxiety or shame that they sit low or high on a scale of anything, which is the appeal of these adverts. We’re each just our own unique mix of hormones.
The ads I was getting feel pernicious to me today, because they prey on a monetisable insecurity of men, using a framework we all maybe naively buy into. Good mental health clearly trumps having a high testosterone count, and that should have been my priority all along. I’m just glad I’m not doing anything too anxiety-inducing anymore – like telling a load of strangers about my sexual…