Book review of Martie Hastelton’s Hormonal by Tiffany Lussier
Feminists have long fought against the sexist perception that women are at the mercy of the ebb and flow of their hormonal cycles. As a consequence, research examining the influence of hormones in women is sometimes met with suspicion and concern that it will reinforce the stereotypes they’ve been working so hard to eradicate. Knowledge is power though, and in her first book, Hormonal, UCLA evolutionary psychologist and feminist Martie Haselton argues that research about reproductive hormones’ influence on women’s minds and behaviour doesn’t contribute to discrimination. Rather, it quashes it and serves as a source of empowerment for women.
Haselton, however, doesn’t’t make light of these concerns and begins her book with an overview of the problems facing her field. She recognises that studies from evolutionary psychology tend to be sensationalised by the media and portrayed in a caricatured ‘‘men are from Mars, women are from Venus’’ fashion. These are subsequently picked up by misogynists who interpret the findings in a prescriptive rather than descriptive manner, whereas others resent the distinction between men and women to begin with. To make matters worse, older biological and medical research had an androcentric bias wherein males were viewed as the default sex. This attitude has even led to a gender imbalance in the use of laboratory animals, where female hormones are considered extraneous variables to be controlled for; even in studies that have implications for women. In behavioural studies, the focus was also on the males with the assumption that females are simply passive or reactive rather than taking initiative or behaving out of their own agenda. A shortage of naturalistic studies on animals led scientists to make inaccurate conclusions. For example, it used to be thought that female hamsters were receptive to any male during estrus (their fertile period). In fact, they play a very active role in finding a mate in the wild, but, under lab conditions, they must content themselves with the only male on offer. Even when all this has been taken into consideration, there are people who willingly accept that animals’ minds and behaviours are the product of natural and sexual selection, but are uncomfortable when reminded that humans are animals too.
This lack of understanding of women’s hormones has also led to the pathologisation of natural states of womanhood. Haselton brings up how in the late 20th century, menopausal women were routinely treated with hormone replacement therapy when not needed. Conversely, a widespread problem like premenstrual syndrome wasn’t taken seriously. It also makes it difficult to identify whether the changes in the onset and frequency of hormonal events is normal or not. Girls are reaching puberty earlier and postpartum depression is more prevalent. Hypotheses for why this is are related to lifestyle, diet and even the chemicals we are exposed to.
To remedy these issues, Haselton introduces her readers to a new form of feminism: Darwinian feminism which aims to promote understanding of how women’s biology influences our thinking and behavior without reducing us to it. Because hormonal fluctuations are the result of evolutionary pressures, they not only promote survival and reproduction, but influence our well-being too! She hopes that the insights from her book will allow women to be more in tune with their hormones so as to optimise their behaviour. She calls this hormonal intelligence.
In an entertaining and conversational tone, the author explains how the changes in our menstrual cycle as well as how puberty, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause affect us. They influence how we pursue and attract a mate and which type of mate, the reasons why we have sex, our activity levels, threat perception as well as how competitive we are with other women and more. She debunks the famous McClintock effect which states that women’s menstrual cycles sync together when living in proximity, in addition to toning down the sensationalist claims about the birth control pill influencing one’s choice of partner and relationship satisfaction.
An entire book could be dedicated to each topic, but Hormonal is an introductory book written to inform readers about the importance of research on hormones and to persuade us of their helpful role – and it does a successful job in whetting our appetite. However, it does gloss over some of nature’s more unpleasant sides in favor of the more empowering ones. For example, Haselton mentions that PMS could have evolved to serve an adaptive role in mate selection, but doesn’t present any supporting evidence and a quick search online suggests that this is a rather controversial claim. Therefore, for now it seems that PMS is just the price to pay for the rest of the cycle. It was also surprising that not more attention was given to the female orgasm which has garnered more attention in the scientific literature. It used to be thought that the orgasm was an evolutionary leftover, but more recent studies suggest it has an adaptive purpose (Wheatley & Puts, 2015).
Hormonal is an entertaining and informative read that should appeal to both men and women. The research shows us that women’s hormonal states don’t control us or make us crazy. They are a valuable resource which we can use to our benefit if we just learn to ride the wave.
Haselton, M. (2018) Hormonal. London: Oneworld Publications.
Wheatley, J. and Puts, D. (2015). Evolutionary Science of Female Orgasm. The Evolution of Sexuality, pp.123-148.