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7 July 2003

Who’s on the testosterone?

Women trying to survive in the macho world of politics are resorting to hormonal help, learns Bernar

By Bernard Mallee

In Westminster, some female politi-cians have been doing drugs for years. To stand their ground in the male-dominated House of Commons, some of our female representatives apparently first need a fix. The drugs of their choice are not illegal Class As but testosterone pellets.

The hormone, usually considered the reason men want sex, is produced in small amounts by women to charge their own sexual energies. As they age, their testosterone levels dip. They may lose interest in sex and – even more worryingly in the competitive world of politics – their confidence is likely to plummet.

Malcolm Whitehead, a Harley Street gynaecologist, has treated women MPs with testosterone. “I have prescribed testosterone implants for female politicians in Westminster who want to compete better with their male colleagues in committee meetings and parliamentary debates,” he says. “They claim the hormone boosts their assertiveness and makes them feel more powerful.”

A small pellet is embedded under the skin and releases its dosage into the bloodstream over six months. The results can be dramatic.

Three years ago, 33-year-old Leslie Harrison’s world fell to pieces after the software sales consultancy firm she had worked hard to build collapsed. She laid off 25 staff and dealt with angry bankrupt clients. Her energy levels dropped and her sex drive crashed.

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“I lost every shred of self-confidence and felt very de- pressed. I went from being a driven and outgoing business executive to a paranoid wife. I was a puddle of emotion,” Harrison says.

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When she began using a tes-tosterone cream prescribed by her doctor, her world suddenly began to take shape again. She regained her sex drive. She felt powerful. With the increased male hormone levels in her blood, her confidence soared and she “aggressively” rebuilt her company.

Leslie’s experience with testosterone mirrors the hormone’s natural function in men. It is the basis of their drive to beat competition in love and work. But women taking testosterone to make them feel powerful in the same way is a new and, to some, alarming phenomenon.

Susie Orbach, the psychoanalyst and author, thinks it worrying that women should use testosterone to redress power relations in society: “Testosterone may or may not be elevated in women who have ‘power’ in the world, but does that mean testosterone should be the response to inequality? I think not . . .”

In the US, hormone therapy is big business, particularly for increasing sex drive. Tedde Rinker, an anti-ageing specialist, has placed 25 new female patients on testosterone cream so far this year, after all of them complained that they lacked interest in sex. All report positive results.

Last month, a US-based drug giant launched testosterone gel in Britain, making the male hormone potentially the most convenient sexual elixir since Viagra. The gel is available on prescription to men and contains a dose tailored for their specific hormonal requirements.

And that’s where the trouble could begin.

“If a practitioner wants to prescribe it for women, that’s his choice. But if she begins to grow unwanted hair and comes out in spots, he must take full responsibility. Remember, none of these symptoms are reversible,” says Pierre Bouloux, an endocrinologist who practises in Britain.

But an easy-to-use gel may well appeal to women seeking testosterone as a lifestyle choice rather than a medical treatment, and a black market is certain to develop.

Oliver James, the clinical psychologist, is alarmed by the prospect of high-flying women risking their health in this way. “It’s a perfect illustration of how British feminism has been hijacked by the American version of advanced capitalism. Only by behaving like an . . . alpha baboon can a person reach the top. Yet we desperately need women to teach men there’s an alternative,” he says.

Richard Spark, an American endocrinologist, believes that women should not use the supplements until thorough clinical trials on women’s response to the hormone have been conducted. Other specialists including Whitehead, who prescribed the implants for women MPs, believe the scare stories are ridiculous. “As long as they stay within the normal hormonal range, there is nothing to worry about. All the talk of deepening voices and beard growth is complete nonsense,” Whitehead says.

None the less, it might be worth keeping an eye on some of our high-performing women in Westminster as they crack the whip at committee meetings, or wherever else whips are cracked.