Do Matchmakers Dream of Estrogen Sheep?

By Matthew Cheney

A friend gave me his copy of the current issue of The Atlantic, and I read an article in it that indicated I am made of estrogen. I chuckled and threw the magazine in the trash. But then I took it out again and reread the article, trying to make up my mind, trying to decide whether the whole concept was too absurd to think about or whether I should be worried that my breasts are so small.

The article was about online dating services. One of these services attempts to be "scientific" and classifies people by the prevalence of the chemicals dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen in their brains and bodies, as computed by certain tests for which respondents do such things as measure the length of their fingers and try to figure out which pictures of people's smiles are pictures of genuine smiles and which pictures are of faked smiles. The article includes some of these tests, and on all of them I scored off the charts for estrogen, which supposedly means I am "imaginative, creative, insightful, humane, sympathetic, agreeable, flexible, and verbal." In contrast to what I would be were I filled with testosterone: "rational, analytical, exacting, independent, logical, rank-oriented, competitive, irreverent, and narcissistic."

Ever since reading the article, I've introduced myself to people by saying, "Hi, I'm Matt, and I'm full of estrogen." This gets particularly amusing responses at bars and men's clothing stores.

I've also started alternating, because depending on my mood I think the description of a person dominated by testosterone fits me pretty well, too, although I know I only think that because, being made of estrogen, I'm flexible and imaginative. But it's fun to occasionally stop people on the street and tell them I'm full of testosterone. So far I've only once been threatened with arrest.

Dopamine and serotonin are also interesting chemicals, ones I've had tempestuous and even long-term relationships with. According to the article, "genes for the activity of dopamine are associated with motivation, curiosity, anxiety, and optimism," and I know those genes, they're friends of mine, and sometimes I find myself depending on them like an advanced postindustrial society depends on petrochemicals, though at other times we need to be apart, and so I end up looking like that advanced postindustrial society after all the oil goes away: barren, traumatized, full of yearning and self-pity and machines that don't work. As for the specific attributes that supposedly result from dopamine dependence, well, I'm generally optimistic, even if I think life is futile and we're all doomed, and as long as an activity doesn't involve math or manual labor or cleaning, then I'm just a bundle of motivation and curiosity.

The article says that "genes for the metabolism of serotonin, another neurotransmitter, tend to modulate one's degree of calm, stability, popularity, and religiosity." For a while I was on medications to regulate the serotonin in my brain, and I wonder why, when so much serotonin was more regularly available to me, I wasn't more popular or religious. I was calmer, yes, and more stable with regard to certain elements of life, but dammit, now I feel cheated—I only got half the benefits. I should have been popular, and I should have found God! (If I weren't so bubbling over with estrogen, I might be able to get angry about this, but anger is the province of the testosteroners.)

What all this means for love or sex or someone to have a cup of coffee with is a bit perplexing. All of the people interviewed from the various online dating companies using supposedly scientific measurements admit that they have yet to find a perfect formula. This disappointed me, because part of my reason for reading the article in the first place was to know what I should be looking out for. Experience has taught me that really I'm not a very good judge of anything related to what generally get referred to as relationships, and I just wanted a checklist I could tattoo on my arm for those rare, fleeting moments when opportunity seemed to present itself.

"Fifty percent of the ball game," one expert says in the article, "is finding two people who are stable." Apparently, that means those of us who don't have serotonin to spare are doomed. But we knew that anyway, because none of us are very popular. (Or is it just that my dopamine levels are low, and so I'm not feeling optimistic?)

"You don't find two control freaks in a great marriage," the same expert says. Being made of estrogen, I'm not very controlling or possessive, and so I'd pair well with a control freak. Unfortunately, because I'm primarily oriented toward men, it's illegal for me to get married to anyone I would want to in most parts of the U.S., so it would be difficult for me to test this hypothesis in my own life, since I'm guessing the expert is working from the assumption that great marriages also involve people who actually want to have sex with each other.

One of the things that got dropped from Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? when it became the movie Blade Runner was the mood organ that Rick Deckard's wife used to regulate her feelings. She was a sad, pathetic woman because of the mood organ, and she too was dropped from the movie, but nonetheless, I've always wanted one myself (a mood organ, that is, not a wife, although if he were willing to do dishes, I might reconsider), even if the end result of using a mood organ was to make me into a sad, pathetic woman. But who can resist the idea? Dial a mood, no side effects other than the effect of the mood itself, and you're set. The scientists from the online dating services could just tell people what particular attributes to dial to get a date. Everything would be so much simpler, and partners, married and not, could (with the premium mood organs, at least) decide which of them was going to be the control freak at any particular moment.

Simple solutions tend to create new problems, however. One control freak is not likely to want to give up their control freaking: "Honey, it's Thursday, and you know on Thursdays I'm the control freak and you're the reasonable one."

"You always want to change me. Well, I'm not changing this time. Dial up whatever mood you want for yourself, but leave my moods the hell alone."

And then before you know it, both partners have become control freaks and a relationship that had seemed so great and stable is yet another example of crazy, neurotic humans indulging their crazy neuroses and hurting each other. It always happens. We might as well just give up now.

See, I told you my dopamine levels were low. Time to go do some more Internet quizzes. I've realized recently that it's not that, as I previously have thought, I dislike all labels, but rather that I dislike not having enough labels. I don't want to be just estrogen; I want to be lots of other things, too.

Internet quizzes help me realize this goal. Yesterday alone I found out I was a Mazda RX-8 sports car, Spiderman, the moon, a ghost, schizotypal, and a deadly strain of projectile vomit. Still, it's not enough.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for summer to arrive so I can spend my days picking dandelions and playing "He loves me, he loves me not," with them until all the dandelions go to seed and there's nothing left to do but scatter their cottony remnants into the wind and let them land where they may.


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award. Read more of his columns in our archives.