Run like a girl

Elizabeth's picture

"You run like a girl." It was an insult aimed at boys. Being "like a girl" was clearly a bad thing for a boy to be if he wanted to be an athlete. Not being enough "like a girl" on the other hand, is devastating for women.

It was not so long ago that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) used to require all women athletes to be tested to discover whether they were 'truly women' or not. [Bracket, please, for a moment the question of what a 'true woman' might be. We'll come back to it. I promise.] Now such tests are only performed, according to the story in today's New York Times, when a woman athlete's sex is questioned. [Bracket for a moment why this never, apparently, comes up in men's sports.] What would cause her sex to be questioned? The Times does not present a list of specific suspicious indicators, but does say that it has come up in the context of doping tests. What is so striking about this is that it represents an insistence that women be held to a biological standard of womanhood. Consider the variations among women. What does it mean to set aside some group of women and say they are too powerful to be 'real women'? Consider how this makes even less sense when we are talking about women who represent the strongest, fastest, most agile, most physically powerful women in the world.

What determines "real woman" status? It has changed over time, as technology and medicine have changed. The Times article points out that what used to be a matter of visual inspection is now a series of chromosomal, hormonal, physical and psychological examinations. The message seems to be that the better our technology the more certain we can be about your "true sex." And that has been terribly damaging to some women.

Consider the story of Santhi Soundarajan. She is the Indian runner mentioned in the New York Times article above, but whose story is told in more detail here, in this Times of India article. Last year the silver medal she won in the Asian Games was taken from her after an official reportedly raised a doping complaint and testing revealed questions about her gender. The New York Times reports that she refused more extensive sex testing.

It is important to note that many medical ethicists and even the head of the IOC medical commission oppose the idea of sex testing as discriminatory given the complexities of sex and gender. They have worked hard to stop the mandatory testing and are continuing to work at stopping the discriminatory testing of 'suspect women.'

Which brings us to the questions I asked you to bracket in the first place. What makes a 'true woman'? Well, apparently she should have female reproductive organs and XX sex chromosomes and should not have too much testosterone in her body. She should also identify as female. The last is not so much the problem in the cases that have come up in recent years. Several women (7 in the Atlanta Olympics) have had their eligibility challenged because of Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome , a condition where a person has XY chromosomal combination but whose body does not respond to testosterone and thus does not differentiate into a male-bodied baby. Ironically, perhaps, such athletes have been allowed to continue to compete as women not because it is right to recognize gender complexity, but because their insensitivity to the testosterone produced by their bodies means they receive no "unfair competitive advantage."

And this brings us to the second point I asked you to bracket. Why is this not an issue for men? Given the natural fluctuations in testosterone among men, why are some not disqualified for having an unfair advantage over others? What range is acceptable? Men who add testosterone to their bodies are punished. Men who simply have more of it than others are not. Physical variations are natural. With women we are putting a limit on acceptable physical variation because of an unsupportable belief that women must exist within a narrower physical range than men. While it is statistically true that most women do not have XY chromosomes or produce as much testosterone as men of the same age, it is by no means true for all women. The fact that a woman produces testosterone and responds to it should no more disqualify her for competition than the fact that one man produces and responds to more of it than another.

Gender and sex are social categories, not medical ones. Even to the degree that in some societies medicine is used to make determinations about what boxes to put people in, the categories themselves are socially constructed. Why only two sex categories when there are many more than two chromosomal combinations and physical manifestations of sex-related traits ? Why use a quick visual inspection to assign babies to sex/gender categories when we know that hormonal and chromosomal and psychological realities are more complex? Santhi Soundarajan's career has been irreparably damaged, her life thrown into disarray and her body and her self stigmatized. The Olympics, according to the official web site of the International Olympic Committee, are about:

building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. (Principle #4 in the Olympic Charter - PDF )

"Sport practiced without discrimination of any kind," "mutual understanding," "solidarity and fair play." Beautiful principles, all, and ones that should direct the IOC to stop discriminating against the intersexed, the transgendered, and those whose bodies are simply more exceptional than your typical exceptional Olympian's.