I could be wading into murky waters here, and in fact I am, but I have no opinion on the issue of intersexuality and sports, and am just writing this post to solicit opinions—partly to help formulate mine. And forgive me for any errors I make below (but do correct me), as there’s a ton of literature to wade through, and I’ve only skimmed the surface. The issue is one that involves our conceptions of gender, of humans rights, of fairness, and of athletic competitions.
The issue is, of course, the competition of athletes who are transgender or have conditions that increase the levels of testosterone in their bodies, which adds strength so long as the body is not testosterone-insensitive. Over the years, a number of people who have competed as women have been, or have been accused of being, hermaphrodites, intersexes, or of having other medical conditions that increase the level of effective testosterone. (The reverse situation is not a problem, since in most strength sports males score higher than females.) It’s not a problem of duplicity, as I’ve never found a case of a “normal” male masquerading as a female to gain an advantage.
Rather, we have cases like that of South Africa’s Caster Semenya, who won the 800-meter race in this year’s Olympics. Semenya is what we call an “intersexual” individual. While she identifies as female, she has a rare condition of having the “male” XY chromosome constitution, external female genitalia, no ovaries, and internal testes that produce testosterone. There’s little doubt that that added testosterone has given her an added advantage, since after rules stipulating an upper limit of testosterone in female athletes were put in place (and presumably Semenya had to reduce her testosterone through drug therapy), her performances dropped sharply.
In 2015, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), under a ruling from the Court for Arbitration for Sport (CAS), dropped the testosterone-threshhold limit, so there was no longer a limit to the amount of testosterone an athlete self-identifying as female could have. Semenya has almost certainly taken advantage of this rule, and is now virtually untouchable in middle-distances races. Some women athletes without this “hyperandrogenism” condition feel this is unfair. Others claim that testosterone is simply one of many biologically varying factors that could affect performance (see below), and shouldn’t even be considered.
In November, the International Olympic Committee produced a consensus document on hyperandrogenism and transgenderism, recommending that for both situations, to compete as a woman, “the athlete must demonstrate that her total testosterone level in serum has been below 10 nmol/L [nanomoles per liter] for at least 12 months prior to her first competition (with the requirement for any longer period to be based on a confidential case-by-case evaluation, considering whether or not 12 months is a sufficient length of time to minimize any advantage in women’s competition).”
This upper limit was based on average testosterone levels of some women competing in the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. The testosterone levels were measured in women athletes who already had elevated testosterone from having Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, and then the upper cutoff was set 5 standard deviations above that level. There are medical ways to reduce the testosterone of those above the limit who want to compete as women.
These guidelines, as far as I know, have not been officially adopted by the Olympics, and were not in place in Rio.
As expected giving the current controversies and confusions about gender, reactions to female-identifying hyperandrogenic athletes being allowed to compete as women has been mixed and acrimonious. Here’s a small sampling of opinion from both sides:
And we can get into a whole debate about male-vs-female athleticism, but as it stands, Semenya is, for all intents and purposes, a female. That’s how she was raised. That’s how she identifies. And that’s how she competes.
Ross at The Science of Sport:
I do not believe that women with hyperandrogenism should be competing unregulated. I believe that the divide between men and women exists precisely to ensure fairness in competition (as far as this is ever possible), and I think that if you respect that division, then a policy that addresses hyperandrogenism must exist. I think CAS made a ludicrous decision, and I think it is damaging to women’s sport. Saying that men and women are different is a biological reality, and in sport, the difference has obvious performance implications. It does not mean “inferior”, but different, so spare me any “patriarchy” nonsense on this (I’ve heard it said, for instance, that women’s performances are slower because of the “fucking patriarchy”. If you think that, let me save you time and tell you to stop reading now, and save us both the aggravation).
Joanna Harper (a transgender woman athlete) interviewed by Ross (same article):
While human rights advocates are deliriously happy over the CAS ruling, those who love women’s sport are mortified. Those Intersex athletes who previously used medications to reduce their T [testosterone] are now off of those medications, and are running faster. Allowing these athletes to compete in women’s sport with their serious testosterone-based advantage threatens the very fabric of women’s sport.
. . . If one believes that women’s sports are vitally important, and one has little regard for the rights of a small segment of humanity, then suggesting that women’s sport should only be for those who are 100% female is not unreasonable.
On the other hand, if one is passionate about the rights of marginalized minorities such as intersex or transgender women, and one is not as invested in the benefits of sport to all women, then it is not unreasonable to suggest that anyone who considers herself female should be allowed to compete as nature made her.
Since I believe in both the vital importance of women’s sport and the rights of intersex and transgender women, then I am forced to consider a compromise position, one virtually identical to that espoused by the IAAF and the IOC. [JAC: the new IOC guidelines stated above.]
. . . While there is some validity to the argument that the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few, I would counter that we can still maintain the integrity of women’s sport if we allow only those intersex and transgender women who compete with typical female T levels into women’s sport. Any advantages that intersex or transgender women might still maintain after lowering their T, are small enough that they will not create an overly unbalanced playing field.
Silvia Comporesti at The Conversation:
But even if testosterone did confer an athletic advantage, this advantage would not be unfair. This is because setting a limit on hyperandrogenism and singling it out from other biological variations that may confer an advantage is – at best – an inconsistent policy. There are plenty of other variations – biological and genetic alike – that are not regulated by the IAAF and, even though advantageous for athletic performance, are not considered unfair for competition.
More than 200 genetic variations have been identified that provide an advantage in elite sport. They affect a variety of functions including blood flow to muscles, muscle structure, oxygen transport, lactate turnover, and energy production. Endurance athletes in particular have been shown to have mitochondrial variations that increase aerobic capacity and endurance. An increasing number of performance-enhancing polymorphisms (genetic variations found at an increased frequency only in elite athletes and that make them who they are) are identified by sports geneticists.
So then why is hyperandrogenism singled out as a biological variation that makes competition unfair? It is singled out because it challenges our deeply entrenched social beliefs about women in sport in a way that other variations do not.
I don’t know enough about this issue to have strong opinions, as it involves negotiating a complex welter of issues, including scientific ones (how strong is the evidence that testosterone gives one an advantage?), philosophical and social ones (should we allow some to self-identify as one gender or another without testing? Is external female genitalia, as in Semenya’s case, sufficient to allow her to be identified as a women?), and moral ones (Should everybody be allowed to compete, and, if so, how many classes of competition should we have?). The only question I’m pretty firm on is that everyone should be allowed to compete, even if there are hormone thresholds. It would be horrible if someone who wanted to be an athlete couldn’t compete simply because of biological accidents of birth affecting their primary and secondary sexual characteristics.
So here are the questions at hand:
- Should there be any testing of athletes, or should they simply be allowed to compete based on self-identification of gender? (This would, of course, mostly affect women’s sports; some say it would destroy women’s sports.)
- If not, how many categories of competition do we want? The traditional men’s and women’s sports, or an intermediate category? (The latter would, of course, cause huge problems.)
- If we don’t accept self-identification and want to retain traditional “men’s” and “women’s” sports, how do we determine the category in which an athlete belongs?
- If the identification is based on hormones, can we set limits, as the IOC has done, to demarcate the classes? If we don’t use hormones, how do we classify?
And with that I open the discussion to readers.