This article is a reflection of Canada’s commitment and leadership to diversity, social ethics and inclusion. In April, we convened in Ottawa as a select panel, hosted by the Canadian Centre of Ethics in Sport. Unanimously condemning gender testing and the Stockholm Consensus despite the sorry history of which they were designed too medicalize women and the definition of womanhood, taking expression of embodied gender identity out of the very hands of the very humans involved , and setting up many other young people for the devastating treatment that Caster Semenya experienced. Moreover, it flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the tremendous homonal variability among humans.
NY Times ESSAY – Sports
Redefining the Sexes in Unequal Terms
April 23, 2011
The good news is that the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations, the governing body for track and field, have worked hard to come up with a new policy to deal with athletes whose sex development is unusual.
Although sports officials contend that this reworking is not a specific response to the fiasco surrounding the South African runner Caster Semenya, what happened to Semenya constitutes reason enough to seek reform. Surely no athlete should learn from watching television, as Semenya did, that her sex has been called in question on the international stage. And no athletes should have to face the previous patchwork policy on sex testing, wondering what will happen if their particular condition is not clearly explained in the rules.
The new policy no longer allows any room for a simplistic “I know it when I see it” approach to who counts as a female athlete. Women who test in the male range for functional testosterone will have to have their levels chemically squashed in order to play. (Functional testosterone means not just the amount the body makes, but also how the body responds to it, because some people’s cells lack receptors to respond.)
The bad news is that the new policy seems sexist in its philosophy. Indeed, it is so sexist that it may even count as a violation of Title IX, which will matter because the international policies will undoubtedly trickle down to school-based sports.
The hormones in question are not naturally exclusive to men. Women and men naturally make androgens — sometimes called strength-building hormones — including testosterone.
Yet despite the fact that testosterone belongs to women, too, the I.O.C. and the I.A.A.F. are basically saying it is really a manly thing: “You can have functional testosterone, but if you make too much, you’re out of the game because you’re not a real woman.”
To my knowledge, there is no equivalent of this biochemical policing in men’s sports. If a man has a mutation that gives him a big advantage — say he makes lots of testosterone — he can count that as a natural advantage. Indeed, at least now, men and women are allowed all other advantageous biochemical mutations.
The idea behind this policy is to make a move toward creating the mythical level playing field. But what is really being leveled here is the bodies of female athletes. Thus the game being played seems to be a kind of controlling who will count as a sexually appropriate woman: submit to being made sexually “normal” through hormone treatments or you cannot compete.
The I.O.C. and the track federation would probably say that the typical man’s functional testosterone level is orders of magnitude higher than the typical woman’s. True enough, but the same large variations could be true for other naturally occurring differences between classes of athletes, and yet it is only women who are being limited in terms of natural biochemical advantage.
At a meeting hosted by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport last week in Ottawa, a group of us mulled over this problem. We were all sympathetic to the I.O.C. and I.A.A.F.’s struggle. Sports has surely grown up past the age of sexual innocence, but it has not found its way. There is no perfect solution, one that is reasonably objective, universally applicable and universally satisfying.
Yet this newly proposed biological reduction of women to a hormonally disadvantaged class of people — one medically made disadvantaged, if necessary — struck many of us as regressive from the standpoint of women’s rights. Indeed, it reminds me of those itty-bitty shorts that college women’s volleyball players must wear. They each sexualize the bodies of female athletes as a requirement of play. They each insist that a woman never be manly.
In Ottawa, I met the former Olympian Bruce Kidd, a leader in international sports policy who served for nearly two decades as the dean of the faculty of physical education and health at the University of Toronto.
In a follow-up e-mail correspondence, he wrote: “How can the I.O.C. and I.A.A.F. claim that they support the full inclusion of women when they reimpose a medical test for their very identity? It’s a huge setback for human rights and the integrity of the Olympic movement.”
Alice Dreger is a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.
Published April 26, 2011