Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Intersex Athletes of the Times


The NY Times Magazine is running a story on the binary sex policing of intersex athletes. Well, I should say, intersex woman athletes--nobody is testing to find out if men who are competing in international sporting competitions have intersex traits. Because what is really at stake here is ideology, not fact. And that ideology is that sex is binary when it is really a spectrum, and that the line being drawn between women and men is dividing lesser people from greater ones. Intersex men, framed not as "real men" but as lesser, are seen as pathetic. But intersex women are portrayed as unduly powerful, and a threat.

It's time for me to write another post on intersex athletes, as Dutee Chand's case is in the news. Because this issue keeps coming up. Because we, intersex people, continue to be out there, and contemporary Western society continues to frame us as violating the order of things, instead of a part of the natural order.

It's strange, the way we in the contemporary West collapse all the variety in human bodies into a sex binary. We're used to a trick of mind that allows us to say and believe "men are taller than women," while encountering plenty of women who are taller than plenty of men. Height, you see, is a spectrum, but the sexed-height-difference we speak of references just average heights. We ignore the spectrum and speak of the average difference when distinguishing women and men. Now, there are adult men who are under three feet tall, and there are men over eight feet tall. That's a five-foot range of difference. The difference in average height between women and men in the U.S. is five inches--a tiny amount in comparison. And this is true of all physical sex characteristics, including not just height or lung capacity or average hand size, but genital configuration and levels of sex hormones. The characteristics run along a spectrum, but we speak of them as a binary: "men's hands are bigger than women's" and "men have higher testosterone than women." The range of differences within a socially-imposed binary sex category is huge, while the average difference between those categorized as men and women is small. And the overlap between women and men is wide.

People of all sexes typically produce testosterone and estrogen and progesterone, and our bodies rely on all of them--though you might not know this by the way we say all the time that "men have testosterone and women have estrogen." You might imagine doctors and scientists would think less magically than laypeople when it comes to the idea that "T is for boys and E is for girls." After all, they should be aware of facts like estrogen being needed not just for ovulation in women, but also for spermatogenesis in men. But no. Doctors and scientists consulting with the Olympics have been speaking of testosterone in very magical ways. They have decided upon a "normal female range" of testosterone, and banned women who naturally produce more from competing.

Consider these facts:

1. Men competing in elite international sporting competitions do not have limits placed on how much testosterone they naturally produce. Women who produce higher-than-typical amounts of testosterone are treated as "cheating," men who do are not.

2. Actually, when studied, it turns out that 17% of elite male athletes have testosterone levels below the bottom of the "male range." These men are not disqualified as "cheating by being intersex." They aren't regulated at all, probably because it's presumed that their low testosterone must be a disadvantage. Yet these men with low testosterone are not lesser athletes; they are just as extraordinary in their performance as the men with typical testosterone levels. This illustrates how there's no direct relationship between the amount of testosterone a person produces and their athletic abilities.

3. Bodies vary widely in how sensitive they are to testosterone. Some intersex women have "complete androgen insensitivity syndrome." These are individuals with XY chromosomes who are born with female-typical genitalia due to their body's inability to respond to testosterone. They have internal testes where most women have ovaries, and these produce testosterone at puberty, but their bodies can't use it, so they develop breasts like other typical girls do, not beards. And focus on this fact: their bodies are insensitive to testosterone. The idea that they have some sort of athletic advantage due to having higher testosterone than typical girls is ridiculous--because they can't respond to testosterone.

4. People do not compete in athletic competitions using their genitals. Yet as the Times article discusses, girls with large clitorises are being told to submit to surgery to remove the "excess tissue" if they want to compete in the Olympics. When similar surgeries are performed on girls with average-sized clitorises for social reasons, this is deemed the outrage of female genital mutilation by the international community. Why is it acceptable to impose this on intersex girls? And what could be more magical thinking than saying that how your genitals look determines how fast you can run? By this logic, the longer the penis, the faster a man can run.

5. All Olympic athletes have atypical bodies. As one Olympian says in the article, they're all "freaks of nature." They may be endowed naturally with atypical levels of fast-twitch muscle, or unusually flexible joints, or huge hands, or extraordinarily long legs. We do not police these biological differences, or require that to compete in the Olympics, you must have an average body. We don't randomly pick citizens of each nation to compete in international sporting events--we get to see average people running for the bus all the time. We don't find this exciting, and it's the very atypicality of elite athletes' bodies that enthralls us. It's only this very specific type of atypicality--being a woman with hormonal or genital or chromosomal variance--that has been policed. And it's policed intensively, intrusively, punitively.

6.  The "science" being used today to exclude intersex women athletes is as amazingly full of biases and magical beliefs and unsupported assertions as it was many decades ago. Consider this: scientists testifying as to the supposed necessity of continuing to police intersex bodies recently claimed that a woman competing in Olympic track and field events is 140 times more likely to have a Y chromosome than the rest of the population. This is ludicrous, because we have no idea how many women in the general population have Y chromosomes. We don't test the general population for this--only women competing in elite athletic events. Right now, all over the world, there are millions of intersex people who have no idea of their intersex status--it's not like you can see your chromosomes. 

7. This reminds me of the magical thinking that went into the "supermale" theory in the 1950s and 60s. Scientists discovered that some men had XYY chromosomes, and decided that if one Y chromosome makes you a man, two must make you hypermasculine. So they went around testing the chromosomes of men who were imprisoned or institutionalized, and lo! they found out that a significant number had XYY chromosomes. There was a media frenzy about the powerful, predatory XYY superman. Only. . . nobody had done a comparison study. It turns out that when you test men who are not imprisoned or institutionalized, the same number have XYY chromosomes. Men with XYY chromosomes don't produce more testosterone than XY men. They aren't stronger, or more aggressive, or hairier. You're much more likely to be a sweet, tubby old history teacher than a serial killer if you are an XYY man.

What all of this makes clear is that scientists and doctors are just as immersed in our culture as anyone else. And our culture has been deeply invested in an ideology that sex is a binary--and that by virtue of being a male, a person is stronger, faster, more dominant, more assertive. It may be 2016, but our society continues to view women athletes as suspect, because they are strong, fast, and highly competitive. What is really at stake is patriarchy, and its positioning of men as superior to women. Powerful, nonconforming women still get pushback in the form of sex and gender policing, through street harassment, or poor work evaluations, or medical surveillance. And so we continue to scrutinize the bodies of women athletes, and to punish those whose bodies are deemed "too male" in certain ways. While we acknowledge that height is a spectrum, we insist that hormone levels require a no-gender's-land between acceptably female and acceptably male. And really, it would make no less sense to tell every woman athlete that women cannot be taller than 5'9", and that taller women must have their leg bones reduced until their height is in the female range or be banned from competition.

Sex and gender policing always pretend to be protecting "real women" from "fake ones" who would somehow hurt them. But in fact, they boil down to preserving the power that has been given to people categorized as male, by insisting that "real women" are vulnerable, small, submissive, weak.

Sex is a spectrum. Bodies don't cheat. If we really, truly, actually believed that testosterone levels determined ability, then we would test athletes of all genders and assign them to competition classes by testosterone levels. (The outcome of such a practice would immediately falsify the ridiculous premise.) If we really, truly believed that the size of the phalloclitoris corresponds to athletic ability, then we'd have the competition classes "small clitoris, medium clitoris, large clitoris, intermediate phalloclitoris, small penis, medium penis, large penis." That would be ludicrous, but would at least have the upside of being equally humiliating to men as it has been for all the women who have been forced to face genital inspections to get their "gender certificates" over the years.

Since sex is a spectrum, the division of it into a binary will always be arbitrary. We've been trying to hide the fact that sex is a spectrum, but it's time to grow up. And that means we have two choices. If we really think that bodily characteristics must define competition groups, then stop dividing athletes into men's and women's sports, and create competition classes based on leg length, or lung capacity, or body mass, or flexibility, or whatever is most central to a given sport. Or, if we insist on continuing to separate sports into binary gender categories, then stop policing the bodily characteristics of athletes. People who identify and live as women should compete as such, and the same for those who identify and live as men. People with nonbinary gender identities would have to just flip a coin or something, which would be cruel to them, but at least we would have stopped forcing people to submit to genital surgery they didn't want in order to run.

Dutee Chand was assigned female at birth and has always lived and identified as a woman. She has overcome amazing barriers to reach her level of competition, growing up in extreme poverty and running barefoot with no way to afford even a pair of sneakers. She is only 5 feet tall, and competing against women gifted by genetics and nutrition with much longer legs. To say she has an unfair advantage against her competitors because her higher-than-average testosterone level for a woman trumps all the advantages they have over her is ridiculous. Let Dutee run.

(P.S.--Whenever I post on this topic, inevitably I get an outcry from people who believe that simply letting people compete in their lived genders would mean that cis women would be pushed out of sports, which would be overrun with "men pretending to be women." This is the hysteria that has always driven sex policing in sporting competitions. It completely ignores reality. Cis men do not want to live their lives as women. Trans women face huge amounts of social stigma and violence that nobody wants to experience, and that negatively impact their ability to train or compete. And no one is proposing that a person who has lived their whole lives as a man can announce they identify as a woman and run in the women's marathon the next week, then say "oops, changed my mind" after they have a medal in hand. The rules for international sporting competitions in fact actively address this, by saying that in order to compete in women's athletics, a trans woman must have legally gender transitioned (a slow process), and continue to live as a woman for a least four years before any records or medals she wins are permanently awarded. So please, just let go of the myth that the humiliation and exclusion of intersex and trans women is necessary to protect innocent and deserving women from some ominous threat.)

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. I've tweaked a factual statement to address an critique raised in this comment, so it is no longer relevant.

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  2. This is a great post, clearly addresses so many myths.

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  3. Bringing up sex-based characteristics that we acknowledge as trends/spectra (e.g. height, hand size, etc.) made for a great way of explaining how sex in general is a combination of many spectrum characteristics. Brilliant as always.

    I do wonder if the way we do sports will change. Gender segregation in a lot of sports doesn't make a whole lot of sense (golf?), and even in those it does, you could separate by another trait or traits. e.g. wrestling separates by weight class (albeit also gender usually). Regardless, the sort of intrusive "gender" tests required of Olympic women are frankly unacceptable... especially genitalia exams, which as you said, cannot even be reasonably argued to be relevant to performance.

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