Thursday, April 10, 2014

Testosterone and the Sex Policing of Athletes' Bodies

New policies for Olympic and other international athletes set an upper limit to the amount of testosterone considered "normal" for a woman, and require those women who have natural levels of T that are higher than this to have medical interventions to lower their levels. If the women are found to be intersex, these interventions include surgical removal of their gonads, and (though this has NO relation to testosterone production) surgical reduction of their clitorises if these are deemed "enlarged."

This is just crazy. Some facts: first, levels of testosterone vary a lot. Tests of elite athletes show that about 17% of male athletes have testosterone in the "female range" and 14% of female athletes have testosterone in the "male range." Secondly, there is no direct correlation between levels of T and athletic performance; that's simplistic and nearly magical thinking. And third, it makes no sense to define the range of "normal" T levels for women very narrowly (15 - 70 ng/dL) and for men very broadly (300 -1,000 ng/dL), in essence saying that there's no such thing as a natural level of testosterone too high in a man, but there is such a thing for a woman.

Bodies vary a great deal. Why do we focus obsessively on policing the sexed body of athletes, rather than on other "abnormalities?" Basketball players are abnormally tall, which actually does enhance their performance. Many gymnasts are double-jointed and abnormally flexible. In fact, most any sport rewards people with atypical bodies, and we *celebrate* that. But when it comes to sex variance, a variation that is associated with high performance more in fantasy than in fact is suddenly subject to extreme bodily policing, and that's just wrong.


  1. The part about partial clitoral removal is the most disturbing aspect of this to me (not that the whole thing isn't disturbing, but that's what leaps out to me the most). Removing part of a woman's clitoris so that she can keep a job she's trained for most of her life? Making her choose between part of her sexual sensation and enjoyment versus the sport she loves? That is so horrific. How can we effectively protest this and spread the word about it?

  2. Or we can reverse the argument. What if a male athlete has an "unfair advantage" against other male athletes due to an extra X chromosome. Klinefelter syndrome is the most visible intersex condition for the history detective. Babe Ruth appears to have enough markers for a little mischievous speculation. Of course no one is likely to have all of the markers that can be observed from a distance. 1) He was married and loved children, but could only adopt one of his own. 2) He had a cognitive disorder that prevented him from using names (he never learned Lou Gehrig's). 3) He was not clumsy, and I have never met a Klinefelter who was (so I think this is a result of parenting defect if it exists at all). 4) He had absurdly small feet and piano legs (a Chicago sports writer once said 'his legs would be welcome in any chorus line in Chicago'). 5) He had no facial hair. 6) He tended to get fat in the middle. 7) The enormous hips! 8) Unusual height with disproportionate leg and arm length. Now the point of this is that everyone agrees that "The Babe" (some nickname for a man) did not get his power from the spindly arms and legs, but rather from the enormous hips and mid-section girth. Both of those characteristics are symptomatic of the xxy condition. So at some risk I propose that the man who hit more homeruns than most teams (no modern layer will ever match that) may have done so with the help of an extra 'female' chromosome. Now back to the point: we would never consider disqualifying "The Babe" because of a genetic anomaly. We would accept that as just natural to him as he is natural to us. We came to love him as the most iconic figure in sports history and a symbol of the country itself. If he had showed up all slimmed-down and sporting a beard, we would not recognize him. Now back to Castor Semenya, I think there would be much less controversy if we had grown up idolizing her, and then found out she was intersex. I also think that if she had the face of a figure skater nobody at all would be complaining and would be more sympathetic to her hardships...Tupungato.

  3. P.S. Klinefelter males are known for low testosterone, but also very high LSH which is a sperm production stimulant. A story Earl Combs (Yankee Centerfielder) would tell about "The Babe" in a visit to a whore-house. "The Babe" would go in and presumably have sex. Then he would come out to the lobby, smoke a cigar, then leave for more sex. In the morning Combs reported seven cigar butts in the ashtray. - Tupungato.