Female Gender Issues - Research Essay
The Sex Test
In 1988, Spanish hurdler Maria Patino failed the sex test used by the Olympic committee to verify her status as a woman. The outcome shocked and humiliated the athlete, who had never doubted her status as a woman. "She may have looked like a woman, had a woman's strength, and never had reason to suspect that she wasn't a woman, but the examinations revealed that Patino's cells sported a Y chromosome, and that her labia hid testes within" (Sterling-Fausto 1). Patino was encouraged to drop out of competition but she defended herself to critics, eventually winning back the ability to compete as a female athlete.
Patino is not the only major athlete to face accusations of this nature. South African runner Caster Semenya was accused of being a man when she crushed the competition in the women's 800 meter race at the 2009 world championship. Like Patino, Semenya fought against her critics, enduring intense public scrutiny during an embarrassing investigation. "I have been subjected to unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being" (Macur 1). The sex verification investigation eventually permitted Semenya to continue to compete in the 2012 Olympics as a woman, where she earned a silver medal.
These two cases illustrate the difficulties associated with sex verification within competitive athletic environments. Those concerned with sex verification argue that their effort is required to ensure a fair playing field. However, sex verification can be a humiliating process for the athletes who, after living as women all their lives, must endure the scrutiny and judgment of others.
Sex verification is problematic because no easy answer exists. Many different factors are relevant to the determination of the sex of a human being. The first factor to consider is biology. Individuals often mistakenly believe that studying a person's genetic makeup offers a clear determination of sex. If a person has two X chromosomes, that person is female while the person with an X and a Y chromosome is male. However, the biological determination of sex is not so simple due to activity of the SRY gene. This gene is typically found on a Y gene and triggers the fetus to develop as a male. However, the gene can appear on an X gene or not function as expected as a Y, resulting in unexpected sexual development. "SRY can show up on an X, turning an XX fetus essentially male. And if the SRY gene does not work on the Y, the fetus developers essentially female" (Dreger 1). Therefore, while the X and Y chromosomes may provide some guidance toward developing a clear biological determination of sex, they are not sufficient to end the controversy.
Psychological factors such as self-perception are also relevant. Individuals see themselves in a certain way. They will then choose to present themselves to society in a way consistent with how they view themselves. Race is an analogous case. Scientists once believed race to have a biological component but today recognize that race is a social construction. Individuals may choose to identify as a particular race or as biracial, depending upon their personal preferences and circumstances.
Therefore, with no clear bright line offered by biology, sex arises more as a social construction resulting from the negotiation of different interactions between people. "We may use scientific knowledge to help us make the decision, but only our beliefs about gender - not science - can define our sex" (Fausto-Sterling 3). Both Maria Patino and Caster Semenya consider themselves to be women. Like most people, they were likely told their sex initially by their parents. They were then labeled as females by others as they matured. Comfortable with their status as women, they fought to maintain their identities as women in a public battle experienced by relatively few.
The cases of Patino and Semenya illustrate the shortcomings of the male/female duality perpetuated by contemporary society. The male/female dichotomy is misguided when it comes to human sexuality. In the past, men and women were identified by their external genitalia. However, some people have both sets of genitalia, some have neither. The inability of external genitalia to offer a clear answer on how to determine sex has led to the effort to develop a new method of determining sex that can help to explain the apparent aberrations from the dichotomy. For this reason, health texts acknowledge multiple sexes within a continuum, rather than the duality of just male or female.
However, regardless of the exact test selected to formally determine sex, individuals will continue to decide for themselves whether to live as women or as men. They will fight to defend that choice. Therefore, while biological factors may push an individual toward a certain choice, sex is more an artificial construction used by society to make easy, yet imperfect, distinctions.
Ultimately, the pressure to prove that one is a female is likely higher than the pressure to prove one is a man. This difference is purely the result of competition standards and expectations. In many sports, men enjoy a distinct physical advantage over women. Women may achieve impressive physical results but the best female athletes in certain fields, such as running and swimming, cannot match the best performance of the top male athletes because "for a variety of intrinsic biological reasons, the best women can never run as fast as the best men, exercise researchers say" (Kolata 1). The noted difference in performance appears to be associated with the biological difference in testosterone levels within men and women. Testosterone "affects everything from muscle size and strength to the size of the heart to the amount of oxygen-carrying blood cells in the body to the percentage of fat on an athlete's body. Every one of those effects gives men a performance advantage" (Kolata 1).Certainly, not every man competing in a woman's event will win. After all, Hermann Rajen, the German male athlete who pretended to be a woman when he competed in the 1936 Olympics, only finished in fourth place. However, the testosterone issue is enough of a physical bonus to risk skewing a competition's results by constituting a competitive advantage.
The utilization of functional testosterone levels to determine athletic eligibility for women's competition appears an effective solution to the ongoing debate over competitive fairness. The solution is certainly practical. It supports the current division of competition into two sexes instead of considering more difficult options, such as collapsing into one shared competition or further subdividing the categories. The established level should help to dissuaded doping, an important consideration for the Olympics and other sports organizations that seek to maintain as level a competitive playing field as possible. As the East German Olympic teams have proven, testosterone doping generates a substantially larger impact upon the performance of female athletes than male athletes because female athletes have lower starting baselines. The use of a criterion to help keep that baseline low will prevent the enjoyment of performance enhancements that boost testosterone levels.
However, more research is needed to determine whether testosterone levels can be an effective method of determining eligibility. The I.O.C. should not have issued the new rule without strong foundational support from the scientific and medical literature. Unfortunately, not enough studies have been conducted on female athletes and testosterone to confirm the belief that testosterone provides marked advantages. "Most of the studies linking more testosterone with better athletic performance have been small and focused on men. Its value to female athletes is hazier" (Bardin 1). In fact, the case of Patino actively undermines the logic behind the I.O.C. rule because she managed to achieve competitive success despite her medical condition. "But if testosterone were essential to athletic success, Martinez-Patino would have been doomed to fail because her body can't use the hormone" (Bardin 1). The I.O.C. and other athletic organizations shouldn't base their rules upon assumptions with limited supporting evidence.
The most important question is whether women can have testosterone levels equal to the levels of men. Eric Vilain argues that "it would be 'extraordinarily difficult' for women to reach the male range threshold for testosterone" (Curley 1). In contrast, Jordan-Young and Karkazis argue that women can have elevated testosterone levels equal to men. They also contend that testosterone levels aren't the clear-cut solution that the I.O.C. and other athletic organizations desire. While men generally have more testosterone than women, the specific chemical levels found within human beings can vary considerable and that variability is generated by many factors beyond sex, such as "time of day, time of life, social status and - crucially - one's history of athletic training" (Jordan-Young and Karkazis 1). If Dr. Vilain is correct and there is no overlap, then athletic committees could use a baseline determined by male levels as a cutoff point: anyone who falls beneath the established level would be eligible to compete in women's competitions and those who score above the established level would be eligible for men's competitions.
In addition, elements of this solution are both troubling and sexist. First of all, the new system essentially codifies discrimination against individuals born with a particular medical condition. "The International Olympic Committee's new policy governing sex verification is expected to ban women with naturally high testosterone levels, a condition known as hyperandrogenism, from women's competitions, claiming they have an unfair advantage". The new sex verification system and its focus upon testosterone levels actively discriminates against women whose bodies naturally create higher levels of testosterone.
In addition, the addendum requirement that an individual seeking to compete in the Olympics must accept the medical inducement of lower testosterone levels is equally problematic. As Alice Dreger explained in the New York Times article, "Redefining the sexes in unequal terms," the "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" (Dreger 1). The new rule forces women to 'correct' their competitive advantage by subjecting themselves to hormone-altering treatments. This reduction of their natural testosterone levels creates the perception that they are not really women without the interventions.
This discussion illustrates a wider problem: male athletes are protected from accusation while female athletes are unfairly scrutinized sexually. No one asks if some male athletes are simply too gifted to complete. "When men are more talented than others, it is an expression of the beauty of sports. But when women outcompete others, suspicions about eligibility and arguments for a level playing field often arise" (Vilain 1). The I.O.C.'s guidelines for the 2012 Olympics encouraged all nations to "actively investigate any perceived deviation in sex characteristics and keep complete documentation of the findings, to the extent permitted by the applicable law of legal residence" (I.O.C. 2). It's not fair for female athletes to be subjected to humiliating examinations of their sex while male athletes are taken at their word.
The rule also creates a slippery slope. If testosterone levels are deemed a biological advantage that unfairly sways the outcome of athletic competition, the determination opens the door for additional biological factors to also be used to ban some competitors. Some women are taller than others, for example, and height can prove an advantage in many sports, such as basketball. Should athletic committees also decide to limit women to a certain height, claiming that they are no longer women if they are taller than six feet tall, or six foot two?
The rule also creates the potential for abuse. Competitors may bring accusations about a woman's sex in an attempt to discredit her ability. Both Maria Patino and Caster Semenya suffered a public humiliation as a result of the questioning of their sexuality. Even the threat of being accused of being male may cause some women to not compete. Those who know that they have a biological condition that will be revealed in testing may not want that information shared with the world.
More biological research is unlikely to solve these social dimensions of sex determination. Having separate athletic competitions for men and women is an archaic practice. The ideal solution may be to end the practice of having separate athletic competitions for men and women. This outcome would end the process of scrutinizing the sex of athletes, instead allowing all to focus simply upon competitive excellence.
However, this solution is likely impossible, at least in the short term. The male/female dichotomy is deeply rooted within contemporary human culture. The majority of people would need to change their biological and social understanding in order to become more open to the idea of sex as a social construction. Religious organizations that instruct their congregates to believe that God created the first man and woman would likely resist such a change as well.
Therefore, the I.O.C. and other organizations that use the Olympics as their model for sex determination should end the current practice of using testosterone levels as the criteria for eligibility. The rule creates more problems than it solves and it is not based on sufficient scientific or medical evidence. The best alternative for the future is for athletic events to simply allow competitors to choose their sex, just as they are allowed to choose their race and the nation for whom they compete. For the vast majority of persons, self-perception will guide the identification process. Most people will not try to pretend to be a woman just to gain a dubious competitive edge. This solution will also enable female athletes to continue to compete free from the shackles of a sexist social system that seeks to define their sex by stringent requirements that violate an individual's innate right to choose.
Bardin, Jon. "Olympic Games and the Tricky Science of Telling Men from Women." L.A. Times.
Curley, Ann J. "Expert: gender testing 'imperfect' for female athletes." CNN.
Dreger, Alice. "Where the rulebook for sex verification?" The New York Times.
Dreger, Alice. "Redefining the sexes in unequal terms." The New York Times.
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Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the body: Gender politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Perseus Books. Print. International Olympic Committee. "IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism." Games of the XXX Olympiad in London.
Jordan-Young, Rebecca and Karkazis, Katrina. "You say you're a woman? That should be enough." The New York Times.
Kolata, Gina. "Men, Women and Speed. 2 Words: Got Testosterone?" The New York Times.
Macur, Juliet. "I.O.C. Adopts Policy for Deciding Whether an Athlete can Compete as a Woman." The New York Times.
Vilain, Eric. "Gender testing for athletes remains a tough call," The New York Times.