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Via a CBC article here, the International Olympic Committee is promising to deliver guidelines on how to deal with athletes with ambiguous sexual characteristics. This was brought into the limelight with the controversy over the South African runner, Caster Semenya, in 2009.

This’ll get long; if you are impatient, or are uninterested in or offended by my own opinions, jump down to the quote below on what the IOC had to say.

Below, please forgive me if I misuse gender terminology. Is there a proper term for non-cisgender women that includes both intersex individuals and transwomen (and any group I may be unaware of or forgetting)?

I really don’t envy the IOC their task, because I can’t think of any solution entirely free of problems; from my perspective, it seems that they are left to find the lesser of a variety of evils, and even if they make the best possible decision they leave themselves open to criticism. The way I see it,

  1. Olympic athletes dedicate their entire lives to excel at their sports and deserve to compete fairly. These are not people to whom a win or loss in sports is a blip in a graph of their weekend game of pickup whatever-ball; these are people whose lives revolve around their sports and whose livelihoods may depend on their successes.
  2. Men have a physiological advantage over women in sports requiring strength, endurance, or speed—on overlapping bell curves, to be sure, but such that mixed-sex competition at elite levels in many sports would likely end up completely male dominated, more or less excluding women from the highest level of competition unless segregating by sex. (As just one example, male elite athletes have less body fat, and more muscle mass, than female elite athletes of the same weight.)
  3. Non-ciswomen individuals who compete as women may have a great advantage from these genetic/hormonal factors, which seems unfair to ciswomen.
  4. …On the other hand, it seems pretty damn unfair either to ban those same individuals from competing, and pretty damn unpleasant to out them to the world.
  5. It seems to me that you can’t solve both of the above problems at the same time: Solving the one causes the other.

What’s the solution? Well, I think it’s hard to imagine a solution where you wouldn’t have either some ciswoman athletes upset (because their competitors might have unfair advantages) or non-ciswomen’s rights people upset about excluding or outing people. If I made such decisions, I would let non-ciswomen compete as women¹ and not peer, TSA-like, into their crotches or their chromosomes, because

  1. Athletes, cis- or otherwise, have to compete against ‘unfair’ genetic advantages anyway. This is inevitable and invariable, no matter how much you stratisfy by sex and weight class and so on. Elite level athletes are people who come as close as possible to maximising their innate potential; they all train immensely hard, and odds are that the winners will be those whose innate potential is greater…that is, those with the ‘best’ genes, among other factors. This is just another kind of genetic advantage. (Granted, it is one that competition divisions tend to be stratisfied by.)
  2. Unless we postulate some fairly ridiculous scenario where men get sex reassignment surgery just to compete in the Olympics, or horrific scenarios where this is done to boys in countries lacking in human rights, I think it’s fair to say that non-ciswomen are going to constitute a vanishingly small minority of female athletes anyway. Even if you regard the unfair advantage problem as a serious one in cases where it does happen, I think it would be hard to argue that it’s significant in scale.

(You’ll no doubt notice, and perhaps abhor, that I left out the obvious item 3, viz. that the equal rights of the non-ciswomen outweigh the mere priorities of sports and games. This was quite deliberate for various reasons, primarily that I feel that the above reasons are sufficient, but also because it’s more subjective, because I figure that anyone who needs arguments to sway them are more likely swayed by the above items, and because it has a bit of circularity about it—If games and sports are so trivial, why care how non-ciswomen fit into that picture? I’m not saying that I disagree with this putative item 3, but I prefer to agree parenthetically.)

So that’s where I lean, but I think the IOC will probably catch flak from various quarters regardless of what they decide to do—and they may regard issues of athletic fairness as a higher priority than I do because, well, regulating sports and enforcing those regulations is a big part of what they do and why they exist; it would be surprising if they didn’t spend much more time thinking about unfair advantages and catching cheaters than they do thinking about gender issues. So I don’t envy them their position. I applaud the fact that they organized two conferences on gender verification, one with scientific and medical experts and the other with athletes, lawyers and human rights groups. But all the same, I find this pretty troubling:

After the first meeting in Miami last January, [IOC medical commission chairman] Ljungqvist told the AP that experts recommended the establishment of medical centres around the world where doctors would diagnose and treat athletes with what he called "disorders of sex development." Most cases, Ljungqvist said, require treatment such as surgery or hormone therapy.

This seems like needless and highly insensitive pathologising intersex conditions.² Surgically and/or hormonally fix up anyone who doesn’t fit the biological sex binary³? That’s on your list of solutions? Either this came across very poorly in the interview or reporting, or something is very, very wrong about this. Surely the issue is how the IOC should structure the events to accommodate non-ciswomen, not how non-ciswomen should surgically or chemically alter their bodies in order to fit into the Olympics!⁴ Surely this is not their fucking business.

It also fails to mention or address transwomen at all. Is this considered a separate issue, or are they ignored, or are they just considered cheaters whom the IOC unfortunately cannot save with its new gender-fixing clinics? I don’t know.

I realise this is just an interview and that the guidelines are not complete, but it looks troubling; I wonder what the final product will look like.


¹ Yes, of course they are women in a number of meaningful ways: I’m not trying to say e.g. that transwomen aren’t “really” women. That doesn’t alter the fact that they are not women in certain technical senses of their chromosome arrangement…or muscle composition and so forth, which is a relevant issue here.

² I really, really am not an expert, medically or socially or culturally or personally or otherwise, on gender issues or the lives of the non-cisgendered. But surely, it’s a pathology that needs treating only if it causes real health problems (e.g. non-functional testes may do no good but can develop cancer) or the person is otherwise suffering (dysmorphia or whatever the appropriate term is)? Surely it’s not a pathology just because it’s there.

³ Yes, I think it’s meaningful to speak of a binary, at least loosely. I’ve had acrimonious arguments with someone who claims that speaking of two sexes is not meaningful because the spectrum is too fluid. I respectfully (or disrespectfully depending on the person) call bullshit on this: The world is full of straightforwardly male and female people, and the fact that it’s a spectrum with two large modes rather than a strict binary does not alter the fact that an awful lot of people fall cleanly into one and only one of “XY, with testes” or “XX, with uterus”. But see also ².

⁴ Of course it’s generally nice to offer such services to those who want and need them, but it should not be affiliated with the IOC. Even if they describe it as fully voluntary in the final document—the above is just an interview citation, after all!—it would still carry a smell of coercion by being associated with the governing body. Why the hell should the IOC deal in medical therapy for sex reassignment or treatment for sexual development disorders?

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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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