The more complex gender gets, the more we need male superiority

I first thought about gender testing in sport while reading Mariah Burton Nelson’s phenomenal feminist love prose to women’s athleticism.  As her target audience – sporty, able-bodied, playing serious representative sports and oh yeah, feminist – her analyis of sports providing a counter-discourse to it being all about the pretty rang true for me.  Sports have given me a sense of my body as functional, useful, strong, competent, all part of an embodiedment that feels privileged rather than typical for women.

Ms Burton Nelson described deliberate gender segregation of sports which had previously been gender mixed, like shooting, as functioning to promote and maintain gender differences, and as importantly, promote and maintain male superiority.  She pointed to sports like gymnastics, in which events were introduced or altered when men started competing, because some of the things women gymnasts could do with their bodies were more difficult for men – and then segregated.  Hence all the upper body strength tests for male gymnasts – complete inventions to make sure men could be good at it.

Women who are athletic and strong are often accused of not being real women.  We break gender rules.  Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova were both called “shemales” repeatedly because of their beautiful muscular tennis; out lesbian Amelie Mauresmo was famously described as “half a man” by fellow player Martina Hingis.  Most recently, weightlifter Zoe Smith had no trouble with being a woman stronger than the majority of men, despite being told her muscles are “unfeminine”.  When “throwing like a girl” means seventy metres, is gender inequality just a little destabilised?

I was in the first group of women cricketers allowed access to the elite High Performance Centre in Christchurch in the early 1990s.  We were tested for strength and speed, learnt how to run faster, and got to play with machines that made this sci-fi geek smile.  After the first few of us – all batswomen – had gone through reflex testing, they stopped the tests to make sure the machine was working properly.  Our results, as fast as male cricketers, were pointing to reflexes being a function of the role a sportsperson has in the team, not the gender of the sportsperson.

In 1994 Brian Lara was one of the best batsmen in the world.  Yet he was comprehensively dismissed by star Australian Zoe Goss in a charity match.  If even the best men aren’t always better than a woman, what does that mean for other men?


I don’t want to over-estimate the importance of sport, but culturally it is perhaps one of the last bastions where completely different treatment of women and men is frequently justified on the basis of biological difference.  And where, to be honest, we don’t even know how much biological difference actually exists, because we segregate sports, treat athletes completely differently on the basis of a binary gender assumption, and punish women who are “too good” in all kinds of ways.

The sexist assumption that all men are better than all women at all sports was the reason gender testing was introduced in the 1960s to the Olympics.  The fear was, men were pretending to be women to win medals their country was not entitled to receive.  The early gender tests involved female athletes having to parade naked for judges to decide whether their bodies met the grade.  South African runner Caster Semenya has had to endure this as recently as the last couple of years.

Yet testing every female athlete at the Olympics between 1968 and 1998 revealed the fact that gender and sex are complex.

Three decades of unsuccessfully attempting to develop a definitive test for female sex has given the IOC Medical Commission an intimate scientific knowledge about variations in chromosomal, hormonal and morphological sex.  This elaborate knowledge about sex produced an anxious realisation about the myth of dimorphic sex within sport within the Medical Commission.

The gender verification tests have never discovered a male athlete pretending to be a female athlete.  They have identified some people for whom the gender binary does not fit – intersex people – and in some cases, stopped those people competing as women, even when that was the gender they had been assigned at birth.  The process has also involved rewriting stories of gender variance to create gender certainty.

Now the Olympics have decided on a new strategy – test for testosterone, and if female athletes have “too much”, they might be allowed to reduce it medically, but if not they won’t be allowed to compete.  Again, we assume that having “male” levels of testosterone will make you a better athlete, even though clearly all the people with “male” levels of testosterone are not male.

This assumption turns out to not be that hot, because 25% of male Olympians have lower testosterone levels than “average” for men.  Maybe testosterone inhibits athletic performance sometimes?

Gender verification has emphatically shown us that many of our assumptions about gender are incorrect.  This would be amusingly ironic, given it’s purpose was the opposite, if it wasn’t playing out in real people’s bodies, and constraining our ability to embrace our gender identity whatever it runs like, swims like, lies around and reads like.  The fact is, there is more gender overlap than gender difference in most physical skills, and when we pretend otherwise not only are we invisibilising gender variance, we are shoring up a false gender certainty and enscouncing ideas that men are inevitably stronger, faster, more athletic than women.

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