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Sex-Testing Female Athletes Has Nothing To Do With Fairness

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OLYMPIC FEMALE WEIGHT
Stefano Rellandini / Reuters
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Paternalism has always leaned heavily on its companion, pseudo-science, to preserve existing systems of privilege and power.

Consider this passage from an 1867 issue of the venerable British Medical Journal: "As a body [of medical experts] who practise among women, we have constituted ourselves, as it were the guardians of their interests, and -- in many cases -- the custodians of their honour. We are, in fact, the stronger and they the weaker. They are obliged to believe all that we tell them and we, therefore, may be said to have them at our mercy."

As outlandish and self-serving as that passage seems today, in the late 1800s, it was commonly accepted that physicians (almost exclusively male) were the proper arbiters of all things female, from their biology to their behaviour. Physicians used their privileged positions to prohibit women from engaging in anything beyond gentle physical exercise fearing they would suffer uterine displacement or deplete their stores of "vital energy," that mysterious fluid lubricating successful childbearing and homemaking. In other words, women who took up vigorous physical exercise (including sport) would be putting their health in danger and ignoring their roles as wives and mothers, leading to the downfall of society.

The 1867 passage is an instructive example of medical science conflating biological "facts" and moral prescriptions, resulting in serious misinterpretations of the data, rendering this type of "knowledge" no better than opinion, even if powerful and influential.

Sometimes convictions and feelings can masquerade as legitimate science, making this type of knowledge dangerous because interested parties can easily press it into the wrong service.
The policy states that only females who register below a defined testosterone threshold are female; register above that level and you will be placed in the men's category.

A good example is the International Olympic Committee, which, along with international sports federations, have a long history of using "science" to monitor and control female bodies. The IOC's most recent policy, quietly adopted in January of this year, focuses on the level of testosterone in females. The IOC has decided that one single determining factor, testosterone, is the latest and greatest marker for determining sex, even though research has shown there is no single element than can be used to pigeonhole the world into two neat biological categories: male/female. This binary is an easy fiction that obscures the more complicated details of real life.

Yet, the IOC insists on its fiction of the neat binary. The policy states that only females who register below a defined testosterone threshold are female; register above that level and you will be placed in the men's category. Or, you have two options: use medical intervention to conform to the IOC's definition of female or quit. It's no wonder that at least one female athlete has decided to challenge sex-testing in a human rights court.

What the policy-makers failed to consider was that all bodies need different levels of testosterone to be healthy. There is no one single level, and no single threshold that works for everyone. It all depends on how the body takes it up.

No matter what kind of body we have, testosterone does not define who is male or female (and certainly not who is a great athlete).

But the IOC has public sentiment on its side. There is a common belief that testosterone is a male hormone and that it's the key ingredient for performance excellence. Just as people in the late 1800s believed that vigorous exercise would harm female reproductive abilities, we are living in a moment in time when the IOC is relying on cultural assumptions about testosterone to determine who is female and what they should be able to do with their bodies. These assumptions ignore fundamental truths: no matter what kind of body we have, testosterone does not define who is male or female (and certainly not who is a great athlete), and it is only one element that we need to be healthy.

Even Olympic officials have implied their policy is scientifically dubious. When the latest version was released in January, former IOC medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist, who has no medical credentials but who was among its leading contributors, made a startling admission, saying the most recent changes were driven by a greater awareness of sex-testing being a "social issue" and "human rights" problem. No kidding.

But why does the IOC cling tenaciously to a policy based on social and moral values knowing it contravenes human rights?

"Fairness" is our modern day theory of "vital energy" that is being used to keep athletic female bodies in check.

The moral panic around female biology stems in large part from ideas about "fairness" in sport, a concept that is driven by marketing experts who lead us to believe that strict rules must be put in place to protect the "spirit of sport" that is the Olympic brand. Just as "fairness" cannot be clearly defined, neither can the "spirit of sport" - a fact that benefits interested parties since they can define it however they want and can impose all sorts of restrictions without the use of reliable evidence to justify their actions. "Fairness" is our modern day theory of "vital energy" that is being used to keep athletic female bodies in check.

The more science reveals there is no clear dividing line between the sexes, the harder public relations experts work to reinforce that line. Some entire business models, like the Olympic Games, rests on the public's sustained believe in the male/female binary. It goes without saying that these businesses have the most to gain -- money, power, privilege -- by reinforcing that fiction.

The IOC's latest policy, which is being enforced for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, is the most recent expression of its enduring obsession with female athleticism. Organized sport is the only institution in the world that attempts to regulate female sex.

There is no sex-testing in education, where the rewards for excelling -- the scholarships, access to exclusive programs and jobs -- are equally, if not more, valuable. Not religion, where inspiration of the highest orders is sought. Not politics, justice or media. Not anything. Only the IOC, the sports bodies and the fear mongers who support it. In doing so, the IOC has confused itself as the proper arbiter of all things female, just as the physicians writing in the British Medical Journal did in 1867.

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