The Olympic Games are obsessed with policing femininity

Black and white Victorian illustration of two ladies in large dresses and hats playing croquet

Proper ladies play a proper lady sport properly

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has planted itself firmly at the intersection of gender policing and colonialism.

The Star recently published a fascinating and infuriating article by Stephanie Findlay about the policing of femininity in preparation for the Games being held this summer in London. Remember all the sturm und drang around Caster Semenya? The IAAF has continued their biological gender essentialism campaign from there.

When folks decide they need to fight for the binary, they go looking for the place where they believe they can find the Truth of Gender. The IAAF has located it in hormone levels. Athletes competing in women’s sports are now required to have testosterone levels below a certain threshold. If they have “too much” testosterone, they have to undergo some sort of hormone-related treatment in order to compete (exercise can impact testosterone levels, by the way. So basically, athletes who work really hard might have somewhat elevated testosterone. Which the IAAF says is a problem. This whole thing is beyond ridiculous). Oddly enough, we’re not hearing about similar testosterone policing in the men’s categories; there’s no talk I’m aware of about athletes having too much or too little naturally occurring testosterone to compete with men. There is policing of hormone treatment in men’s sports – hello steroids! Think about it: we’ve now got the IAAF both requiring and banning hormone treatment in the Olympics.

Gender policing has long been a part of women’s sports. Apparently, when women compete athletically it’s enough of a threat to male fantasies of physical superiority that femininity needs to be reinforced at every possible moment. Which explains why we see so many amazing female athletes getting massively femmed up and sexualized in advertising and the press.

But that’s not what this is about, right? This is about hormone levels, not policing femininity. It’s just science, and science is true and objective and not at all impacted by people’s bigotry…

Lindsay Perry, another scientist, says sometimes whole teams of African women are dead ringers for men. “In football, some of the other girls were on the other end of the spectrum, you’re like, ‘No way that’s a girl,’” he says.

Science! What, you thought “No way that’s a girl” sounded more like good old fashioned transphobia?

Talk about an “unfair advantage” comes up a good deal around this topic. It’s a line of argument that could easily be picked up by feminists arguing in favor of women’s sports, provided they’re the kind who believe in binary gender essentialism. But what if we look at the actual question this brings up – there are plenty of intersex people out there, and it seems they’re well represented in sports, so why do we think we can and should force athletes into two biological gender boxes? – Especially since that’s not actually how gender works.

I’m not saying there’s an easy, quick solution. There are very real values to women’s sports, and I fear that questioning the gendering of sports will lead to one sided attacks on women’s athletics while generally leaving men alone. But hey, that’s what’s happening right now in a really problematic but unproblematized way. So we’ve got to talk about it. Elaine Salo, an anthropology professor at the University of Pretoria, makes an intriguing point that deserves way more complex thought than I’ve got space for in this post: “What is athletics if not the ability of the biological body to extend itself?” This whole controversy actually highlights the fluidity of the biological aspects of gender. But instead of being realistic about that fact, the IAAF is struggling to maintain a binary that’s collapsing around them. The fact that world-class athletes blur the boundaries of the bio gender boxes is, at the very least, a reason to question why we’re so attached to them.

Oh, and about that unfair advantage? Bruce Kidd advises on sports policy and is part of a group of Canadian experts protesting the gender policing. He brings some much needed real talk to all the hand wringing:

“It’s still the old patriarchal fear, or doubt, that women can do outstanding athletic performances. If they do, they can’t be real women. It’s that clear, it’s that prejudicial,” he says.

“Personal household and national income is far more relevant to performance than hormonal makeup,” he says. The countries with the highest GDP produce the most gold medals. The richer the athlete, the higher the likelihood of a winner, says Kidd. In other words, the salaries of your parents are a more accurate success indicator than testosterone.

“We don’t require this kind of radical equality for other factors that make a difference, so why should we single out this one?” asks Kidd. [my bolding]

And suddenly this seems less about maintaining fairness and more about maintaining the athletic dominance of wealthy nations. If the IAAF actually wanted competition on an even playing field, they’d be focused on making sure athletes from the global south had the resources necessary to compete. Strangely, I haven’t heard any rumblings on that front. Regardless of this conversation’s relationship to reality, the gender policing is motivated by racist, cissexist ideas about African women who, god forbid, might have a chance of beating a woman from the US even after way more money and resources have been put up to support her athletic career.

I’m always wary about data on intersex conditions – we know so little. There’s increased awareness of a range of intersex conditions in South Africa, and environmental factors do play a role. As Kidd points out, even if South African teams have more intersex folks on them than teams from other nations, there are plenty of other factors that have more of an impact on the outcome of games. Here’s where I need to state that no, it’s not hormone levels that make you a woman. And let’s remember, this didn’t all start with a hormone test, but with people saying Semenya and other athletes looked “too manish.” Of course biological essentialism and racism work together to yet again argue that Black women aren’t real women.

While I enjoy some things about the Olympics, it’s important to remember the current incarnation of the Games is very much embedded in a nationalist understanding of the world, one that’s inextricably linked to the colonialist project. The games were reborn in the late 1800s and early 1900s, a time when the cutting up of the world into nations was an obsession of colonial powers. Yes, athletics are a fairly lighthearted way for nations to compete, but the Games are still about asserting national superiority. As Kidd points out, they’re still being used to shore up the superiority of world superpowers. Take the widespread obsession with binary gender essentialism, combine racist ideas about the femininity of African women, and you’ve got a nice, intersectional method for using the Games to maintain power’s favorite hierarchies. It’s yet another way to say that superpower nations, and men, are superior and the global south, and women, are inferior – even at playing games.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley

    It is not ridiculous.

    Testosterone does help athletic performance; a muscular shotputter will always beat a less muscular one.

    Since men naturally produce more testosterone than women, they have a natural advantage in sports where muscle is predominant (most sports).

    It is precisely because of this major difference that (most) sports are segregated. Without this separation, there would not be a single woman in the top 100 in any sport.

    Now, if that appeals to you, fine. But does it appeal to you?

    If the Olympics allowed mixed competition, there wouldn’t be a single woman in even the quarter finals in any sport. If that is OK by you, fine again. I somehow think you do not want that.

    So, what is to be done?

    Allow competitors to simply declare themselves ‘of the female gender’? With no test applied? Then the women’s tennis tournaments would be swamped by third-rate men, who would beat all the women (any half-decent tennisman will beat even the top women palyers – all thanks to that testosterone).

    If some kind of test has to be applied, then let’s be scientific about it. And testosterone levels are a pretty good indicator.

    • http://feministing.com/members/angelh/ Angel H.

      I was under the impression that Feministing didn’t tolerate transphobic comments.

      Trans and intersex women are still women. They *ARE NOT* men.

      • http://feministing.com/members/jos/ Jos

        Sorry, that was my mistake. I unapproved the comment.

      • http://feministing.com/members/toongrrl/ toongrrl

        I think Jos didn’t mean it…
        Can’t they ever just leave all the women alone?

  • http://feministing.com/members/applesauce/ Tara

    This is a tricky issue. While there is rampant sexism and transphobia (ie. dicussions of what is and is not a “real” woman, or what a woman should look like), I agree with Smiley. If we didn’t segregate between women and men, women would rarely (if ever) make it to the finals of sporting events. I don’t think there’s any easy way to draw the line, but testosterone may be the best option. I am an athlete and a huge supporter of women’s sport, but in terms of absolute ability, men will almost always dominate women in the upper echelons of athletic competition.

    • http://feministing.com/members/dzuunmod/ Josh

      I agree, Tara. Surely Jos isn’t saying that she wishes to see women compete in the same events as men and come away with no medals in future Olympics, but neither does she wish to see any kind of separation enforced, seemingly, between the sexes. I wish she was putting forward some kind of constructive solution here and not just sniping at the system.

    • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley


      Thanks. I see that my comment has been unapproved!

    • http://feministing.com/members/decius/ Dan

      If we use testosterone levels to create divisions for sporting events, will we allow males with low testosterone to compete with females with low testosterone?

    • http://feministing.com/members/camas/ p. phillips

      I don’t think testosterone is a good measure at all. It is too naturally variable. I am one of those 6-10% of women who have an endocrine disorder known as PCOS, and part of that is that many of us have (at least sometimes) high levels of testosterone, that our own bodies produce. Some of us develop male pattern baldness and /or facial hair growth (I recall at age 28 I was growing a mustache – talk about an ego killer. Nowadays, thanks to modern medicine, my levels are under control). And that is just one medical condition. Doubtless there are many other medical conditions that can cause ‘high’ levels of T.

      • honeybee

        Presumably if you can control it with medicine then you’d be able to get below the allowable testosterone limit.

        I think we also have to recognize that it may not be possible to create rules which are 100% to EVERYONE. Some people may get left in a hard place however that’s true for almost any endeavor imaginable.

  • aznemesis

    Will people ever understand that “gender” and “sex” are not the same thing? The IAAF is policing sex, not gender. They are different. “Gender” is a set of behaviors that are supposedly based upon sex. They are social in nature. Sex is biological. I know, I know, politics before science.

    • http://feministing.com/members/dancingyeti/ JT

      Sure, sex is biological, but that doesn’t mean it’s binary. There’s a LOT of variation in phenotype (appearance and other physical manifestations, such as hormone levels) and genotype (chromosomes) among folks who are assigned male, female, and intersex at birth. I would argue that drawing some arbitrary line to decide who is male and who is female is far more political than scientific. Many scientists have a vested interest in maintaining this status quo of the sex and gender binary. There are some great books on the biology of sex and gender variation. Two I’d recommend are Myths of Gender by Anne Fasuto-Sterling and Evolution’s Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden.

      • honeybee

        I agree it’s difficult however that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the right language when discussing this issue. It’s biological sex not gender they are trying to divide sports on.

        Personally I think that no matter what they come-up with, or where they draw the line (including not having a line), someone will be left-out. So you just have to do the best you can to make it fair to the highest % of people possible.

  • http://feministing.com/members/markham/ Markham Lee

    While I understand the push to reduce discrimination against intersexed people, the transgendered, etc, the larger situation is more complicated.

    1) Men DO in fact have testosterone standards, if a man’s testosterone levels are too high it’s an indicator that they may be on Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). I did a quick Google Search “Sprinter banned for Testosterone” and I got a ton of results:


    It’s a PED, both male and female athletes have been busted for taking it.

    For the record they test these athletes on a very regular basis so they have a baseline, and they do allow for people to have higher than normal TO A DEGREE to compensate for these athletes having higher levels.

    In other words your level of testosterone greatly your level of athletic performance.

    Now let’s look at average levels in Men & Women: http://men.webmd.com/testosterone-15738?page=2

    The top of the female level range is less than 20% than the BOTTOM of the male range, and if you’re at the bottom of the male range you often need supplementation to get your levels up due to the health, personality, mental focus, et al impacts.

    Even an elderly man often has significantly higher levels than a woman at top of her athletic game, even if she’s markedly stronger than him.

    This is why this gets very complicated for intersexed people, because someone could conceivably have natural levels that another competitor would have to CHEAT and take loads of roids to even get close to.

    It’s not fair to someone who was just born different, but on the flip, what about everyone else in the race?

    Now if we get into trans-gender people it’s another story all together.

    A man could conceivably declare himself female, or get the surgery and dominate women’s events.

    Take Track & Field for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_2008_Summer_Olympics

    The women’s times are far slower than the male times, in fact the women’s times are slower than the times for high school boys. I don’t mean elite high school boys, I mean ones that may not get top scholarships, aren’t going to win state championships, etc.

    Take this top high school athletes from California: http://www.athletic.net/trackandfield/California/

    Any of those teenagers could declare themselves female and dominate the women’s Olympics, even if they get a sex change their naturally higher levels of testosterone would give them a huge advantage.

    Also, get rid of the testosterone rules and all the women could cheat with drugs.

    The fact that the IOC acknowledges that some women have naturally higher levels at least keeps those particular women from getting busted for using PEDs, not sure how I feel about having them take “therapy” to reduce their levels though.

    In the end, the IOC has to insure the fairest field possible, and while I respect the idea of accommodating everyone, some situations are difficult and arguably untenable.

    A woman with near male testosterone levels would crush everyone, and the other women wouldn’t have a chance EVEN with PEDs, In fact that woman could be an average athlete if you adjust for the elevated test levels, but since she’s competing against women with normal levels she gets to appear to be a super-star.

    Either way, this isn’t the IOC “policing femininity” or discriminating, the real story is far more complicated.

    I’d be happy to discuss this with you more, or even put you in touch with my Sports Medicine doctor who deals with issues like these (and is a woman to boot), she deals with a lot of elite athletes and could explain the sports medicine aspects far better than I can.

  • http://feministing.com/members/markham/ Markham Lee

    Also – in Track anyway, the Distance events are DOMINATED by poor countries in Africa and no woman is close to men (not in Track, Swimming, Cycling or Weight Lifting) anyway.

    It’s not about performance, or purely appearance, as (again) all those allegedly male looking female athletes from Africa are tested daily, and not requested to take therapy to lower their testosterone levels.

    SO that point is moot too.

  • davenj

    Doesn’t competition on the terms of a gender binary require gender policing by default?

    I mean, get rid of gender policing if you want, but to do that you’d need to eliminate gender categories at the Olympics. To do so would guarantee that few, if any, women qualify for the competition.

    I notice you used the term “threat to male fantasies of physical superiority”. As much as sport can lead to transposition of the characteristics of athletes onto gender at large, there is a fundamental truth to testosterone levels and male anatomy that offers profound advantages with respect to athletic competition. Ignoring that simply isn’t fair to female athletes.

  • http://feministing.com/members/amale/ a male

    I’m not into sports, other than the silhouette target shooting that I participate in. However, as a matter of principle, I eagerly await the day that men and women are able to directly compete together and against each other in sports. In something like target shooting, it does not make a difference. I’d also like to see men and women together in the NFL and international track and field. We wouldn’t need to worry about the viability of professional women’s football, soccer or basketball, because it would be the same sport with the same supporters. Until men and women perform comparably at the top levels however, there need to be segregated events. Why do 5’6″ and unders or Asian Americans (I am one) have to make their own local leagues? Because most short or Asian men wouldn’t get to play, e.g. football, basketball or baseball otherwise beyond high school, if even that.

  • http://feministing.com/members/markham/ Markham Lee

    Thought of this topic after watching Track online….

    1) I really didn’t like the quote where someone claimed that whole teams of African women are dead ringers for men, it sounds A) Racist B) like the same kind of hateful stuff all the female track athletes I follow on twitter complain about when they go to the gym.

    “I’m stronger than the guys, and have muscles so they talk crap about me”

    Recently Lolo Jones brought this up, guys on YouTube calling her a man.

    Thing is, no one is testing these women for being men, people in the sport (who often think they’re gorgeous BTW) accept that participating in this sport causes women to be more muscular than the average joe.

    The rule isn’t based on looks or appearance.

    Google Veronica Campbell Brown or Carmalita Jeter, two very muscular women, they’re not being tested and told they’re men.

    They all get tested year around anyway, the rule is for special situations where a woman has near male levels (4-6X above average female levels) due to being intersexed.

    To put it in perspective, it actually creates a way for women with these conditions to not get BANNED for cheating, because if a non intersexed woman had those levels she’s undoubtedly using Steroids.

    Just ask Marion Jones….

    2) The rule was created in the aftermath of the Caster case, ONE INTERSEXED athlete, ONE. They had no precedent for dealing with it prior to this, Caster, a woman who doesn’t have Ovaries and has testicles that produce large amounts of testosterone.

    Meaning: intersexed athletes are NOT well represented in sports, at all.

    3) Calling this an advantage like being naturally taller or faster isn’t accurate, as it’s a situation where other women may not be able to achieve those testosterone levels even if they took it directly.

    In the end this rule probably won’t be applied any time soon as these cases are so exceedingly rare, and remember, the IOC has Testosterone standards for men and women and this rule applies in extreme cases. Again, it would apply to a case of women who literally have testicles that produce levels that are higher than the levels that other women have gotten banned for because they reached them via Steroids.

    If they stop testing for Testosterone, than it becomes legal to cheat in women’s sports with PEDS!

    They’re not “policing gender” in any sort of broadband sense as far as demanding that all of these athletic women go through procedures to be more feminine and less muscular.

    Finally, if a man’s levels got too low that actually triggers issues for men because:

    A) He might have been using drugs that screwed up his system, so yes, being too low can get Men banned.

    B) He won’t be competing much longer because of the effects low testosterone has on men, or rather won’t be at the level to get tested in the first place.

    Also, Men get tested for estrogen, another indicator of PED use.

    I understand your points, but feel that some domain knowledge of the sport that generated the rule is necessary so people don’t get spun up unnecessarily and not see the larger picture.


  • honeybee

    I’m always confused by these types of posts because sports aren’t being separated by gender (at least their not supposed to be) but by biological sex. So there is no gender policing in the act of having separate male & female categories.

    The main reason is to make it fair to women who are born biologically female. Hence the debate really should be about hormones and biology IMO.

    However I do think that anyone who is excluded from the women’s event should be free to participate in the men’s event. I think that would remove alot of the problematic scenarios the separation creates.