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.

Read more about Jos

Join the Conversation