On contemporary sports culture: “protecting” women by policing them

Sexism operates under three assumptions: there are only two biological sexes, biological sex determines gender identity, and gender identity determines gender expression. Sports culture cultivates all three assumptions in a type of cultural maintenance. As one of our greatest cultural vehicles, sport enforces sexism, maintaining the hegemonic superiority of masculinity with every blow of the whistle. The effect of this enforcement is not only the elevation of masculinity, which I wrote about previously, but also the continued conservation of the gender binary.

In terms of gender, sport is set up to be dualistic: male and female, girls and boys, and men and women. Terms related to biological sex like male and female are used interchangeably with those used to describe gender identity. This presents complicated realities in a simplistic manner, reinforcing the idea the biological sex is easy to determine and is inextricably linked to gender identity. Culturally, we view biological sex as being determined simply by genitalia or chromosomes or hormone levels instead of multiple factors working together. And, of course, as the some of the most offensive reactions to Caitlyn Jenner coming out demonstrated, we still have trouble accepting those whose gender identity is different than their assigned sex.

This kind of policing can be especially harsh in sports. For elite athletes competing in women’s athletic competition, too much success can draw the wrong kind of spotlight. After Caster Semenya, a South African runner, won the 800 metter at the world championships in 2009, questions were raised about her athletic ability and whether or not she could technically run as a woman. What happened next was a spectacle of epic proportions, dragging the 18-year-old Semenya through a series of very public gender and medical tests. The result of this was the outing of her as intersex. The reason for the “gender test” — which is incorrect phrasing as they are not testing compliance with cultural norms — was to determine the presence of hyperandrogenism, or elevated testosterone levels. In 2014, Dutee Chand of India was forced to undergo the same testing, which resulted in the Sports Authority of India telling her that in order to compete, she would have to medically reduce her testosterone levels. (She’s fighting that decision.) Nevermind the fact that testosterone levels are a horrible indicator of athletic prowess, and give no more of an advantage compared to any other physiological difference.

Elite athletes are gifted, and not just in pure athletic skill, but physiologically as well. The reality, however, is that the ways elite athletes in women’s sports are allowed to be physiologically gifted are limited in a way that does not exist for men. It is ok for Michael Phelps to be exceptionally built as the perfect swimmer, but a woman can be too strong or too fast if her hormones are outside of the accepted “normal” range. To be too good is to rouse suspicion because we believed that women shouldn’t be able to compete at that level. There is a visceral fear of men infiltrating women’s spaces, in a way that does not exist in the opposite manner. To the best of my knowledge, gender testing in athletics has never been performed on someone competing in men’s sports. Conceptually, I don’t really know what that would even look like — someone performed so poorly, they must be a woman? That is the message sent by these antiquated and biased policies.

The use of rudimentary understanding of biology to actively police a space designated for women is not just sexist, but also transphobic. The arguments about protecting women’s athletic spaces mirror the inflammatory arguments hurled toward trans women about the predatory nature of their presence in the bathroom that matches their gender identity. In Minnesota, these biases collided in the form of ads meant to incite fear about “males showering next to girls” in opposition to a trans-inclusive athletic policy allowing athletes to play on the teams reflecting their gender identity (which eventually passed). These fears manifest in professional sports as well. When mixed martial arts fighter Fallon Fox came out as transgender, many questioned her eligibility to compete, due to the perception of an “unfair advantage.” In reality, however, the medical consensus is that transgender women and girls have no competitive advantage over their cisgender peers after engaging in hormone replacement therapy for a year. More athletes should be encouraged to compete while being themselves, instead of living in fear of being ostracized.

Contemporary sports culture fails at operating in the gray, and consequently perpetuates an exclusionary culture that makes it difficult for transgender or intersex athletes to compete long term. While this policing is ostensibly about protecting women, it is really about enforcing a clear gender binary that doesn’t exist. And it breeds a toxic culture around gender that keeps sports from being the inclusive and powerful culture it could be.

Header image credit: Telegraph


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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