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What is a “woman”?

This post is by Phil Price, not Andrew.

As we approach the Olympic Games, this seems like a good time to think about the rules for deciding whether a person is a “woman” when it comes to athletic competition. As I was doing some searches to find some information for the post, I found an excellent piece that puts everything together much better than I would have. Go ahead and read that, then come back here. (The piece is by Christie Aschwanden,  of whom I think very highly; she wrote a book I reviewed here two years ago).

The issue is: if you’re going to have separate divisions for men and women, then you need a way to define “woman.”  A good way of defining this might seem obvious: if the person has a vagina, she’s a she. That’s the way the international sports governing bodies used to do it, but then that was rejected for reasons mentioned in Aschanden’s piece. Well, how about “does the person have two X chromosomes?”  After nixing genitalia as the criterion, this is what they switched to…but then that was rejected for reasons also mentioned in the piece. Currently,  according to the article, “Female athletes who [have] functional testosterone (in other words, not just high testosterone levels, but also functioning receptors that allowed their bodies to respond to the hormone) above a threshold number [are] not eligible to compete unless they [do] something to reduce their testosterone below the threshold.”  (The original sentence is in the past tense, but this is pretty much the current situation too). 

I think it’s safe to say that most people with an interest in how “woman” should be defined for sporting purposes are unhappy with any of the past standards and with the current one. An issue with the current article is, as it says in the article: “People who go through male puberty are taller, have bigger bones and develop greater muscle mass than those who go through female puberty, said William Briner, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Uniondale, New York, during a session on transgender athletes at the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in early June. Men also have more red blood cells than women, and their hearts and lungs are bigger too. Some of these advantages are irreversible [even if testosterone levels are later reduced].”  

Furthermore, although the Olympics focuses only on the best athletes in the world, there’s a need for competition rules that apply at other levels too. High school basketball, for example, needs a way to determine who is eligible to play on the girls’ team. Is it fair for a 17-year-old 6’4″ high school athlete who went through puberty as a male, but then transitioned to female, to be allowed to compete against girls who went through puberty as girls? Viewed one way, being a woman who went through puberty as a male is just another genetic advantage, and we let athletes use their genetic advantages, so there’s no problem with such a person competing on the girls’ team. Viewed another way, it’s not fair to let someone compete as a girl if they got their body by growing up as a boy. 

So what do I think the rule should be? I have no idea. Indeed, I’m not even sure how to think about what the rules are trying to achieve. We have separate competitions for men and women because it would be “unfair” for women to have to compete against men: in most sports the best women wouldn’t stand a chance against the best men, and the average woman wouldn’t stand a chance against the average man. A female sprinter, for instance, would have no chance of reaching the elite level if competing against men. OK, fine…but what about me? I’m a man but I would also have no chance of reaching the elite level if sprinting against other men. Indeed, I would have no chance of reaching the elite level if I were sprinting against women! The fact is, very few people have the genes (and other characteristics) to compete at the elite level. If the point of the rules is to give everyone a reasonable chance to be among the best in the world in a given category, well, that’s not gonna happen, because no matter how you define the categories there will be only a small fraction of people who have what it takes.  By having separate competitions for men and women we can’t really be trying to give “everyone” a chance. So what are we trying to do?

All of this puts me in mind of a statistical principle or worldview that Andrew has mentioned before, that I think he attributes to Don Rubin: most things that we think of as categorical are really continuous. For some purposes (and with some definitions) male/female is indeed categorical — no male can bear a child, for example — but when it comes to innate ability in a sport, what we have is one statistical distribution for men and another statistical distribution for women, and (for most sports) for any reasonable definition of “man” and “woman” the high tail for men will be higher than the high tail for women, but  the bulk of the distributions will overlap. If  Caster Semenya is a woman for sporting purposes, in spite of her XY chromosomes and typically-male testosterone level, then she is at the very top of the sport. If she is a male for sporting purposes, then she is not remotely competitive at the elite level. (Welcome to the club!). Sporting ability is continuous but we have to somehow force people into two categories, assuming we want to continue the current male/female division in competitions. 

It’s said that “hard cases make bad law” but this seems like a sphere in which all of the cases are going to be hard.

This post is by Phil.

197 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    I basically agree with Martina Navritilova’s take on this: At the elite (i.e. professional) level, athletes who’ve gone through male puberty should be excluded from women’s competition. Otherwise, if you want to compete as a woman then sure, whatever – the really good female athletes will appreciate the competition although young Becky who’s lost her place on the high school volleyball team to a 6’4 trans-woman may beg to differ.

    • mpledger says:

      And Greg the 6’2 volley ball player gets the vacated spot on the male team. Do men appreciate the downgrade in competition?

      If Greg and Becky are academically equal then which one is going to look better to the college recruiters?

      • Mike says:

        Yes perhaps wrt Greg & Becky. A more likely scenario in elite athletics is Laurel Hubbard, who won a spot on the New Zealand women’s weightlifting team for the Tokyo Olympics. She had long ago aged out of competitive weightlifting in the men’s division, so there was no Kiwi Greg who got a spot on the men’s team by virtue of Hubbard joining the women’s team.

        That’s a more likely scenario because the overlap between women’s and men’s performance distributions is very limited in most elite athletics involving strength, speed, or endurance. The searchable database at worldathletics.org has many examples.

        In 2019, Sifan Hassan ran the fastest 1500 meters by any woman (3:51.95); in the same year, men ran faster than that over 5000 times in competition. A median time from the men’s distribution (~3:54.00) would have been faster than the second-fastest woman in 2019 (Faith Kipyegon, whose fastest time was 3:54.22). IOW a random draw from the male distribution of elite performance is likely to be the best/fastest/strongest female performance if that male is considered to be a woman. That leaves a lot of scope for unfairness to females.

        That doesn’t speak to the question of how best to mitigate the unfairness to trans women as well as to females. In the Caster Semenya case, the CAS agreed that the testosterone rule was unfair to Semenya but that this limited unfairness was justified and necessary in order to treat females fairly. Of course, that wasn’t a case involving trans women, but it’s related in the sense that Semenya has some male biological traits but a difference in sexual development. It’s relevant because the rules adopted out of Semenya’s case (involving DSD) are now being applied to other cases (trans women).

      • Elin says:

        Greg. Girls/women have higher grades etc and are more likely to attend college, but at elite schools they want to ensure that there is a gender balance for social reasons (which many of the women appreciate).

  2. Conor says:

    I was talking with a friend who coaches high school. He was saying how in the discus throw, in high school, men start out at 1.6 kg and women at 1 kg. In college, men move to 2 kg, women stay at 1 kg. Professionally, men are still 2 kg, women remain at 1 kg. By the time women hit pro, it actually becomes a problem – it’s too light and too small to get a proper grip on it, apparently most female discus throwers wish that they used the men’s sizes.

  3. oncodoc says:

    I second the point that the international contests are for extremely elite individuals. How about if we define eligibility for events the way automobile racing does; they have specific criteria for Formula One, Indycars, stock cars, etc. I am personally a high mileage junker in such a system, but I’m happy to watch Daytona without thinking that Scuderia Ferrari is being unfairly excluded from that race.

  4. Anonymous says:

    > I think it’s safe to say that most people with an interest in how “woman” should be defined for sporting purposes are unhappy with any of the past standards and with the current one.

    I suspect that the number of people with an interest in the (re)definition of “woman” is much higher than it used to be. And it’s possible that most of them were actually happy with the “obvious” standards of the past.

  5. jim says:

    Interesting and timely topic Phil

    “We have separate competitions for men and women because it would be “unfair” for women to have to compete against men”

    At the lowest level at any rate we have separate competitions because that allows people to compete against others who are of approximately equal ability, regardless of the reasons for the differences (age, and ability like varsity and JV in addition to gender). This is done more for educational/developmental reasons than because of the fairness of the outcome: it’s more beneficial to compete against someone of approximately equal ability than to compete against someone of much lesser or much greater ability.

    How that should translate into the highest levels is more difficult to say, since the stakes are much higher, the competition is professionalized, and the underlying reason for it does become more about “fairness” of the outcome.

    “the bulk of the distributions will overlap. “

    Is this true? This is a difficult comparison because performance reflects both ability and training, and probably the only way to gage the innate differences between men and women would be to compare people with no training at all, since otherwise it would be difficult to control for the amount of training. Surely Phil if you had trained in tennis from age six, you’d be at least much better competition for Serena Williams than you (presumably) are today, (presumably) with little or no training. If you had trained equal to her, would you be able to beat her? We’ll never know.

    I’m willing to bet a modest part of the distribution would overlap – very roughly comparable to the differences in height of men and women. Quickly looking for data, on height it looks like about 35% overlap.

    • >Surely Phil if you had trained in tennis from age six, you’d be at least much better competition for Serena Williams than you (presumably) are today, (presumably) with little or no training. If you had trained equal to her, would you be able to beat her? We’ll never know.

      I’m pretty sure Serena would win that one (No offense Phil!) The odds are in her favor given that she’s already shown she’s top of class in women’s tennis, plus tennis seems like a sport where the best women have much better odds of beating the men than something like discus or weightlifting.

      • the_real_tiddlydump says:

        Yeah this isn’t even close to true. She’s an excellent tennis player, but (like most female athletes) would lose to a great high schooler and mediocre college player. Turns out testosterone is a helluva drug, and the athletic advantages of differently angled hips/femurs (since men have no need to bear a child), denser bones, and harder-pumping heart conspire (with other stuff, too) to give men significant advantages in athletics.

        Coming from the gymnastics world, the governing bodirs have never been shy about embracing the differences in the two sports. Women have a lower center of gravity (and rotate differently), have proportionally stronger lower bodies, etc, and the divergence in the sport is a wonderfully beautiful thing!

        This all matters because women deserve to have sports that are competitive but fair. I’m not sure what the best solution is, but I don’t think the best solution is a world where all the best women went through male puberty. I wish this was easy.

        • Dale Lehman says:

          Perhaps you are too young to remember the Billy Jean King/Bobby Riggs match? Of course, it was featured in a recent movie, but perhaps you don’t go to the movies either.

          • Anonymous says:

            Not really the best example – Bobby Riggs was 55 when he played Billie Jean King. And he had beaten Margaret Court a few months earlier. What t-r-t writes is spot on.

          • the_real_tiddlydump says:

            You’ve actually made my argument here (and highlighted part of why many are upset about the NZ trans powerlifter). Prime athletics age women can beat boys and old men on what is (only then) a level playing field. The only older women who can compete in powerlifting against younger women went through male puberty.

            None of this was controversial until what feels like minutes ago. I think we all want what’s fair to athletes while also respecting that the line between male and female isn’t as bright as was once thought.

        • Here’s to hoping that some self-proclaimed mediocre male college tennis plsyer will offer himself up to prove how easily he can beat Serena Williams.

          • the_real_tiddlydump says:

            You might not believe me, but I really do care about women’s sports (and when my daughter is old enough I hope she can participate).

            I’ll use gymnastics as my reference frame again because that’s the sport I know most intimately. Before I stopped due to injury I was mediocre, I’m not going to pump myself up. But even at 14-15 I was performing vaults that were winning medals at women’s World Championships. The risk in having a poorly defined women’s category is that the ambiguity never goes the other way. Simone Biles is a generational talent, but comparing her to men diminishes her excellence (and I wasn’t trying to do that regarding Serena).

            The incentives around this matter. If girls risk being crowded out by athletes who experienced male puberty, we might not see the inspirational women that have been discussed here. “The best way to be a woman is to have been a man” goes against about 120 years of feminism.

          • elin says:

            +1 Ridiculous comment. Put any mediocre college tennis player in Flushing Meadow or the main court at the Australian Open. They would soon learn that the game at that level is about a lot more than strength.

        • Joshua says:

          trt –

          > She’s an excellent tennis player, but… but would lose to a great high schooler and mediocre college player.

          Can you provide evidence to support that statement?

      • Phil says:

        I think Serena, at her peak, would have been about the thousandth-best tennis player in the world. (She played against some guy ranked around 500, and he was substantially better than her. But perhaps with a small amount of practice against someone with his speed and power she would have been able to adjust; that’s what I would guess). Maybe she was #800 in the world, maybe 2000, I’d think almost certainly in the top 3000. If I had dedicated my life to tennis, could I have made the top 1000 or 2000 or 3000? Mmmaybe. I’m fairly tall, fairly athletic, was fairly fast, had fairly good hand-eye coordination. But, well, read David Foster Wallace’s article “The String Theory.” There are about 90 million tennis players in the world and at least 90,000 of them are young and fit and take it seriously. Basically I agree with Jessica on this: to be better than Serena you don’t have to be an elite male player but you do have to be very very good. It’s not out of the question that I could have been that good, but it’s definitely not the way to bet.

        To look at something less speculative: I was faster than any of my Ultimate Frisbee teammates over several years (and most opponents), including a guy who had run a 52.2 400m a few years earlier. I was fast enough to be proud of how fast I was, but I would still have lost to the fastest women by forty meters or so..

        • Mike says:

          There is a semi-famous story about Serena and Venus claiming they could beat men ranked outside the top 200 in the ATP. They tested the claim by each playing a friendly one-set match on the same day in 1998 against Thomas Braasch (then ranked #203). Serena was only 16, but Venus was older and made the US Open final that year. In the story, Braasch is said to have played a round of golf in the morning, drank a few beers in the afternoon, then won each set 6-1 or 6-2. Again friendly, not competitive, and anecdata.

          Not sure I agree that “probably the only way to ga[u]ge the innate differences between men and women would be to compare people with no training at all, since otherwise it would be difficult to control for the amount of training.” Seems better to compare elite athletes who have all been highly trained and are all highly motivated to win, otherwise it would be difficulty to control for degree of interest and motivation.

          • Mike says:

            er, Karsten, not Thomas :(

          • Phil says:

            Yes. But Serena was in her teens at the time and was a much better player at her peak. And although Braasch was ranked around 200, he had been as high as #40, just way more experience.

            In any case, whether Serena would be the 1000th-best or 10,000th-best player in the world, she’d still be better than the vast majority of male players, even if not nearly good enough to be a male professional.

            I think a better way to address the general question of male/female differences in athletic performance is with track and field (and road racing), where we can simply compare actual times and distances. Elite women are nowhere near elite men but easily better than Joe Schmoe. To give an example: according to runrepeat.com, using data from amateur road races, a 40-minute 10k puts you in the top 0.8% of female runners age 20-29, and beats more than 96% of male runners in that age group. So, yes, some men beat the fastest women, but the fastest women beat the vast majority of men.

            If you only look at elite events then you’re comparing the high tail of men to the high tail of women, and it’s hard to judge the overlap of the distributions that way.

            • Mike says:

              Yes agree with all those qualifications about Serena vs. Baasch. It’s an imperfect comparison.

              “Elite women are nowhere near elite men but easily better than Joe Schmoe. “

              Yes for sure. But Flo-Jo and Joe Schmoe differ in many ways other than female vs. male physiology. Comparing them doesn’t lead to a measure of sex differences in athletic performance. The clearest comparison is between male and female elite athletes with similar training and motivation. The performance difference between the elite groups is more likely to be mainly caused by sex differences in physical ability. At least I think so.

  6. Kyle C says:

    I have followed this topic and related ones with detached interest and find distressing the heat and vitriol that seem to develop very rapidly among discussants. Gender identity makes people very, very angry and they accuse others of denying or erasing other’s identities or, worse, of threatening their lives. I hope this comment thread can be different.

    • Rahul says:

      Looks different so far! :)

      • Ale says:

        What bothers me about the attention this conversation is getting that there’s issues in groups that have a larger proportion in, for example the US population with clear inequity in income, that aren’t being discussed. :) I definitely agree that non-binary people should be allowed to choose gender identity, and should be allowed proportional representation in employment. But there’s bigger fish to fry :). By bigger fish, of course, I mean more people being affected. Of course, the subgroup I’m vaguely to earlier doesn’t exclude the community referenced in this blog post.

        • Phil says:

          For almost any issue we could discuss, you could say “there are other issues that are much more important.” And you’d be right. I suppose one could argue that people should only discuss the very biggest issue, or the five biggest, or the ten biggest. But in fact people like to discuss all sorts of things, like which movies are best, and whether baseball games take too long, and why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings.

        • Ano says:

          With this reasoning is relevant to consider that frying smaller fish as you say, may potentially help in preparing bigger fish too. It does not have to detract or be detrimental to other egalitarian goals; it could actually open the door for other changes.

      • Kyle C says:

        We already have one accusation of facilitating sexual assault of minors.

  7. For individual events, I suggest we use the “Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models”. Decide on a number of criteria that are associate with increased sporting capacity in each sport. Find the average of these measures in the general population, then create a score sum(M[i]/mean(M[i])) for each of the measures i. Then segment that measure into deciles and offer categories in each decile (obviously deciles should be enough to take care of nonprofessionals, but for professionals you’d probably only use the upper 4 or 5 deciles.

    For team sports, you could offer a budget for the team or a similar strategy (like, limits on the max/min values or the variance or the mean absolute deviation)

    • obviously in the super-elite olympic range you probably would have to segment it differently because probably all athletes would be in the top decile. But you’d still just look at the distribution of the score among these elite and sub-divide it into reasonable subcategories. This probably would result in some medium elite men competing with top elite women… but I don’t think that’s necessarily a major problem.

    • Paul Alan Thompson says:

      This is not a workable solution, for obvious reasons. Persons who participate in sport do so to win. If we have multiple categories, the simplest way to win is to cheat on the segmentation exam. The only approach that could work is to segment on a component of person NOT related to the competition.

      The clear example in male sport is wrestling. Large males easily beat small males. So, there are divisions based on weight. Within the weight division, skills and strength are the determiner of winning. It would make no sense to segment on strength. Weight is a simple and easily measured segmentation variable. It is also only of limited ability to manipulate – you can drop 1-2 lbs easily, but it’s pretty hard to drop 15.

      • It would be impossible to cheat on a properly designed measurement analysis like: height, lean body mass, vo2 when running at a prescribed pace, bone density, ultrasound measurement of the heart volume… etc

        • We could also add in some of the relevant sex hormone measures. such as “had at least one functioning testicle at some time between the ages of 10 and 25”, which we could have rules that simply presume a yes answer if you don’t currently have a functioning ovary or a documented medical history.

          For the most part this is a 0/1 indicator divided by essentially 0.5. Suppose we’re using 10 measures, then this means normal “men” would increase their score by 0.5 over normal “women” on a scale that we could imagine would have a mean of 10 and a standard deviation of say 2 and be fairly normally distributed. An extra 0.5 on this measure would on average move you about 7-8 percentage points, enough that it would distinguish between the top decile and the second top decile and do most of the work of separating “normal” men and women without actually needing to do much else

        • length from shoulder to finger tip, length from hip to heel, overall weight, span from thumb tip to little finger tip, circumference of the bicep, circumference of the thigh, length of the femur, heart rate when running at 3 different speeds on a treadmill…

          there are tons of useful objective measures that are very hard to cheat which we could use to build such a score.

      • Jack Gallagher says:

        Wrestling is in fact an interesting case. It is stratified by a continuous variable, weight, as you mention.

        Yet nowhere do I see you advocating routine testing for testosterone levels across sports for cis and trans people alike. Surely if transwomen have such an advantage due to hormones, ciswomen who naturally have somewhat elevated testosterone levels have an advantage over those who do not as well?

        Being that we’re commenting on a blog which often comments on the misuse of p-values by treating them as binary rather than continuous in order to lend credence to a pre-decided conclusion, I hope the irony is not lost on my fellow readers that you’re committing the same error here.

  8. Ewout ter Haar says:

    I think this is key: “to think about what the rules are trying to achieve.”

    It occurs to me that the rules for sports are for the benefit of the whole of society, not just for the competing athletes. If that’s the case, what’s “fair” in sports can be different from what’s “fair” in a general competition for status and power. So, I don’t know what the rules for sports are trying to achieve, but surely you’d have to be very careful to not automatically transfer fairness arguments that apply to the role of gender in society, to sports and especially elite sports. And vice-versa, off course.

  9. anon e mouse says:

    This is an unpleasant topic to discuss, because it’s an area where people who actually do hate trans people astutely recognize that the demands of (some) trans women athletes can be offputting to people who don’t otherwise have strong opinions on trans issues.

    • Phil says:

      I think it would be a mistake to let the haters squelch the conversation. This blog has a great record for commenters making fair-minded, relevant comments; I’m expecting this post to maintain that tradition.

    • Paul Alan Thompson says:

      So, to placate the miniscule number of trans bullies, we are to not discuss this, and simply allow these cheaters in to dominate whatever sport they wish?

      No.

      And it is not an “unpleasant topic” to discuss. It is important. What is unpleasant is the denial of reality and the complete confusion being DELIBERATELY introduced by the trans bully lobby.

      There are 2 sexes, and females are lower in ability. A simple solution is 1) stop calling them “trans women”, and use the correct term “gender-dysphoric males” 2) deny males the ability to participate as females.

      It’s not complicated. It’s unfair to the females. Period.

      • Andrew says:

        Paul:

        Just because you prefer a term, that does not make it correct. Just because you say “it’s not complicated,” that doesn’t make it not complicated. Phil’s post above has a long discussion of how it is complicated. Also, it’s hardly a “simple solution” to not call people what they want to be called.

        • Paul Alan Thompson says:

          Sorry, the term “gender-dysphoric male” IS the correct term. This is the medical term for this condition. The term “trans woman” has been devised by this group, and is the main reason for the confusion now evident in this question. Use the accurate term.

          • Andrew says:

            Paul:

            This particular discussion is going nowhere. Language is a social and even a political process, and fighting linguistic changes can be like trying to push aside the tide.

            I’m not saying that one should never try to change language. I’ve had many impassioned takes over the years regarding what I consider confusing conventionally used statistics terms such as “bias,” “random effect,” “noninformative prior,” and many others, and sometimes I think my linguistic activism has made a difference. But using all caps, insisting that your preferred terms are “accurate,” and using an imperative mood . . . that won’t take you far. When you want to call people something that they don’t want to be called, you’re kind of coming in with two strikes against you. I’m not saying that I’ll always call people what they want to be called, it’s just that these sorts of things can be complicated, which again is related to Phil’s post.

            • Paul Alan Thompson says:

              The “problem” begins with language. Let’s say you have a horse that you name “Big Dog”, and you wish to enter the “Big Dog” into a dog race. Those who argue for “fairness in dog racing” will rightly say that your attempt to name the horse a “dog” is not enough to get the animal into the dog race.

              The entire issue of the gender-dysphoria is with us do to the language that is being used. When a person says “I am a woman”, they wish entry into female spaces. So, we end up with Wi Spa in CA (physiological male exposing himself to minor children). Because he claims to be a woman, the spa employees are unable to keep him out of female spaces. If the correct term is used of “gender-dysphoric male”, the ability to keep him out would be obvious.

              We do not allow self-identification of “physician”, “lawyer”, “airline pilot”, “policeman”. In our society, we have a credentialing system. When I obtained my PhD, this gave me the ability to call myself a “Dr.” within limited contexts. It did not give me the ability to perform as a physician, which is another form of “Dr.”. I am able to operate on “data”, not “knees”. So terminology IS important. It’s important in this area as well.

          • Phil says:

            Although gender dysphoria is a related subject, it is not (at all) the only relevant one. I don’t think that term applies to María José Martínez-Patiño or Dutee Chand, for example.

            • Paul Alan Thompson says:

              Again and again, I have made the point that conflating different things does not clarify. There are at least 2 situations: 1) persons with gender-dysphoria 2) persons with DSD. Rather than actually addressing that issue, you further confuse the situation by bringing in a 3rd situation. Putting 3 different things together and pretending that they are all the same does not lead to clarity. That’s one of the main reasons this issue is “confusing”. Because it is not one issue, rather it is 3 or more.

        • Paul Alan Thompson says:

          You note that “Phil’s post above … how it is complicated”. Phil (and you) should read some of the voluminous literature in this area:

          https://www.usapowerlifting.com/transgender-participation-policy/

          https://www.usapowerlifting.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/USA-Powerllifting-TUE-Committee-Report-2019.pdf

          https://jme.bmj.com/content/45/6/395

          These discuss the issue in a more careful and more physiologically informed manner.

      • Emilio says:

        Paul – You seem to care an awful lot about how the rules govern how people chase a ball around or pick up and hold heavy things. Why? What purpose does it serve to get as hysterical as you are being over sports? You say it’s important, but… why? It’s sports. It’s not intrinsically important. It’s also not about fairness because you don’t seem to care about unequal advantage within a group (why aren’t you arguing for divisions in sports the way something like boxing has weight class divisions?). What purpose could it possibly serve you to get this emotional about making sure the rules governing organized athletics keep people separated on the basis of a complex collection of topics that you are almost assuredly not an expert on?

        • anon e mouse says:

          You said it better than I could. Generally I prefer not to speculate about motive, but what drives someone to make 16 mostly combative/inflammatory posts on a single comment thread discussing what is ultimately a fairly minor point, (one that is entirely academic for the overwhelming majority of everyone alive), in the broader conversation on trans issues?

  10. Jack Gallagher says:

    As other commenters have discussed, this is a fraught issue given how little the average person knows about trans people, the biology of sex, and the psychology of gender. However it is my experience that this blog’s comment section thankfully is above-average!

    I’ve personally been rather persuaded by Sophia Hottel’s argument here (https://transliberalism.substack.com/p/trans-athletes-revisited). Now, Sophia is a trans woman which you could argue introduces bias, but I would argue that it’s a bias that is totally subsumed by (a) the fact that we *know* the bias, whereas we do not know if specific medical researchers or the IOC or parents of the kid who came in 2nd place have an agenda to push (potentially even subconsciously), (b) the fact that no one knows more about how transitioning affects their body’s physiology than the people undergoing it, feeling it every day.

  11. Jonathan (another one) says:

    As Daniel Lakeland alludes above, the real problem is that there are only two categories: men and women, and a continuum of abilities in a host of dimensions. This problem is sort of solved in poker by having different rooms operating at different stakes with individuals self-selecting into the stakes that reflect their abilities. Though the best poker players in the world could clean up at nickel poker, cleaning up isn’t worth their time at such low stakes. Horse racing operates similarly.

    What you would ideally like to have (and I can’t think of a way to make this practical) is enough divisions that people will self-select into divisions in which they are competitive amongst each other, but moving up in class is bad because you can’t win, and moving down in class is bad because the returns to winning (financial, personal, or what have you) are too low. In equilibrium, there will be divisions with substantial numbers of men and women (by whatever definition) competing. In some sports (tennis is a perfect example) this would be very, very bad for women’s pay, since as Phil and others point out, there would be little prize money in the division with the 1000th best men’s player in the world, the division which would capture elite women. Which raises the question, do we have prize parity in tennis for the quality of play, or the quality of the competition?

    Of course, at the top of each distribution is the competition to be “The Best,” which will always attract entrants outclassed. But this isn’t the gender problem…

  12. anon says:

    All of the women whose testosterone levels are being regulated are biological males, with XY sex chromosomes and internal testes: https://www.sportsintegrityinitiative.com/dsd-regulations-call-out-athletes-as-biologically-male/

    Virtually none of the press coverage of this issue notes this crucial fact. No female athletes are affected by these rules. For nearly a decade, media accounts of Caster Semenya’s disqualifications described her as someone who was born female or as a cisgendered woman. Neither claim is true.

    • Michael Nelson says:

      You have a point that reporting has been misleading, at least some of the time. However, I think it’s misleading to say without qualification that she’s “biologically male” because it fails to distinguish intersex individuals assigned the female gender, who generally have a physiological basis for their gender assignment and may not be aware of their “biological” sex. Yes, the medical definition of “biological male” is based on having one X and one Y chromosome, but there’s no necessity that we give special power to the medical definition. Her chromosomes aren’t even strictly the basis of her disqualification, so it’s relevance is questionable.

      Certainly, those who made up these rules weren’t like, “Argh, we really wish we could call her a woman, but this medical book says we can’t!” They went searching for a definition that would *allow* them to call her a man, based on their sense of sporting fairness. Sporting fairness is a social construct, even if it involves biological traits like hormone levels and sensitivity, or physical realities like rate of development or relative performance. Calling her a man for competition purposes is therefore by definition a gender assignment being made by a governing committee, not an objective sex determination being detected by the committee. I find that far more disturbing than the prospect of a “biological female” being disqualified on the basis of her hormone levels.

    • Phil says:

      Your narrow point about testosterone levels is true, but just a few years ago a woman was barred from competition for other biological reasons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutee_Chand

    • Jack Gallagher says:

      Your logic is circular and self-serving.

      Biological sex is not sharply well-defined. For most people, of course, it’s clear, but intersex people absolutely exist.

      Moreover, this is orthogonal to the issue, because trans people and trans advocates reject the notion that being born with XY chromosomes or testes necessarily decides that that person is not “female” for the rest of their life.

      This is a physiological discussion. Linking to the “Sports Integrity Initiative” betrays a woeful bias and lack of curiosity in actually understanding the issue.

  13. Dzhaughn says:

    Maybe the answer is just whatever policy maximizes medium term expected profit for the IOC. Should we imagine it has ever been otherwise?

    Related issues include runners with prostethic legs (cf. Oscar Pretorius) and the free-throw shooting robots that ended up winning lucrative endorsement contracts in Kurt Vonnegut’s imagination. So, what counts as human? Body temperature between 33 and 41C for one thing? This will bring the “hot-hand” issue to a new realm.

    Maybe it’s interesting to contemplate women’s and men’s Bridge tournaments. While men dominate the top-level of the game, I guess it is not clear that they have any advantage a couple of tiers below that. For some, Bridge is ideally played in isolation, over computer terminals, to prevent subtle signalling bewteen partners. Does that change your analysis?

  14. Paul Alan Thompson says:

    The “problem” of “trans” persons in female spaces is not as complicated as it is being made out to be.

    There are 2 situations, and they should not be conflated:

    1) “trans woman” participation: The real problem begins with the term “trans woman”. These persons are not women. They are gender-dysphoric males, and have multiple dimensions of male advantage – muscle fibers, heart, lung, testosterone, bone density, hip structure. Call the males “gender-dysphoric males”, and it is pretty obvious that male persons should not be in female sport competitions.

    2) Persons like Semenya, with DSD (disorders of sexual development): Many of these persons are XY persons with developmental abnormalities. Again, they are male in chromosome, and have many if not all of the male advantages. They should be excluded.

    • Andrew says:

      Paul:

      I recommend the article by Christie Aschwanden that Phil links to, which explains some reasons why things are not as simple as you might want to believe.

    • Jack Gallagher says:

      You mention you have a PhD upthread. Therefore I assume you are familiar with the notion of axioms in a philosophical or mathematical argument?

      You are operating under a different set of axioms than trans people and their advocates, yet are trying to say their axioms are wrong using arguments *that follow from your own axioms*.

    • Anonymous says:

      Is Michael Phelps a ‘male’? a ‘human’? He certainly possesses characteristics that are well outside the scope of normal human male. This likely applies to many elite level male athletes. To use your words, they have…”muscle fibers, heart, lungs, testosterone, bone density, hip structure” that, taken together, exist well outside the most extreme percentiles of the normal male spectrum. Your dichotomy is just that…yours.

      There have been no good objective criteria developed to address the issue of sex and gender in sports participation. Coming up with one would almost certainly have some interesting unintended consequences.

  15. Paul Alan Thompson says:

    I’ve read the piece by Aschwanden. It is not a well-written piece. It confuses 2 very different situations, and this leads to “the perplexing situation”. I clarify the issue in the comment which you did not address.

  16. Paul Alan Thompson says:

    Those who wish to read articles which discuss this from the perspective of physiology and kinesiology should examine the following articles:

    https://jme.bmj.com/content/45/6/395 “Transwomen in elite sport: Scientific and ethical considerations”

    https://www.usapowerlifting.com/transgender-participation-policy/

    These have clear and well-written discussion of the multiple dimensions which should lead to the exclusion of gender-dysphoric males from female competition. Sport involves bodies. Gender is not important. It is bodies which determine capability and capacity.

  17. Paul Alan Thompson says:

    Andrew has pushed the Aschwanden piece. Well, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of that piece.

    Here’s an obvious one: What does Caitlin Jenner say about this?

    Aschwanden: I asked Jenner whether hormones were a reasonable standard and if it was fair for her to compete as a female. “I have seen no indication to this point that trans people, male or female, have any advantage whatsoever at that level,” she said. “There’s no trans person out there, male to female, that’s out there dominating. It just doesn’t happen.”

    Jenner: Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic champion and reality TV personality now running for governor in California, said she opposes transgender girls competing in girls’ sports at school.

    Jenner, a 1976 decathlon gold medalist who came out as a transgender woman in 2015, told a TMZ reporter on Saturday that it’s “a question of fairness.”

    Jenner is saying that gender-dysphoric males SHOULD NOT compete against females, and that it is a matter of fairness. Aschwanden has either misquoted Jenner or quoted Jenner out of context.

    • Joshua says:

      Paul –

      I’m assuming you agree with Jennifer on this

      > “a question of fairness.”

      If I”m right about that…there is a choice among an infinite number of criteria that could be used as an exclusion criterion.

      What is the conceptual basis on which you determine which criteria are “fair” to use and which aren’t?

  18. Emilio says:

    My solution would be to get rid of dividing sports by sex/gender and just let everyone compete together. This is just one more bastion of segregation.

    Part of my problem with this discussion is how asymmetrical it is. The discussion is always focused on trans-women participating with cis-women. This has always struck me as a huge red flag that the primary reason we’re having this discussion in the first place is because cis-straight men want to continue ogling women athletes and not feel kinda gay about it.

    By centering the discussion on women, trans and cis, the discussion completely ignores so many crucial aspects of the discussion that show how incoherent and inconsistent the arguments against trans participation in sports are.
    -Rarely is it ever even acknowledged that trans-men are participating with (or are trying to participate) with cis-men, and proportionally speaking have won just as many competitions as trans-women have; which is to say, very very few in raw numbers, but approximately proportional to the number of trans athletes participating (this is a nice challenge to the biological essentialism arguments about advantages and disadvantages).
    -What about non-binary people who want to play organized sports? Why the heck are we expecting people to publicly lie about who they are for the purpose of athletic competition? In what universe is this anything other than an assault on a person’s agency and autonomy?
    -We have no problem with unfairness within other arbitrarily defined groups of people, so it’s not really an issue of a level playing field either. At one point in the 90s, the height difference between the tallest and shortest men’s NBA players was over 2 feet tall (Manute Bol and Muggsy Bogues, who both coincidentally happened to play for the same team) and we never had national or international discussions about having different height divisions in basketball in the interest of fairness.

    We just want to keep reifying certain abstract groups of people that we’ve decided matter for no other reason than because they’re the easiest to implement systemic injustices around. Let’s maybe just stop it altogether and let people play together.

    • Mike says:

      Emilio, I think I understand where you’re coming from here. Like you, I don’t want trans people (or anyone else) to be treated unfairly. I disagree with your suggestion but don’t want to contribute to a negative tone to this thread. I’ll just say that I don’t think “women” is an abstract group of people, and I don’t agree that women matter only because it’s easy to implement systemic injustice around them. I think there are good reasons to have women’s athletic events that exclude biological males.

      • Emilio says:

        I might point you to Abby Thorn’s recent Philosophy Tube video on Social Constructs, then, as it is pretty relevant here despite spending basically zero time on discussing directly the idea of trans athletes. And I might point out as well that even your response is 100% centered on trans women and cis women, with no acknowledgement of trans men or non-binary athletes at all. This is part of the problem with the whole discussion, particularly with regard to the incoherence on the side arguing to keep trans-women separate from (and unequal to) cis-women in the athletic arena. If you cannot discuss the idea of fairness or justice without ignoring entire segments of the population (whether unintentionally or not), that’s a serious problem! And it is a problem either with the underlying motivation for wanting to frame the discussion in terms of fairness/justice in the first place, or with the proposed solution(s) that people are proffering to address the issue.

      • Joshua says:

        Mike –

        > I think there are good reasons to have women’s athletic events that exclude biological males.

        What are those good reasons? I”m trying to get a sense of how people determine which exclusion criteria are “fair” or “good,” except in what IMO, is an arbitrary manner.

    • Joshua says:

      Emilio –

      This is my view, also:

      > -We have no problem with unfairness within other arbitrarily defined groups of people,

      Essentially any choice is arbitrary (not in the sense of random), and IMO, thinking otherwise because that’s just how they way it is, is part of the problem.

      On the other hand, you say…

      > …maybe just stop it altogether and let people play together.

      In some abstract world, or maybe in a future world, that might make sense. But I’m not sure how that’s a practical solution given where we are now. Is there any non-zero sum way to get a hold of this issue?

      • Emilio says:

        Mike,

        I have no problem with the idea of using arbitrary categories to separate divisions of competition, per se. We do it for boxing, where we have over a dozen weight divisions, each separated by roughly 3-5 pounds of weight. That’s pretty arbitrary, but it seems to work well enough. We do it for kids athletics, where we create divisions on the basis of age, which can create its own kinds of unfairness because the oldest X-year-olds will tend to be a little bigger than the youngest X-year-olds. We aren’t having huge discussions about that. It seems we’re only really having a discussion about this with regards to specifically women’s sports (not sports in general, but women’s sports specifically), which casts suspicion on the purpose of the entire discussion in the first place.

        I agree that insofar as we create divisions they will be arbitrary. No getting away from that. But maybe we could stop with certain kinds of arbitrary groupings that seem to naturalize/essentialize socially constructed categories that are used for primarily discriminatory ends. It’s not like these categories are static. There’s nothing immutable about these concepts, as evidenced by the very article that Phil linked to. The very concept of woman has been redefined by the Olympics committee multiple times, and weaponized to bar elite athletic women (who are disproportionately non-white, let’s not forget that aspect to the entire discussion) from competing. But I disagree with the assumption you’re making that eliminating the divisions of “mens” and “womens” X-event is a zero-sum affair. I also don’t think this can only be solved in some abstract future world. Why can’t we be a bit more reflective about the categories we create and use to help us navigate/understand the world now? What is the possible harm that could come from getting rid of “mens” and “womens” sports divisions and letting all the competitors play together that could possibly match or supersede the current harms that are being inflicted on womens athletes (cis and trans) today?

        • Anonymous says:

          At the non-elite level, men and women often do compete together. But at the elite level, if you eliminate men’s and women’s division, you’re basically excluding women from competition.

          I would also add the women’s elite sport has never been in a stronger position although there’s still a lot of work to be done.

        • > What is the possible harm that could come from getting rid of “mens” and “womens” sports divisions and letting all the competitors play together that could possibly match or supersede the current harms that are being inflicted on womens athletes (cis and trans) today?

          It’s pretty clear if you make an “everyone” sport unless it’s ultra-endurance races or something then essentially 100% of the pro, semi-pro, or olympic sport, will be “normal” men. Thus shutting women out entirely. I think that’s definitely a worse harm than whatever is going on today.

          On the other hand, if you make divisions based on objective predictors of performance (so basically body morphometrics) and let people compete who are close enough in score to have very little predictable difference in performance, then it doesn’t matter whether they have that score because they’re a normal woman, or a smaller sized man, or a trans woman or a trans man or a mildly obese person, or a person with a genetic disorder of bone growth or whatever.

          • Emilio says:

            Daniel,

            Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I wanted to be on this aspect, but I’m kind of arguing on the same side you are. At least in the abstract. We need to change the arbitrary groupings we use to cluster together competitors away from sex/gender to something(s) else. I’m not saying we don’t have boundaries around levels of competition at all (again, weight divisions in boxing seem to be working fine). I’m just saying that some of those boundaries are being used as weapons to deny people the right to compete at all and we need to move away from those. Especially when they have the added effect (which is perhaps also a cause as to why they’re being used in the first place) of endorsing a genuinely pseudoscientific form of biological essentialism that has been the basis for literal centuries worth of discrimination against multiple groups of people (I would recommend the book “Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature” by Lewontin, Rose, & Kamin as a nice overview of how various forms of biological essentialism/determinism have been upheld by the same shoddy science and statistics practices Andrew rails against all the time here in service of nothing more than maintaining existing injustices and inequalities).

            In other comments to this post, you’ve proposed an alternative. Awesome! That’s a way to get a meaningful conversation started. It’s fantastic! Even if at the end of day I may not fully agree with it (which I can’t say I do now because I haven’t devoted a lot of time to looking into it yet), that’s generally a good direction I think we should be moving the conversation towards: Acknowledge the current system is imperfect, propose fixes or alternatives, work towards implementing ones that survive scrutiny.

            • Anonymous says:

              For someone who said “What purpose does it serve to get as hysterical as you are being over sports? (…) It’s sports. It’s not intrinsically important.” you have really strongs opinions about what needs to be changed and how anyone who might disagree can be motivated only by hate against one minority or another.

              • Emilio says:

                Having strong opinions is not the same as being hysterical (a corollary to the Javert paradox, perhaps?). Contrary to the strawman of me you are creating, I have zero opinions as to the motivations of any specific individual participating in this thread, whether I agree with them or not – although that Paul fella via his deliberate and insistent use of dehumanizing language does make it straightforward to assume he likely has an ulterior bad faith agenda in play here. What I was speculating about, and was very clear about, that you’ve decided to strawman was about a primary reason the entire national/international discussion on this has always been centered around specifically trans women participation, as opposed to any of the myriad other equally relevant issues with regards trans and non-binary people in athletic competition. Does it not strike you as strange that there is so much insistence that the conversation start and stay anchored to trans women? Is that really the only worthwhile aspect of this topic worth focusing on?

              • Anonymous says:

                Ok, so it’s not the only reason. But it’s also hard to take seriously the claim that it’s a primary reason.

                > Is that really the only worthwhile aspect of this topic worth focusing on?

                It’s the natural aspect to focus on given the title and text of Phil’s post.

        • Joshua says:

          Emilio

          Not Mike here, but you were responding to me actually…

          > It’s not like these categories are static. There’s nothing immutable about these concepts,…

          Well, of course. It certainly isn’t lost on me that for the bulk of our history, having a vagina was a biologically-based, and “objective,” legally enforced exclusion criterion for voting, and even some women’s rights activists thought that women voting was too radical a concept in the 1840s.

          So it’s important to remember that context when we consider what is or isn’t too radical, or whose ox is or isn’t being gored, or what is or isn’t arbitrary.

          But…

          > But maybe we could stop with certain kinds of arbitrary groupings that seem to naturalize/essentialize socially constructed categories that are used for primarily discriminatory ends.

          One person’s discrimination is another person’s protection against “unfairness.” So what are the philosophical outlines of where lines can be drawn? I think people on both sides of that issue should be able to articulate their working framework.

          > But I disagree with the assumption you’re making that eliminating the divisions of “mens” and “womens” X-event is a zero-sum affair.

          Zero-sum in the sense that people who feel that certain biologically-based distinctions are a matter of “fairness.” They will see this as a zero sum context. That you don’t agree with them doesn’t make it non-zero sum from their perspective.

          > Why can’t we be a bit more reflective about the categories we create and use to help us navigate/understand the world now? What is the possible harm that could come from getting rid of “mens” and “womens” sports divisions and letting all the competitors play together that could possibly match or supersede the current harms that are being inflicted on womens athletes (cis and trans) today?

          I think it’s much like the “harm” that some feel, and many more felt, would result from same-sex marriage.

          I come at this from the world of education, where people think there’s harm in eliminating arbitrarily-derived distinctions among students. If you think this issue is thorny, consider talking to people about eliminating tracking of students based on standardized test scores.

          > …letting all the competitors play together that could possibly match or supersede the current harms that are being inflicted on womens athletes (cis and trans) today?

          I’m just saying that getting to that from what we have now is a big ask; there are those who see this as a zero sum framework, just as there were those who saw women’s suffrage in that frame, or civil rights, or same-sex marriage. And sometimes you make advances by just saying “fuck-it, you’re just going to have to suck it up.”

          • Emilio says:

            Sorry for misidentifying you in my response to you Josh (which, kinda ironic, but I do sincerely apologize for it) and sorry to Mike for misattributing to them comments made by Josh. I have no excuse. Bumbling on my part.

            > One person’s discrimination is another person’s protection against ‘unfairness’
            As the entire conversation is centered on trans women, and ignores trans men and non-binary people in athletic competition entirely, I think we can safely conclude the issue isn’t one of fairness and is primarily if not exclusively an issue of finding reasons to discriminate against trans women (who are mostly non-white). I have, in my original comment, speculated as to a possible contributing reason why that is (i.e. cis-het men wanting to ogle women athletes without the risk of feeling kinda gay about it). As you’ve noted, context is important. And here, the context includes what we’re not talking about. We’re not talking about, for instance, what is a man. You’d think it’d be a natural thing to discuss when the topic of thread is “what is a woman” but that’s gone completely ignored in this highly commented on post. That’s kind of curious, don’t you think? Isn’t it kind of strange that we’re not talking about trans men athletes, despite trans men athletes winning competitions roughly proportional to the amount of competitions won by trans women athletes (which is to say, a very very very low percentage, but considering that literally hundreds of thousands of athletic competitions happen every year around the world it does happen enough that one could collect enough anecdotes to make it seem like it’s happening all the time)?

            > I think it’s much like the “harm” that some feel, and many more felt, would result from same-sex marriage.
            so, none?

            > I’m just saying that getting to that from what we have now is a big ask;
            Oh sure, that’s true. It is going to take a lot of work to overcome the current systems of discrimination and prejudice in any arena, but it’s still a goal worth pursuing. It always has been and always will be. But it’s a bigger ask when the biggest barrier towards that goal is people giving credence to bad faith arguments and trying to find some sort of reasonable middle ground that still allows for and enshrines some forms of discriminatory practices and pseudoscientific/anti-scientific prejudicial ideologies.

            > And sometimes you make advances by just saying “fuck-it, you’re just going to have to suck it up.”
            Such as…? I’m drawing an absolute blank as to when any meaningful societal progress has been made as a result of a “fuck-it, you’re just going to have to suck it up” message for members of marginalized groups.

            • I think you’re misreading the meaning of “fairness”. You think of it as somehow “treating people equally” and so the lack of concern about trans female to male athletes shows that no one cares about fairness.

              But that’s not what people mean by “fair” in a sports contest. What they mean is “it would be unfair to force normal women to compete against people who have organs in their body that produce tremendous amounts of testosterone because it’s well established that that drug gives enormous benefits for athletic performance, and because it’d be disallowed for normal women to inject that drug.”

              No one is concerned about trans women to men because they don’t have testosterone producing organs and they don’t have a large advantage in performance.

              • Emilio says:

                Daniel,

                As part of routine hormone therapy for trans individuals, trans men take hormone supplements to boost testosterone production, and trans women take hormone suppressors that drastically reduce testosterone production. On average, trans women athletes produce less testosterone than cis women (the word you’re looking for is cis, not “normal”) athletes do because the hormone therapy reduces production to the average range for cis women in general, as opposed to average range for cis women athletes (which is higher than for cis women who aren’t athletes). As a result, trans women do not have a large advantage in performance on the basis of testosterone levels. And because trans men do take hormone supplements that cis men are prohibited from taking for purely competitive reasons* perhaps the conversation should be centered instead on trans men instead of trans women if we really are concerned about fairness.

                *exceptions are made for medical reasons, a la medically necessary blood transfusions versus blood doping in cycling

              • I think the point is that testosterone levels today are not the important question for athletic performance, the real question for athletic performance is body morphometrics. people who go through male puberty are taller, have longer reach, more lean body mass as a fraction of overall mass, larger hearts, etc. The “memory” of that exposure is long lasting if not permanent. Taking testosterone suppressors today for a trans woman is just not as relevant to performance as the fact that they can reach farther and hence hit a wider variety of tennis shots, or have mechanical advantage on the pedals of the bike due to femur length relative to leg length or whatever it is.

                If however we focus on body morphometrics, then it doesn’t matter why your body is the size and shape and density and such that it is, it’s what you can do with the body you’re given that matters, because you compete with people who have similar bodies. The mistake is to think that the essential category for fairness is “whether you’re a man or a woman” rather than that being essentially a noisy binary predictor for a bunch of continuous variables.

              • Chris Wilson says:

                Yes the key here with androgens is area under the curve. Going through male puberty indeed shapes bodies in powerful ways so that a snapshot of current T is nearly useless. Moreover, for doping and athletic enhancement the purpose of exogenous T isn’t so much it’s instantaneous impacts on performance – negligible within physiologic ranges – but because it seriously augments recovery and anabolism enabling a higher volume of higher load training to be successfully absorbed and adapted to productively —> greater performance on the field, lifting platform, boat, bicycle, whatever. Essentially, it raises the ceiling on the fraction of genetic potential you can reasonably hope to express.
                This is why sexual dimorphism is a very real, profound statistical observation across sports to the extent they rely on muscle cross sectional area, left ventricular stroke volume, and mechanical leverage. As an example, I’m a genetically pretty normal male – reasonably athletic but not remarkably so. Moreover I’m currently a mid 30s academic. Nevertheless, with 6 months of concerted training I could make a serious run at women’s world records in either rowing or drug tested raw powerlifting and maybe both concurrently (given 15 hours per week or so to train and ability to sleep 10 hours which I do it have :). this is not to brag, but to offer a reality check in this conversation, where I so often these days see people say things about androgens and sport that seem hugely misguided.
                Daniel may be on to something with stratifying on a batch of anthropometric markers rather than imposed dichotomous sex. It’s worth exploring and thinking through carefully IMO.

              • Thanks Chris, finally someone seems to get my point!

                I would say that the thing that stratifying on a morphometric score does NOT do is deal with sociological and psychological issues. For example sexual harassment, or psychologically supportive team-members or freedom from jerks in the locker-room or constant bickering in the news media about whether “Joe Schmoe” will beat “Jane Schmane” and show “once and for all” that “men win the battle of the sexes” or some horrible garbage like that.

                Nevertheless, when it comes basically to compensating for a major role of androgens in secondary sexual characteristics, stratifying a score based on those major characteristics would keep “like competing with like”. What you’d probably wind up with is one or two groups that are almost entirely men (let’s call it elite men, and athletic men), two or three groups that are more or less mixed (moderately athletic men and elite women, less athletic men and athletic women, amateur part time men and moderately athletic women), and one or two groups that are almost entirely women (amateur women, less athletic women). The men who would fit into the “amateur women” type groups would be mostly small and non-athletic. A man with a 20% body fat is basically pudgy, whereas a woman with 20% body fat can be reasonably athletic for example.

                Given men’s strong ability to change their body morphometry through training particularly compared to women, you might wind up with some unintuitive situations where men training too hard would cause them to shed fat, add muscle and move up in the categories making them **less** competitive, but hey nothing’s perfect, and if they keep it up they’ll eventually wind up competitive in their final category most likely.

            • Joshua says:

              Emilio –

              > Sorry for misidentifying you in my response to you Josh (which, kinda ironic, but I do sincerely apologize for it) and sorry to Mike for misattributing to them comments made by Josh. I have no excuse. Bumbling on my part.

              Please. It happens. No big deal.

              > As the entire conversation is centered on trans women, and ignores trans men and non-binary people in athletic competition entirely, I think we can safely conclude the issue isn’t one of fairness…

              I don’t know how to come to an objective evaluation of whether it’s an issue of fairness. That seems, necessarily, like a subjective evaluation. I’m inclined towards agreement with you on much of this, and to agree that much complexity lies behind the PERCEPTION that this is about fairness, but I also think that people that disagree with you (or me) can certainly be firmly focused on what they consider as a fairness issue.

              I just think that “fairness” kind of missed the point – again as if “fairness” here is some kind of binary determination, as if one answer is “fair” and the other isn’t. Fairness to whom? is the necessary follow up question. How is “fairness” to be measured also needs to be answered and agreed upon, and who’s to determine whether any particular “fairness” criteria are fair criteria? Who makes the measurement? Looks like a mess to me.

              To make it worse, while I agree that the very question at hand, of “What is a woman” is problematic, so would be “What is a man?” and I think the whole question category is off base. A better question, IMO, should be “What are the criteria we think should be used to determine who should compete with whom at elite level sports, and what are our shared goals here, if any? I think that part of what’s complicated issue here is that people mixing together huge societal and political questions about gender and sex snd discrimination and mistakenly looking at sports s an appropriate venue for working on these issues. As for the more immediate question – maybe we need to have different kinds of competitions to meet different people’s goals and then people can choose. In a way, the “Special Olympics” is a kind of interesting model to think of.

              I come at this from the world of education – where the question of choosing criteria for evaluation has long been effectively a proxy for perpetuating the status quo of existing social hierarchies. But on top of that, our artificial and arbitrary educational paradigm likewise rests on a malignant framework, IMO, as you’re getting at. Shouldn’t education be simply based on helping all students to achieve their potential rather than assessing which students fit into what kind of hierarchy based on an essentially arbitrary set of standards?

              But that doesn’t map onto sports, where competition is more legitimately the whole point? And yet we’re mixing in to this question of sports, much more far-reaching questions.

              > and is primarily if not exclusively an issue of finding reasons to discriminate against trans women (who are mostly non-white). I have, in my original comment, speculated as to a possible contributing reason why that is (i.e. cis-het men wanting to ogle women athletes without the risk of feeling kinda gay about it). As you’ve noted, context is important. And here, the context includes what we’re not talking about. We’re not talking about, for instance, what is a man. You’d think it’d be a natural thing to discuss when the topic of thread is “what is a woman” but that’s gone completely ignored in this highly commented on post. That’s kind of curious, don’t you think?

              See above.

              > I think it’s much like the “harm” that some feel, and many more felt, would result from same-sex marriage.
              >> so, none?

              Yes, that was my point. Over time, a lot of people came to see that their fears were not borne out.

              > But it’s a bigger ask when the biggest barrier towards that goal is people giving credence to bad faith arguments and trying to find some sort of reasonable middle ground that still allows for and enshrines some forms of discriminatory practices and pseudoscientific/anti-scientific prejudicial ideologies.

              That’s largely what I was getting at – except I’m not as ready as you are to determine what is or isn’t good or bad faith.

              > Such as…? I’m drawing an absolute blank as to when any meaningful societal progress has been made as a result of a “fuck-it, you’re just going to have to suck it up” message for members of marginalized groups.

              I think you may have misunderstood my point there. I’m saying that these aren’t questions unique to this issue. I’m asking a question about the efficacy of various strategies to promote change. In other words, do you determine with confidence that people are arguing in bad faith and just say to THEM fuck it, suck it up or get left behind? At some point, even if I were to agree with your confidence that the arguments are being presented in bad faith I would question whether just telling them to jump in a lake is the best way forward.

  19. Mikhail Shubin says:

    The only easy way out of this mess in to cancel sport altogether.

  20. Paul Alan Thompson says:

    One point not made about the Aschwanden piece is that it was written in 2016. That’s 5 years ago.

    Since that point, there have been the following events:

    1) Semenya and others with DSD were denied the ability to compete in distances shorter than 800 M. I think this Olympics will see the complete ban but who is to say.
    2) The articles that I reference above were published
    3) The CT situation developed. 2 natal males became gender-dysphoric, and competed as female. In 2 years (2016 and 2017), they rewrote the CT HS record book, setting numerous state records. The suit to stop this was dismissed as the issue was moot (all persons had graduated from HS). The issue remains.
    4) Numerous states now disallow natal male participation in female categories, and more do so every year.

    • Phil says:

      With regard to (4), the Texas Senate just passed two bills that would “allow student-athletes in K-12 schools and in public colleges and universities to participate only on sports teams that correspond with the sex listed on their birth certificate at or near the time of birth.” So people like Caster Semenya and Martínez-Patiño would compete as women in Texas schools, but would not be allowed to do so in international competition. That seems poorly conceived on Texas’s part.

      • Paul Alan Thompson says:

        I don’t know what TX would do about persons with DSD (Semenya) and persons with hyperandrogeny. Since BOTH Semenya and Martinez-Patino are chromosomally male, I think TX would bar them from female competition. That is, BTW, a road out of the “confusion” – chromosomal testing. I have checked to see what Chand’s chromosomal situation is, and it is not noted in a number of discussions. So who knows?

        • Phil says:

          The law seems unambiguous. They were both listed as ‘female’ on their birth certificates, so they would both compete as girls/women (if the laws pass. They have passed the Senate but not the Assembly).

  21. yyw says:

    It comes down to the purpose of having women’s sport as a separate category. What do we try to achieve by separating men and women at the elite level? If it is just about fairness, why do we care about giving women a chance to compete at the highest level but not giving short people a chance to compete in pro basketball? Why do we need to separate men and women even for non-physical sports such as chess?

    • Anonymous says:

      > Why do we need to separate men and women even for non-physical sports such as chess?

      That’s an interesting example. If I’m not mistaken there separation is not complete. There are tournaments open to anyone and tournaments for (some definition of) women only.

    • Phil says:

      Yes, that’s what I’m asking: what are we trying to achieve, exactly?

      Maybe it’s as simple as this: people are interested in knowing who is the best man, and who is the best woman.

      (I think that for many women who play chess, there’s an additional reason for women-only tournaments: at most tournaments, girls and women are a small minority and have to put up with the same kinds of comments they have to put up with anywhere they are a small minority.)

      • I don’t know about the “best” I think its interesting to watch soccer games even if it’s not last years champion team against last years second run champion team or whatever. I think a lot of the times people just want to watch something where the competition is not ridiculously one sided.

        I haven’t watched in a long time, but my impression of mens tennis since the invention of modern large ultra-light rackets in about 1980’s was it was basically “Ace, Ace, Ace, Ace, Ace… switch serving… Ace, Ace, Ace, return, return, out, Ace, Ace…” etc.

        The women’s tennis is usually a lot more rallies a lot more about tactics. If you put Serena against some high end college male he might win, but it’s just because he can slam the serves at higher speed.

        As I say, I could be wrong, but basically the reason people want to watch women’s sports is because it’s no fun to see one group clobbering another group. Same reason we have wrestling or boxing weight classes, and we run qualifying rounds in car racing and brackets in the world cup and lots of people ignore the group stages and round of 16.

        The basic purpose of sports is really entertainment. Relatively few people are brain damaged enough to want to see slaughter after slaughter.

        • Paul Alan Thompson says:

          You say “basic purpose of sports is really entertainment” – is this a serious statement? That the only reason people go into sports is the entertainment of others?

          There’s something called a “competitive impulse”, and this is an internal motivation which leads someone to wish to excel. This has nothing to do with “entertainment value”. If that was the only reason, pursuit cycling would never be a sport.

          • It’s irrelevant why people go into professional sports, what’s relevant is why people buy tickets to the games.

            • Phil says:

              You guys are talking past each other a bit:one of you is talking about sports, the other is talking about professional sports.

              There would be organized sports even if there were no pro sports.

              • I see amateur local soccer league games that are mixed gender all the time, and the Masters Swimming groups don’t care either, let’s face it we only impose these gender restrictions on pro sports and on children

              • Phil says:

                Daniel that’s not even close to being true! There are sports leagues for women in many many sports, at all levels.

              • Right, but adults who don’t have enormous economic interests in excluding trans male to female or intersex people just handle this stuff on the basis that they’re adults and can figure it out. Do you know of any women’s sports leagues at less than the level “I make money at this or am in training to make money in the future” who require karyotyping or testosterone tests or etc? Or do they just have some people in charge who adjudicate the issue and if you aren’t accepted you have to go find a league that will accept you?

  22. Alain says:

    How to give everyone a reasonable chance?

    Sure, basic sex stratification is not perfect and I guess that no stratification scheme will ever be completely satisfying.

    Can we see it as a model building problem?
    Too few features lead to under-fitting, but too many lead to over-fitting…
    Keep adding features, and you’ll soon be the only member of your competing category (data quickly become sparse!)

    Sex stratification probably led to a big improvement in the goodness-of-fit, and we are now asking how we can do better without over-fitting.

    • Exactly, which is why a simple robust score using a number of important objective measures, followed by stratification on score would be a more usable method.

      • Anonymous says:

        And with enough strata we can all be Olympic champions!

      • Paul Alan Thompson says:

        I’m completely unclear as to what this means. Does this mean we get them to run the race, and then stratify on basis of how they did? Or what? This “stratification” is not workable, as it is easily and obviously manipulated.

        There are 2 time-tested successful stratification methods:
        1) sex
        2) weight for wrestling, boxing, and powerlifting

        Other stratification approaches involve classes of accomplishment, like in judo and tai-quon-do. But this is not at the Olympic level, where I believe they stratify on basis of weight.

        • Paul Alan Thompson says:

          And of course sex for judo/contact sports.

        • if you really care, there’s at least 3 or 4 posts upthread by me giving examples of characteristics to build a score off of.

          • Paul Alan Thompson says:

            OK, set it up. This is your proposal. Hint: it won’t work. You can’t use performance to stratify on performance. You can use an orthogonal characteristic. That is why weight classes work.

            I hear this proposal frequently, but no one explains how to do it.

            • Hint, if you weren’t so busy telling me it can’t be done and instead just looked up thread you’d find that none of the categories I suggested were themselves performance on the task, they were all things that were objective facts about the bodies of the people involved such as the size of certain long bones or the lean body mass or the heart rate when performing a set task… But I’ve had enough of this conversation. I don’t think you actually care you’re just pushing your political view.

              • Jack Gallagher says:

                His silence when it comes to actually engaging with counter-arguments is deafening.

      • Phil says:

        I just don’t think any of this addresses the real issue. People are still going to want to know “who is the fastest woman” and so on, no matter how many strata there are that mix men and women.

        • That’s easy, among all the strata where people compete, decide what you think it means to be a “woman” and subset the results of those people and sort … ;-)

        • It’s for the competitive sports where you play against someone else that the problem lies rather than for the individual sports where you have an objective outcome like “100m sprint time” or “shot put distance” or whatever

          Suppose there are two strata, 1 and 2 where 2 is a “higher ranked” group. Suppose that group 1 is say 40/60 women/men, and group 2 is 3/97 women/men… Clearly this is near some kind of “cutoff” where “women” really don’t score higher than the cutoff here except rarely.

          So, suppose group 1 has a “champion” who’s a woman, and group 2 the two women rank 40 and 47th percentile.

          Is the champion woman in group 1 “better or worse” than the 47th percentile ranking woman in the higher group? If it’s a sport like tennis, we won’t really know. But we’ll still know that woman A was group champion of group 1. Is that not enough?

          • Phil says:

            Good luck convincing the world to think this way.

            I predict that fifty years from now there will still be separate championships for men and women in most sports, because I think that’s the way people think about this stuff and that that’s not going to change.

        • Kyle C says:

          There is a lot of “not answering the question Phil asked” and “not answering the question society wants answered” here, interesting though it is. We have men’s and women’s competition and will for the foreseeable future. This never seemed “discriminatory” until recently, but now raises deep issues that seem to be mostly philosophical and not empirical.

          • Well, I think that’s fairly deliberate. I mean, I don’t really care what society wants, I personally think I’d enjoy a number of sports more if I saw male/female interactions placed on a relatively competitive playing field, so it’s good enough to say that I prefer we answer the question “who is a woman” with, “it doesn’t matter, let’s watch some excellent competitive sports”

  23. Morris39 says:

    My suspicion is that most people do not really care about this issue. Rather those who make that claim likely have a different agenda from sport competition.Even interest in Olympics is to a large extent about group affiliation. If in fact competition excellence is the salient point then logically it should be between the most talented and as fairly as possible.
    For those who want some justice/restitution or whatnot,create other categories but don’t diminish quality of the sport competition.
    The whole thing is largely irrelevant and maybe ridiculous to most.

  24. Re: ‘All of this puts me in mind of a statistical principle or worldview that Andrew has mentioned before, that I think he attributes to Don Rubin: most things that we think of as categorical are really continuous.’
    —————

    continuous or discontiuous?
    —-
    Having played football with boys only, as a kid, I doubt that, while playing, I was mindful that I was a girl. I was labeled as a tomboy by adults. And who knows why I had a kind of a macho stride. LOl. But honestly I was aware that the boys could overpower me more easily than I could them. Ohhhhh what fun!