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.