Thursday, June 28, 2012

What Makes a Woman

In the various social contexts in which I hang out, there's been a lot of yammering lately about gender and sexism.  There was a minor uproar recently about gender testing in the olympics, which has, as these things do, sprawled into a vast battle about sexism and gender bias and heteronormative privilege and so on.

Caster Semanya
South African runner Caster Semanya, one of the first women to be subjected to gender investigation.

So in the real world, gender discrimination is unethical and pointless.  Prescribed gender roles are the result of bullshit socialization and are largely irrelevant, but we all know that by now, right?  What lots of people still aren't getting is that gender isn't actually even binary.  Whether we're talking genetics, physiology, or social identity, there are tons of variations other than male and female, and it's all fine. So even if we wanted to try to squish the world into a gender dichotomy, it's not even actually possible.

But sports aren't the real world.  A sport is an artificial universe that we create, with arbitrary rules and objectives that mean absolutely nothing except for the fact that we all agree that they do.  There is no inherent justice in sports; there are artificially-established standards of fairness whose only purpose is to facilitate the competition in a useful way.  Sports are under no obligation to treat everyone equally, unless it makes for better sport.  Like in baseball, the only reason that steroids aren't allowed is because, collectively, we've decided that we don't want them to be, because it makes for better baseball if players don't have to inject horse testosterone into their eyeballs in order to be competitive.

So before we talk about whether it's okay to "verify" someone's female gender status before allowing her to compete in the Olympics or any other lady sport, let's discuss why we even have women-only sports in the first place.  What's the point of restricting men from competing with women?

The answer is obvious, if distasteful: men are generally better at athletic competition than women.  Usually, the top 10 men at any given sport will be better than the top 10 women at that same sport.  We can blame that on biology, or socialization, or evolutionary psychology, or moon phases or whatever, but it currently remains true that being male confers athletic advantage.  (Again, in general.  I will punch the first person to name a particular female athlete as counter-evidence.)

If we just had all coed sports all the time (is that a porn channel yet?), men would almost always win, no matter how hard the female athletes worked.  So we create a separate, isolated sphere in which women can compete with each other, so that the best women can win.  And also so that we can make period jokes in the locker rooms.

This is another one of those arbitrary rules that we create to facilitate competition.  Coed sports, without a "handicap" of sorts for women, makes for crappy competition.  It's the same reason that boxers are sorted into weight classes.  Gendered athletic competition only exists because we agree that it's better to have it.

Gendered anything is exclusionary by definition.  In order for women's sports to exist, we have to, like, restrict people who aren't women from playing them.  I know, it's really complicated math I'm using here, but try to stay with me.  So we have to come up with some definition of who's allowed, and who's restricted.  If gender is binary, it's super easy: women allowed, men not allowed.  Hooray!

But gender, unfortunately, still plays by the laws of reality, not the rules of sports.  So there are intersexed people.  There are transgendered people.  There are genetic variations other than XX and XY.  There is congenital adrenal hyperplasia.  There are women (and men) with non-normative hormonal deviations for all sorts of reasons.

So in order to restrict sports to women, you have to define what a woman is.  And therein lies the problem.  Because in defining what it means to be a woman, we are totally invalidating all of the very many people who don't fit into our definitions of womanhood, and that's really crappy.  We're perpetuating the myth that there even are absolute definitions of gender.  (There aren't.)  We're legitimizing the assumption that anyone has the right to tell another human being what his or her identity is.  (They don't.)

Now, I'm not saying that I know what to do about this.  I don't see an easy, clear-cut answer.  What I do see is a need to separate the rules of sports from the world of reality in the public consciousness.  Defining what makes a woman for the purposes of the Olympics does not, in any way, define what makes a woman in the real world.

If you consider yourself to be a woman, then you are a woman, regardless of your chromosomes or your birth certificate or your genitalia or your hormone levels or your sexual preference or your haircut.

Unfortunately, sports just don't function well with subjectivity; rules need to be objective in order to be effective.  So we'll have to come up with some way to objectively define what does and does not make a female Olympic athlete, which will end up unfairly excluding some individuals for the sake of the competition as a whole.

What we don't have to do is allow that to bleed over anywhere else.  It doesn't have to mean anything beyond the stupid arbitrary world of Olympic competition, and if that makes us rethink the importance of competitive sports in our lives, then all the better as far as I'm concerned.  (And yes, I say that as a competitive athlete.)

Let's talk about what the best way to keep Olympic competition fair is.  Let's not allow ourselves to conflate it with issues of gender and sexism in the real world.

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