Way back in 1966 The Barbarians sang these catchy lyrics.

The Barbarians went on to specify what caused their confusion: the (imagined) target of their song was a guy whose long blond hair and tight jeans made him look like a girl.

Boy or girl: this either/or question occupies a central place in popular culture. From Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot to Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, films like to play with the idea that cross-dressing can convincingly transform men into women, and women into men.

The end of most of these films is to show that under the confusing superficial layer of clothing and hair (or wig) and cosmetics, there is a real essence that is either male or female.

Beginning in 1968 the International Olympics Committee expressed its version of this popular culture anxiety and the comforting belief that counters it. Individuals seeking to compete in women's events were first required to prove "their femininity or female gender", and if questions were raised, chromosomal analysis was to resolve uncertainties.

The original policy drew critical attention from the medical and legal professions. The requirement that only female athletes undergo testing violated expectations of equal treatment of men and women.

The most predictable problems were biomedical: chromosomal testing would not work, because people do not sort neatly into two categories clearly associated with XX and XY chromosome profiles.

And that is precisely what happened. By 1999, the IOC abandoned their original attempt to enforce the chromosomal identification of femininity. As the Los Angeles Times reports

The International Olympic Committee has struggled ... variously using hair patterns, chromosomes, individual genes and other factors in their long-running attempts to distinguish men from women. All of these tests have been discarded

Now, the IOC has come up with a different approach: they want to sort women and men on the basis of hormone levels. If you have testosterone readings in a range they define as typical of males, you cannot compete as a woman.

Sounds more fair, right? after all, everyone knows that testosterone helps athletic performance.

Except for one thing: as the LA Times reports, the scientific evidence is actually unclear:

Many women with androgen insensitivity [which prevents testosterone from being used] have competed in the Olympics, and "the idea that testosterone is a necessary ingredient for elite athletic performance is really undermined by these cases," Van Anders said.

In fact, androgen insensitivity is overrepresented among female athletes, Vilain added: The general population has an incidence of 1 in 20,000, but for Olympic athletes it is about 1 in 400. No one knows why.

Want more? it turns out that successful male athletes don't always have higher testosterone levels. The Global Post reports that a study by Allan Mazur of Syracuse University of male Olympic athletes

found that more than 25 percent had testosterone levels below the "normal" male range.

So now a new article in the American Journal of Bioethics calls on the IOC to stop trying to define gender biologically.

Medical anthropologist Katrina Karkazis is quoted in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel as saying

"What makes sex testing so complicated is that there is no one marker in the body we can use to say, 'This is a man,' or 'This is a woman,' ...These new policies try to get around that complexity by singling out  testosterone levels as the most important aspect of athletic advantage. But what causes athletic advantage is equally complex and cannot be reduced to testosterone levels."

Anne Fausto Sterling started her landmark book, Sexing the Body, with the story of one of the failures of the original attempt to clearly sort Olympic athletes into boys and girls. Maria Patiño, a Spanish hurdler, was caught by this untenable either-or; she tested as having a Y-chromosome, and despite the fact that she had lived all her life as a woman, and externally showed no signs of maleness, she was disqualified to compete as a woman.

In teaching, I use this example to initiate an exercise to get students to describe how they recognize different sexes. Like the Barbarians, my students start with the externally visible, and assume it is connected to an internal essence.

Eventually, we end up with the reality: there are many different ways sex is assigned, they do not coincide, and they do not map onto a single binary of male and female. Quoting the authors of the new American Journal of Bioethics article:

Sex is commonly thought to be straightforward, consisting of two clear categories of male and female. Yet there are at least six markers of sex—including chromosomes, gonads, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, external genitalia, and internal genitalia—and none of these are binary.

Students vary in their degree of knowledge of the real diversity of biological sexuality, but we usually get to the point of understanding that the two-sex model is a cultural norm that is projected onto a landscape of variability that it cannot easily cover. Different criteria might produce different sorting, and if you begin with two categories, people who don't fit one or the other get pushed to the margins as "abnormal", instead of being seen as part of the actual range of human variation.

The current IOC effort is only the latest expression of a broader cultural anxiety about woman and athletic performance that has marred the Olympics throughout the 20th century. Norwegian historian Kerstin Bornholdt examined the unfounded fears that women's bodies would be harmed by athletic competition, leading to the elimination of women's competition in the 800 meter race in 1928, not resumed until 1960. Under the guise of protecting women, they were denied the opportunity to participate.

As Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katina Karkazis, lead authors on the new research report, argue in The New York Times,

Sex testing of female athletes will always be discriminatory. Under the new policy, men will most likely continue to enjoy freedom from scrutiny, even though they, too, have greatly varying testosterone levels, along with other variations in natural attributes that affect athletic performance.

Sex tests are based on the notion that fair competition requires “protecting” female athletes. Protection has been the cloak that covers all manner of sex discrimination, and it is seldom, if ever, the best way to advance equality.

What are these tests protecting women from? Men infiltrating women’s competitions? A century of monitoring competitions for sex fraud says no. Will superwomen crowd out other athletes? No again. Women who have been ensnared by sex-testing dragnets have often been impressive, but not out of line with other elite female athletes.

They continue:

What about letting go of the idea that the ultimate goal of a fair policy is to protect the “purity” of women’s competitions? If the goal is instead to group athletes so that everyone has a chance to play, to excel and — yes — to win, then sex-segregated competition is just one of many possible options, and in many cases it might not be the best one....

Sex segregation is probably a good idea in some sports, at some levels and at some moments. But it is time to refocus policy discussions at every level so that sex segregation is one means to achieve fairness, not the ultimate goal. Ensuring gender equity through access to opportunity is just as important.

In other words: Maybe it is time to stop trying to sort out the boys from the girls, and start concentrating on making it possible for anyone who wants to participate in competitive sports to do so, recognizing that there may be tiers of performance but not pre-judging what the underlying basis for those tiers will be.

In a year that is seeing the highest level of participation of women in Olympic sports in history, and the historic participation of a human being who is running on artificial legs, continuing our obsession with gender purification is ripe for reconsideration.

About the Author

Rosemary Joyce

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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