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Sport and Competition

Why Mixed-Sex Sports Never Took Off

Does sex undercut competition?

Apart from mixed doubles tennis, there are virtually no sports in which men and women routinely compete as equals on the same playing field. Why do men and women choose same-sex competition over mixed sport?

Gender superiority

Many reasons are advanced for gender segregation in sports but most of them are unsatisfactory. So the presumed physical superiority of males falls by the wayside. It is true, of course, that men have greater upper-body musculature and most have more fast twitch muscles that provide an advantage in speed and acceleration.

Yet, careful analysis reveals that it is more accurate to discuss gender differences rather than superiority. It turns out, for instance that women enjoy a real advantage in long-distance swimming. This stems from a combination of better buoyancy and superior endurance that allowed women to defeat men in races around Manhattan, for example (1). They may also process complex visual scenes more rapidly – possibly an adaptation for ancestral food gathering – that is an advantage in car racing and other sports.

Such gender differences may complicate interpretation of contests between males and females but it is rather easy to get around such problems. For instance, one could use weight classifications after the manner of boxing and wrestling, or adopt a ranking system that grades competitors according to their performance history after the manner of tennis, or golf.

Yet, professional golf remains in the dark ages of gender discrimination. Singles tennis is also rigidly segregated and is played differently by males and females. For example, there is the quaintly absurd rule that men must play the best of five sets in key tournaments whereas women play only the best of three.

Evidently women are not expected to exert themselves to the same extent. This is absurd when one considers that women have better stamina than men, thanks to their preponderance of slow-twitch muscles. It recalls the saying “Horses sweat, men perspire, ladies glow,” that seemingly discouraged vigorous exercise by women.

Mating competition

It may be that some aspects of gender segregation in sport are hidebound by tradition but there must be more to it than that. After all, most professions have now been opened up to women, so why not mixed-sex sporting competition?

Some insights into this problem are offered by psychological research on competition in mixed-gender groups. One interesting result is that young women often did less well when they competed in the presence of young men. This is particularly true when they were tested on proficiencies – such as science and math – where men were presumed to have an advantage. One influential interpretation is that women handicap themselves in this way so as to avoid intimidating men, thereby preserving their romantic appeal.

Conversely, women might compete more intensely against other women who could be considered potential romantic rivals rather than potential sexual partners.

The same logic applies to men, of course. I find it hard to imagine that a male boxer would disfigure a beautiful female opponent with the same enthusiasm as he would jab at the face of a masculine opponent. Similarly in other physical-contact sports, I find it hard to imagine that men would have a great deal of enthusiasm for competing against women. One possible exception is the relatively polite form of wrestling practiced on college campuses.

The connection between sporting competition and sexuality is quite deep in terms of physiology because winning produces a surge in sex hormones for women as well as men (a phenomenon unearthed in research on sexual competition in animals, 2). This means that winners feel more sexually attractive and lead more active sex lives. Presumably the impact is greater in beating same-sex opponents.

In sports, as in so much else, sexuality rears its ugly head. If we could take sexuality out of the equation, there is no reason that mixed-sex sports could not succeed. Yet, that can be surprisingly difficult, particularly if there is physical contact.

In most sports where there has been some progress in gender desegregation there is minimal physical contact. They include tennis, baseball, swimming, and motor racing. As for a recent push by some women into the brutal contact sports of football, and ice hockey, I would not hold my breath.

1. McDonagh, E., and Peppano, L. (2009). Playing with the boys: Why separate is not equal in sports. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. Archer, J. (2006). Testosterone and human aggression: an evaluation of the challenge hypothesis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 30, 319-345.

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