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On the Basis of Sex Testing

By: Sai Siddhaye

On the Basis of Sex Testing

Let’s face it–women have never been treated fairly in athletic competitions. But discrimination doesn’t stop at underfunded programs and unsavory jokes; sex verification in sports may be the most invasive and misogynistic practice in the books, and stems from the bigotry that insulates global institutions. Sex testing refers to the practice of verifying the biological sex of an athlete–usually a female athlete–to ensure fair competition. It demonstrates a societal lack of understanding of sexual variation and draws on archaic knowledge gained through brutality and dehumanization. Though it has been protested time and time again, the International Association of Athletics Federation, or IAAF, has continued to perform tests that contradict the scientific understanding of sex.

Breaking Down the Sex Binary

The notion of a sex binary is quite antiquated, though nobody would guess that based on the way Western culture addresses it. Sex is, in fact, a spectrum rather than a binary. The intersex population makes up about 2% of the global population, suggesting that ambiguous sexual characteristics fall on a scale of genetic variation rather than mutation. The way sexual characteristics develop comes down to a cascade of events; chromosomes program gonads, gonads release hormones, and hormones change bodily processes and external features. There may be variation in any of these steps, which means that many sex characteristics can be changed, erased, or appear independently in different combinations. These mix-and-match sex configurations are common, and cannot be squeezed into a binary. In fact, there are so many known chromosomal combinations outside of XX and XY that many people reach maturity without even knowing their chromosomes are not the standard pairings. So why are we taught that sex means either male or female? Though this may be because of the large number of people whose sexual characteristics do fall into a binary, social stigma and sexual policing are mostly to blame. Like the gender binary, the sex binary has been socially constructed in ways that actively harm nonnormative gender and sex expression. Though scientific research does not support a strict sex binary, social and geopolitical factors continue to exclude intersex people from the picture, and even go so far as to exclude cis people with nonnormative gender presentations as well. If the sex binary does not hold up under scrutiny, why is it enforced by the IAAF?

The History of Racialized Sex Categories

If the sex binary has come under question in recent years, it is worth learning about where it came from in the first place. In the 1800s, the study of comparative sexual anatomy began to rise in significance; this twisted form of racial science examined African women’s bodies in thorough and extremely invasive detail. Racial scientists mapped sexual and racial differences among these women–using descriptions like “irregular” and “poorly developed”– and concluded that African women must be less evolved than white women because their bodies appeared to be different from those of white women. Their belief that evolutionary progress was marked by growing differences in sexual anatomy, while false, also constructed basis on which to judge the categorical and visible differences in bodies. It also allowed them to make judgements about morality and sexual behavior solely based on racialized characteristics. The deeply racist ideas that contributed to modern understanding of the sex binary has not yet been purged from our culture, however; sex testing clearly demonstrates how far we still need to go.

Sex Testing’s Contentious Past

The basis for the practice of sex testing is simple enough–the IAAF wants to keep competitions fair. But is it fair to put athletes–mostly women–under intense and cruel scrutiny for naturally occurring body characteristics? Sex testing has been in practice since the Cold War, and the criteria for categorizing sex have been constantly changing. In 1966, a panel of doctors would examine female athletes’ bodies and genitalia to determine their sex in so-called “nude parades”, a process very reminiscent of racial scientists’ methods. From 1967 to 2011, chromosome testing became the standard measurement of sex, and barred many women, like the Polish sprinter Ewa Klobukowska, from competition. In 2011, however, the current measurement of sex–testosterone level tests–became the new standard. The IAAF has claimed there is a significant correlation between testosterone levels and performance. This is not untrue, but it is not the only indicator of performance; many other naturally occurring characteristics, like heart size and lung capacity, which are not regulated or policed by the IAAF, also have significant ties to performance. Michael Phelps is idolized for his Marfan Syndrome, which makes his limbs, hands, and feet longer than normal and ideal for swimming. But Dutee Chand, an Indian sprinter, became the first victim of the new sex test. Her naturally high levels of testosterone, which exceeded the 10 nmol/L limit, barred her from competition. Though she won her appeal, in 2018, the IAAF later lowered the testosterone limit to 5nmol/L for certain Olympic events. This is when Caster Semenya, the top runner of the 2016 Olympics, came into the picture. She did not pass the new test and lost her appeal; she was told she would have to take drugs with harmful side effects to lower her naturally high level of testosterone if she wanted to continue competing. To clarify, Semenya has identified herself as a cis woman, and is not intersex or transgender, as many media outlets have been writing. Semenya has gained a massive amount of support, but it is worth analyzing why she was targeted for testing in the first place. 

Why Is This Discriminatory?

The list of people who qualify to compete changes depending on which test is administered. That is an immediate clue that biological sex is more complicated than the IAAF has acknowledged. The list of people who have been barred by testosterone testing is overwhelmingly Black and brown. Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui, the other top runners in the Rio Olympics, have also been barred by the testosterone limit. This is no surprise; the current IAAF policy states that only athletes who are ‘suspicious’ must undergo sex testing, which means nonwhite, high performing athletes from the Global South are disproportionately targeted because they may not fit Eurocentric ideas of femininity and provide threatening competition to white, traditionally feminine athletes. It is also unclear what effect race has had on determining the average testosterone limit–if the so-called average is based on European hormonal makeup, this automatically puts nonwhite athletes at a disadvantage. Furthermore, if testing is done based on suspicion, then butch or masculine gender expression is also put under scrutiny, even if the athlete in question is still a cis woman. Men are not subjected to sex testing, and are not barred from competition if their testosterone levels are higher or lower than average. Trans people have also been barred from competition in different ways depending on their gender; transfeminine people are restricted if their testosterone levels exceed a certain limit, but transmasculine people are not, which makes sex testing an inherently misogynistic and transmisogynistic practice.

Because of the way that history and geopolitics has constructed the sex binary and sex discrimination, it is clear how discriminatory and dehumanizing sex testing is on the basis of race, gender, and queerness. Until the IAAF can find a better way to regulate separated competition without policing naturally occurring aspects of women’s bodies, sex testing should be removed from the contemporary realm of athletics.