I know Alice Dreger isn’t on any sort of ten most popular list with people who read this Blog, but I’m urging you to follow the link and read this article.
Even as it hopes to clarify the difference between male and female athletes, a new rule from the International Olympic Committee inadvertently stirs the waters.
Jul 2 2012
What is sport ultimately for? That fundamental philosophical question lies behind the debate over what to do with women athletes who were raised as girls but whose bodies seem to be unusually masculine. And in that debate, two clear philosophical camps have emerged.
One camp, led by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), believes the line imposed between putative male and putative female athletes must be biological. These folks — let’s call them the Anatomists — fully admit that sex is really complicated. They acknowledge there’s no one magical gene, chromosome, hormone, or body part that can do for us the hard work of sharp division into male and female leagues. Says the IOC in its latest declaration on the problem: “Human biology […] allows for forms of intermediate levels between the conventional categories of male and female, sometimes referred to as intersex.”
But the Anatomists still think we should base our sex division in sports on some sort of biological feature, even if it means we have to just pick one. They point out that sports require us to create all sorts of rules that aren’t simply natural and self-evident, so why not do it here, too?
And so, the IOC has just decided that, for the London Olympic Games, the rule of sex will be based on something called “functional androgens” (or “functional testosterone”). This means that an athlete who was raised a girl and identifies as a woman will be allowed to play as a woman so long as the IOC does not discover that her body makes and responds to high levels of androgens. Androgens, of which testosterone is one type, naturally occur in both male and female bodies, but higher production usually means more male-typical development.
Notice that the IOC won’t just be looking at how much androgens a woman’s body makes, but also how much her cells respond. This is because some women are born with testes that make a lot of testosterone, but they lack androgen-sensitive receptors, so the androgens have little-to-no effect on their cells. This condition is called complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Those who have it — women like Spanish hurdler Maria Patino — develop essentially as girls and women.