Once upon a time there was an Internet troll who thought that he had found some magical fairy dust called testosterone that would make him stronger, faster, and smarter than any woman in the world. So he thought he could just claim that he could beat any female MMA fighter out there who was in the same weight class as him. Luckily for us, some fine folks set up a match between him and Anna McCauley Dempster, an amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter out of Oregon, to take place on January 6th.
Now, while it seems obvious that this particular troll is just asking to get knocked out, as he attempts to channel the ghost of Andy Kaufman, much less extreme versions of the claim he makes are pretty common. Lots of people do think male fighters in general have an advantage over female fighters, even correcting for things like relative size. Weirdo internet trolls aside, most people with any kind of experience doing fight training, in mixed gender contexts, will know that there are women who are better fighters than many men they train with. But that doesn’t mean the playing field is level.
On a personal level, I’m as committed to both feminism and martial arts as anyone I know, but hesitate at the thought of genderless divisions. I suppose I do agree with the view that male fighters have an advantage, but I hesitate to say that it’s just a simple physiological fact (e.g. more testosterone). I know, I know. Testosterone is advantageous, and that’s why it’s used as a performance-enhancing substance. Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT) is banned by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). But it can’t be the whole story. After all, “Bigfoot” Silva, who has acromegaly, naturally has testosterone levels that are well below average, but has had to fight for many years without TRT.
One thing I think we can’t rule out, though, to explain differences in ability, is the role of gender socialization. Spend some time hanging out with kids, especially when they’re doing physical stuff, and take note over time of how differently little boys and little girls are treated. A lot of what we supposedly know about hardwired differences between male and female brains can plausibly be chalked up to what Cordelia Fine has called neurosexism. Could something like that be going on with physical ability? Well before puberty and many of the more significant developmental differences, lots of people don’t seem to expect little girls to be as physically capable as little boys, much less encourage them to be physical in the same ways. It seems weird to think that kind of thing wouldn’t affect them as they get older, even if they’re active athletes.
But I think that if we want to encourage people to be athletic, and to take part in athletic competitions, we need, as a sporting society, to sort out just what we think the important differences are to make competition fair. Not everyone’s gender identity fits neatly into a binary, and many trans and intersex athletes have been subjected to a great deal of discrimination. It just doesn’t seem as though gender segregation along a binary is doing the trick these days, and maybe it’s time to consider whether there are any viable alternatives.
Still. In the meantime, while we figure out the deeper issues behind gender and sport, you can tide yourselves over by watching Anna McCauley Dempster beat up a troll.