athletes · gender policing · Guest Post · Olympics · research · stereotypes

The Latest Nonsense from the Gender Police (Guest Post)

When the Court of Arbitration for Sports struck down the IAAF’s Rules on Hyperandrogenism, Sebastian Coe wasn’t amused. When Caster Semenya took the 800 meters gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Coe was downright unhappy, and he announced that the IAAF was working to deliver the evidence that the CAS had found missing in its 2015 ruling: evidence for the proposition that elevated testosterone levels in women athletes provided these athletes with an unfair competitive advantage.

In 2017, the IAAF presented what they took to be such evidence; and last week, they presented their new rules on gender eligibility. According to the new rules, in all races from 400 meters to the mile, women with elevated testosterone levels will be forced to either lower them – or to give up their sport.

These rules, to take effect in November, are no better than their predecessors. In fact, they might be worse.

There is, first, the glaring ethical issue of forcing athletes to accept an unnecessary medical intervention in order to be allowed to compete. (The Rules on Hyperandrogenism were used to justify castrations, vaginoplasties, and clitoroplasties on young women athletes, who may not have been in a position to give informed consent to these procedures.)

Second, there is the selectivity of the new rules. They only apply to four (Olympic) disciplines out of 21. The justification for this is a study commissioned by the IAAF, published last year. The authors of the study purport to show that the correlation between “free testosterone” levels and performance at the top level is significant in these disciplines. What the new rules do not reflect is that the authors also found a significant correlation in two other disciplines, the pole vault and the hammer throw. No other discipline showed a significant correlation.

The study was based on blood samples taken during the IAAF World Championships in Daegu 2011 and Moscow 2013. Every athlete who finished her competition and went through an anti-doping control was counted – even those whose high testosterone levels could be traced to doping. The study took the highest and the lowest tertile of testosterone levels and compared the athletes’ performances to the mean performance. Yet the testosterone levels in the highest tertile ranged from “somewhat elevated” to “extremely elevated” (or “in the normal male range”, in IAAF doctor speak). There is no way to tell from the study whether extremely elevated levels also lead to an extremely enhanced performance. Nor is there a way to tell what specific advantage testosterone is supposed to confer in the disciplines that showed a significant correlation; the authors speculate that it might be enhanced visuo-spatial coordination in the pole vault and increased lean body mass and aggressiveness in middle distance running – but the study itself doesn’t give any definite clues; and the question remains why, if testosterone can have such varied effects, they show up in less than 40% of all Olympic disciplines.

And even if the study constituted proof that testosterone conferred an unfair advantage, there’d be no reason whatsoever to exclude pole vault and hammer throw from the new rules. So as things stand, the new rules look completely arbitrary even on their very own terms – and it seems obvious that they primarily target Semenya. They affect her disciplines (the 400, 800, and 1500 meters) and Semenya is the most prominent and by far the most successful athlete to have come to the attention of the IAAF gender police. Bluntly put, it seems that the IAAF either wants to get rid of Semenya or force her to artificially lower her performance levels to a point where she’s no longer winning.

The IAAF has been trying to come up with definitive rules for eligibility in women’s competition for over half a century. (Access to men’s competitions was never regulated.) Their efforts have largely been unsuccessful. By now, they have largely given up on the specter of the “male impostor” (suggesting that men might pose as women for “easy” athletic success) which ruled the introduction of eligibility rules in the 1960s. But they still insist that not every woman should be allowed to compete. In other words: while they have accepted that Semenya is a woman, they still cannot accept that she ought to be allowed to compete as she is.

Third, the IAAF still hasn’t explained convincingly why they insist on regulating eligibility in (pseudo-)medical terms in the first place (other than the obvious and obviously poor reason that they don’t like the media attention for Semenya and the races she participates in). They claim that they want to ensure fair competition, but on the basis of the (pseudo-)medical terms they have introduced into women’s track and field, there can’t be fair competition.

The IAAF’s obsession with testosterone suggests that by leveling one anatomical factor, they can level the entire playing field for professional sport. But that’s obvious nonsense. Not only is the commissioned study unclear about what exactly the relevant advantage conferred by testosterone might be, there’s also no mention of other obvious anatomical factors that confer an advantage: for instance, height in high jumping. (If high jumping had a scoring system that was adjusted to the jumpers’ height, Stefan Holm, one of the smallest-ever high jumpers to compete at the top level, would have been literally unbeatable.)

So either a lot more anatomical factors would have to be regulated, and consequently, a number of height, weight, flexibility, etc. classes created – or the IAAF could simply accept that one’s social and legal identity as a woman is enough to be allowed to compete in women’s competitions.

But what about Semenya’s obvious dominance? – one might ask. (After all, many of her opponents have complained about having to compete against her without standing a chance). If we look at Semenya’s 800 meter races in the most recent international events, she was dominant, but not beyond what “dominance” means in other disciplines. (In the 1500 meters and the 400 meters, she can compete for international medals, but she isn’t dominant at all).

Consider the pole vault and the hammer throw, the two discplines excluded from the new rules. For years, the pole vault was dominated by Yelena Isinbayeva – to such a degree that the only interesting question in a high-profile competition was whether Isinbayeva would set a new world record (she set 30 world records during her career; Semenya’s times haven’t come anywhere near a senior world record).

The hammer throw is currently dominated by Anita Włodarczyk. Włodarczyk has improved the world record seven times, became Olympic Champion in 2012 and 2016, World Champion in 2015 and 2017 (in 2013 losing only to Russian Tatiana Lysenko, a repeat doping offender, whose Olympic Gold from 2012 went to Włodarczyk) and European Champion in 2012, 2014, and 2016. If Włodarczyk is in shape and mentally sharp during the competition, her opponents typically don’t stand a chance. Yet if this is not an issue of fairness, why is Semenya’s performance? After all, we can assume that Włodarczyk, like Semenya, has an athletic predisposition that makes her exceptionally suited for her discipline – and that she trains extremely hard to stay on top of her game. Yet only in the case of Semenya is it assumed that somehow her predisposition is unfair (and thereby implied that she could be so successful even without training).

And what, finally, about the possibility that national sports federations could specifically seek out “intersexual” women with athletic talent? – This, too, is widely accepted practice, as long as it does not concern women who might have intersex traits. And it’s called “scouting for talent,” not scouting for intersex traits. Of course, physical features will play a role, but consider, for instance, the criteria any basketball scout would use to find promising young players. So in this case, it is not clear either why testosterone – or intersex traits more broadly speaking – should make a significant difference.

And so the supposed concern with ensuring fair competition still look like it’s really about policing gender presentation.

M.B. is currently a post-doc at the Institute for Christian Social Ethics at the University of Münster, Germany. She specializes in the ethics of sexuality and gender and the ontology of social groupings.

cycling · equality · fitness · inclusiveness · research

Gender Diversity in Cycling: Microaggressions and Continued Work

As a woman who is new to the competitive cycling scene, I want to share a glimpse of my journey into this sport. I’ve had some incredible experiences in the cycling community and I love it more than any other hobby I’ve picked up over my lifetime. For me, there is something truly empowering (yet terrifying!) about racing bicycles at 23mph around street corners in a field of 20+ women, all while trusting and admiring each and every one of them. A year later, there is no better feeling than reflecting back on my journey and calling many of those women my new teammates and friends.

Despite how much I love racing bikes, I have experienced a number of day-to-day remarks, actions, and behaviors that reveal underlying biases and assumptions about men being the default and women being placed on the back burner in cycling. Commonly referred to as microaggressions, these experiences reflect subtle inequities, stereotypical remarks, or forms of harassment related to one or more cultural identities–including but not limited to gender. I’ve decided to share some of my experiences here and in a previous post because I want to continue the conversation that other cyclists have started for us, and I want continued progress on this important issue.

Before sharing, I want to recognize that many (but not all) of the actions I describe were likely unintentional. My goal is not to point fingers. Instead, I want to reflect on the broader culture and context. When these experiences happen time and time again by different people, I can’t help but recognize that the common denominator is the fact that I’m a woman on a bike trying to participate in a sport dominated by white cisgender men. Even if done unintentionally, such actions and subtle snubs provide preferential treatment toward men, exclude those of us who are not men, and/or focus on our physical attributes rather than our strengths as athletes. Here is some of what I’ve experienced:

  • During my second ride with a new group of men, I got a flat and fell off the back. One guy stayed back while I changed my flat, joking that he waited for me because he wanted my number. The others in the group went on without me.
  • During a cold February ride, I was in a pace line with several men working into a gnarly headwind. One of the guys shouted “Keep up the good work, fellas!” to boost morale.
  • Last fall, an acquaintance joked that I shouldn’t race in the Athena* category because no one wants to be “King of the fatties.”
  • In a recent fat bike race, two men passed me on the single track stating, “thanks, man” and “thanks, sir.”
  • At my first cyclocross race, I showed up early to get a feel for the race scene and watch the race before mine. The announcer did not announce the first place woman at the finish line, yet provided commentary on all podium spots for the men’s race occurring at the same time.
  • When commuting into work one morning for my new job, a security guard approached me to introduce himself. He proceeded to comment on my physical attractiveness.
  • During the cyclocross season, the women’s 4/5 field raced at the same time as the juniors. When course features were too challenging for 8 yr olds, the features were removed for their race. This meant that we often raced on the modified course with the juniors, rather than the course raced by all other adults.
  • After stopping at an intersection on my way home from a training ride, a car with three men pulled up alongside me. One of them stuck his head out the window and shouted, “Hey you wanna suck my dick?!”. They drove off with a car full of laughter. My morale, performance, and sense of safety immediately plummeted. I spent the rest of the ride feeling completely violated, tense, and worried they’d come back.

*Note: Athena is a cycling category for women over 160 lbs. Clydesdale is a category for men over 200 lbs.

Although the clear harassment is far and few between, and most of these acts are completely unintentional, they add up. I carry them with me on a daily basis and to each race. I use them to fuel my desire to dig deeper, to try harder, and to show women and gender diverse cyclists we belong. If we want to decrease gender gaps in this sport, we need more conversations about how to do better, as well as more feminists advocating for gender equity. Just in the past year, I have taken risks in a new community by speaking up about what I’ve seen and how I’ve felt. I will speak more about the progress in the next post, but I have only great things to say about the cycling federation, racing directors, and officials–particularly how open and receptive they’ve been. We’re seeing some really exciting changes. I think many people understand that it’s time for a culture shift, in which all cyclists are clearly valued and welcome. That being said, I can only speak to my own experience. I want to hear more voices and shine a light on the experiences of others so that we can make this conversation continue in and outside of the cycling world.

This month, I launched an international research project for women (cis and trans) and gender diverse cyclists (including but not limited to non-binary, gender queer, & two spirit folks) who have raced over the past 5 years. The survey asks about factors that have increased and decreased participation in competitive cycling, as well as motivations and experiences in daily living. I ask for stories of exclusion, harassment, and sexism—in addition to times cyclists have felt valued and included in their respective communities. After recruiting 250 participants, I’ll donate $500 to a non-profit organization (Cycles for Change) that works toward gender equity and accessibility in cycling. Findings will be presented in the community and submitted as empirical journal articles. Ultimately, my goal is to better understand the gender gaps and increase retention of women and gender diverse cyclists throughout the world.

If you are a woman and/or a gender diverse cyclist who has raced bikes in the last 5 yrs, I’d love to hear your story. The link to the 20 minute survey is as follows:

Erin is a professor, psychologist, researcher, feminist, spouse, and cyclist. When she is not working, she trains for new cycling adventures, eats, laughs, and spends time with loved ones.

fitness · research

Activity– what is is good for? Depends on how you ask

Often while reading health news, I feel like a science referee; there are always competing studies out there, ready for a brawl.  Writing for this blog, I sometimes try to take on the umpire’s job of blowing the whistle and sending the competitors into neutral corners while I replay the evidence to see what call to make.

This week in the New York Times’ Well blog, you can get ringside seats for another round of the “how much activity will make me live longest?” smackdown match.

In one corner, we see a study (and accompanying NYT article) touting the benefits of even light activity (vs. being sedentary) for older women:

They found that for each 30 minute a day increase in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, there was a 39 percent decrease in all-cause mortality. But they also found that 30 minutes of even very light activity — doing light household chores, walking slowly over short distances — was tied to a 12 percent reduction in mortality.

“The results apply to all women, all races, regardless of weight and even for women over 80,” said the senior author, Andrea Z. LaCroix, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Diego. “You do not have to be a marathon runner to benefit from physical activity. We hope that physical activity guidelines will recognize light activity as an evidence-based way to lower the risk for death.”

In the other corner, though, standing twitchily, is a rival study (cited in the comments).  Here’s what the commenter said:

Interestingly, this study’s conclusions were somewhat the EXACT OPPOSITE of those of a similar, larger study also published this month: “Accelerometer-Measured Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior in Relation to All-Cause Mortality: The Women’s Health Study,” in the journal Circulation, PMID 29109088.

In that study they similarly found a “strong inverse association between MVPA [Moderate-and-Vigorous physical-activity] and mortality. [But they] did NOT find any associations of Light physical activity or Sedentary behavior with mortality—after accounting for MVPA.”

Hmmm.  This definitely merits stopping the clock and re-examining the evidence and claims.  One study says light activity confers lower mortality risk for women, and the other study says it doesn’t. So who’s right?

It depends on how you ask.

One of my favorite health researchers, Dutch social scientist Annemarie Mol, writes in a medical ethics article about differing treatments for patients with intermittent claudication, which is muscle pain in the lower legs that is a symptom of a particular type of heart disease in older people.  The two treatments she looks at are 1) surgically inserting a stent in the lower legs to increase circulation; and 2) personalized physical therapy to increase the patient’s ability to walk without pain.  What she saw was surprising:  patients who got 1) improved, and the metrics used to measure their improvement verified this.  Patients who got 2), though, did not experience any improvement in the normal metrics, but they DID feel better in many ways:  they reported being less depressed, they ate better, slept better, and were steadily improving their walking abilities.  One patient reported being very happy that he could walk the two blocks to the local shop to buy his daily cigar.

Which approach is right?  Both groups display evidence of improvement, but one group doesn’t have the numbers on their side.  However, that group has much improved function and increased quality of life.  So maybe both groups are doing well.

How does this relate to the activity studies?  The question is: does doing light activity help me live longer?  Well, it’s not clear from these studies.  What we do know, though, from about a million other studies and interviews and stories, is that activity improves mood, reduces depression, preserved mobility, and helps us feel more in charge of ourselves and our lives.  Even if one of our daily goals is a trip to the store to buy a cigar.

We don’t engage in activity in order to maximize our allotment of living.  We do it to feel good, to feel good about ourselves, to do what we need and want to do, to feel a sense of accomplishment, to stretch ourselves, and to connect with others.

Is light activity worth doing?  Yes.  Is moderate to vigorous activity better?  Maybe.  Sometimes.  For some people.  If they can, want to, need to. Depends on how you ask.

fitness · research

Calling citizen scientists: collaborators wanted

Here’s a true (and under-appreciated) fact: scientific research couldn’t get off the ground without the help of citizen volunteers and collaborators.  Not only do we allow researchers access to our stories, our bodies, our bodily fluids and tissues, our DNA, our family’s DNA, etc., but we provide a built-in context for all that data– we’re embedded in our bodies, communities, families, cultures, religions, nationalities, and diagnoses, presenting nuance and complexity personified.

Why does (and should) science care about this?  Because lab results based on narrow hypotheses don’t give us enough evidence to help us find good solutions to big problems.  They’re just a part of the process.  What works in the lab often doesn’t work in the world, because there’s a host of other influences that contribute to whatever scientists are researching, whether it’s cancers, pollution, fitness, or gun violence.  Science needs us– people busy living their lives.  We are authorities on the details of our habits and practices, and can offer valuable insights to help researchers better understand complexity.

You may be wondering:  why I am going on about this topic?  Yes, it’s legit, but not my usual beat.  Well, the answer is this:  the blog got an email from Hania Rahimi, a PhD candidate researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  She and her group are doing a study on dietary habits in adults with BMI 25–40.  They’re going to be testing an “online behavioural intervention for improving dietary habits”– this is from the information page, found here.  They’re recruiting folks to participate, and we’re helping out by posting the information.  To see if you’re eligible for the study, you can go to the previous link or also check here for more information.

For what it’s worth, I signed up.  I find being a study participant, especially in research like this (that doesn’t happen to involve blood draws or stool samples), pretty interesting.  My participation helps provide information for their analysis, and the fact that it’s me (rather than someone else) brings *my* perspective into the mix.  As a person who cares about science in general and dietary science in particular, I think this is a good thing.  Plus, we’re helping a graduate student get data for her PhD research.

By the way, my friend Norah and I have written about this issue here. We (along with lots of other people) argue that a primary feminist critique of science is its failure to include the voices and perspectives and embedded knowledge of those who are affected by or experiencing the phenomenon under investigation.  There’s a lot to say here, and a lot’s been said by many of us, including those who write for this blog. The upshot for us, here, now, though, is that science benefits when informed by the rich reports of embedded-in-the-world experiences of the people who have had those experiences.  The information you get is not the same as what you get just by observing, and it’s useful (in fact often crucial) information.

That’s it.  I’ll be back to fitness/weight/sports/random other ruminations next week.

Feminist science posters, with slogans like "this is what feminist science looks like" and "science and feminism: better together"
Feminist science posters, with slogans like “this is what feminist science looks like” and “science and feminism: better together”