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Inaugural SGL Toolkit: Why is everyone so upset about gender?

Gender has gotten complicated. It turns out that the seemingly straightforward categories of male/female, woman/man, masculinity/femininity are in fact not so clear cut, as shown by new concepts, such as gender identity, cisgender, transgender or trans, gender non-conforming. Think about how uncomfortable so many people are when they cannot determine a person’s gender.[1] So when gender lines blur, people have strong reactions and feelings, but policies, laws and social practices are also impacted. Misinformation, misuse of the facts, and assumptions creep into reporting and retweeting, and even into summaries of research.[2]

In this month’s inaugural SexGenLab Toolkit – “Why is everyone so upset about gender?” – we show how our assumptions, which are often wrong or incomplete, influence both research and our public debates and policies. We examine how the gender binary— the idea that there are two separate and opposing categories, men and women–is in fact an idea rather than a natural fact, and how that idea affects science, public policy and private lives. This approach is the signature SGL critical perspective on gender and sexuality research: raising questions and awareness of how research is interpreted and reported, as well as what is not being talked about. All week, we show how invisible social factors – assumptions and stereotypes – actually shape research and science with new content every each day.

This Toolkit is inspired by the case of the Olympic 800 meter gold-medalist Caster Semenya, whose body naturally produces higher levels of testosterone than most women. This was discovered when she was subjected to various forms of sex testing for evaluations of her gender. Over the course of her competitive career, a careful look at the facts shows that the assessment of her gender keeps changing. She is recognized as female sometimes and then challenged as not female at others. Since her 2009 breakthrough wins as a teenager, her gender has been under intense scrutiny. She has been required by the IAAF (the official body that oversees the Olympics) to alter her body in order to conform to constantly changing norms of what “counts” as female. Sex-testing is no longer a standard practice that all successful athletes have to undergo and it is stressful, demeaning and often disrespectful.[3],[4] So why is Ms. Semenya singled out?

Competitive sports have been a lightning rod for questions about gender, because they are literally organized by the assumption that the gender binary is natural and assumed.[5] But the shifting norms of what defines gender categories show that trying to define a clear “bright” line is problematic. The way that sex-testing happens reveals continued practice can be understood as better reflecting how much we want the gender binary to be stable.[6],[7]

This is why this Toolkit is anchored in competitive athletics. Beyond track and field, the question of what it means to be a “normal” male or female has been increasingly just that: a question. A critical perspective on the science on gender categories, however, illuminates that there is no absolute “normal”; “normal” is more about our beliefs about who should or should not be labeled male or female.[8] When science is reported that fuels public debate and even policy and practices, it often fails to consider the many ways that testosterone levels are not an accurate or even appropriate approach to an increasingly dubious task. Ms. Semenya’s experience highlights the two categories of “male” and “female” are not “just the way things are.”

All cisgender women produce testosterone in significant amounts; this may be surprising to learn because it was simply named a male “sex hormone” when discovered.[9] The question at the heart of the frenzy is a belief that having higher testosterone levels than other women gives a performance advantage. But the link between testosterone levels and performance is uneven and also insufficient. Reviews of the research ultimately conclude that it remains unproven that testosterone levels in women explain differences in performance.[10]

A critical perspective asks why such a recommendation is possible or considered reliable if the scientists ultimately say that at best, they do not know. It also points to the need to focus on other explanations that have been studied, including social and even other physiological factors, and how they interact with testosterone levels.[11] Why isn’t this research part of these evaluations? A critical perspective includes physical evidence that testosterone does not make a difference, noting a range of problems with the science and conclusions.[2] Ms. Semenya’s actual uneven performance points to how a different observation could be included in reporting: she doesn’t win every race. Once we take testosterone off the table, we can start asking different questions and get a different picture.

A different view might be, why isn’t there uproar over Michael Phelps’s unusual wingspan and double-jointed ankles if the worry were really about biological performance advantages? Or athletes who have low lactic acid levels that enhance muscle endurance?[12] Why aren’t Phelps’ natural, biological physical advantages put on trial the same way Ms. Semenya’s are?[13] For men to have more athletic competitive bodies is consistent with being “male.” We don’t tend to notice that it is when women athletes do not appear “feminine” enough or are deemed “too manly” or “too muscular,” that is, when their appearance is inconsistent with societal expectations and demands, we start to question their “qualifications” for being on the female side of the gender binary.[5] This is often when fairness is raised and testing begins.[14]

For men, challenges to their gender are more apparent in everyday life. If a man or boy doesn’t comply with our expectations and beliefs about masculinity, trouble often ensues. These expectations and reactions have been called “gender surveillance” or “gender policing” — public and interpersonal efforts to keep pressure on people to provide an unambiguous gender presentation, or a body that we can recognize as fitting into the gender binary. This constant watch carries an often vague and sometimes explicit threat of consequences.[15]

This kind of gender policing is intensified by race, as is evident, for instance, in commentary about Serena Williams’ body and stylistic choices. Ms. Semenya was subjected to sex-testing even when she came in second. Why? In Ms. Semenya’s case, being a Black lesbian woman (from South Africa) may have brought extra scrutiny; the current controversy was instigated after a viral video of an interview with a weeping White British competitor, who finished sixth, insinuated that it is unfair for Ms. Semenya to compete – that no other woman has a chance – despite evidence to the contrary. This also sheds light on how racism, homophobia and colonialism can come into play subtly – with very unsubtle results.[5] There is a long history of suspicion, stereotypes and derision of Black and Brown people with complex and invisible ties to prejudices, fears and anxieties.[16],[17] Ms. Semenya embodies how these forces work together to create suspicion that has nothing to do with testosterone.

The pressure for elite women athletes to not appear too masculine also impacts the potential of all female athletes. Research has shown that girls and young women in high school and college who are told they are “too muscular,” who choose not to wear makeup or dress in feminine ways (both on and off the field), or are labeled “too aggressive,” will often stop playing sports and/or experience mental health consequences, body image issues, and social anxieties.[18] Even outside of sports, people whose bodies or appearances do not appear in ways which fit neatly into the gender binary can experience rejection and isolation, acts of verbal, emotional and physical aggression, and the violation of personal boundaries, respect and dignity.[19] A woman who is overly muscular may find strangers commenting on and even touching her body.  

More and more people, especially young people, are challenging the gender binary. Some reporting in mainstream media includes the contradictions in the science. In social media and the visual landscape, more people are exploring the expanding possibilities for self-expression, community and alliances. As science actually shows cracks in the gender binary, we suggest another question: How do we think in new ways about gender that are creative and also fair, and also begin to wrangle with the complexities that challenges to the gender binary raise? 

[1] Westbrook, L., & Schilt, K. (2014). Doing gender, determining gender: Transgender people, gender panics, and the maintenance of the sex/gender/sexuality system. Gender & Society, 28, 32-57.

[2] Van Anders, S. M. (2013). Beyond masculinity: testosterone, gender/sex, and human social behavior in a comparative context. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 34, 198-210.

[3] Martinez-Patino, M. J., Diaz, P., Martinez-Vidal, A., Mateos, C., Zagalaz, L., & Ljungqvist, A. (2006). The history and current policies on gender testing in elite athletes. International SportMed Journal, 7, 225-230.

[4] Schultz, J. (2014). Qualifying times: Points of change in US women’s sport. University of Illinois Press.

[5] Pieper, L. (2016). Sex testing: Gender policing in women’s sports. University of Illinois Press.

[6] Kivlighan, K. T., Granger, D. A., & Booth, A. (2005). Gender differences in testosterone and cortisol response to competition. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 30, 58-71.

[7] Corbett, K. (2009). Boyhood femininity, gender identity disorder, masculine presuppositions, and the anxiety of regulation. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 19, 353-370.

[8] Hyde, J. S., Bigler, R. S., Joel, D., Tate, C. C., & van Anders, S. M. (2019). The future of sex and gender in psychology: Five challenges to the gender binary. American Psychologist, 74, 171-193.

[9] Fausto-Sterlng, A. (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

[10] Handelsman, D. J., Hirschberg, A. L., & Bermon, S. (2018). Circulating testosterone as the hormonal basis of sex differences in athletic performance. Endocrine Reviews, 39, 803-829.

[11] Booth, A., Granger, D. A., Mazur, A., & Kivlighan, K. T. (2006). Testosterone and social behavior. Social Forces, 85, 167-191.

[12] Ostrander, E. A., Huson, H. J., & Ostrander, G. K. (2009). Genetics of athletic performance. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics, 10, 407-429.

[13] Cooper, E. J. (2010). Gender testing in athletic competitions-human rights violations: Why Michael Phelps is praised and Caster Semenya is chastised. Journal of Gender, Race & Justice, 14, 233-264.

[14] Sudai, M. (2017). The testosterone rule—constructing fairness in professional sport. Journal of Law and the Biosciences, 4, 181-193.

[15] Viloria, H. P., & Martínez-Patiño, M. J. (2012). Reexamining rationales of “fairness”: an athlete and insider’s perspective on the new policies on hyperandrogenism in elite female athletes. The American Journal of Bioethics, 12, 17-19.

[16] Bale, J. (2001). Transgression, colonial rhetoric and the postcolonial athlete. In D. Andrews and S. Jackson (Eds.), Sport stars: The cultural politics of sporting celebrity. New York: Routledge

[17] Karkazis, K., & Jordan-Young, R. M. (2018). The powers of testosterone: Obscuring race and regional bias in the regulation of women athletes. Feminist Formations, 30, 1-39.

[18] Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2010). “Uncool to do sport”: A focus group study of adolescent girls’ reasons for withdrawing from physical activity. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 619-626.

[19] Wyss, S. E. (2004). ‘This was my hell’: the violence experienced by gender non‐conforming youth in US high schools. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 17, 709-730.

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