Monday, April 14, 2014

Testosterone Discrimination in Women's Sports

An op-ed in last week's New York Times by Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young provides an early glimpse of what could be the next wave of sex discrimination in women's sports: testosterone discrimination.  As the scholars explain, the International Olympic Committee and other international sport governing bodies implemented new rules that require female athletes whose bodies naturally produce high levels of testosterone to undergo hormonal and surgical "therapy" in order to compete. According to a new study, this new policy has already subjected four female athletes -- all from developing countries, it seems relevant to note --  to invasive examinations and surgery (including "partially removing their clitorises") that even the performing doctors deemed had "no medical reason."  Only after they had undergone these procedures were the athletes allowed to return to competition, a year later.

Karkazis and Jordan-Young point out that there are many naturally-occurring conditions that can lead to high testosterone, and refute the perception that screening is necessary to ensure fairness in women's competition. They cite to research findings in which testosterone levels failed to predict athletic performance, as well as those of "significant overlap" between testosterone levels of men and women.  (16.5% of elite male athletes studied had testosterone in the so-called "female" range; while 14% of female athletes had testosterone levels above that range.)  If testosterone is like other bodily characteristics that vary within the population, even within each sex, and is not a predictor of athletic performance, then the IOC's policy indeed appears "untenable" -- as Karkazis and Jordan-Young call it -- and also discriminatory.

At the moment (fortunately), these issues do not directly impact Title IX.  We know of no schools that are testing (cisgender) female athletes for naturally occurring testosterone and subjecting them to heinous treatment as a condition for participation.  But many U.S. organizations -- including some that govern athletics in the scholastic context --  look up to the IOC and see its policies as a model to be emulated without critical evaluating the policy or its application to a markedly different population of athletes.  For example, one state high school athletic association currently (and two in the past) uses the IOC's policy governing transgender participation, even though its requirement of surgery and two years of hormone treatment is virtually certain to exclude all transgender athletes of high school age.  Women's sports advocates must be vigilant to ensure the IOC's testosterone policy does not similarly creep into schools.

See also: Women's Sports Foundation's position paper on intersex athletes.