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If you ask the wrong question

Sex tests for athletes essentialise sexual differences, result in discrimination.

Another disturbing aspect of these androgen tests: the criteria used by the SAI to single out athletes for testing. Reuters Another disturbing aspect of these androgen tests: the criteria used by the SAI to single out athletes for testing. Reuters

Sex tests for athletes essentialise sexual differences, result in discrimination.

Yet again, a female athlete has been barred from competing. As per news reports, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) inferred that she is not as female as female athletes ought to be. She suffers from hyperandrogenism: her testosterone levels are equivalent to males’ or higher than females’, thus giving her an  “unfair advantage” over her  female competitors.

While calling out a female athlete must be a déjà vu moment for the SAI, one hopes this is not a replay of the Santhi Soundarajan episode. In 2006, Santhi, an Asian Games-winning athlete was stripped of her medal after tests revealed she was not quite female. She survived a suicide attempt only to work as a labourer at a brick kiln. In Santhi’s case, it was the presence of a Y chromosome. Now, it is the athlete’s high testosterone level that turned the tide against her.

In its defence, the SAI simply points to policies of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). However, given the history of debacles in the sex determination of athletes (remember Caster Semenya), who is fully female or male?

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To make contests “fair”, sex-segregated sports require that only “real” females contest in, say, female events, not males posing as female. Starting from the late-1960s, sex tests became mandatory for all female athletes. The IAAF made female athletes parade nude in the presence of physicians who examined their genitalia. Those who passed this test were authorised female and handed the “Certificate of Femininity”.

Facing flak for these humiliating and imprecise “tests”, the IAAF and IOC started chromosomal testing in 1967. This search for the Y chromosome in females was projected as an “objective” verification of sexual identity. As a result, many were disqualified from sports and publicly shamed, including the Spanish hurdler, Maria Jose Martinez-Patiño. Like other sportswomen, Maria paid a heavy price, till she proved that her chromosomal condition did not give her more testosterone or “unfair advantage”. By the time Maria was reinstated, her sporting career had nearly reached the finishing line. Laboratory tests have since confirmed that the XX and XY distinction can be nebulous, making many women and men fail such tests. By the late-1990s, the IAAF and IOC ended mandatory sex tests and moved on to “better” techniques.

Androgens, especially testosterone, became the means towards definitive truth about sexual identity. It was claimed that testing for hyperandrogenism would root out the hormonally male and flag the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Testosterone was viewed as a more accurate “sex testing” benchmark; it did not comment on the sex of an individual but merely the hormonal composition. However, scientists have sharply disagreed about the extent to which testosterone dictates athletic performance or sexual identity.


To cite one example, in a paper in the American Journal of Bioethics, Katrina Karkazis from the Stanford Centre for Biomedical Ethics and her co-authors have argued that sex cannot be assumed to be a mutually exclusive, simplistic polarity. There are at least six markers of sex — chromosomes, gonads, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, external genitalia, and internal genitalia. None of these is binary or decisive. Each has variations, both within an individual and among “males” and “females”. High or low testosterone depends upon a range of intertwined factors, material, biological and psychological. Given these variations, how can there be a level playing field? Scientific research shows that individuals respond differently to the same level of testosterone. Besides, if high testosterone is naturally occurring, like other biological traits, how is it unfair? Are long limbs or sharp eyesight unfair advantages too?

Another disturbing aspect of these androgen tests: the criteria used by the SAI to single out athletes for testing. Often, it is athletes who appear unfeminine/ less feminine. External traits such as body hair, lack of breasts, deep voice or gender non-conforming behaviour are flimsy grounds, if not homophobic. What about intersex or non-cis athletes? It sounds anachronistic to even say that sex and gender are neither always congruous, nor meant to be.

Far from serving their purpose, sex tests have merely reinscribed popular and flawed understandings of sexual identity. Instead of “fairness”, they have resulted in discrimination, essentialising sexual differences. Instead of weeding out male athletes, they have weeded out women with non-normative sexual traits. Instead of embracing the naturally occurring sexual variations these tests flag, female athletes are stigmatised, sometimes bringing their personal lives and careers to naught. Instead of demanding female athletes undergo treatments to lower their testosterone, can we not accept that there are multiple, not two, sexual identities and no perfect “male” or “female”? Why should athletes pay the price of our oversimplified and erroneous understanding of sex?


The writer is a Fox International Fellow at Yale University and a doctoral candidate at JNU, Delhi

First published on: 21-07-2014 at 12:24:48 am
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