Opinion: Sex Testing Creates a Double Standard in Athletics

Sex testing is an inequitable way to determine whether or not a woman should be allowed to compete in a race.

January 30, 2019

Sex testing is an invasive, inaccurate, and unfair way to decide whether a woman is allowed to compete in a race or not. Imagine walking down an endless line of women whose bodies are bare and exposed for judging eyes to examine, palpate, and measure. Believe it or not, many women used to have to go through this dehumanizing experience, known as the “nude parade,” in the 1960s. These “parades” were the first type of gender testing, which was initiated because people thought that the U.S. or Soviets would disguise men as women in order to win more medals during the Olympics. 

The women had to strip in front of complete strangers, many of whom were male doctors, to have their sexual anatomy closely analyzed and sometimes even touched, as well as measured.”

This was wrong for many reasons. The women had to strip in front of complete strangers, many of whom were male doctors, to have their sexual anatomy closely analyzed and sometimes even touched, as well as measured (“Gonads: Dutee”). Women were subjected to this treatment because they were commodified and, therefore, treated like animals to be scrutinized, like a terrified elephant forced to participate in a circus show. This was unethical and dehumanizing. Women should have the right to feel protected in their own bodies, but this was taken away during sex testing. This invasive practice continued based on an argument of fairness. But what is fair when a person’s right to privacy is ignored, their gender questioned through the public media, and their dignity violated? (“Gonads: Dutee”).

After the first form of invasive testing caused a backlash at the International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (I.A.A.F.), chromosome testing took over. The Barr body test was used to examine cells under a microscope, which were tested for Xs and Ys. Anything other than XX for females was considered suspicious and “male-like” (“Gonads: Dutee”). This wasn’t fair to the percentage of women who had chromosomal aberrations that could lead to more or less X chromosomes or additional Y chromosomes, which didn’t make them any less female to themselves. By the 2000s, the World Federation voted to cancel all gender testing due to the debate of geneticists and endocrinologists who pushed the idea of sex not solely being determined by chromosomes, but also hormones and physiology. This was quite a progressively scientific conclusion back then. Unfortunately, the disappearance of testing only lasted until 2009, after the questioning of runner Caster Semenya and her identity, since she kept excelling in her races and didn’t appear “feminine” enough.

The latest version of gender testing is based on the fact that if a female has more than 10 nanomoles of testosterone per liter, she can not compete. However, women who were resistant to the effects of testosterone or committed to reducing their levels were exempt from testing. 

Women should be able to race based on the sex presented on their government issued-identifications.”

However, using testosterone levels as the basis for sex testing is unjustified, because there is a lack of evidence about its impact on athletic performance. Secondly, men aren’t disqualified based on high testosterone levels, which reflects further inequity in the sports industry. Lastly, it is unfair to have to choose whether or not you should compete because of your body or compete and have to surgically change yourself or take drugs that suppress your hormones. Just imagine the physical and mental toll this could have on someone (Padawer).

Indian runner Dutee Chand pushed back against this regulation and won her case in the Court of Arbitration for Sport against the I.A.A.F. in 2015 to be requalified to compete. The case got national attention a year after a secret ultrasound and blood tests were conducted and the results were released to the press. The team’s doctors wanted to check for internal female organs and high testosterone levels in Chand’s system because of suspicion as to her gender. (“Gonads: Dutee”). This was a breach of Dutee Chand’s rights since she was lied to about the testing process. She then had to find out that she was disqualified and had hyperandrogenism, through a news article published weeks later. 

For someone with this medical condition, there are excessive amounts of over 10 nanomoles per liter of testosterone circulating within their female body. Some symptoms may include: excess facial hair, menstrual irregularities, infertility, and more, but it’s different for every woman. (“Gonads: Dutee”). 

Overall, it is clear that throughout history, women have faced many inequities when it comes to gender testing for sports competitions, and something must be done in order to resolve this. Women should be able to race based on the sex presented on their government issued-identifications and not be kept from racing during ongoing investigations. Furthermore, all sex testing should be terminated. When it comes to governing sports bodies, gender bashing and unfounded accusations as to someone’s gender should be banned, and I.O.C. policies should be developed with more transparency and variety of input (Vilain). Hopefully, one day, some of these changes will be enacted, so that women will be able to compete freely and equally as men already can, without being unfairly tested in the interest of “fairness.”

Works Cited

“Gonads: Dutee.” Radiolab, episode 4, 5, 22 July 2018, www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/dutee. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.

Padawer, Ruth. “The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes.” The New York Times Magazine, 28 June 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/07/03/magazine/the-humiliating-practice-of-sex-testing-female-athletes.html?auth=login-email. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.

Vilain, Eric. “Gender Testing for Athletes Remains a Tough Call.” The New York Times, 18 June 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/06/18/sports/olympics/the-line-between-male-and-female-athletes-how-to-decide.html?pagewanted=all. Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.


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