By Dana Boebinger, Rachel Hanebutt, Brittany Mayweather, and Michael Ruiz
Produced by Michelle Frank
Dana: Hello, and welcome to Sit’N Listen: a production of Science in the News. We’re a graduate-student run organization at Harvard University that catalyzes discussion between scientists and other experts and enthusiasts. I’m Dana Boebinger, and I’m a third year graduate student in auditory neuroscience at Harvard, studying how the brain processes complex sounds like speech and music. I would never claim to be an expert on sports, but I am a proud feminist who once upon a time played on soccer and basketball teams, so here I am!
Brittany: I’m Brittany Mayweather and I’m a third year graduate student in the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology department at Harvard. My research involves investigating the biology of the aging brain, and I also grew up playing sports. I’m fascinated by how much gender really does influence so many aspects of athletics, and I’m excited to talk about that today!
Michael: I’m Mike Ruiz, a first year graduate student in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard. I’m currently studying the evolution of human joints and joint disease with specific attention to the biomechanics of cartilage, and I’m also broadly interested in studying the effects of human movement with respect to developmental biology.
Rachel: And I’m Rachel Hanebutt, a graduate of the Mind, Brain and Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who is currently studying Civic Media and Engagement, particularly in regards to sexual health and sex education. I am also a huge Celtics fan, so combining the topics of sports and gender is incredibly interesting to me.
For this episode, we’re doing something special – a live recording in collaboration with Academic Ventures of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Harvard’s collection of historical scientific instruments. This podcast is recorded in association with the Radcliffe Institute’s spring conference, “Game Changers: Sports, Gender, and Society” which will take place on April 7, 2017. You can find out more about the event on their website, radcliffe.harvard.edu. Before we go too much deeper into the episode, we’d like to take a moment to thank Kristen Osborne of the Radcliffe Institute and Jean-François (Jon Fran-SWAH) of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments for their support in this collaboration and for providing the space for this live event.
Today’s episode will be in two parts: The first part is concerned with figuring out who should compete in men’s and women’s sports, and the second part is about sexism in sports. (short pause) Let’s get started with talking a little bit about the history of segregation in sports, in relation to gender.
History of women in sports and sex segregation
Dana: Sex segregation in sports is as old as sports themselves. For example, in Ancient Greece, where strict gender roles were the norm, adult women were forbidden from participating in the Olympic Games, and could even be sentenced to death for watching men compete.
Instead, women competed in something called the Games of Hera. In the 2nd century BC, Greek writer Pausanias described these games as having occurred since quote “ancient times,” so scholars think they could be nearly as old as the Olympics themselves. The Games of Hera were held every four years, likely immediately before the Olympic Games, and featured three foot races for unmarried girls and women of different ages, some scholars say ranging in age from 6 to 18. The Games of Hera took place in the same stadium as the men’s events, but the race course was shortened by 1/6th – corresponding to the fact that women’s strides are shorter by about that amount.
As this example shows, throughout history, society’s beliefs about the differences between the sexes — as well as their scientific understanding of these differences — have had huge implications for women’s involvement in sports as well as the reasons and methods for segregating the sexes during competition.
In recent history, we’ve come to accept and expect gender integration in almost every aspect of life – in the workplace, in universities, and now we’re even entertaining the idea of non-gender specific bathrooms. But the notion of sex segregation in sports is still going strong.
Michael: Thats a great point Dana. I think part of the reason sex segregation has stuck around for so long in sports is because there are biological differences between men and women that can affect athletic performance. One of the most important – and most famous – differences is the amount of testosterone. Testosterone is a steroid hormone, which means that it’s a special kind of molecule that circulates throughout the body. As our listeners probably know, men tend to have higher testosterone levels than women. Testosterone affects all kinds of things – for one thing, it’s part of the reason that males and females develop differently. But more directly relevant to athletics, higher levels of testosterone can also increase muscle size and make humans and animals more aggressive. And of course, things like culture and upbringing can also affect muscle size, athletic performance, and aggression, regardless of testosterone.
Brittany: You said that men tend to have higher testosterone levels than women – how big is the difference? Does that actually explain differences in athletic performance?
Blurring the boundaries between men and women
Michael: Sort of. For one thing, I think it’s worth pointing out that biological sex is a complicated thing. All kinds of factors affect whether an animal–human or otherwise–becomes male or female, and men and women have hormonal differences, anatomical differences, and genetic differences. All of these factors are somewhat independent, and all of them can have some bearing on athletic performance. Some people, like Ross Tucker, a professor of exercise physiology in South Africa, claim that elevated testosterone levels in men can give a performance boost of around 10%. But others have contested that value, and the consensus seems to be out as to how much of a difference testosterone can make by itself. We’ll delve into that more a bit later, but for now suffice to say that both men and women have testosterone. On average, men tend to have a bit more of it than women, but there isn’t always a clear distinction.
Rachel: And beyond the blurry boundaries in testosterone levels, there are also people who fall in between the two sexes in other ways. Some people with a Y chromosome will develop hormonally and anatomically as female. Other people have anatomical features associated with both men and women.
Sadly, we don’t have time to delve into this topic in too much more detail here. But for those of you interested, you can listen back to our podcast on sex, gender, and science, where we discuss this topic more deeply.
I do think that these uncertainties in differentiating between men and women does illustrate just how hard it can be to draw a clear boundary between men and women in athletic competitions.
Dana: And we haven’t even started talking about transgender athletes yet.
Rachel: No, we haven’t! But even though it’s so hard to find a good way of drawing a bright line between men and women, there’s still been an overwhelming push towards keeping men and women’s sports separated. And in order to do that, various athletic agencies and sports governing bodies have developed “verification processes” for determining whether an athlete is, in fact, male or female.
Dana: Historically at least, that had a lot to do with preventing men from competing in women’s sports in order to gain an unfair competitive advantage.
Rachel: I think that’s still the case today. But in our research, we couldn’t find any cases where men had intentionally tried to compete in women’s sports to gain a competitive advantage. Mostly, it seems that these verification processes have resulted in the exclusion of intersex and transgender athletes.
Dana: Yeah, in almost all documented cases of men competing as women, they’ve been doing so inadvertently, and often because they don’t fit neatly into the classical categories of male and female.
One example of this is the story of German high jumper Dora Ratjen, whose experience was one of the motivations for international sports governing bodies to begin gender verification testing. In 1918, Dora Ratjen was born intersex and raised as a girl, and competed as a girl in sports. But around puberty, Ratjen began to realize that he was different – and even suspected that he wasn’t entirely female. But due to the stigma surrounding such issues, he was too embarrassed to tell anyone about his suspicions. In the meantime, Ratjen became quite a decorated athlete, culminating with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, in which Ratjen placed 4th in the women’s high jump.
In 1938, a few days after breaking the women’s high jump world record, Ratjen was taking a train and was stopped by a policeman who had been told there was a “man dressed as a woman” on the train who might be a British spy. Despite providing ID, the policeman refused to believe Ratjen was female. To avoid a physical examination on the spot, Ratjen confessed that he suspected he was indeed a man. Ratjen was arrested on suspicion of fraud and stripped of all his awards. After a physical examination by a doctor, Ratjen was sent to a sports sanatorium for further testing (although we couldn’t find anything that explained exactly which tests Ratjen was subjected to). The results of these tests, though, showed that Ratjen was indeed a man. However, investigators determined that fraud could not have occurred in Ratjen’s case, because he didn’t even know he was a man, and had no intention to reap financial reward. Due to sensational stories in the media (including a widely-circulated 1966 Time magazine story), there was suspicion over whether the Nazis had forced Ratjen to compete as a woman. However, letters between the Nazis about the Ratjen case contain no evidence of a plot.
Regardless, this confirmed the fear that men might be parading as female athletes. Soon after this, and a handful of other scandals came to light, many international sports governing bodies began conducting mandatory gender verification tests. At first, these tests consisted of visual (or even manual) inspections of athletes’ naked bodies, as well as requiring female athletes to bring “femininity certificates” provided by a physician to verify their sex.
In 1968, these quote “naked parades” were mercifully banned by the International Olympic Committee. At this point, scientists understood more about genetics and the technology behind genetic testing had improved, so mandatory chromosome testing became the norm. Can you explain more about that, Mike?
Mike: Sure. At its most basic level, chromosome testing is based on the presence or absence of the Y chromosome. In mammals, the presence of two X chromosomes (XX) indicates the individual is a genetic female and the presence of one X and one Y chromosome (XY) indicates the individual is a genetic male. But of course, as I mentioned before, sexual differentiation is a lot more complicated than just having a Y chromosome or not. And in rare cases, it’s even possible to have a Y chromosome and present as biologically female in every other way.
In other cases, a deficiency of sex hormones in the uterus can cause infants that are genetic XY-boys to be mistaken for infant girls. When the “baby girl” reaches puberty, the mistaken girl develops a penis and testes. Anyone who’s read the novel Middlesex will be familiar with a variant of this condition.
So there can be pretty wide disconnects between genetic sex and other aspects of biological sex. So for the purposes of determining athletic advantage, sex chromosome testing falls pretty far short.
Dana: Yeah, that’s a really important caveat. In fact, in 1986 Spanish hurdler Maria Patiño was banned from the Spanish Olympic team for failing her sex verification test because she had a Y chromosome. However, she fought for 3 years to have this ruling overturned because it turns out that she also had a genetic condition that caused her to develop as female and be unresponsive to testosterone – therefore conferring no physical advantage.
Because chromosomal testing can only tell you about an athlete’s genetic sex, and ignores other important factors, mandatory genetic testing was determined to be unreliable and officially stopped by the International Amateur Athletics Federation in 1992 and the International Olympic Committee in 1996. However, these organizations could still evaluate individual athletes if there was any question regarding gender identity.
Dana: More recent sex verification tests have focused on testosterone. For the 2012 Olympic Games, officials implemented a hormone test that disqualified athletes from women’s events if they have testosterone levels in the normal male range, which is 7 to 30 nanomoles per liter in the blood, since the top range for women is just below 3 nanomoles per liter.
Rachel: Interesting. Mike, you mentioned earlier that testosterone is a major player in determining differences between men and women. How does testosterone actually affect athletic performance? Do you think it makes sense to use testosterone levels as a boundary between men and women, especially in sports?
Mike: Well, the most dramatic differences between the sexes are the result of testosterone. The presence or absence of the hormones testosterone and dihydrotestosterone or as I like to call it “super testosterone” determine anatomical sex. Prior to the seventh week of fetal development the gonads are undifferentiated – they’re neither male nor female. Left alone, the fetus will continue on a path to develop into a female – one could say that humans are females by default. But after that seventh week of fetal development, in males hormones are called into action by the Y-chromosome, and the fetus will start to develop as male. So early on in life there is evidence that these hormones are important. But what about when we get older and want to play sports?
Well, there is a second stage in life when hormones become really important. One of the more critical periods in life–biologically speaking–is puberty. We become sexually mature, muscles grow, women and men develop the “tools” to reproduce and ensure the survival of their species by having babies. These resources or tools are heavily regulated by sex hormones like testosterone in men and estrogen in women. I think the detection of these hormones may have been an easy way for sports organizations to distinguish male versus female because for quite some time it was accepted that men produce more testosterone than women and women produce more estrogen than men, so if you just did a blood test, you can usually tell who is what. But given that we are now able to more clearly observe the variation in sex hormones in humans we see now that previous hormone detection tests did not give us a clear picture of the boundary between males and females.
As for whether testosterone affects athletic performance, that’s a tough one. Yes and no is my answer. As a biomechanist, by training, I can say with some confidence that I think that certain mechanical advantages, like having larger bones and a wider body frame to support more muscle, are the largest determinant of athletic success. The other answer is that testosterone largely affects things like muscle mass and the body’s ability to store fat. Bodybuilding is the best example of this, in bodybuilding men consistently have higher testosterone levels and more muscle mass, women do not have nearly the same amount of testosterone as males in this sport. Therefore, a women can achieve less muscle mass in relation to her male competitors. Also, females typically have higher fat percentages than men because it is stored differently, which translates into the finished product that one sees onstage with less muscle mass.
Rachel: Using testosterone levels as a way of distinguishing between men and women is also super problematic for transgender and intersex athletes, especially.
In the past few years, there have been a few high-profile cases where women’s natural testosterone levels have caused their participation in athletic events to be contested. Female South African Distance Runner Caster Semenya (Caster Semeenya) had three times the testosterone as most women. Semenya also has internal testes instead of ovaries, which has fueled media speculations that she is not quote “fully female” end quote. Worries that athletes like Semenya have an unfair advantage due to their elevated testosterone levels have also caused some female athletes to undergo surgery to remove internal testes and other factors that might contribute to high testosterone levels. Athletes from rural areas in developing countries are especially susceptible to requirements for these kinds of highly invasive surgeries, as they may not have another career to turn to if they can no longer participate in professional athletics.
Another female runner, Dutee Chand (Dootee Channd), also faced backlash for her unusually high testosterone levels. As we highlighted in a previous SITN Listen podcast, Chand was publicly chastised and banned at one point for wanting to quote “remain who I am” end quote by refusing to undergo surgery.
These might seem like isolated cases, but athletes are actually more likely to have intersex features than the general population, so developing rules that allow intersex athletes to compete in high-profile competitions is important.
Brittany: There is an upside to Dutee’s story, though. After she was banned from competitions based on her elevated testosterone levels, she filed a challenge of the International Association of Athletics Federations’ rule capping women’s allowable testosterone levels. In 2015, the rule was suspended because a panel of judges couldn’t find enough scientific evidence that elevated testosterone provided an undue competitive advantage. So I guess that also partly answers our earlier question about how much of a difference testosterone actually makes. It’ll be interesting to see what future scientific studies have to say on the matter.
Dana: Yeah. And these same controversies regarding testosterone levels have influenced the regulations concerning the participation of openly transgender athletes in professional sports.
The first rules that first allowed MTF transgender athletes to compete in the Olympics were enacted in 2004, but with some rather invasive requirements. All transgender athletes were required to have completed gender reassignment surgery, MTF athletes had to be legally recognized as female and to have undergone at least 2 years of hormone therapy, and FTM athletes had to prove they were receiving testosterone injections.
However, in 2015, the International Olympic Committee decided that gender reassignment surgery was no longer a requirement. Transwomen athletes would be allowed to compete in women’s competitions as long as their testosterone levels were below 10 nanomoles per liter for a year prior to the competition, and no restrictions are in place for trans athletes identifying as men. So 2016 was the first Olympics when these updated regulations were put into play, but no openly transgender athletes have yet taken advantage of these new rules.
Rachel: It’s great to see that there’s progress being made in allowing transgender athletes to compete. And as these issues become more publicized, and more openly transgender athletes come forward, we’re also learning more about how sex transitions affect athletic performance. A recent documentary titled, No League of Their Own, focuses on transgender athletes and the public’s fear of their competitive advantage, particularly those that transition from male to female. Joanna Harper, a medical physicist, trans athlete, and advisor to the International Olympic Committee, notes that many people expected transgender athletes to have such a competitive advantage that they would “take over” the Olympics after the regulatory changes allowed them to compete in the 2004 Olympics. And yet, this supposed “takeover” hasn’t happened.
Joanna is also the only researcher to publish a peer-reviewed article about trans athletes. In this study, published in 2015, she found that collectively, the male-to-female transgender athletes studied quote “got much slower after their gender transitions and put up nearly identical age-graded scores as men and as women, meaning they were equally — but no more — competitive in their new gender category,” end quote. Of course, researchers still need to conduct more studies before we can say for sure, but these findings indicate that trans athletes truly don’t have any undue competitive advantage after making their transitions. But unfortunately, a lot of people still believe that trans athletes transition just to dominate in sports.
Brittany: Well, it sounds like none of the testing methods people have devised for drawing boundaries between male and female athletes work all that well, or at least not in all cases. So where does that leave us? It seems like the best option for now is for athletic regulators to approach everything on a case-by-case basis. How can we reconcile this with how we currently segregate sports?
Mike: In my opinion, the sexes don’t need to be segregated at the elite level depending on the sport. I know that’s a bold statement but please allow me to clarify a bit. Men and women are typically segregated because of perceived disparities in strength and power. Strength and power in part comes from our muscles ability to do work, to generate force. Part of that strength comes from surface area, bigger muscles equals bigger force. When a female athlete begins training at the elite level, she is disrupting the traditional energetics model. The evolutionary energetic model says that a considerable amount of female energy consumption is devoted to reproductive effort, when that model is disrupted a woman’s mechanical power can become comparable to her male counterparts. In fact, in 2015 Katie Ledecky beat Ryan Lochte’s 1500 meter olympic qualifying time from 2004. Does this mean that men’s and women’s swimming should be combined immediately? Not necessarily. Female speed records in running and swimming are consistently 10 percent slower than men’s. However, when you factor out the larger muscle mass in men and compare muscular strength relative to cross-sectional area of muscle, the strength of male and female athletes is nearly equal. Which suggests that in athletics strength and power is largely a direct effect of the training for the sport in addition to the size of the muscle. So the sexes do not need to be separate because of strength.
Also, I want to bring up that elite athletes have sport-specific body types for their events. This is important to note because some sporting events are clearly designed around the gender of the individual. For example, in gymnastics men do not compete on the balance beam. Women typically have a lower center of gravity and a wide pelvis which provides the extraordinary balance necessary to perform acrobatics on a thin slice of wood.
Similarly, women don’t compete on still rings, but men do. Traditionally, men’s gymnastics has been about highlighting the physical power of men, so the still rings event is about highlighting the incredible upper body strength of men. Without oversimplifying, we might think of these sports as being designed around the physical bodies of athletes, which in our current sports regulations, tend to fall along gendered lines.
Rachel: That’s an important idea to think about, Mike, and on the other hand, there are some instances in which non-physical reasons have been supplied for holding separate competitions for men and women. Chess, for instance, has historically has featured gender-segregated tournaments. And many video gaming leagues and eSports have also made the decision to hold gender-segregated competitions. Leagues say that this separation doesn’t have anything to do with differences in ability between genders. Instead, corporations such as MindSports International have explained this decision as a concerted effort to encourage smaller demographic populations–like women–to grow. According to Matt Weber, the director of operations at eSports organization Team Liquid, quote “Gaming competition is an insanely male-dominated world and it’s hilariously daunting and unforgiving to women for a variety of reasons, both socially and game wise,” end quote. Female-only leagues that remove these social barriers and foster community between players might indeed help encourage women to participate in historically male-dominated spheres.
But I worry that this is only a short-term solution. Esports and gaming communities are notorious for their sexism. The 2014 Gamergate campaign immediate comes to mind, which was a sexist harassment campaign against female game developers such as Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu and media critics like Anita Sarkeesian. Some might say that eSports is one of the last areas of society to catch up in regards to inclusion of women and really, non-white male populations, into their player base.
I’m skeptical that women and other minority groups can ever be truly integrated into the mainstream gaming community if they always–or even usually–compete separately.
Brittany: Yeah, I think there are a lot of problems with the way sex-segregated athletics are set up, and with the way athletic structures can affect women. Professional female athletes continue to face sizable wage discrimination and earlier this year the US women’s soccer team decided to challenge this pay gap in court. Five members of the team filed a wage-discrimination action against the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of the US Soccer Federation. And there certainly seems to be substance to their frustrations. During the 2015 season, the US women’s team generated 20 million dollars more in revenue than the men’s team yet still earned less than 25% of the men’s team salaries. The women’s team has won three world cups, while the men’s team has yet to win even one so the pay gap cannot be explained by differences in team quality. A particularly stark pay discrepancy is even more apparent during regular season games, where female players will get a bonus of $1350 for winning and nothing for losing. In the same circumstances, male players are guaranteed $5000 bonuses even in the event of a loss. The women point out this discrepancy in their lawsuit, stating how despite their success on the field, male players literally get paid significantly more just for showing up.
Equalizing monetary investments for women and men’s soccer goes beyond just differences in player wages. Male and female players are also treated differently in regard to playing conditions. Men and women often practice and play in different facilities. And while men typically play on grass, women’s teams are often forced to use fields covered in astroturf, which can worsen play and lead to a higher rate of injuries compared to regular grass. Replacing artificial fields with real grass, however, will be a costly investment and so far many leagues have been unwilling to spend the money on their female teams.
Refusing to fairly compensate female athletes for their efforts and neglecting to invest money into female sports facilities harms more than just the players directly involved–it sends a message to all female players that investing in the capabilities of women isn’t worth it.
Dana: I’m also struck by the fact that many of the highest-paid and best-publicized sports (like football and basketball) are ones that tend to prioritize more masculine talents (like strength). After all, women stereotypically do have advantages that would be important for some sports, like balance, gracefulness, cooperation, and multi-tasking. But these advantages are not typically recognized as being as important for sports as brute strength. So I wonder if that discrepancy also contributes to ideas that investing in female athletes isn’t worth it, or that women’s skills are less valuable.
Brittany: Definitely! And even in Tennis, a sport where women have managed to achieve near pay equality with men, there remains ground to cover in how leagues view female athletes. Novak Djokovic, a top world’s men player, even went so far as to state men should begin a quote “fight for more money” end quote because their matches garner a larger audience than the matches played by women. When trying to backtrack his comments later, Novak acknowledged women do face unique challenges from “hormones and different stuff” and admitted maybe they could get more money once their sport gets more popular. Ironically, ticket sales and tv viewers for women’s tennis have been on a rapid rise and at times has been even more popular than men’s tennis, yet this fact does not deter the ingrained myth that men’s sports are inherently more interesting. The sort of mentality exposed by comments like that reinforces the fact that while women’s tennis has made great strides toward equality in the realm of pay, there remains a risk for backpedaling if we lose sight of the greater changes that still need to be made in our culture in how we respect and value female athletes.
Mike: And I think a big part of that is media coverage – changing how we as a culture view women in sports will come down, in large part, to how we address the ways media can improve their coverage and portrayal of female athletes.
Brittany: Cheryl Cooky and colleagues at Purdue University conducted a series of studies looking at how ESPN SportsCenter broadcasts have covered women’s sports over the past 25 years. While overt sexist comments are no longer commonplace, there still remains a large gap in the quantity and quality of women’s sports coverage. A vast majority of recap coverage goes to professional and college football, men’s basketball, and baseball. One study found only 2% of coverage was dedicated to women’s sports, with preference instead shown sometimes to even out of season men’s sports or quirky side-stories about mascots or stadium upgrades.
When women are mentioned in news stories the tendency to view them as sexualized objects has been replaced with the tendency to highlight women athletes in their roles as mothers or other non-sports related attributes. This was perhaps most evident during the recent Olympics.
Rachel: Yeah, I think we all saw some pretty egregious media coverage during the Olympics this summer. For example, Andy Murray, winner of two singles tennis gold medals, was congratulated for being the quote “First person to ever win two gold medals in tennis,” end quote by a newscaster who obviously didn’t know that both Serena and Venus Williams have achieved twice this feat. Similarly, equating women’s achievements to those of more popular men revealed even more sexism. USA Gymnast Simone Biles was referred to as the “Michael Jordan of Gymnastics,” and female swimmer, Katie Ledecky’s personal record-breaking gold medal apparently couldn’t hold up against Michael Phelps’ silver, as Phelps took bigger headlines in newspapers the morning after. But none of these semantic fails holds a candle to Corey Cogdell, a female trapshooter whose identity was boiled down to “Wife of a Bears Lineman,” and Hungarian swimmer, Katinka Housszu who, even when her identity is known, has to deal with her gold medal success being directly attributed to her husband and swimming coach, who was referred to as quote “the man responsible,” end quote for her success.
Mike: Wow, those are certainly examples of the unacceptable treatment of women in media. I guess the good thing is that there have been recent movements geared towards increasing the participation of women in sports. The New York Times said just last week that this will be the first year that women are allowed to compete in “Titans of the Mavericks,” a major big-wave surfing event in California, and I feel like I read similar articles pretty often. Still, those female surfers had to lobby pretty hard to be allowed into that competition, and it seems like athletics could benefit from some more systematic overhauls to ensure that women have the access and ability to participate in major competitions.
Brittany: I agree! And I think first we need improvements in the availability of opportunities at the collegiate level. In 1972, the US department of education passed Title IX, which was the first piece of legislation to make illegal sex discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. This included college athletic departments.
Over the past few decades women have definitely made great strides through Title IX. Before the law, there was only one girl playing varsity sports for every 27 guys. Now, that ratio is 1 to 3. Nearly five times more women compete in college sports today than before the law. Yet despite these gains inequalities still persist. For example, women make up over half of the student body but still receive only about a third of the overall athletic operating budgets and a third of the dollars spent to recruit new athletes. And Title IX continues to face controversy from those who perceive it as advantaging women at the direct expense of existing men’s sports teams.
TOXIC MASCULINITY AND REGULATION (of aggression)
We’ve talked about a lot of cringe-worthy things so far, including sexist failures to acknowledge women’s achievements and policy-heavy methods for dealing with gender inequalities in sports. Not to mention that we haven’t even talked about the presence of femininity in today’s sports culture, including emerging athletic activities like zumba that target women and trends like athleisure, or the wearing of athletic clothing, yoga pants in particular, in non-sports environments.
And sadly, what we have been able to discuss is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ways society has shown a permanent spotlight on men, focusing on male actions, and male bodies.
This focus is best illustrated by the ways in which male athletes who commit crimes are known first by their sport, and then by their injustice. The next 5 or so minutes of this podcast will discuss issues of sexual traumas that might be triggering or uncomfortable to some listeners, so we wanted to warn you in advance. (short pause)
One aspect of male athletes’ media fame that does not always get attention in the media is the focus on aggression within the context of athletics, which has a particularly gendered focus. High profile cases like that of Broc Turner and football players at Baylor have recently shined a light on sexual assault cases, leaving colleges to grapple with how to formulate policies and practices to prevent sexual assault. So let’s cut straight to the chase – how do athletics affect our perceptions of what it means to be male or female? And why does it feel like almost every day I’m reading another article in the news about members of sports teams being involved in sexual assault cases?
Dana: There is some research on that, especially as it pertains to masculinity. The term “toxic masculinity” describes our culturally-constructed conception of “manliness,” which is exemplified by being violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, etc., and it’s a big problem in sports. Many people argue that the culture of hypermasculinity that is prevalent in many all-male team sports encourages and normalizes misogynistic and homophobic attitudes. Eric Anderson (a professor of sports, masculinity, and sexuality at University of Winchester) has said that quote “Boys and men are thought to adopt socionegative views about women in order to become part of the ingroup and to establish their masculine worth among peers.” And this can have worrying consequences. In a multi-year study from the mid-1990s, researchers Crosset, Benedict, and McDonald found that although male student-athletes made up 3.3 percent of student populations, they made up 19 percent of reported sexual assault perpetrators.
Rachel: Adding to that, Dana, research by Laura Finley, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, says that this problem is getting worse, as research shows that athletes are disproportionately represented in sexual assault cases, reportedly committing ⅓ of sexual assault crimes — over and above that of non-athlete peers. This would mean that athletes are committing sexual assault at rates almost six times higher than their peers. Finley attributes this disproportionate representation to athletes in “power and performance sports” who turn up over and over again as perpetrators. Those sports are football, high-level basketball, hockey, wrestling and boxing. So is there something about these sports that differentiate them from other sports?
Dana: One possible explanation might be that these sports are more aggressive in nature than many other sports. Elevated testosterone levels have been linked to increases in aggression, at least in animals, but it’s hard to say whether that connection would actually explain why athletes engage in more aggressive behavior. However, in the same study I mentioned before, male football and basketball players were responsible for 67% of the reported sexual assault on campuses, despite only making up 30% of the student athlete population.
Rachel: It’s also important to keep in mind that athletics and our perceptions of athletics also affect our ideas of sport and its function in our society. I think it’s easy to conflate sport as a means of expressing aggression or acting aggressively with sexual aggression as it exists in our current culture. Sport is not necessarily the problem, per se, but as demonstrated in this podcast, sport provides us with a space to critically think about toxic masculinity and aggression.
Conclusion: social justice + inclusion in athletics
Dana: Agreed. All throughout history, sports have been a microcosm of the current society, in which gender roles are both created and reinforced. Over the past century or so, as women have made strides towards equality, this has been reflected in their increased participation in sports.
Brittany: Equal opportunities for all people in sports goes beyond fairness and extends into equal access to the lifelong benefits afforded by athletic participation. Dr. Stevenson at the Wharton School of business researched how Title IX legislation as a whole, including components outside of just sports participation, has impacted girl’s lives. She found that changes set in motion by Title IX contributed to a 20% increase in college attendance and 40% rise in employment for 25-34 year old women. And an economics professor at U-Illinois found girls’ athletic participation caused by Title IX was associated with a 7% lower risk of obesity 20-25 years later.
Dana: And perhaps if this trend continues and female, transgender, and intersex athletes are afforded more equitable treatment in sports, this will be reflected in greater equality in other arenas of life. After all, playing sports (whether competitively or just for fun), leads to lifelong health benefits, as well as fostering development of leadership skills, improving cooperation, and boosting self-esteem.
So maybe this is a good optimistic way to end our reflections about sports and gender…
Mike: Well, that’s certainly the hope! And that’s it for this episode! Soon, SITN Listen will be back with more. Tune in to upcoming episodes in space exploration, the effects of climate change on urban planning, and more. In the meantime, we want to hear your thoughts on sports and gender, and your suggestions for the podcast.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @SITNBoston. If you liked today’s show, definitely subscribe on iTunes and leave us a review. We’re really grateful for any feedback we get and positive reviews will help others find our podcast. The SITN blog and this episode’s show notes can be found at our website http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/
Until next time…
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Cooky C. et al (2015). A Quarter Century of excluding women sports in televised news and highlight shows. Communication & Sport 3(3), 261-287.
Flake, C.R. et al (2012). Advantage men: The sex pay gap in professional tennis. International Rev. For The Sociology of Sport 48(3), 366-376.
Rowland (2012). Decision making in intercollegiate athletics: One institution’s journey to maintain Title IX compliance. Dissertation, Georgia State University.