Sex Verification in Women’s Sports Is Humiliating and Unnecessary

Dutee Chand competing in the 2013 Asian Athletics Championship.

Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

When the Indian team entered Celtic Park in Glasgow, Scotland, last week for the opening ceremony of the 20th Commonwealth Games, one athlete was missing: Dutee Chand, a sprinter disqualified shortly before the Games because of excess levels of testosterone in her blood.

Chand was not found guilty of doping. Because of privacy concerns, the Indian authorities have not released details about the athlete, and indeed, they did not even name Chand, who soon confirmed that she is the athlete in question. The Sports Authority of India had simply declared: “Preliminary investigations indicate that the athlete is not fit for participation in a female event due to female hyperandrogenism.” This follows the regulations of the International Amateur Athletics Federation, which since 2011 has declared that naturally high levels of testosterone make women athletes ineligible for women’s competitions.

After 90-plus years of women’s sport, governing bodies continue to fight a losing war against an imaginary foe: the presence of male interlopers in women’s competitions. The casualties of this war are the women who are subjected to humiliating screening and testing, a minority of whom will be designated by sports authorities as not “real” women, or at best, women ineligible to compete as women.

The policy under which Chand was determined to be ineligible is fairly new, and it arose from the 2009 case of South African intersex athlete Caster Semenya. Before Semenya’s eligibility was disputed, sex verification had become an unpleasant memory. In the 1950s and ’60s, humiliating gynecological inspections of all female athletes were used to “screen out” men impersonating women to gain an unfair advantage. By the mid 1960s, science had come to the rescue, offering a clean and discreet alternative to the examination of genitalia by analyzing markers for X and Y chromosomes. Both kinds of testing failed, particularly in the case of women with complete androgen insensitivity, who despite the presence of a male chromosome are functionally female, the human default state.

The limits of chromosome testing led the IAAF to abandon it in 1992, as did the International Olympic Committee, with some reluctance, in 1999. For more than a decade, women were free from sex verification. But the fear of men impersonating women to win medals, which over time had morphed into a more vague concern for fairness, never went away. For many (in particular, for many women), it was clear that women should only compete against “real women.”

Sport organizations responded to “the intersex challenge” by looking to their medical commissions. In this way, a naturally occurring difference among people was transformed into a disorder that needed to be treated. Under the current IAAF policy implemented in 2011, women whose natural testosterone level is within the normal male range, set at “≥10 nmol/L” (in practice, in the United States, this level is just above that for which testosterone replacement treatments are generally recommended for men) are ineligible to compete as women … unless and until they are treated for their “disorder.” And of course, like all top athletes, women in this situation will undergo any treatment, hormonal or surgical, to continue to compete.

Thus, the social construct of women in sport has again been made an issue of science and medicine.

Sex verification only exists because women compete separately. Of all the competitive divisions in sport, which include age groups, weight classes, etc., this is perhaps the most important, because the exclusion of women is part of the origin story of modern sport, and their participation is a victory, albeit one that is far from complete, particularly in countries that continue to discriminate against women. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, explicitly rejected women’s involvement in sport, stating: “I do not approve of the participation of women in public competitions. In the Olympic Games, their primary role should be to crown the victors.” He thus ensured that women’s sports would develop outside, and at best alongside, a distinct world of men’s sport. In the context of modern competitive sport, if women are to compete, it can only be in women’s divisions. The social reality is that in sports without women’s divisions, in almost all cases, women remain outside of sport.

But that social distinction is far from perfect, and it is one that does not respond well to absolute determinations, and in particular to attempts to find the one defining characteristic that can scientifically determine sex for the purposes of sports competition.

To see this, all we need to do is to take the IAAF/IOC policy to its logical conclusion. If testosterone is the primary determiner of eligibility in women’s divisions, then we should use it as the objective criterion for categories. Rather than dividing participants between men and women, instead, let’s just have categories based on levels of testosterone. We could start with two: above or below the 10 nmol/L mark.

If, per the IAAF/IOC, testosterone is the determining factor dividing women eligible to compete as women from those who cannot, it certainly seems that this should be at least as pertinent a distinction as age divisions or weight classes, which no one objects to. A scientific measurement would offer clarity and objectivity that current definitions of “women’s sport” fail to provide.

And why should “men” be exempt from these considerations? If testosterone is so important, how fair is it for a man with low natural levels of testosterone to compete against men with high levels? When I asked Arne Ljungqvist, the IOC and IAAF official responsible for both bringing an end to chromosome testing (yay) and introducing the new verification regime (boo), why men should not be subject to the same type of evaluation, he appeared surprised, but managed to respond: “Androgens are not a problem within the males; we don’t have categories within males.” Thus, for men, the more androgens the better, because testosterone is particularly “male,” while for women they are a dangerous unfair advantage. Masculinity is good in men and evil in women, confirming the clichés and stereotypes that have served as stumbling blocks and barriers to women’s participation in sport since its earliest days.

For most of us, replacing women/men with low-T/high-T seems absurd, as absurd as introducing divisions among male athletes. But it’s probably no more absurd than trying to define women athletes by yet another scientific/medical procedure and subjecting those who “fail” the test to surgery and other invasive medical treatments.

Or maybe instead of disqualifying a woman like Dutee Chand, who has competed all her life as a woman and is willing to accept any sacrifice to continue to do so, we can just accept that in the absence of absolute criteria distinguishing women athletes from men athletes, and the almost total absence of men impersonating women to win a medal, it’s time to return to the brighter days of the 2000s, when the important thing was simply competing, and not crying foul for every perceived unfairness.