Monday, August 04, 2008

Gender, Sex, Postmodernism, and the Olympics

Yesterday's NY Times featured an interesting guest op-ed (The XY Games) on sex tests in the Olympics. Its author, Colby College English Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan relates some interesting and tragic stories about women misidentified as men, before concluding that "[t]he best judge of a person’s gender is what lies within her, or his, heart." That's a noble but utterly misapplied sentiment.

Professor Boylan begins in confusion. She repeatedly uses "gender" and "sex" as synonyms. In some contexts they may be, but for purposes of segregating athletes, what matters is sex, not gender. Sex is a biological phenomenon, gender a social one. The reason we have separate Olympic competitions for men and women is because for Olympic sports that place a premium on speed and strength, having men and women compete together would effectively mean that women don't even qualify, much less medal. Sure, the best female athletes in the world are faster, stronger and more skilled at their sports than 99% of the males in the world, but elite training still does not get them to the level of the best male athletes in the world. We don't have separate categories for male and female violinists, English professors, or biologists because we don't think that sex confers an advantage on either sex for the relevant skills. Although sex discrimination and gender discrimination certainly give men advantages in just about every field, the way to combat that discrimination is hardly to segregate.

The core of Professor Boylan's essay is the important observation that not only is gender socially constructed, but that sex itself, the biological category, is not a binary. She notes that people who are phenotypically female may in fact have a Y chromosome but be androgen-insensitive. Other women may be infertile. Etc. That's all true: the line between biologically male and biologically female is blurred by a small but significant number of borderline cases. However, it doesn't follow that the effort to draw a biological line should be abandoned in favor of a purely social one.

Professor Boylan comes closest to advancing a persuasive argument for her position when she observes that male-to-female post-operative, post-hormone-therapy transsexuals perform at the same level as women who are more conventionally female. In other words, going from male to female in this drastic way gives up whatever advantages maleness otherwise confers. But for the argument to really work, Professor Boylan would need to point to evidence that people who are genetically and phenotypically male but who really live their lives as women don't have any athletic advantage. I don't know whether that's true, but I do know that a test that asked how people live their lives would be at least as intrusive---probably more intrusive than---the sorts of biological testing that is now being conducted.

Posted by Mike Dorf

11 comments:

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I think that this would be something very appropriate for your website to talk about. Women and girls need to be considered equals in life, and as my story shows, girls can earn the respect they deserve. A very young girls' soccer team played in a league that they dominated. The girls won every game, even against other girls that were older than them. Their coach made a bold move and put them into the boys league. This was met with some criticism, but as the girls did exceptionally well, it made people stop and think about what was fair and right concerning girls and boys. People should not be discriminated against based on gender, and these girls overcame that discrimination. Watch the trailer at www.kicklikeagirlmovie.com and see what you think.

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Mr. Dorf you and your legal colleagues are shredding our Constitution with historic reasoning legally into a monopolistic vernacular so that even the Supreme Court is lost. A Constitution was not meant to give rights to anyone but made to limit a government, any government, in its interventions in and upon the endowed and inalienable rights of citizens. Miranda should be the police saying I have a right to stop and question you until such right as you request a lawyer. Hebeas corpus is not granted to an individual as you describe but limits the government's custody of any person without trial, no matter the verbal labels used; it happened to people of color denying them citizenship tnen enslaving them. I am not a lawyer but a philosopher who wish that lawyers will eventually get to that our pioneers were running from bad government not bad people and government was limited in its authority to govern; Borg was wrong as the intent of the Constitution or the interpretation is not a judicial function but the judicial function is to review all laws interpreting the newly made laws to determine if that law meets the standards of the Constitution. Our Constitution needs no interpretation as We the people means just that, not we the government or we the courts or especially we the Congress.

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