Gender testing in sports: outdated?

A recent article on mentions the rather interesting and bizarre story of Caster Semenya, who won the 800-meter race in the IAAF World Championships about a week ago now. The bizarre twist is that Caster was forced to run despite strong controversy about her gender, or specifically, that she “may not be entirely female” as an article in the newspaper The Age says it.

This quote from Caster’s coach, Michael Seme, while at first appearing to be rather defensive of her, really only serves to add to the humiliation:

We understand that people will ask questions because she looks like a man. It’s a natural reaction and it’s only human to be curious. People probably have the right to ask such questions if they are in doubt. But I can give you the telephone numbers of her roommates in Berlin. They have already seen her naked in the showers and she has nothing to hide.

I can only hope and pray that quote was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Even if it was, it is still very close to the boundary line of tasteless territory, if not over it.

It’s not just track and field. All throughout women’s sports, it seems like the fashionable thing to do is characterize the best in sport as too “tomboyish” or “mannish” as a derogatory term. And it is derogatory, every bit out of bounds as calling inferior male athletes things like “girly” or even derogatory terms which imply homosexuality, that I will not repeat here.

I think the worst examples are the things I have heard about the WNBA, most notably that most would-be WNBA spectators feel uncomfortable sharing the stands with what they suspect to be homosexual women (when I had the conversations with various people who brought this up, invariably, some very derogatory and unflattering words were used).

Further down we get to the story of Spanish hurdler Maria José Martínez-Patiño, who was stripped of a first-place title when discovered to have XY chromosomes, instead of the expected female XX chromosomes. The effects on Maria were devestating.

While as a practical matter some hard lines do have to be drawn, I think it may be time we as a society reconsider and reframe how we consider gender, particularly that there are multiple aspects of gender identity, many of which may not neatly fit into the two boxes of “male” and “female” we’re used to.

Quoting the article again:

While we are never encouraged to conceive of bodies this way, male and female bodies are more similar than they are distinguishable from each other. When training and nutrition are equal, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between some of the best-trained male and female Olympic swimmers wearing state-of-the-art one-piece speed suits.

Indeed, dare I say it, this is what it should be about: training, conditioning, nutrition, practice, and effort, not gender.

Most of the men’s swimming records are still significantly faster than the corresponding women’s records (source: Wikipedia article “List of world records in swimming”) but I suspect over time this will change to the point that one day we’ll see a women’s record faster than the corresponding men’s record. A bold prediction? Yes. But not outside the realm of possibility.

But until it’s obvious having two record books is silly, let’s not reward the winners with an attack on their gender, which is in turn an attack on their identity and dignity. We owe our fellow members of the human race at least that small amount of decency.

Nixed nudity

The Daily Beast reports on a change in policy in France, where the topless beaches made legendary there are about to be the sign of a bygone era, due to a shift in women’s swimsuit fashions back to covering up the upper body.

The most telling quote in the entire article is:

“Nothing is more ringard (tacky, or out of date) in 2009 than strolling around on the beach without a bathing-suit top.”

My reaction to this is somewhat mixed. I am of the impression that France is somewhat the exception to the rule, that there are few, if any, other places in the world that allow(ed) topless women on the beach.

Nevertheless, it’s kind of hard for me to not see the sexism in a policy requiring full-body swimwear for women and only for women, while at the same time making it appear rather, shall we say, hors de l’ordinare (unusual, or out of the ordinary) for men to show up in swimwear covering anything above the waist.

As a more voluminous male, I personally would feel more comfortable in something that would, in the US, be considered on the verge of gender inappropriate. Of course, maybe it shouldn’t be. I’ll probably draw my share of criticism for asserting that; rarely is a truly enlightening opinion met with open arms.

Backwards in Afghanistan

A very unpleasant reminder of just how backwards some societies are in 2009.

The Guardian reports on a law made in Afghanistan permitting men to starve their wives if sexual demands are not met. Yes, check your calendar, it really is 2009 and this kind of law really did get passed.

Another truly outrageous and sexist portion of this law is that women must get permission from their husbands to work.

Quoting the article:

“These kinds of barbaric laws were supposed to have been relegated to the past with the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, yet [President] Karzai has revived them and given them his official stamp of approval.”

As a US resident, I supported our military aid towards the overthrow of the Taliban, the same group that blew up the Buddha statues standing for the majority of two millenia. I would like to think overthrowing the Taliban was not work our soldiers did in vain. The passing of laws like this, that would even be backwards for the 18th century much less the 21st, does nothing to add to my confidence.

Sexism, alive and well in 2009

This is probably the one topic I have needed to write about ever since starting this blog, but for some reason have been too caught up in other current events to do justice to. The topic is sexism. Particularly, sexism against men, and the double standard by which sexism is measured depending on which gender it is against.

What brought on the urge to write this? This tweet on Twitter by one of my friends on Twitter, Jason Armstrong: “so I like feminine drinks. Whatev.” My response, I dare say, was me at my best: “hey, alcohol is alcohol.” That response provides one small glimpse–okay, maybe more than just a glimpse–into my viewpoint, but it runs deeper than that.

This would be just another ephemeral exchange on Twitter were it not for Jason’s prior blog post, where he is writing about which I will quote in part:

I’m just not a “macho” kind of guy and in fact I have a strong dislike for machismo. Although I’ve been in the Army and a police officer, I am an emotional person. I’m a sensitive person. I’ll cry at a movie.

I remember the first time I read this post, particularly this part which I identified quite a bit with. It is quite frustrating that men are expected not to show emotion, and I see this as just the tip of a sexist iceberg.

I originally planned for the “feminine drink” reference to just be the introduction, but I will say here in as many words: the entire concept of “feminine drinks” or “women’s cocktails” is something I find rather silly. For the record, I defy any self-described “macho man” to down five pink ladies within an hour (or any so-called “feminine” drink of his choice) and pass a field sobriety test.

Some years ago when watching Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel (back when we had HBO as part of our satellite TV package) I once ran across a story similar to this one detailed in a New York Times article about a case where Title IX was used to get a boy on a girl’s field hockey team. (Title IX refers to one of the Education Amendments of 1972, guaranteeing equal participation in Federally funded education programs regardless of gender, and is the legislation which is essentially responsible for organized scholastic female athletics as we know them today.) Now, I agree in principle with what happened here; Title IX should work both ways. The tone of one comment in the article, “He’ll be playing varsity soon… That means a girl will have to sit down,” is something I take just a bit of exception to.

With those kind of comments, how far have we really come as a society? What would happen to the parent of a boy on the boy’s football team with a girl who made the team thanks to Title IX were that parent to say “She’ll be playing varsity soon, that means my son might be sitting down?” That parent would probably face some rather sharp criticism, Especially if it were a father in question; he’d be the target of so many “male chauvinist pig” comments he may as well go buy a pig costume and get used to saying “oink oink” at the next football game. Yet it’s completely acceptable for the parent of a female athlete to make the same types of comments against a boy. Why? It sure as hell shouldn’t be. It makes no sense at all.

We, as a society, have mostly ignored even the possibility of anti-male sexism. In fact, I believe most people reading this would not know that such a thing could exist, and that sexism by default refers to anti-female comments. Such an assumption cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged. Sexism goes both ways.

I’ll cite a particularly insidious example that I have some experience with: the repackaging of personal care products with a “for men” label. I have no real issue with this, but often it’s the same product, just sold at a higher price. Most notably, this is true of skin care products and hair color. I have no idea where I originally came across this, but I do remember it being noted once men’s hair color and women’s hair color are the same product, sold at the same price, except the product for men contains a much smaller amount of actual hair color. The skin care products are the same way: similar products tended to be priced higher when packaged “for men” during my last observation. Sometimes the product made “for men” is in fact a different product, but in general I feel the difference in price is disproportionate.

One of the stronger manifestations of anti-male sexism was the ridicule that the late Michael Jackson endured due to his vitiligo and the makeup used and plastic surgery he underwent, in an attempt to attempt to look somewhat normal. Women take advantage of both makeup and plastic surgery and it’s not the least bit unusual. Why would it be such a big deal that someone, particularly someone with the high profile that Michael Jackson had, to just want to look somewhat normal?

To be fair about it, during the peak of Jackson’s fame, there were little to no “street-grade” color cosmetics aimed either at a unisex or male demographic. (By “street-grade” I mean products intended for daily wear, as opposed to performance makeup used for stage, TV, or film, which is emphatically not intended for daily wear.) Today, of course, we do have color cosmetics (makeup) specifically marketed to men. Often, they aren’t labelled quite the same way, and are rarely if ever referred to as “makeup” outright. The usual descriptive labels of foundation, concealer, blush, bronzer, etc. are cast aside for alternative and supposed “macho man friendly” terminology such as “complexion enhancer” or “beard cover.” At least the very existence of these products acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with men wanting to look their best. When the availability of these products was much narrower, I remember stumbling across an article in a prominent men’s Web site (I want to say it was specifically the Web site of a prominent men’s magazine but unfortunately cannot find the article now) that once said something along the lines of “men should not wear makeup, period.” This is flagrant sexism and I would expect better of a major magazine. (And yes, I would find it equally unacceptable coming from Glamour, Allure, Marie Claire, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, etc.)

Another example is the infamous shirt design with the inscription “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them.” I realize this is a bit old and well documented at Wikipedia already, but it is still very relevant. (I only found out about the shirts and controversy recently.) What happens if we turn this around and sell shirts to guys saying “girls are dumb, throw rocks at them?” All of a sudden, we have accusations of male chauvinism and sexism running wild. From this the only reasonable conclusion is that the original is sexist as well. To conclude otherwise sets a double standard or validates that sexism is only sexism when directed at women.

Even clothing styles have somewhat of a sexist slant. Women fought for the right to wear pants and shirts similar to those worn by men, not entirely on functional grounds, and finally won acceptance a few decades ago. Yet the options for men have remained relatively the same over the years. Companies like Utilikilts which make “utility kilts” are still the exception, and the concept of “legless shorts” for men still has yet to catch on.

However, even this is far from the most horrendous example. We hear all the time about female genital mutilation, to the point that I have doubts the term “female circumcision” is seen as acceptable now. Contrast this with its male counterpart. “Male circumcision” to the average person is redundant; “circumcision” by itself has been assumed to apply to males assuming the context does not imply otherwise. Male genital mutilation (circumcision) came into being as the result of a flawed medical study, and continues to be practiced today despite the fact the complication risks outweigh any benefits. Why is it acceptable to mutilate the genitals of males and only males? What is wrong with this picture?

Of course, I have only scratched the surface. Do I think it’s just plain wrong that we as a society apparently use machismo as an excuse to allow sexism against men to remain unchecked? Absolutely. This differs a bit from an active dislike of that machismo in and of itself, though I have a slight distaste for that as well, it is far from a complete aversion.