Why must some “female” Olympians be forced to suppress their testosterone?

The New York Times reports this morning a major development for female athletics:

The highest court in international sports issued a landmark but nuanced ruling on Wednesday that will force female track athletes with elevated levels of testosterone to take suppressants to compete in certain races against other women…

The court addressed a complicated, highly-charged question involving fair play, gender identity, biology and human rights that the world of track and field has been grappling with for a decade: Since competition is divided into male and female categories, what is the most equitable way to decide who should be eligible to compete in women’s events?

This story is fascinating for a couple reasons.

First, the story demonstrates that despite pervasive transgender propaganda, biological sex remains as a fixed, stubborn thing. Maleness and femaleness are determined by the body’s organization for reproduction—-an organization that results in higher or lower levels of testosterone depending on what sex you are. One expert cited in the essay says it this way:

Advocates for intersex athletes like to say that sex doesn’t divide neatly. This may be true in gender studies departments, but at least for competitive sports purposes, they are simply wrong. Sex in this context is easy to define and the lines are cleanly drawn: You either have testes and testosterone in the male range or you don’t.

Second, multiple media outlets reporting on this story (including The New York Times) have wrongly framed this story, especially as it relates to one particular Olympian who is believed to have an intersex condition. Notice that the Times speaks as if the issue is female athletes who have elevated levels of testosterone. That framing is incorrect. The story is about male athletes with normal levels of testosterone who have been competing against females.

It has been reported that the athlete in question has an intersex condition called 5-ARD and has the testosterone level of a man. The athlete competed as a woman in the 2016 summer Olympics and won the gold medal in the 800m by a jaw-dropping margin of victory. The athlete not only looks like a man but also competes like one.

Even though the athlete’s name is in the news, I hesitate to mention it here. The reports I’ve read say that the athlete has never discussed the topic publicly, and it appears that news stories about the athlete’s intersex condition and testosterone levels have been the result of leaks and not the result of the athlete’s willing disclosure. So I will focus here on the issues raised by this controversy while not naming the athlete.

The question everyone is asking is whether an athlete should be allowed to compete as a woman while having such elevated testosterone levels. Is it an unfair advantage? As I have indicated above, this is the wrong question. The right question to ask is whether or not the athlete is a woman. And that is the question that no one seems to be asking. Rather, it is something that many are wrongly assuming.

If news reports are accurate, the intersex condition in question is called 5-ARD. The National Institutes of Health describes the condition this way:

5-alpha reductase deficiency is a condition that affects male sexual development before birth and during puberty. People with this condition are genetically male, with one X and one Y chromosome in each cell, and they have male gonads (testes). Their bodies, however, do not produce enough of a hormone called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT has a critical role in male sexual development, and a shortage of this hormone disrupts the formation of the external sex organs before birth.

Bottom line: People with 5-ARD are male with malformed reproductive anatomy. Not all intersex conditions are the same, and some present more ambiguities than others. But the sex of 5-ARD persons is not ambiguous. People with 5-ARD have XY chromosomes. They also have testes present that produce male-level amounts of testosterone, even though the testes may be internal. Other male features include epididymis, vas deferens, and seminal vesicles (Cornwall 2010: 241). The biological situation is clear. They are male.

Sadly, because the condition results in malformed reproductive anatomy that looks feminine, many 5-ARD males are mistaken as female at birth. Some do not find out that they have a male chromosomal pattern until puberty or later. Some 5-ARD children are raised as females, but one researcher has found that “60 percent of the genetic male children raised as female have retransitioned into males” (Dreifus 2005; Reiner 2005). In other words, the underlying genetic realities often prevail over socialization and anatomical ambiguities.

It is not hard to imagine the painful identity conflicts that would accompany such a condition—especially for those who were raised as female only to find out at puberty that their sex is not what they thought it was. And this rightly evokes our compassion and sympathy. Having said that, it is neither compassionate nor helpful to pretend that the biological situation is somehow unclear when in fact it is not. And of course the discovery of a genetic male should have implications for athletic competition. Because they are biologically male, people with 5-ARD should compete in male divisions, not in female ones.

So much of this will be lost in news reports because reporters by and large no longer know how to distinguish male from female. And that inability may be the biggest part of this story.