I am in the habit of consistently opposing bathroom bills, opposing former president Trump’s military ban on trans people, supporting calling trans people by the pronouns of their gender identity, supporting their right to IDs consistent with their gender identity, arguing against bigots thinking people simply “choose” to be transgender, and am an ally of LGBTQ+ in pretty much every way. But there is a legitimate question to be asked regarding whether it is fair for transgender women with indisputable biological athletic advantages to compete with cisgender women.
Sex differences in sports performance
Men and women are absolutely equal intellectually. Despite average brain-size differences and slightly different average neuroanatomical structures, they end up leading to a fully equal IQ.
Physical differences in athletic performance, however, are real and biologically based. Indeed, strength, speed, and other somatic abilities are areas where the bell curve between men and women have the least amount of overlap. Stager and Cornett (2010) reported a divergence between male and female athletic ability beginning at age 13 and increasing with age. Handelsman (2017) reported similar results, noting a difference beginning in the 12–13 age range, increasing and plateauing in the late teens, and correlating with circulating testosterone.
“It is well known that men’s athletic performance exceeds that of women especially in power sports because of men’s greater strength, speed and endurance. This biological physical advantage of mature males forms the basis for gender segregation in many competitive sports to allow females a realistic chance of winning events.”Handelsman (2017)
Circulating testosterone, which peaks in men at 10–15 times higher than children or women of any age, is the culprit for the drastic divergence in athletic ability (Handelsman, Sikaris, & Ly, 2016).
Ospina Betancurt and colleagues (2018) analyzed the sex-differences in elite-performance track and field competition from 1983 to 2015 and found approximately 8–12% higher male performance to women in sprints, 10–13% in mid to long distance events, 10–13% in relays, 14–25% in jumps. Physical differences in raw strength are even greater (Courtright, McCormick, Postlethwaite, Reeves, & Mount, 2013).
Suffice it to say, men have a drastic athletic performance advantage, and this advantage is primarily driven by teen body developments driven by testosterone. This is academic peer-reviewed fact.
First of all, I am fully committed to the perspective that trans athletes should have a place to compete in a fair and compassionate way. Whatever solutions that may be proposed, they should all be motivated by the goals of fairness and social justice.
That said, it doesn’t seem to be fair to have trans women who have much higher levels of circulating testosterone and/or highly androgenized muscles and bones to compete against women who have no such advantages. It would be the equivalent to having individuals using high levels of steroids competing alongside individuals who don’t use steroids.
This isn’t so much of a problem for trans women who were on puberty blockers and subsequently put on cross-sex hormone treatment. They could likely compete with cisgender women in a fair and equitable manner in sports.
I don’t know what the solution is. This is a topic that will require much good-faith discussion and evidence-based arguments.
Something that needs to be avoided, though, is arguing based on exceptions rather than rules. Yes, the women at the upper tails of the bell curve are going to be better athletes than the average male and average female. But in high level sports it isn’t high-performing people competing against average people—it is almost exclusively people at the tails of the bell curve. Women at the tails of their bell curve are still almost always going to lose in physical competition to men at the tails of their bell curve.
What isn’t a solution is simply pointing out who you think should decide on the solution. Saying individual sport leagues should come up with a solution isn’t itself a solution. There can be all sorts of arguments about what level solutions should be implemented at, and whether or not government should play a part. But a solution(s) itself needs to be developed. Don’t get your cart in front of your horse.
- Courtright, S. H., McCormick, B. W., Postlethwaite, B. E., Reeves, C. J., & Mount, M. K. (2013). A meta-analysis of sex differences in physical ability: Revised estimates and strategies for reducing differences in selection contexts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98(4), 623–641. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0033144
- Handelsman, D. J. (2017). Sex differences in athletic performance emerge coinciding with the onset of male puberty. Clinical Endocrinology, 87(1), 68–72. https://doi.org/10.1111/cen.13350
- Handelsman, D. J., Sikaris, K., & Ly, L. P. (2016). Estimating age-specific trends in circulating testosterone and sex hormone-binding globulin in males and females across the lifespan. Annals of Clinical Biochemistry, 53(3), 377–384. https://doi.org/10.1177/0004563215610589
- Ospina Betancurt, J., Zakynthinaki, M. S., Martínes-Patiño, M. J., Cordente Martinez, C., & Rodríguez Fernández, C. (2018). Sex-differences in elite-performance track and field competition from 1983 to 2015. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36(11), 1262–1268. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2017.1373197
- Stager, J., & Cornett, A. (2010). Sex Differences in Childhood Athletic Performance Stager. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 44, 488. Retrieved from https://secure.edweek.org/media/sexdifferences-blog.pdf