Social Consequences of the Accepted Sex Binary in Sports

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In this paper, the author dissects the common notion of sport segregation by assigned sex at birth. She identifies social consequences of the accepted sex binary and its application in athletic competition. Sex is a spectrum and any deviation from ‘normal’ in chromosomes or hormones can cause ‘abnormal’ anatomical development which may not fit within the sex binary.

Should Sports Still Be Separated By The Male/Female Binary If Sex Is A Spectrum?

Sport segregation is accepted as normal in society. Women's rights had to progress, gay rights had to progress, and now the idea of gender has to progress in order to change this concept. This paper will cover why change is necessary in later sections, but for now it will discuss this common notion: sex as a male/female binary. A variety of forms ask for the signer’s sex with the options male and female. Does the signer have a vagina and XX chromosomes or a penis and XY chromosomes? There’s a cultural assumption that each person definitively fits into a single category entirely. Once again, this paper will address the science behind that concept in more detail in a later section.

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Separation in Athletics

The first Olympics was a phenomenal display of athleticism and national pride. Every competitor was male, but that had more to do with only land-owning males being considered citizens than directly disallowing females to compete. The point is that, historically, sports are for boys. Throughout the ages, boys are the ones who are signed up for Little League, expected to join teams in school, and held in higher regard the further they continue their athletics.

The Social Consequences

Throughout sports history, the accomplishments of male athletes have been held higher and as more significant than the accomplishments of female athletes. Male athletes are paid more, taken seriously, and have more specialized equipment for training and recovery.

Kathrine Switzer was the first female to participate in the Boston Marathon. It was 1967, but society wasn’t ready to accept her. People were horrified that she was running a full marathon; they thought her uterus would collapse and/or fall out. Women weren’t officially included/accepted to the race until 1972. It’s only been about 50 years since then…how far have we really come in terms of sport inclusion?

The Science of the Sexes

The human body is incredibly complex and so many things can go wrong. Some of those things have no consequences, while others have severe consequences. Some people are born with a full head of hair; some are missing body parts. Likewise, some have ambiguous genitalia. This means that when they are born, it isn’t immediately clear if the baby has a vagina or a penis. This is called intersex. In utero, a person has everything they need to make any genitalia/gonads. The ‘default’ is female and here’s how: the first way bodies determine sex is by chromosomes. Everybody (usually) receives an X chromosome from their mother and either another X or a Y from their father. The developing fetus begins constructing internal anatomy, which includes sexual organs. The fetus isn’t big enough to have defined features, so it has two different ducts that connect the gonads to the genitalia. Around the second trimester, sexual differentiation happens. The sex determining region Y (SRY) is a protein that is triggered when in contact with a certain level of testosterone, which is released by the presence of a Y chromosome. Only when the SRY is triggered do testes and a penis begin to form. Otherwise, ovaries and a vagina continue to develop.

When puberty happens, the hormonal changes begin. They are also triggered by the absence or presence of testosterone. Testosterone allows for further muscular development and hair growth (male puberty). Low levels of testosterone mean that insignificant muscular and hair growth occurs so the body curves more dramatically and breast growth isn’t hindered (female puberty).

It’s a Spectrum

Because there are several stages at which the body determines its own sex, it’s unlikely everything goes 100% as intended. Since the body has to develop into its sex rather than just exist in its sex, we would have to define exactly what a vagina and what a penis looks like in order to say the anatomy matches the chromosomes. Since it is very difficult to do while accounting for individuality, it is nearly impossible to place people 100% into two categories. Much like sexual orientation, sex is a spectrum.

Application of Athletic Competition

We can’t very well divide competition by each segment of the spectrum, but some people do genuinely have more of a biological/hormonal advantage for athletics than others. We should still separate so that everyone can enjoy sports by competing against people in similar standings biologically.


There seems to really be only two solutions to the complex world of science when applied to athletic competition. Either everyone competes together, or a new quality becomes the separating factor. In most sports, the muscular, tall, and fast people would have the most advantages so, biologically, men are far more likely to succeed. This means that women would almost never get drafted, paid, or invited to higher levels of competition. Finding a new separating factor would be the best choice.

The Test(osterone)

Testosterone is an important hormone. Everyone has testosterone in their bodies, but those with Y chromosomes tend to have significantly more. It plays vital roles in muscle and male sex development, as well as sexual differentiation in utero. On average, men have 270 – 1070 ng/dl of testosterone and women have 15 – 70 ng/dl of testosterone. There is an obvious absence of overlap, so it should be fairly straightforward to find a division point.

What’s great about dividing based on hormone levels, is that it is unintentionally inclusive for a variety of issues. Transgender people can compete without worrying if they look enough like the other people on their team. They can continue hormone therapy to become themselves without being accused of doping. Additionally, some cancers and menstrual conditions increase testosterone levels. As long as they are well enough to play, they should be included too.


Biology and anatomy are far more complicated then we tend to believe so it is ridiculous to expect everyone to be able to be divided into two distinct categories. For the sake of athletic competition, it makes sense to divide people by ability level, but sex and gender don’t directly affect ability level. It is best to divide not by category, but by testosterone levels.

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