Remember when tennis hustler Bobby Riggs got his butt kicked by Billy Jean King? It was a glorious moment for women, shutting up his sexist denigration of women athletes as being unable to complete with men. Of course, King was 29 and at her peak and 55-year-old Riggs, to the extent he ever had a peak playing tennis as opposed to shooting off his mouth, was well past his. But it was groovy to watch King win in straight sets.
What it wasn’t was a claim that sports segregation was based on a fallacy, that the purported biological differences between men and women was a myth. Not only would the notion have been ridiculous, but pointless. Women could be great at sports and still be women, and Riggs’ claim, that even a tired old man could beat the best woman athlete in a sport was empty macho bravado.
The insistence on separating sports teams strictly by sex is backwards, argues Michela Musto, an assistant sociology* professor at the University of British Columbia who has studied the effect of the gender binary on students and young athletes. “Part of the reason why we have this belief that boys are inherently stronger than girls, and even the fact that we believe that gender is a binary, is because of sport itself, not the other way around,” she told me by phone.
In other words, the reason boys are better at sports than girls is because boys are encouraged to play sports, play more sports, getting better at them, stronger at them and develop into better athletes than women not because they are physiologically better, but just do it more. The corollary is that if girls played sports as boys do, they would be just as strong as boys. It’s their sports deprivation, and not their biology, that leaves girls weaker than boys.
The strict sex segregation we’ve instilled in sports at all levels gives the impression that men and women have completely different capabilities, but in reality, she said, the relationship between sex and athletic capability is never so cut-and-dried. “There are some boys who also could get really hurt if they were competing against other boys in contact sports.” Researchers have noted for years that there may even be more diversity in athletic performance within a sex than between the sexes.
It’s entirely fair to say “the relationship between sex and athletic capability is never so cut-and-dried.” Indeed, the use of the word “never” makes it a rhetorical trick, since it’s an absolute and only Siths deal in absolutes. Of course there are girls who would surpass boys in some instances, outliers, and of course there are boys who demonstrate no strength, stamina, coordination or inclination to compete.
But we craft policy, which includes such divisions, to address the majority of people, not the outliers. That doesn’t mean that we can’t do better, and, indeed, it’s great to see that some are trying by letting girls play on boys sports teams if it’s safe and they can compete. And they want to. Why not?
But if the NBA and WNBA were combined overnight, would there be a place for the women on the men’s teams? Would they be able to compete? Would they be better than the men such that they would make the cut? And if they can, maybe the best answer is to let women try out for NBA teams and, if they’re good enough, get the position.
What Mertens’ article is about isn’t really sports, though, but about changing the designation from biological to cultural, yet more pseudo-intellectual argumentation that sex isn’t binary, sex is nothing more than a social construct, a lie we made up to distinguish between a body with a penis and a body with a vagina, based not on nature but nurture.
A different youth-sports world is possible. Musto has observed a swim team in California, for instance, whose athletes are separated by ability rather than sex; it has changed how the kids view one another. “It wasn’t a big deal if they had to share lanes with one another or they were competing against one another during practice. Gender wasn’t the primary thing that was shaping the perceptions of who was a good athlete or not,” she said. But as long as laws and general practice of youth sports remain rooted in the idea that one sex is inherently inferior, young athletes will continue to learn and internalize that harmful lesson.
To the extent this works, great. Why shouldn’t a female swimmer who is better than a male swimmer be able to compete, to win, in a head-to-head competition despite sex divisions? Then again, there are women who will be highly competitive against other women but not against men, and the question presents itself whether they should be constrained to compete where they have no chance of success or should be able to compete against others who have no biological advantage?
But as long as we’re talking about this when it comes to athletic competition, the same cultural construct contention follows women through the rest of their life, in education, employment and interpersonal relationships. Are women prepared to leave behind the litany of excuses, their special pleading, about how they’re incapable of assuming personal responsibility for their actions, their choices, when it comes to their engagement with men in other spheres of interaction?
If a woman is strong enough to compete on the gridiron, is she too weak and helpless to be expected to say no to a man who wants sex when she doesn’t, or too irresponsible for her consent to sex when drunk to be the equivalent of a man’s? Is this special pleading a product of some biological inferiority in women or a desire to have it both ways, to be strong when it gets her what she wants and weak when it doesn’t?