So about a month ago I started playing on my city’s women’s rugby team. I had never played before and knew little about the game, but I wanted to get some more exercise and meet new people, so this seemed like a good fit. While I knew that it was a rough game, I didn’t quite put two and two together of how important it was to be in good shape, and that depending on the position you play, how strong you are can make the difference between getting hurt or not. Because I am not very strong and relatively small for the sport, I was made a back (a wing to be more specific) and am basically in charge of ball-handling, running, and tackling when necessary. I had been nervous about the tackling part, thinking that that was the part of the game where you got hurt. And while there can be some danger in tackling if you aren’t doing it correctly, it wasn’t until after being thrown into a forward position (the ones who make the scrum and have most of the heavy contact) one practice that I realized that’s where people can really get hurt. After a little while I had to step out because I either felt my back breaking or my neck snapping with ever attempt. And while part of this may be that I’m just a wimp, another part is that I am definitely not in the physical shape to safely be scrumming, especially not against some of the girls on my team or some of the girls that we would be playing against.

What does this have to do with gender and binaries? Well while I have not been lifting weights and gaining muscle mass, there are lots of people who identify as women who have been, and have been very successful in doing so. I have always believed that women can be just as strong as men, and that the reason that men tend to be stronger than women is that men are encouraged to build muscle and are “supposed to be strong,” while women are not. And I told this to a girl friend of mine and her boyfriend, and said that I wondered if there are any co-ed rugby leagues, and if not that there should be. Her boyfriend (who happens to play rugby) said that while he understands that there are definitely societal expectations at play, that even the strongest woman would still not be stronger than the strongest man, and that there would never be a professional or seriously competitive co-ed rugby team (or any sports team really). He went on to say that when you’re dealing with that level of professional sporting, everyone is going to be near their full strength potential and that it wouldn’t be a fair fight because the men would undoubtedly be stronger than the women. I argued with him for a bit, still trying to hang onto my nurture above nature stance, yet I found myself just fighting for the sake of fighting and not wanting to admit that there is a real difference between men and women.

In reality, the argument here is not whether there’s a difference between men and women, but between males and females. And while I wish that it truly could be that simple, that if all female-born persons started lifting weights and were told from infancy that they should be strong and muscular that they would be just as strong as male-born persons, I know that that’s not true. While there are definitely some females who are stronger than some males, I do have to admit that on average the male body builds muscle differently (and often in greater quantities) than the female body. I remember reading some articles in undergrad about scientific differences between the sexes, and they explained how these differences do exist. Yet even after reading them I still find it so difficult to swallow that there are proven, tangible differences between males and females. Part of this may be that I don’t fully trust science and feel like scientific studies come with a lot of binary baggage, so that they can’t really conduct proper studies to examine these things because they already have it set in their mind what they’re looking for.

But I think the main thing that bothers me about these differences is because I know where the train of most people’s thoughts are going to go when they read them. They use “sex” and “gender” terms interchangeably, and all of a sudden “males are usually stronger than females,” turns into, “men are usually stronger than women,” which then jumps to, “men should be doing all the things that require strength and women are weak.” There may be some more steps in between there, but basically that’s how I see it go. If there were no social consequences that came from sex differences, I wouldn’t have a problem admitting that they existed. But because I fear of what these sex differences lead to, I feel the need to fight them, even if they are blatantly staring me in the face.

This issue has definitely been front and center in the world of sports recently, and when I heard from a friend of mine that all female athletes at the Olympic or other highly competitive levels need to undergo gender testing, I researched some more on it because it just seemed so ridiculous and sexist, especially because they don’t test male athletes, only females (because who would care if a woman snuck into a men’s competition, right?). I put some links at the end of this article if anyone’s interested in reading more about it, but the gist is that up until 1999, gender verification testing was required of all female athletes. The International Olympic Committee then said that it can only be done when specifically requested when there is suspicion of a female athlete actually being male.

The fact that this is still done at all still infuriates me, and while I understand the desire to have things as fair as possible in competitions, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better way to structure sporting events in general if these sports committees really want their events to be fair. In boxing or wrestling there are different weight brackets. Why can’t there be similar distinctions in other sports, getting rid of the different gendered leagues but instead having different weight leagues? Or if weight isn’t the main indicator of performance level, perhaps a test of strength in a different way; just a different method of comparing people so that it was no longer solely on gender. And even if most of the women and most of the men ended up in the different leagues anyway, at least you could get away with the witch hunt of figuring out if someone’s sneaking into a different competitive bracket to increase their chances of winning.

I bounced this off my friend’s boyfriend, the one who played rugby and is also studying sports medicine, and he said that it’s not just weight or strength that effects performance level; that male and female bodies are still structured differently in terms of bone alignment, how weight is distributed throughout the body, how the body moves and what effect that has on running, tackling, shooting or hitting a ball, etc. I did not do research on the different ways male and female bodies move and the effect that has on sporting performance, but that part of me that does not want to admit that these differences run on solely a sex level still says that you could find a bunch of males whose bodies all move in different ways and a bunch of females whose bodies all move in different ways, and surely that has an effect on how their perform yet they are able to stay in the same league anyway. But besides all of this, if these competitors have made it to the Olympic level they are still obviously some of the best athletes in the world, no matter how they build muscle mass or the way their hips move when they run. Can’t they just play?

I want to note that I know I’ve put a lot of weight on what other people have said and there is a good bit of ze-said/she-said, and obviously there is a lot more that goes into this issue and much more sophisticated research around then what I’ve delved into in this post. And I may be wrong that there are no co-ed rugby teams anywhere or that there aren’t some sports that do break up the leagues on levels other than gender. So if anyone has heard of these things or knows more about it, please let me know. But it’s the fact that, for the most part, it’s automatically assumed that sports, especially contact sports, would unquestionably be split by gender that bothers me. I would be nervous playing rugby against some men because I am smaller and have not properly strengthened my muscles. But I’m nervous to play against a lot of women too because they are bigger and stronger than me. And there would be many men that are not much larger than me that I would feel totally comfortable playing against. There is so much variation in sex and gender, so is there a feasible way to take these binaries out of sports?

Links on Gender Verification Testing: (Some of the language here is problematic, and I don’t know much about the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, but parts of it were interesting to look at).

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