The Dishonest Trans Women in Sports Debate

Trans women have a natural advantage, so what?

The issue of trans women in sports has become an unlikely culture war point of tension. In mid-March, the governor of Mississippi signed a bill requiring that schools force individuals to participate in sporting events based on their gender assigned at birth. South Dakota’s governor vetoed a similar measure, and was then grilled about it by Tucker Carlson. She assured him that she agreed with the spirit behind the bill, but simply thought it was too broad. She then brandished her anti-trans women in sports credentials by forming something called “Defend Title IX.”

On one side of the debate, conservatives say that trans women have an unfair advantage over XX females. On the other, liberals often deny this, or say that the differences are exaggerated. To me, neither of these arguments makes much sense, and it’s worth exploring why.

The easier argument to dispense with is that of liberals. Here is how one expert describes the “no advantage” (or more precisely, “little advantage”) position to NPR.

We know that men have, on average, an advantage in performance in athletics of about 10% to 12% over women, which the sports authorities have attributed to differences in levels of a male hormone called testosterone. But the question is whether there is in real life, during actual competitions, an advantage of performance linked to this male hormone and whether trans athletes are systematically winning all competitions. The answer to this latter question, are trans athletes winning everything, is simple — that's not the case. And higher levels of the male hormone testosterone are associated with better performance only in a very small number of athletic disciplines: 400 meters, 800 meters, hammer throw, pole vault — and it certainly does not explain the whole 10% difference.

This is beyond silly. I do not know what it means to say that men have a “10% to 12%” advantage over women in athletic competitions; if you take the best males and put them against the best females in sports requiring strength, speed, and endurance, there is no overlap. In 2017, the US Women’s soccer team lost in a scrimmage to a team of under-15 boys. Saying “men have a 10% advantage” makes it sound like a professional female soccer player at the 50th percentile of her league would be at like the 40th percentile of the male league, rather than being worse than a talented 15 year-old boy.

Moreover, testosterone is not the only difference between the sexes, there are a million of them, including males being taller and stronger, and the sum total of these advantages is that the total difference in athleticism between the sexes is absolutely massive. I’m sure there’s some “data” to support the 10%-12% number cited above, and I’m sure it violates every rule of producing good social science, including but not limited to not being replicable, cherry-picked data, and selectively framing the question in a way that gets the desired answer. If you need to be convinced of the fact that there are massive differences in athleticism between the sexes, you are probably too subject to social desirability bias to get much out of this post, so I suggest you engage in serious self-reflection before pursuing this or any other line of intellectual inquiry.

That being said, conservatives’ argument that trans women should be banned from sports because they have a natural advantage is also flawed.

Why Have Women’s Sports?

Here is the philosopher John Pike on why excluding trans individuals from women’s sports is justified.

The advantage argument says women’s sport is justified by the existence of the physiological advantages that being born male provides to men. Women’s sport necessarily involves the exclusion of those with male advantage. That’s the point of the category.

According to the range argument, however, lots of male-born people, including transwomen, are in the range of females. This means they are not necessarily faster or stronger than the fastest or strongest female athletes just because they were born male. 

So, if transwomen are “in the range” of female athletes, then their inclusion in sport is still fair, right? 

Wrong. The range argument rests on a misunderstanding of women’s sport. It is not a category for people who are a bit smaller, slower and weaker than the top males. It isn’t justified by performance or body metrics, but by the absence of a particular sort of advantage.

So the range argument is beside the point. If we are to have two classes of sport — male and female — then the division is justified by the existence of male advantage. Those who claim male advantage (including residual male advantage for transwomen) doesn’t matter are actually arguing for unisex sport. 

In summary, men are better at sports than women due to biological advantages, that’s why we have male and female categories. Trans women have the XY chromosome combination and have usually followed a male developmental path, giving them advantages that justify their exclusion.

Since male advantage in sports is undeniable, the weakness of the argument lies in its justification for women’s sports. Is it true that we have female sports because women are not as athletic as men?

That cannot be the full explanation. There is no rule that “nobody should be forced to compete in a sport against someone who has a biological advantage over them.” To see why, consider that the high school I went to was the sports rival of the high school attended by Dwayne Wade, who later became an NBA superstar. I didn’t play on the basketball team, but if I did in my freshmen year, I would’ve had to compete against Wade. Would that have been fair by the logic of Pike’s arguments? I don’t think so. Despite us sharing the same chromosome combination, nobody would deny Wade had a biological advantage over me.

Maybe society should have protected me from competition against Dwayne Wade. As an adult, he has about 7 inches on me, and maybe I could’ve been more competitive in a high school sports leagues for shorter and less coordinated kids.

Clearly, society doesn’t try to level all biological advantages relevant to sports and give everyone a chance. Some boys and girls will never have an opportunity to seriously compete in sports due to their natural limitations. Biological advantage is a huge part of athletics, and we accept it. Sex is a special case, and instead of accepting that fact uncritically, it is important to explore why.

The real reason for women’s sports seems to be rooted in feminism, which says that government and society should pursue gender integration, and when gender integration is not possible or desirable, we should create separate spaces treated equally. So high-paying professions need to become more welcoming to women, even if that involves changing the culture. But nobody has sought integrated bathrooms or sports. Bathrooms would be gross, and including women in men’s sports would in effect be banning them from sports, because they would not be able to compete on equal terms (If people making the “no advantage” argument were serious, they would call for full sports integration!).

There are female sports that exist for non-feminist reasons. For example, women’s gymnastics and cheerleading are more popular than the male versions of these sports, and would exist at different levels without government intervention. Many female sports, however, would not exist without feminist ideology, or would at least exist in a much more limited form, and these are precisely the ones conservatives seem most interested in saving.

Title IX

There was a time when conservatives seemed to understand the reason why we have so much women’s sports. Title IX, part of the Civil Rights Act, has been interpreted to mean that schools receiving government funding have to provide “equal opportunity” to both sexes to participate in athletics. Since boys are more likely to want to play sports than girls, and more people are interested in watching boys play, what Title IX means in effect is that male athletic opportunities have to be curtailed for the sake of “equality,” while certain female sports no one is interested in have to be created to also close the gap. This was the debate over Title IX while I was growing up, with conservatives complaining that wrestling had become a casualty of a misguided crusade for equality. As late as 2003, an argument along these lines could still get published in the New York Times. Writing in Newsweek in 2002, George Will argued

Title IX, as adumbrated by ideology-besotted Education Department regulation writers, has produced this lunacy: Colleges have killed more than 400 athletic teams in order to produce precise proportionality between men’s and women’s enrollments and men’s and women's rates of participation in athletics. If participation in sports must mirror the sexual composition of the student body, why not participation in the engineering department? And why not in extracurricular activities other than sports – debating, orchestra, choir, cheerleading?

How much of women’s sports is due to actual demand, that is to people wanting to watch it and students wanting to participate, and how much is it the result of social engineering by governments and subsidies to feminist ideology by major corporations? It’s hard to say. The WNBA has lost about $10 million a year since its founding in 1996, as few people want to watch female basketball. If starting a women’s basketball league was a business decision 25 years ago, it is one that has failed, but it’s a failure that the NBA cannot cut loose for PR reason. So at least one major professional sports league exists for reasons of ideology alone, and others might too. I remember at UCLA talking to a girl who temporarily was on the rowing team, which the school apparently had for reasons of Title IX. They couldn’t keep all the slots filled, there was constant turnover, and the coach had to beg team members to recruit their friends because few young women wanted to spend their free time competitively rowing boats. I was amused to see years later that the desperation for female rowers played a prominent role in the USC admissions scandal.

If you’re a conservative, which means you don’t believe it’s the role of government or corporations to engage in social engineering to create artificial states of equality that override people’s preferences, you should at the very least be ambivalent about much of women’s sports, and hostile to Title IX. There seems to be demand for female gymnastics at all levels, but not female college rowing or professional basketball.

From that perspective, “save Title IX” is a strange rallying cry for a conservative governor.

A More Honest Debate

Liberals discredit themselves by denying the male advantage in sports, or using fake social science and statistics to downplay sex differences. A more honest liberal case for trans women in sports should go something like this:

The justification for funding and supporting women’s sports beyond what there is actual demand for is feminism. We want girls growing up having ambitions, opportunities, and interests that are as similar as possible to men’s. That’s why we don’t care about men who are too weak or uncoordinated to make sports teams, or women in the same boat; what matters is that males and females play sports in similar numbers so we have equality across the sexes. We now believe in trans-inclusivity, meaning that we do not want society to treat cis women and trans women any differently. That being the case, there is no justification for keeping trans women out of female sports; doing so stigmatizes them and implies that they are somehow not “real women.” Some cis women may lose scholarships and spots on sports teams thanks to competition from trans athletes, but so what? Not everyone can make a sports team anyway, and Title IX has created so many opportunities beyond what there is actual demand for that we may be able to integrate all trans female athletes without in the end taking away many opportunities for cis women.

What would a more honest conservative case for the opposite look like? It would do away with pretend concerns about “saving women’s sports.” When have conservatives cared about women's sports before? As mentioned, the last time the American right noticed Title IX, it was to complain that the government was doing too much in this area. A recent op-ed in the New York Times points out the hypocrisy.

But all this new passion has made me wonder, what if all these people claiming to be fighting for the future of women’s sports would really fight for the future of women’s sports? What if they suddenly said, “We demand women’s sports get equal resources, equal media coverage, and equal pay”? What if these new activists embraced women’s sports and invested in female athletes, instead of using us as their excuse for transphobia?

This controversy hurts, because female athletes of all backgrounds have been spending decades fighting for equal treatment — and we are still far from winning. The conversation is disingenuous, patronizing and often racist. Using our struggle to score political points is a distraction.

In her essay, Ms. Haley argued, “The game is being rigged against women and in favor of biological men.” But the game has always been in favor of men.

The debate around transgender rights in sports feels sometimes like fighting over bunk beds on the Titanic. In almost every case, as soon as money and power are involved, women’s sports take a back seat to men’s. You can even see it in our language: We call them “women’s sports,” whereas men’s sports can just be “sports.”

The politicians and pundits most interested in “saving women’s sports” from trans participation are those least interested in issues like equal pay and government support for female athletics.

An honest case against trans women in sports, from the conservative perspective, would look like this.

We believe that there are only two human genders, males and females are naturally different, and society, culture and law should reflect an acceptance of and comfort with those differences. Trans women in sports implies that gender is a choice, and that those with XY chromosomes are anything but boys and men. We think this is an unhealthy trend, and want to draw a bright line saying that gender is determined by biology, not choice or subjective “identity.” We have given up on the previous generation of conservatives’ fight against Title IX, knowing we have lost, but will now rely on Title IX as a feminist landmark we can use to justify the battle against trans acceptance in a socially acceptable way.

Why is the Debate so Dishonest?

I think it’s fundamentally unhealthy when conservatives and liberals have debates in which at least one side refuses to talk about, or even admit, what’s really motivating them. For example, conservatives talk about immigration’s effect on wages when they really dislike demographic change. Liberals will likewise start talking about court packing or eliminating the filibuster at the exact moment they are in the majority in Congress, and only a partisan can be fooled as to what their real motivation is (there are exceptions, Matt Yglesias has been consistent on this point).

Yet the trans women in sports debate is unusual in that both sides are dishonest in a very extreme way. How did we arrive at this equilibrium? The conservative reason for the dishonesty is clear enough: they can’t give their real reason for opposing trans women in sports without being cancelled, including getting banned from social media (not saying conservatives are consciously dishonest here, only that they’re engaging in motivated reasoning that is at its root driven by concerns that are obviously different from those they articulate. The same applies to liberals and court packing, etc.). Yet focusing on the narrow question of trans women in sports does nothing to address the real concerns conservatives have, and if they “save” women’s weightlifting I don’t think the right is going to become any more optimistic about the trajectory of American society.

What about liberals? The “no advantage” argument begins by accepting the conservative premise that female sports is about fairness. This obscures the real reason for much of women’s sports, which is modern feminism, an idea that is more controversial than the abstract notion of fairness. They are fine with this framing of the debate, because talking about the real historical context for Title IX opens up a whole new discussion regarding questions like whether it is the job of the federal government to create “opportunities” in women’s sports beyond what there is demand for at the local and collegiate level and destroy men’s sports in the name of equality.

Regardless, I tend to benefit from following thinkers that make logical and honest arguments, regardless of their politics. For that reason, I have little interest in either those who deny sex differences, or conservatives who have convinced themselves that they actually care about the kinds of female sports that only exist thanks to government mandates.