Testosterone testing, privilege, and systemic forms of oppression.

The challenges facing women in sports are many, they are systemic, and they are entrenched. A few months ago, Indian track-and-field athlete Dutee Chand was barred from competing in the Olympics by the AFI (Athletics Federation of India) because she had too much naturally-occurring testosterone in her system. She was tested for hyperandrogenism, a condition that is “characterized by excessive levels of androgens in the body.”

There are several things to point out:

  • These are levels of naturally-occurring testosterone.
  • There is no evidence that testosterone increases athletic performance in women.

The biggest issue with this test is an old one: women are once again being defined relative to men. What basically happened was that Dutee Chand’s body made the mistake of producing enough testosterone to enter into what is considered the “male” range—an arbitrary boundary that is based largely on observations that males tend to have certain levels of testosterone, and women tend to have lower levels of testosterone.

The idea that Chand shouldn’t compete isn’t based on any kind of science, but rather on good, old-fashioned misogyny. One of the things that testosterone does for the body is to increase muscle growth and bone mass. So, did Dutee Chand have an unfair advantage over other women? An advantage, perhaps, but certainly not unfair. Long-legged, thin-ankled distance runners have a massive advantage over short-legged, thick-ankled runners. Boxers with long arms have a similar advantage over boxers with short arms, as an Al Jazeera article points out. Athletes who have trained for a long time have had much greater levels of hGH (human Growth Hormone) in their system for a much longer period of time, than athletes that haven’t trained for so long. Does training confer an unfair advantage? No.

It seems as though the idea that women can’t have certain levels of testosterone is shorthand for saying that going beyond a certain rate of muscle growth, and going beyond a certain amount of bone mass is only for men. This is yet another iteration of that old idea that when a woman is muscular, or athletic, she becomes less of a woman. It is far more devious, (and perhaps more convincing), since it uses the language of science to gain credibility. But despite its superficial sophistication, it is merely another example of that age-old system of oppression.

As the title of the Al Jazeera article emphasizes, this isn’t just about Dutee Chand, or even just about women athletes. This event isn’t an isolated incident, and these incidents aren’t unrelated to larger, and older, mechanisms of social control and oppression. This is a reaffirmation of the same old system that challenges women’s autonomy, born from the same old idea that women are satellites to men—an idea that was carved into the Western cultural unconscious perhaps since the moment that our creation myths included the fantasy that women were created entirely from a man’s rib.

The social problems that conspire against the bodily autonomy of women are the very same ones that conspire against the athletic expression of Dutee Chand. I take such things as givens: systems thinking has taught me that there are no unrelated incidents. There are a few overarching ideas that generate the social structure all around us, on which various “unrelated” events are predicated. But to the many, systems thinking is an abstraction; an oddity. To the powerful and the systemically advantaged, it is an inconvenience.

I like to call this social system a “many-headed hydra”: Although it may seem like there is a world of difference between tests for hyperandrogenism and packs of men catcalling women runners on the street, these two are different faces of the same animal. Follow the neck, and you will see that both are connected to the very same creature: a guardian that does little else than to protect the privileges of men. These two events are absolutely related. The failure to see otherwise is often rooted in a disnterest born of privilege, or a willful ignorance born of convenience—both characteristics of that same animal, who serves only the systemically favored.

And these people, often men, often white, are so advantaged that they can afford the ultimate privilege: ignorance. The system is so tolerant of their idiosyncracies, and so devoted to satisfying their needs, that they can afford unawareness. When the lion lays around, bewildered and moderately annoyed at the antelope’s seemingly obtuse paranoia, that, in itself is proof of the very privilege that the lion enjoys and yet questions.

The prevalence of these oppressive structures has already been addressed by many, many people. This is merely one more engagement with the issue, and only within a particular topic. But it is important to recognize that what happened to Dutee Chand isn’t an athletic problem, per se. It’s a social problem, that bleeds into our conceptions of athleticism. By fixing that entrenched social problem, this athletic problem will melt into the ether. Kill the hydra, and its heads die along with it.

But one of the necessary first steps in this path is for men to acknowledge the main lesson of systems thinking: that despite the screaming objections of the privileged, and the narrowed eyes of the skeptic, the problem is and always has been a many-headed hydra. The disservice that the AFI did to Dutee Chand is a disservice to all women. But more so, it is just another example of the same disservice and oppression that occurs for all women on the street, in the home, in the workplace, in the body, and in the mind.

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