This past January, the BBC published an intense interview with former African Player of the Year Genoveva Añonma. She shared a series of stories detailing the difficulties she faced both before and during her professional career, many of which stemmed from issues about gender roles and perception from soccer officials, her opponents, and ever her own family. Particularly striking was Añonma’s recollection of the time – after scoring the goal that clinched the 2008 African Women’s Championship for Equatorial Guinea – that she was called in by tournament officials and forced to submit to a humiliating round of gender testing, after the defeated South African team launched accusations that she was not a woman.
At the time, I assumed the strange and invasive practice of gender testing in soccer was something uniquely troubling within the Confederation of African Football. That thought was born partially out of plain ignorance, and partially out of an unwillingness to believe that it was a common global practice. A sort of “we would never do such a thing” western arrogance. In reality, gender testing is quite common, and is even taking place at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.
According to a report from Public Radio International, every participant in the ongoing World Cup was obligated to undergo some form of gender testing to prove that they were female. Stanford University bioethicist Katrina Karkazis says that this practice is continued by FIFA, in spite of the fact that gender testing “has been roundly criticized by professional medical organizations starting 20 to 30 years ago because you can’t test for sex.”
Karkazis, who studies the practices of gender testing throughout sports, also asserted that the German federation requested gynecological records from its players before allowing them to participate in the tournament.
FIFA’s gender testing is said to range from simple and demeaning strip-downs for visual and physical genital examinations, to more complex measures like chromosome testing. Karkazis contends that neither are accurate or considered acceptable scientific measures. Furthermore, she says that a reliable method of biological testing for gender simply doesn’t exist, as sex is too complex to define in such simple terms as “male” and “female”.
“That’s the misconception that most people have, that you can look at chromosomes or genitals or breast development and say ‘this is a man’ or ‘this is a woman.’ But sex is actually much more complex, and there’s variation in each of those sex traits. So there’s not one particular trait that all people labeled women have. You can’t do it.”
While acknowledging that sex is more fluid than the binary construct used to delineate athletes, Karkazis brought up the larger problem with the antiquated notion of gender testing. At its core, the practice is a pure act of discrimination.
“[Athletes]who have lived and competed as women all their lives, and their legal documents say they’re women. So this is a hurdle that they have to pass above and beyond all of that.”
Male athletes are never required to prove their sex. The obvious response to this falls somewhere along the line of males being superior athletically, and a man posing as a woman would provide an unfair competitive advantage. The accuracy of that belief is largely irrelevant as it relates to gender testing. Why? Because there’s no real evidence that male athletes seeking to gain a physical advantage in women’s sports is common enough to forcibly subject women to gender testing. Especially considering it may not accurately prove anything in the first place.
The counterpoint to that truth is to say that men know gender testing is in place, so they don’t bother trying to cheat. Jails and prisons across the globe are full of people who will tell you that a rule or law being in place does nothing to eliminate the possibility of it being broken.
The notion that gender testing is in place in the interest of keeping competitions fair is a deluded half-truth at best. At worst, it’s further evidence that female athletes are often required to go above and beyond their male counterparts in the name of validation. Even to the basic level of having to prove that they are the women we already consider to be less worthy of our attention. Gender testing — that doesn’t work in the first place — is saying to these athletes, “We already think less of you, now you must humiliate yourself in order to prove to us that you really are this inferior being.”