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Some Further Thoughts on Biology, Sex, Gender and Bodies

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UPDATED: Edited for typos and to add a few things here and there to clarify.

This was fomented partially by this post over at Fannie’s Room, a most excellent feminist blog–(I’ll just say that it is damned disrespectful not to give an opponent a chance, regardless of gender. I don’t really care what the flying fuck that kid’s reasons are/were– faith [snort], awkward boners [those definitely never happen in same sex wrestling, right?], masculinity which says that you are a loser if a girl beats you, but your victory is hollow if you beat her because she is a stinky weak gross pathetic girl [oh, yeah no, those are GREAT reasons] it’s a cop out).

However, what I want to talk about is how every time I read the comments on a discussion of women, men, and athletics, I hear this gem repeated ad nauseum:

“The best man will always beat the best woman, because men are stronger and faster and that is just biology!”

It seems to be part of the landscape of sports itself, which is why sports remain sex segregated, and for the record I will say I do think that women should not summarily be barred from competing at the same level as men, and when they do, for fuck’s sake take them seriously.

It is my understanding that as with most things, sports often comes down to skill and quick thinking more than strength alone, like most human endeavors. So that’s where I’m approaching this from.

I am not now, and have never been terribly interested in human athletics, or sports. I won’t say I don’t respect the drive and ambition and toughness of athletes of any gender or none at all, I do. But I am not a team player, so team sports just leave me cold. I enjoy watching solo athletes like gymnasts do their thing, but I inevitably end up comparing humans to non-humans which is really just unfair (I have seen a Chamois, and you sir, are no Chamois!), and then I get bored and wander off in search of snacks. In the entomological spirit of life, I am a spider and not an ant. And not even a cool spider, really, just some Linyphiid hanging out in my web being boring. So I approach this with some trepidation, as an outsider, not an expert.

Pictured: Other picture stopped working. Mr. Lee Hales on the left, myself on the right, our messy house, typical day. "What should we eat for dinner?" "I don't know." "Neither do I"

But I do know one thing for sure.

Sports are not natural, and sports are not certainly not part of human biology, except insofar as they require the use of human bodies.

Sports are artificial systems with rules and codes of behavior and action which have been invented and regulated by men, generally speaking. Able bodied, athletically inclined, almost always cis, men. Men who thought of themselves as men, distinct from women at least.

We already know why it’s problematic to say the least, to conflate biological sex with cultural gender. I use the term gender as opposed to sex throughout this piece because this whole thing rests precariously on culturally gendered ideas about biological sex having bodies, where you don’t actually know the biological sex of the players.

 

Pictured: Not something seen on the Savannah 70,000 years ago.

Many sports take advantage of men’s upper body strength and higher center of gravity, which you would expect, given, again that they were created by and for  men’s bodies.

It seems perfectly reasonable then, that in sports created by men for men’s bodies, men’s bodies would excell. That is intended result, right?

And I want to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with creating a system where you and your body can win. As a rule, people don’t like to set themselves up to fail, so I don’t think this is some grand universal travesty of justice, so long as other bodies are also supported in creating systems where they can win. And that those bodies, and the things they can do that men’s bodies can and cannot, are respected and not treated as second tier or less serious.

The problem comes in when we just go ahead and swallow the unspoken assumptions built into the idea that because the best man competing in a sport designed for his body will beat the best woman competing against him (and I can’t even speak to whether this is true, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, my metaphorical setae start quivering when I read an absolute statement which is basically untestable) in a sport not designed for her body, it proves that men and their bodies are just better. Stronger, more useful, more important, inevitably dominant, full stop. More biologically human, in fact.

The other problem is that this ignores variance within a gender and highlights variance between given genders. It creates this sense that every man can beat every woman at every sport full stop and that is why gender segregation is good because girls are stinky and weak and eeeeeeeeew (!!) which is just silly. Men are not an athletic monolith. Obviously. In a shocking (!!), absolutely shocking case of The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too, I, Pepper, reveal the truth! And the truth is that men valuing their worth in terms of athletic ability  favors men who can meet some arbitrary standard of athletic ability. So the argument isn’t doing most men any actual favors either.

The person saying or writing the “men’s bodies=best bodies” argument is saying or writing it with the idea that this “proves” something, or they wouldn’t bother. Sports I may not know, but rhetoric I am intimately familiar with.

It’s kind of a silly idea when you really unpack it:  In system designed for (some) men, (some) men do better than other people who are not (some) men, therefore (some) men are better/best. Welcome to the patriachy!

Oops, your logic hoisted itself on it’s own petard.

Pictured: You would logically assume you could escape the spiders by water, BUT YOU WOULD BE WRONG! Also, I don't know how to find an image of a petard, or if I want to.

And then, of course is the issue of valuing certain kinds of strength over other kinds, certain kinds of speed, agility, nimbleness, and ability over other kinds.

Taking it on faith that what men’s bodies can do is just more valuable is asking too much of me. Asking me to accept this value judgement as “biology” is just a fucking joke. Biology is value free, you see. Biology values most whomever has the most surviving offspring. Since many, many, most men are not shining olympic athletes, biology doesn’t seem to give much a shit about athletic ability in the sporting sense.

Biology has always loved and hated and punished us humans quite blindly and quite equally. If you are going to tell me about size and strength and speed, and muscle mass, I am going to ask you if that is quite enough of a trade for external, vulnerable genitalia in a truly “natural” setting where there were no cups or even clothes to be had.

I am also going to tell you that sometimes leg strength, balance, lightness, smallness, and a lower center of gravity are quite useful in nature as nature, and probably in athletics as well.

Let me put it this way– if I start a new sport called crotchball, where participants must nimbly bounce a rugby  ball off of their pelvises and crotches without wearing any protection, and then exclaim “the best woman will always beat the best man in crotchball!” can you then infer that women’s bodies are simply better, tougher, more nimble, less vulnerable, more human?

Of course you can’t. You’d roll your eyes at me and sigh, and inform me that crotch shots are NOT part of the sporting tradition FOR A REASON PEPPER JESUS CHRIST.

It is not considered fair to cite one’s bodily advantages over men, or even that one is more tough than an able bodied athletic man. A disabled woman will be scoffed at if they say, “no, I am actually tougher than the toughest athlete playing on a broken/torn/popped [whatever], because I live and work and create and love and think and exist and carry on in worse pain than their pain on a constant basis, every day.”

Pointing out the arbitrary nature of these value judgments by noting that women also have average “natural” advantages such as more nimble hands which seems, oh, like it might be super valuable in many settings, gets you laughed out of the room.

It is absurd, in our culture, for a disabled person to say “I am an athlete. Not a second tier second rate athlete. A real athlete.” Obviously, I don’t want to conflate sex with gender, or either with being disabled, because these things are not the same. But they are treated the same in the discussion. Being female sexed, we are told, is an athletic disability, never fucking mind actual disabilities. Never mind that one can be female sexed and male gendered.

It’s about valuing bodies. It’s about certain assumptions and the careless bandying of the word “biology” as though biology itself values men more than women, the abled more than the disabled, the “normal” more than the different. As though biology has standards.

It does not.

That is simply not how biology or evolution works. If you can reproduce, and your offspring can produce, you have achieved biological fitness and… that’s it. It means nothing more or less than that. It is not about value. In the simplest terms, it’s about finding a niche, reproducing, and getting your offspring to survive. And not on the individual level either. If my not having children means that someone elses children survive, I have just increased my fitness, because we are the same species and as such genetically related. I CAN HAZ BIOLOGICAL VALUE!

Frankly speaking, biology is mightily tilted in favor of whoever carries the big reproductive cells.

 

Pictured: Ahem.

In nature, the value of having an extra layer of fat on your body cannot be overstated.

Male phenotype in humans actually doesn’t tell as much as you’d think about the relationship between the biological sexes, let alone the culturally situated genders.

Shockingly, upper body strength does not translate into easily applied and equitable systems of values, but then, it was never meant to be about equity was it?

The phenotype of the “athletic” human male tells me at a glance, that at some point in our history we were subject to sexual selection pressure, which can push the male phenotype toward a display phenotype and also ritualized fighting or mate guarding behaviors. However. It should be noted that fighting, biologically speaking, is not an indication of profound and awesome importance, power or favor (the opposite in fact). Fighting means you may lose, and losing means you may not reproduce.

Also, the genitals of humans seem to be a newer adaptation, and the adaptation seems to be about pleasure. That is to say, at some point in our evolutionary history, it appears that we started fucking for the fun of it, at which point fighting, display and mate guarding behaviors make zilch in the way of sense reproductively speaking. What the fuck is the point of displaying your fitness for a mate who may or may not be ovulating anyway? It’s counter productive and exhausting, and proving your worth as a mate by getting your partner off is way more interesting and fun.

So commonly held evo psych assertions of men=fighters=good because patriarchy because biology ignore that humans have cryptic ovulation and that both sexes and all genders seem to enjoy orgasms equally, which is also why homosexuality is a perfectly sensible adaptive behavior (with respect to asexual individuals, about whom I do not mean or wish to imply there is anything unnatural or wrong, there is not).

It doesn’t even make common intuitive sense, because if the value of the athletic male phenotype were in fact pure biology, if that was what really determined fitness, women and men would be quite similar and humans across the board would be quite similar.

No, these are the ideas of social rather than actual Darwinism, and the patriarchy.

You can tell that it isn’t biology, when women beat men in triathlons and this is attributed to mental rather than bodily toughness. You can tell because anytime women equalize or dominate an activity, that activity becomes one that men should not engage in because it is less worthy. The only good I could hope for out of this is that perhaps if enough women were in active combat men would give up and the incidence of war would drastically decrease. Fannie says it more eloquently on her blog than I am saying it here.

As with the whole idea of biological sex, where it’s complicated, the idea of special abilities conferring special value based on biological sex, should, I hope, seem flat out silly, if you’re still reading.

The last thing, of course, is that if men never compete with the rest of us, athletically speaking, they will never learn to respect what other bodies can do, and I don’t mean pay lip service, I mean really respect.

The disdain for other bodies is part of rape culture, and arguments perpetuating this disdain also insist that the argument be shored up in the form of corrective sadism and sexual violence that “proves”  that the other body is weak, that it is all that is not masculine, because what is masculine is natural, good and valuable.

So the sentiment that we began with, that men will always physically best the rest of the world, cannot be allowed to stand with its attendant assumptions unchallenged even if you disagree with my thoughts on sports and biology.

Even if it were true, completely 100% true, that every cis-man could beat everyone else at every physical challenge, it still wouldn’t prove that the patriarchy is a valid or good form of social organization.

At any rate, things with bodies are rarely as intuitive and sensible as they seem, and if sport were really real nature, we might see quite different outcomes than conventional wisdom would lead us to expect:

Pictured: Hydraulics (almost no musculature), an open circulatory system, and a passive gas exchange system at work. Nature, she does what she wants.

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About Pepper

Pepper Lee Hales is a twenty something, married, vicious feminist liberal. She likes dogs, cats, spiders, epistemics and cake.

9 responses »

  1. Super interesting points.

    From the army perspective this definitely brings up a lot of pertinent questions. Currently women are held to much lower standards because what is “physically average” between men and women has been shown in studies to be different. I think what I’m getting from what you are saying is that since the construction of what’s “appropriate fitness level for war,” has been determined by a male system then of course the men would excel at such a test. I’ve already written a little something about how I feel about women in the army (which I think you would probably agree with.)

    Even though I don’t buy that athletics and sports proves anything without a shadow of a doubt I guess it IS a little tricky for me to look at some statistically gender-blind sports such as rock climbing and still not at least see some trends in the upper echelon. You will find that people say rock climbing is a gender blind sport because men and women truly are (for the most part) equals. The more muscle mass you have, the stronger you have to be to support that weight. There goes the male advantage right out the windows. A true climber is lean and incredibly strong. Both men and women can do this equally. I would be interested to find a decent explanation though, of why the majority of the upper echelon climbers are majority men. It could be as simple as a patriarchal society puts more focus on male climbers, thus we hear about them more.

    I feel rock climbing evens out the variables enough to see why people would make the claim that men are “stronger” because of biology. Plus it requires a good bit of intelligence and endurance that some women use as a basis for advantages over men.

    Source: Avid rock climber with men and women.

    Reply
  2. Well, I think you sort of got my point, which is that even if some men are stronger than women, it doesn’t have any actual value or greater meaning. It’s like saying that since lions are stronger than people lions should naturally be in charge of society. You get what I’m saying there? It makes no sense as a justificatory mechanism, but that is what it is used as, and it runs deep . It’s the last knee jerk defense of why men should be in charge.

    Also,not to be pedantic, but what the fuck good is rock climbing or any other sport to society as such? Other than being an outlet for physical movement, it’s meaningless, and certainly tells us nothing about how our social structure ought to be arranged.

    And the who women in combat thing, which I won’t get into too deeply here is just sort of invalidated by all of the women worldwide who do serve in combat, and by how WWII was won to no small degree on the backs of soviet women soldiers. It’s just plain old sexism. At the end of the day, I would rather see no one in combat, but if women want to serve, let them fucking serve. My understanding of the US situation is that women find themselves in combat situations regardless.

    As far as sports like rock climbing and even other sports, I would be willing to bet my favorite pet spider that it comes down to early physical training– that is, boys are given more freedom and expected to be more physical, and as they grow, their bodies are then more fit for physical challenges. The human form is quite plastic, and I suspect that the impact of early muscle development sets the tone of future ability to develop and use muscle effectively.

    Women often struggle profoundly with the gendered implications of being athletic, because of standards of femininity and beauty. And studies have shown that from day one, parents do not allow little girls the same physicality as boys. That is a hell of a gap to overcome.

    Reply
    • Yeah definitely. I think strength is a pretty transparent argument for men who support the patriarchy.

      The men say “women aren’t as physically capable as us.” You say that the men’s argument is bullshit because they essentially create the rules for the things they are “superior” at (similar to your crotchball example.) I was using rock climbing because there are no rules fabricated by any society (gets rid of patriarchal bias) as to how one ascends a rock. In fact, there are multiple ways to ascend rocks. It’s an unbiased physical outlet. If men and women are on an equal playing field in rock climbing, it stands that they are physically equal in general. Just some more ammo for you to use against “why do women have a separate (insert “inferior” sport here) team.”

      Rock climbing and other forms of activity certainly mean a lot to society. It’s an outlet for creativity. People devote their lives to climbing and the spirituality that it brings them. If you REALLY want to get logical you can read papers and papers about how exercise and physical exertion increase endorphin levels in the brain and contribute to healthy brain function. Lack of exercise atrophies certain functions and can lead to imbalances that cause depression and anxiety (Just type in effects of exercise on the brain.) Not saying that everybody who doesn’t do super active stuff is a depressing lump of crap, just trying to say that some people paint, some people write, and some people rock climb.

      I would TOTALLY not bet my pet spider against you (if I had one) because I’ve always thought that was the case. Since women get brought up with a lesser degree of physicality, it suffers. Compare to boys who get indoctrinated with physical shit all day every day. I was the exact same way.

      Reply
  3. I think we are talking about different things when I say “what good is rock climbing to society?” I mean what good is rock climbing as far as telling us how to order society, not what good is rock climbing as an outlet for physical activity and all of the good that such activity does.

    I can see how you would get that reading, so I wanted to clarify. Sport tells us absolutely nothing about ordering our social lives en mass for the good of everyone and to minimize suffering. It’s certainly useful for exploring social dynamics and hierarchies, but you get what I’m saying here.

    I do not at all doubt the health, spiritual or creative value of physical activity, so I hope that this clarifies my position.

    And yes, I agree there are in fact physical activities where the supposed physical superiority of men doesn’t hold. Archery springs to mind, so does sport shooting just off the bat. Swimming too. I’m sure that there are others.

    And honestly, where it counts, I mean down in the dirt where it really really counts, where it’s the difference between starvation and death by thirst, it is women’s bodies that are relied on. Women, let us not forget, produce between 50 and 60% of the world’s food, and they do this through hard fucking labor, while pregnant and with children strapped to their backs as often as not. In places with water shortages, it is girls who are expected to be able to walk miles and bring back gallons of water every day, at the expense of their educations.

    Reply
  4. Oh okay I get you now.

    I mean probably when it was the sticks and stones age sports (see: war games) helped figure out who the strongest were for leadership roles, but since that’s rather outdated I can see what you are saying.

    Now with your last statement are you stabbing at the concept of women being more set up for survival and such? Or are you just trying to say that through all the bullshit the patriarchy spews, they forget that women have been supporting more than their fair share of survival.

    Reply
  5. I think that those kinds of games were only in effect after the advent of widespread and culturally entrenched patriarchy (see, hunter gatherer societies that are not patriarchal).

    Basically the idea that sheer strength makes for good leadership and that this is a biological fact reflects some old scientific biases about social structuring in animals like apes and lions, where they looked for alpha males leading shit and lo, there were alpha males who appeared to be leading shit! So that holds true for humans! And circular logic with a helping of confirmation bias!

    As it turns out, lions and apes are socially much more complex, and females of the species have lots and lots perhaps most of the social power in the group.

    The real story is that humans rely on each other for survival, regardless of sex or gender, and always have. Probably with equality, given that in a survival situation if a woman can hunt more food, you aren’t going to bar her from doing that, and if a man can gather more food you aren’t going to bar him from that and so on. Gender equity makes more sense, survival wise, with each individual doing what they are best at, than the idea of an alpha male ordering everyone else around. I have yet to see any evidence that male humans or other apes of any species are better suited for hunting, there is evidence that female chimps create and use weapons at much higher rates than males, so, yeah. It’s not so simple.

    And no, I am not saying that women are better suited for survival in harsh conditions– it’s the second one. My point is that it’s a laugh to claim that women’s bodies are weaker and less useful when they are the bodies that are literally feeding and watering much of the world.

    Reply
  6. Did you not read your “Lady Handbook?” I know you were given one on the day of your birth, and I know you read it cover-to-cover before your fifth birthday, because if not, the Man-Society would have hunted you down and stoned you today with the stones from your own mothers garden. Maybe your “Lady Handbook” had a mass typo which exluded the chapters “You Are Weak” and “Men Are the Best: Acceptance 101.” Well, in case your “Lady Handbook” didn’t include those crucial chapters, I will assist you, fellow weakling. Sports, and for that matter, any event requiring strength or athletic ability, were created by men, for men, to be won by men. Ever heard what Golf stands for? Guys Only Ladies Forbiden. I question the reliability of this acronym, but never the less, it’s definitely eyebrow raising. I have completely accepted that I, a feeble girly-girl will never be good at ANYTHING,except painting my nails and brushing my hair and being subserviant to my significant other, because, let’s face it, that is all I and my Lady Parts are good for….that and being sexually available when the menz needs me. Most of all, I will never, ever, EVER (!!!) measure up to the athletic standards of any man…even when most (dare I say all?) sports are primarily a game of logic and strategy. BUT, my dear friend, Chapter 12, entitled “Logic? What’s That?,” assured me that I can not possibly think in such dynamic says. There are groups of silly icky girls out there, testing the autority of the Man-Society, that have organized other silly icky girls (Those rebellious bitches. They obviously didn’t read Chapter 28 “Rebellion is Strictly Forbidden”) into sports teams. For example, and I mention this only with a smugg look on my face, Powder Puff Teams. The very idea that girls come together to try and tackle (no pun intended, okay yes, it was intended. <- violation to Chapter 5 "Humor is Reserved to Men Only") such a sport as football, is bonkers!!! AND if such menz out there can momentarily accept that such girls can organize such a team, given we have significantly smaller brains (Chapter 8), they immedicately dismiss their poor lapse in judgement as slap a "SEXY" label on any girl 'attempting' to look athletic or sports oriented. I.E. "Oh, look how cute and sexy they are. They're actually trying to play! Awwwweee." To top it off, such attempts are then mocked further by labeling the event 'Powder Puff Football,' because those silly icky girls are just out there trying to be cute and sexy and 'bonerific' to all the menz watching in their La-Z-Boys.

    I've never played 'Powder Puff Football,' merely for lack of interest. But growing up, I was very active in other sports. I plays softball for 13 years, which as everyone knows, is a 'lesbian sport.' What the fuck does that even mean!?!?!? Simultaneously, I played volleyball for 10 years, and I was actually on a Junior Olympic Team when I tore my rotator cuff, thus ending my athletic career. Even then, even win I was competting on a Pre-Olympic level, trying my damnedest to earn a spot on the Olympic Team, I was still mocked by men. Men that would show up, willy-nilly, at one of the many volleyball tournaments I was at, just to watch girls in spandex shorts 'try' to play a 'real' sport. I know for a fact the random creep-os where not there to specifically watch me, I don't want to appear egotitical, yet I was, on more that one occasion, subjected to their perverted and smarmy comments. Comments like, "look at that ass!" or "nice legs!" or (in sing-song) "who wears short-shorts?" You see, the whole idea that girls, young women, could get together and 'play' any sport that actually had strategy, logic, game-plan, organization of any kind that was meant for more than just to amuse the penis-having bastards, was simply absurd and dismissable. (Oh my, I'm afraid Freud's Theory of Penis Envy just blurted out of me like a political promise made from a word-vomitting, doublespeaking, politician running for office.)

    My point? The central premise regurgitated by millions of men, and even millions of self demoralizing women, that men are the best at physical events simply because of their biology says so, is absurd and ignorant. Even more absurd and ignorant than the idea that it takes three blondes to change a lightbuld….because we know, via our "Lady Handbook," it takes four.

    Reply
  7. @ Eureka

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAha AHAHAHAhahaahAHAHHAHAHA OH MY GAWD YOU MADE ME LAUGH MY UTERUS OUT! *seriously still laughing here*

    Ha ha ha ha! Oh my sweet lord candy jesus on a licorice pogo stick. I love you so much.

    And yes. You are correct, I simply neglected to read my lady handbook. Again. As usual.

    I would add to your comment, but it’s perfect.

    *snort* *giggle* *snerk* BWAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAhahahahahah hahaha

    Reply
  8. I’m so glad you enjoyed my novel of a post. Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. I’m glad it gave you a good chuckle. Heeheehee!

    Reply

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