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.
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.
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.
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.
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: