Matthew called my attention to a tweet that highlighted this article. I was disturbed to read it, because it’s full of half-truths, distortions, and false claims that I didn’t expect in a magazine of the The Atlantic’s quality. The author, Maggie Mertens, is a writer and journalist living in Seattle.
First, what is Mertens calling for? Apparently for an end to the segregation of “school sports” and “youth sports” by sex.
So what are “youth sports”—do they extend past puberty? Because if they do, then you’ll have to deal with the issue of the differences in bone, muscles, grip strength, and other athletic-related traits that arise men and women after puberty. Since Mertens doesn’t give an age range, and doesn’t mention the word “puberty” in her piece, I’ll take “school sports” to mean sports from elementary until the end of high school: that is, from first through 12th grades, or roughly between the ages of six and eighteen. (Mertens implies below that high-school sports are included). In women puberty occurs between ages eight and thirteen, and in men between nine and fourteen, so nearly all high-school sports (8th or 9th through 12th grades) will involve youths who have already gone through puberty.
That means that the biological differences between men and women (Mertens attributes some of them to socialization—training—which may play a minor role) will already be manifesting themselves in the most widely-followed brand of youth sports: high-school athletics. Now I have no opinion on whether sports should be segregated by sex before the participants reach puberty, as I don’t know a good study of strength, muscle, and other relevant differences at that time. But we know a great deal about biological differences that, mediated by hormones, occur after puberty, giving males a performance advantage in virtually every sport except for very long-distance running. (I’m not sure about sports like shooting or archery, but am referring to ones that are heavily dependent on musculature, mass, speed, and strength.) I have discussed these in detail in previous posts.
Here are a few bit of Mertens’s piece I object to. Her quotes are indented, and since I’ve given evidence for biological differences before, I won’t repeat them here. But you can easily Google those differences or click on the link just above.
A.) Mertens constantly conflates “sex” and “gender.” The issue is one of biological sex: men versus women. There are just two of these, while gender can come in many varieties because they are social roles. Nevertheless, Mertens keeps using “gender” when she should use “sex”. After all, sex is the issue, not whether people who identify as binary should compete against one sex or another. The exception, of course, is if you consider “transsexual” a gender role, and in that case the issue has always been whether transsexual women who have had medical interventions during their transition should compete against biological women. (There should be no issue about biological males who claim that they are really of female gender should compete against biological females. They shouldn’t.) Few girls should have any medical treatment until they’ve gone through puberty, or so I think. My emphasis in the quote below:
School sports are typically sex-segregated, and in America some of them have even come to be seen as either traditionally for boys or traditionally for girls: Think football, wrestling, field hockey, volleyball. However, it’s becoming more common for these lines to blur, especially as Gen Zers are more likely than members of previous generations to reject a strict gender binary altogether. Maintaining this binary in youth sports reinforces the idea that boys are inherently bigger, faster, and stronger than girls in a competitive setting—a notion that’s been challenged by scientists for years.
No, it’s the sex binary we’re talking about. If we’re talking about gender, there may be a gender bimodality, with one mode at “male gender” and the other at “female gender”, but it’s more bimodal rather than binary because a fair number of youths assume other genders. Her statement in bold is about sex, not gender. And, for post-puberty youths, it’s just wrong.
B.) Men don’t have average biological advantages over women in athletic performance. Scientific research says that for virtually every trait you can measure after puberty that affects athletic performance, males have more of what you need to succeed than do women. That’s why we segregate sports by sex in the first place, for to do so would be unfair to women, who would almost never win in mixed competitions. Granted, some women are athletically superior to some males, but we’re talking averages, and the distributions are in general so widely separated that were the Olympics always a mixed-sex competition among school-aged athletes, you’d almost never see a woman on the podium, for that’s where people stand who are in the upper tails of the distributions.
Mertens says this:
Decades of research have shown that sex is far more complex than we may think. And though sex differences in sports show advantages for men, researchers today still don’t know how much of this to attribute to biological difference versus the lack of support provided to women athletes to reach their highest potential. “Science is increasingly showing how sex is dynamic; it has multiple aspects and also shifts; for example, social experiences can actually change levels of sex-related hormones like testosterone in our bodies in a second-to-second and month-to-month way!”
First she admits what she denies above: that men have no inherent advantages over women in athletics. But she achieves this dissonance by saying that the differences in strength, speed, musculature, and so on might be largely attributable to differential training, a form of socialization. I would argue, however, that, given the uniformity of results despite big differences in training of a given sex among schools, nearly all the athletic advantages map to biology and not training. The variation and “dynamic” nature of sex baffles me. Yes, testosterone levels may fluctuate, but not in a way that would average out the huge difference between males and females after puberty.
C.) Mertens’s dependence on anecdotes. Here’s Mertens’s argument for NOT separating school sports by sex:
The insistence on separating sports teams strictly by sex is backwards, argues Michela Musto, an assistant sociology professor at the University of British Columbia who has studied the effect of the gender binary on students and young athletes. “Part of the reason why we have this belief that boys are inherently stronger than girls, and even the fact that we believe that gender is a binary, is because of sport itself, not the other way around,” she told me by phone. The strict sex segregation we’ve instilled in sports at all levels gives the impression that men and women have completely different capabilities, but in reality, she said, the relationship between sex and athletic capability is never so cut-and-dried. “There are some boys who also could get really hurt if they were competing against other boys in contact sports.” Researchers have noted for years that there may even be more diversity in athletic performance within a sex than between the sexes. One recent small study in Norway found no innate sex difference when it came to youth-soccer players’ technical skills. The researchers hypothesized that the gap they did find between girls and boys was likely due to socialization, not biology.
Check out the Norway study, based on 16 men and 17 women, all past puberty (high school age). The skills analyzed were passing and receiving the ball (not diverse “technical skills,” as Mertens implies). But you don’t have to be a genius to know that success in soccer is dependent on speed and strength as well, and shooting as well as passing and receiving. Her reliance on this study as a reason to implement mixed-sex teams in school athletics is duplicitous.
D.) If we have mixed sex teams, how will we decide who gets to participate? Currently, at least in high school, your participation on an athletic team is based on your ability and achievements. If you did that for, say high school football or basketball, the teams would wind up nearly all male. Women would be disappointed non-participants—unless there was a quota system, a kind of athletic equity. When I tried out for Little League baseball, I was immediately cut from the the tryouts because I couldn’t handle grounders; I lacked the ability to play at even that level of sport. (I still remember the hurt I felt, and how I had to hide my tears from my dad, who was himself a great baseball player.)
E.) Mixed-sex teams are unfair to (biological women). Title IX assures women equal access to sports, as it should. Mixed-sex teams, if put together on ability, at least after puberty, would deny women that access. Further, Mertens seems to miss an important reason for separating male from female sports in schools. Emphasis below is mine:
While the need to separate athletes by sex is still held firmly by many as a way to protect girls and women from harm, many people advocate for moving to a more integrated and inclusive approach. The Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by the tennis legend Billie Jean King, offered guidance on how girls and boys can equitably compete with and against each other: “If the skill, size and strength of any participant, female or male, compared to others playing on the team creates the potential of a hazardous environment, participation may be limited on the basis of these factors, rather than the sex of the participant.” In other words, if a girl on the football team needs to be assessed for her size and strength for safety reasons, so should all of the boys.
I still maintain this creates unfairness for female athletes given the biological differences between the sexes. It would still exclude women disproportionately from participation. But what I object to most strongly is the first sentence. The separation of the sexes is, I think, not mainly to protect women from harm (really? in tennis, high-jumping, running, snowboarding, ski jumping, and a gazillion other sports?). Rather, it’s to allow women to participate and excel, which wouldn’t be nearly as possible on mixed-sex teams.
I should add that Mertens does cite some women participating on men’s teams in high-school sports:
But some young people seem intent on challenging the binary sports system. In 2018, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, 2,404 girls played high-school tackle football, up from fewer than 1,000 in 2008. Around the country, the number of girls on wrestling teams increased to 28,447 in the 2019–20 season from just 4,975 in 2005. In 2019, Trista Blasz, a then-12-year-old wrestling phenom, was denied her request to join Lancaster High School’s junior-varsity boys’ team through the New York guidelines.
But note that this is for women playing on traditional men’s teams, while the issue is biological men playing on traditional women’s teams. I have no objections to having teams labeled “women” and “other” to deal with high-functioning women athletes, or some have suggested a third, intermediate category. But that has never been a solution for gender activists.
F.) Mertens’s “solution” is unworkable. Here’s what she envisions:
A different youth-sports world is possible. Musto has observed a swim team in California, for instance, whose athletes are separated by ability rather than sex; it has changed how the kids view one another. “It wasn’t a big deal if they had to share lanes with one another or they were competing against one another during practice. Gender wasn’t the primary thing that was shaping the perceptions of who was a good athlete or not,” she said. But as long as laws and general practice of youth sports remain rooted in the idea that one sex is inherently inferior, young athletes will continue to learn and internalize that harmful lesson.
For one thing, I don’t see youth sports as “rooted in the idea that females are inferior”. They are rooted in the fact that, at least after puberty, men and women are different, and different in big ways with little overlap. That difference mandates separation of the sexes on grounds of fairness, a fairness that allows women who want to do athletics to have a chance to compete and excel.
But seriously, how could you have basketball or football or soccer divided up by ability? That would create many different (and much smaller) teams within a school. How many football teams can you have? And, for most but not all sports (wrestling, archery, and individual rather than team tennis could be exceptions), this just isn’t practical.
Finally, I’d like to know what Mertens thinks about athletics beyond high school: college and professional sports. Why, given her assertions about biological equality of sexes and the effects of socialization, shouldn’t those be subject to her suggestions as well?
Read the article (it’s not long) and feel free to disagree below.