Sex Selection

04.14.1411:26 AM ET

A Not-So-Level Playing Field

“Masculine” female athletes are forced to undergo sex testing – and treatment – if they wish to compete professionally.

After fellow athletes questioned the sex of South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya in 2009, she was barred from competition and required to undergo “sex testing.” In 2011, major sports governing bodies, including the Olympics Committee, instituted eligibility rules: if a female athlete’s body produces more testosterone than is typical, she must either take drugs or have surgery to lower the hormone level. If she refuses, she is placed under a permanent ban from elite women’s sports. Last year four female athletes, all from developing countries, were investigated for high testosterone. It turned out that they were all born as girls but had internal testes that produce unusually high levels of testosterone for a woman. The solution? Removing the women’s internal sex organs and partially removing their clitorises. All four women agreed and a year later, they were allowed to return to competition. While the doctors who performed the surgeries acknowledged that there was no medical reason for the procedure, sports authorities reason that testosterone gives women an advantage and therefore screening for high T levels is needed to keep women’s athletics fair. But emerging research shows that T levels can’t predict who will run faster, lift more weight or fight harder to win. Should women, usually poor women with limited opportunities, have to choose between medically unnecessary procedures – harmful ones at that – or their careers?