Don't worry: The world's best female soccer players have been 'sex-tested'

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Marco Werman: Here’s one more thing you might not know about the Women’s World Cup: before taking part in the tournament, all the players have to prove that they are, in fact, women. We’ve asked Katrina Karkazis to join us to explain. She’s a bioethicist at Stanford University and she studies how elite women athletes are testing for gender--not just in soccer, but in all sports. First of all Katrina, what is sex-testing? How does it work for the upcoming Women’s World Cup?


Katrina Karkazis: You know Marco, that’s actually a great question, because it’s not clear. We know from news reports that it sounds as though the German team actually requested the gynecological records of their players to confirm sex, but it doesn’t say in the policy where exactly in the body they’re going to look to confirm women’s sex. So, it’s a little bit of a black box, to be honest.


Werman: How has it happened in the past? I mean, do they also take blood samples, or what do they look for?


Karkazis: Yeah, there’s a long history of changing physical traits they’ve looked at. So, they looked at chromosomes; they actually, for a brief period, did body examines and genital examines. And the interesting thing to me about the FIFA policy is that the IOC has actually said they’re no longer doing sex-testing because you can’t actually test for sex.


Werman: The International Olympic Committee. So, they’ve done away with it.


Karkazis: They’ve claimed to do away with it, and yet FIFA actually still, in its policy, claims to be doing it, and so it’s really a holdover from an older period. But these kinds of tests have been roundly criticized by professional medical organizations starting 20 to 30 years ago because you can’t test for sex.


Werman: I mean, you can know a person’s sex. I mean, all you have to do is, you know, look “downstairs,” right?


Karkazis: Actually, you can’t. So, that’s the misconception that most people have, that you could 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 within each of those sex traits. So, there’s not one particular trait that all people labeled women have. You can’t do it. It’s just more complicated. It doesn’t mean that we have a free-for-all here. It just means there’s no one thing, like chromosomes, that’s actually the definitive determinant of sex.


Werman: Are you saying that there’s really no need for men’s and women’s leagues?


Karkazis: Absolutely not. In fact, I think there are. But here’s the interesting thing to me about the FIFA policy: these are women who have lived and competed as women their whole 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. And there’s something else interesting here. It says it applies to men, but actually, as reported in The Guardian by someone in the English Premier League, they said, “I’ve never come across testing being carried out on men,” and the reason is that these policies are really only ever applied to women.


Werman: And what’s been the rationale for testing women for sex? Like, why does FIFA say it’s necessary?


Karkazis: Your guess is as good as mine. So, there have been a lot of different rationales given. The earliest one was that men would masquerade as women. But historically that fear hasn’t been born out, and even policy makers agree that that’s not a really valid concern. In the latest policies by the Olympics, there’s a concern about testosterone providing unfair advantage, and these are not women who are doping but women who have naturally high levels. But the FIFA policy doesn’t mention testosterone, and it’s not a testosterone-based policy, and in my view it’s a solution in search of a problem.


Werman: Is there a high profile case in which there was--we’ll call it, for lack of a better word--encroachment of someone who was suspected to be more male, trying to get into a women’s league of some sort?


Karkazis: There wasn’t anything like that, but there have certainly been players targeted, including a Korean player, and here’s the problem with this: it really allows a kind of a witch hunt of players who are gender nonconforming or who are not read as feminine enough, because people slip very quickly from seeing a woman with short hair, or perhaps who’s more muscular, to thinking, “Oh, maybe she’s male,” and associations can bring investigations. And so that’s what happened in the case of the Korean player; she’s been tested multiple times. So, there’s a real concern I have around abuse of this policy.


Werman: You’re talking about a women’s soccer player now, right?


Karkazis: Absolutely, yes. And so they can target women who are not perceived as feminine enough, arguing, “Well maybe if they’re not feminine enough, they actually may be male.” But it looks like maybe the reason was to actually get her out of play because she’s so good. Who knows, you know?


Werman: I mean, it sounds really what you’re saying, Katrina, is that this sex-testing policy for the Women’s World Cup, whatever that actually means, is kind of an antiquated idea. How long do you think it’s going to be around for?


Karkazis: So, your listeners may not know that there was an Indian athlete named Dutee Chand who’s a track and field athlete, who actually challenged track and field policy in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. That’s the supreme court of sport, and that decision is forthcoming. So, it may be that her challenge significantly changes the policy or perhaps even gets rid of it, but we don’t know yet.


Werman: Do you favor scrapping the sex-testing, or do you have any suggestions to make it somehow relevant?


Karkazis: I don’t think it’s needed because I’m not clear what the problem is. There aren’t men masquerading as women, there’s not evidence for the testosterone ones that those women have unfair advantage over any other physical trait. So, I am in favor of scrapping it. I think it discriminates against women.


Werman: Katrina Karkazis, bioethicist at Stanford University. Thank you.


Karkazis: Thank you so much.