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Women’s physical and athletic abilities

[This started as a comment on a post about this topic. It’s since expanded.]

One of the side effects of all the discussion around including transwomen in women’s sports has been the regular repetition that women are slower and weaker and can’t compete with the male-bodied. I wanted to add a biologist’s view on that and then mention something I saw about ultramarathoners.

So I’ll start with women being smaller, weaker, and all the rest.

When I was young and foolish I once asked my biology teacher why it was that way. It seems to cause nothing but problems. She pointed out that female physiology and anatomy puts its first priority on producing the next generation. Take for instance menstruation. If you have that level of internal bleeding in any other organ, male or female, you’re in the emergency room. Women’s physiology can withstand it to the extent that some women can even run marathons at the same time.

Males, on the other hand, expend very little physical capital in producing the next generation. In nature’s cold calculations, that means they’re expendable. You don’t need very many of them and you’ll still have a next generation. The tribes that survived the most were the ones where males used that expendability in the service of the tribe: they did the dangerous jobs of defense against other people and wild animals. Obviously, for that task, you’ll last longer if you’re big, fast and strong.

But wouldn’t women last longer too, by the same logic, if they were big and fast and strong? No, for a very simple reason. All that muscle and large skeleton and higher basal metabolism takes calories to maintain. For most of human history, calories were in short supply.

A pregnant or nursing woman with male athletic abilities would have a physiology that required way more calories per day, on the order of over 4000, instead of the 3000 or so she needs if she’s woman-sized. Interestingly enough, athletic men have caloric requirements of around 3000 too.

So the system as evolution worked it out for us is that both sexes have similar peak needs and can survive under similar conditions. Some of the peak work they do differs, but the overall requirements are the same. That allows them to live together in groups, which has lots of survival value itself, instead of living like two different species that have different requirements.

As for the problems caused by strength differences, it’s worth remembering that from an evolutionary standpoint, no tribe would last very long if the bear-fighters in it decided to use their strength to damage the next generation instead of help it. Hurting the mothers of it does exactly that. Evolutionary biologists call that reduction in offspring “reducing evolutionary fitness,” and a very small reduction is enough to wipe out a species.

Misogyny is a luxury available only to rich species.

Point 1 is that women push their bodies and physical abilities to a level like that of elite athletes, with the difference that most women do childbirth and nursing, but plenty of men don’t put large demands on their bodies at all. The weakness people keep yammering on about is pretty much limited to a few specific activities that men excel in.

Point 2 is that the usual solution to significant differences in sporting ability is to segregate the participants into different classes. There are youth leagues and seniors’ events. There are eight (8!) classes in boxing separated by approximately eight pounds, just a bit over three and a half kilos. And there are men’s sports and women’s. Only in the latter case do some people claim that large differences in bone and muscle mass don’t matter. They’ve decided only testosterone levels must approach those found in women. That’s particularly odd given that, for instance, in a sport like boxing fighters will try to dehydrate themselves to pass as a lower weight class and then have the advantage of an extra few pounds of mass (not muscle, just water) during the fight itself.

It’s actually more than odd since scholarships, prize money, or college tuition can be at stake. Taking those away from women on grounds that aren’t applied in any male classes of sport smacks of misogyny.

And, last, point 3. The much-ballyhooed business of being weaker. Turns out that’s not true in some very demanding sports. Are women better ultra-endurance athletes than men? asks Sophie Williams.

“He [Dr Nicholas Tiller, a senior lecturer in applied physiology at Sheffield Hallam University] said that in ultra-endurance races, athletes are never working close to their maximum capacity. It is much more about peripheral conditioning, oxygen efficiency and mental toughness.” …

Fiona Oakes, an ultra-marathon runner and holder of four world records [said,]

“Certainly from when I’ve done races, women manage themselves in a completely different way,” she told the BBC.

Let’s see … tougher, better able to cope with emotions, more stamina … not your usual definition of “weaker,” is it?

Sometimes — well, all the time — I dream of a better world in which we’ve dropped all the stupid boxes nobody really fits in anyway. Instead, we’re in awe of the amazing diversity of strengths we have.

Fiona Kolbinger, winner, 2019 Transcontinental Race

Fiona Kolbinger, whose day job is cancer research, wins the 4000km 2019 Transcontinental (Europe) Race 10 hours ahead of the guy in second place. (Photographer unknown)

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One of these things is not like the others

This is a public service announcement? I don’t know. An announcement, anyway.

Start with the flatteningly obvious. Discrimination on the basis of sex, race, creed, national origin, age, weight, or sexual orientation is Not Okay. It’s not okay because it has no basis in fact. None of those characteristics is correlated in any way with anything that matters. (Yes, there is a boatload of excellent research supporting that point.) They are irrelevant. Discriminating on that basis does not work, in the sense of improving human life in any way.

Now continue with the equally obvious. Being transgender is also irrelevant to intelligence, kindness, or competence. Discriminating against transgender people in work, housing, education, or who can get married will also not improve anyone’s life in any way.

Let’s end with the one blindingly obvious difference. Sex does affect anything to do with biology, including medicine. Sex is a fact. Facts don’t care how you feel. Pretending otherwise changes exactly nothing. Hounding people for “transphobia” if they research the consequences of hormone therapy might get them fired, hounded, no platformed, or piled on [the Times article is behind a paywall], but it won’t change the resulting sterility, loss of orgasm, osteoporosis, stroke, and so on (pdf) through a list of side effects as long as your arm.

Sex also makes a difference in a world organized on a sexual caste system to exploit women’s labor and reproductive ability. Unlike biology, we can change society, and it would be great if we entered a new age of humankind where none of the gendered bullshit operated anymore.

We do not live in that world. Pretending otherwise does nothing but enable willful blindness to the injustice, and the people who suffer from that most immediately are women. Women can’t identify out of being raped or being underpaid. When those with a male developmental trajectory identify into women’s athletics and take the scholarships or money prizes, women can’t identify into a lifetime of enough testosterone to take the prizes back. Nor can female fetuses identify out of being aborted on the basis of their sex.

public restrooms at Exmoor National Park labelled one for men, the other for everyone
“There is a word for a situation where women talking about female bodies is considered impermissibly antisocial, where describing the consequences of sexism for women is systematically impeded, where resources for women are redistributed to male users while resources for men are left in male hands…. The word is misogyny.” Sarah Ditum, The Economist, 2018-07-05

In this world it’s a fact that almost all (around 98%) of sexual violence is done by males. (Are we all sufficently tired of Not All Men? I hope so. The link is to an article about violent crime, but the same pattern holds for mere harassment. Very few perps can make a majority suffer.) Putting women in the bind of having to mindread male intentions in places where they undress or can’t escape is not a hallmark of tolerance. It’s a hallmark of assuming women don’t count. We all have a right to be, as the law puts it, secure in our persons. We get to do that without mindreading. The fact that men also target transpeople doesn’t make it women’s responsibility to compensate for the violence.

And that is the difference with other liberation movements. They struggled for their own civil rights. None of them tried to deprive others of what they wanted for themselves. Calling people who point these things out “transphobic” does not indicate virtuous tolerance for transpeople. It indicates a denial of facts on the order of flat earthers or creationists. It indicates a complete disregard for the human rights of women.

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