The Danger of Self ID Policies in Women’s Combat Sport

The following blog post was contributed by an anonymous writer.

I have been involved in boxing for a long time, and it is a brutal, violent and dangerous sport. In a boxing match, there are two trained fighters in an enclosed space trying to hurt one another. The object is to score points, but let’s be realistic, in competition boxers try to hurt their opponent, break hearts, noses and ribs, to make the referee step in and stop the fight. Blood, broken bones and nasty injuries are a frequent occurrence. Serious injury is not uncommon, debilitating injuries are not infrequent, and death in the ring is not unheard of.

Over the years, efforts have been made to make boxing safer. There are weight categories and experience categories in competitions. You will not see an experienced boxer competing against a novice, and you will not see a heavyweight pitted against a flyweight. Boxers also undergo strict and consistent medical evaluation, but despite all of these measures boxing remains a dangerous sport.

I am very concerned about the potential effect that self ID policies could have on women’s boxing, and by association women’s combat sports. I am not alone in my concerns. This is a topic of conversation between female boxers, who worry about the effect this might have on the sport. Female boxing pioneer Jane Couch has spoken out about the issue, claiming that it will kill women’s boxing.

Through necessity, a vast majority of female boxers train with male boxers. They train alongside men, and frequently spar men. Just to make it clear what that entails, men punch women in the head and body, repeatedly. A vast majority of these sparring sessions are positive, women can and do learn a lot from their male teammates, and vice versa, that is the point of sparring. However, regardless of weight and experience, women are always at a physical disadvantage to male sparring partners. Women are acutely aware that they are not as strong, and not as fast. Female boxers trust these men and boys not to hurt them, not to use their full strength, this is training after all, and both boxers are trying to help each other.

Anecdotally, female boxers share stories of sparring with boys and men. Stories of times they felt helpless, times men and boys hit harder and more frequently than any female opponent ever did (whether they meant to or not), and times spending rounds trying not to get hurt instead of honing their own skills because their male partners were overpowering them and they did not want to get hurt. While nursing headaches and waiting for the room to stop spinning, there’s comfort in saying ‘women don’t hit like this’.

Accounting for weight, adult men and adult women do not share the same capacity for physical strength, this is true for boys and girls at competitive ages in combat sports. This is a fact (this study of 468 participants looks at muscle tissue and bone density, and another study looks at strength and muscle fiber). Gender identity, even sex reassignment surgery, does not level the playing field between male and female athletes (see the recent Karolinska institute research). In a study in the Journal of Medical Ethics (a subset of the BMJ), researchers concluded that ‘high testosterone and other male physiology provides a performance advantage in sport suggesting that transwomen retain some of that advantage […and…] the advantage to transwomen afforded by the IOC guidelines is an intolerable unfairness’. Hormonal regulation does not mitigate the muscular and skeletal advantages that men have over women.

In all sports, Self ID puts women in a disadvantaged position, and in combat sports in particular, this could lead to serious physical harm for women and girls. Consider the case of Fallon Fox, a transwoman who competed in women’s mixed martial arts after having sex reassignment surgery. In 2014, Fox broke the skull of opponent Tamikka Brents. Of her experience in that fight against Fox, Brents said ‘I can only say, I’ve never felt so overpowered ever in my life and I am an abnormally strong female in my own right’.

If Self ID policies are allowed in sports, and males are able to self-identify as female and compete in women’s divisions, this will have dangerous repercussions for women. Women in combat sports and other physical sports, such as rugby, will be at the highest risk. Sport can, and should, be open to everyone, but competition cannot. Many are ruled out of competition in certain sports for medical reasons, for example, eye and heart conditions. There are plenty of ways for transwomen to be involved in sports, including combat sports – they can train, coach, officiate, volunteer at their local gym, even spar when they’re ready (after all, women spar against men), and compete with men – but competing against women is not one of them.  

Playing competitive sports is not a human right, and going to the Olympics is certainly not a human right. The benefits of sport should be open to all, but not to some at the detriment of others.

A version of this article was submitted to the NACWG September spotlight on sports.

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