Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.
One topic we haven’t properly addressed in our Radical columns so far is sport — and, specifically, the ongoing heated debate about who counts as a ‘woman’ means for women’s sport. Yet, for many people, this is an obvious starting point into the kinds of things we’ve been discussing. And various recent events have pushed it into the limelight. See, for instance, discussion following last week’s announcement that eight of Australia’s ‘peak sporting bodies’ have ‘committed to implementing governance that supports a greater level of inclusion for trans and gender diverse people in their sports’.
First, a quick reminder of our focus at Radical. We believe that everyone should be treated with equal fundamental respect, and that people should be free to behave and express themselves as they wish. But that, in organised political society — made up of many human beings, with often competing needs and preferences — there must be some caveats to the second of these beliefs.
A standard example of this involves harm: you can do what you want, as long as you don’t harm others. And one function of positive law is to adjudicate — along that line and others — in situations in which one person’s needs and preferences rub up against another’s. Some situations, however, remain outside of law’s jurisdiction, as matters for us to determine for ourselves, privately. And some fit within the remit of various other kinds of rules and regulations.
Sport neatly exemplifies these distinctions. Some matters within sport are matters for the law of the land. If I stab you while we’re playing football, it’s not just the referee I’m going to have to deal with
And some matters are private, or community-based — whether you cheated in our newly made-up version of competitive hit-the-ball-against-the-wall, or whether I infringed my tennis club’s particular dress-code rules by wearing my dinosaur t-shirt in the pavilion.
And some matters are for national or international regulatory organisations: the England and Wales Cricket Board, the British Horseracing Authority, the International Paralympic Committee, and so on. One thing that seems certain, however, is that games involve rules and that when we play a game, we agree to abide by its rules.
Now, that could be seen as a bit of a controversial claim: the word ‘game’ is famously hard to define, after all. But, for our purposes, let’s accept that sports are a kind of game, and that if you’re not willing to accept that there are going to be some rules to follow, then you’d better not bother playing. (Indeed, it might even be the case that you’re not actually playing, if you don’t accept that.)
But what the rules should be is a different matter. Various concerns will be relevant, here — from coherence to tradition to safety to competitiveness — and the content and enforcement of the rules deriving from these concerns will differ owing to the formality of the situation, and various other relevant factors. We’re probably not going to need to commit to the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern method for our knock-around in the park.
Where might all this get us to on the pressing question of inclusion within women’s sport? This question is a subset of a bigger question: who counts as a woman, more generally, in our society? And it’s a question that’s become difficult even to ask. Just try. You’ll probably come up against some vitriol pretty quickly, and, sadly, particularly if you’re not a man…
However, just because this question didn’t used to be asked, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be asked now: that’s not a good argument. That said, it’s always worth noting that genuine social and legal change tends to follow relatively broad, and often hard-won, societal consensus. What is disappointing, however, is when people try to censor questions like this on the grounds that they are fundamentally hateful.
Now, I’m a bit hardcore on the matter of whether there are any topics that are morally beyond the bounds of discussion: I tend to think that even the most seemingly settled matters benefit from debate, and that formally preventing this is not only wrong but often counter-productively risky. Beyond that, however, it seems clear that there very much are discussions to be had on this particular matter at this particular moment.
Arguments for or against the involvement of trans women in women’s sport typically come down to three types of reason, related, respectively, to harm, fairness, and rights. For instance, there are claims of harm coming from both sides of the argument. Put simply, some people believe that trans women should be allowed to play on women’s sports teams because, if they are not, then these trans women would be at risk of psychological damage, Whereas, some people believe that trans women should not be allowed to play on women’s sports teams because this would put the natal women on these teams at risk of physical harm.
The fairness and rights arguments play out along similar lines, relating to the exclusion or inclusion of trans women in what was previously deemed to be a domain only for natal women, and all three types of argument often overlap. For instance, it might be argued that allowing trans women on women’s sports teams is unfair to natal women because they might suffer physical harm, or that being put at risk of such harm would violate their rights. It’s also the case that someone might be on one ‘side’ in one of these arguments, and on the other in another — or, of course, claim that they’re on both sides, in one or all of them.
In fact, many people do try to be on both sides of these arguments, sticking up both for natal women and trans women. And why wouldn’t you? Well, two reasons jump out.
The first is that this is very much a zero-sum game: you cannot both have trans women playing on women’s teams, and also only have natal women playing on them. The second reason is a little more complex, but comes down to the fact that the side of the argument that initially seems to preference someone may not truly reflect that person’s best interests. In other words, it might turn out that ‘sticking up’ for someone, in this sense, isn’t really a good thing to do for them: for instance, if you know that your friend has told you a lie, it’s often not in their interests for you to go along with that lie.
So, in the case of participation within women’s sports, it seems as if there are some pressing decisions to be made. And, to return to our discussion above, part of what needs to be determined here is who should make these decisions. Which parts of all this, if any, are a matter for democratic society at large, via law? Which parts should be up to experts in official sporting bodies? Which parts to the membership of individual clubs or other organisations? Which to individual players?
And part of this relates to the scope of the question. Sex isn’t deemed relevant to all sports; sex is sometimes only deemed relevant when considered in tandem with other matters, like age. (Young children often play sport in mixed teams at school, for instance.) And beyond that, what part should tradition play in the formal and informal rule-making of sports? And other considerations such as excellence and opportunity and competitiveness and fun? And when does a sport stop being a sport, or stop being the particular sport it once was? How many rule changes can you have? What matters here and why?
The more I think about all this, the more I realise why we haven’t really addressed this topic in our Radical columns so far. Superficially, it can seem the simplest of relevant areas of discussion. And parts of it definitely are: if you’re going to try to tell me that it’s simply not at all problematic for a six-foot-three 20-stone former-men’s-team loose-half prop to turn up for trials at the local women’s rugby club, and you won’t even consider why it might be problematic, then we’re probably not going to get very far.
Indeed, I’d take a pot shot at the idea that you have no comprehension of what sportsmanship is — never mind its value, both to sport and to society in general. But once we get past the simple cases, we get into much more complex territory. And I’d contend that part of the reason for this complexity is that rules in sport are part of the game.
A bit like morality, if you break the rules you’re not really playing; if you over-regulate, you crowd out virtue. But, beyond that, it’s simply not an easy normative domain to which we just apply our standard principles. Often, sport involves special exceptions: people doing things that are normally deemed too risky to themselves or others; people doing things that would normally be deemed, well, stupid or pointless, or lacking value in other senses. Games have a curious relationship with the real world. And determining their rules is never easy.