Monday, December 1, 2008

And Penthesilea Wept


I have always loved mischief-makers.


In their paper “The genetic design of a new Amazon” Claudio Tamburrini and Torbjorn Tannsjo (or perhaps Pan and Loki?) claim that the fact that men and women are prevented from competing against each other means that women are sexually discriminated against in sporting arenas. Ergo, as such discrimination is unacceptable, women should be allowed to undergo genetic modification (when such procedures are safe) to allow them to compete with men, because “In sports it is crucial that the best person wins”. While I am very interested in what the readers of this blog think on the matter, I’m going to nail my colours to the mast right away.


Tamburrini and Tannsjo claim that (A) “If a female athlete can perform better than a male athlete, this female athlete should be allowed to compete with, and beat, the male athlete.” And (B) “If she cannot beat a certain male athlete, so be it. If the competition was fair, she should be able to face the fact that he was more talented. It is really as simple as that.” I agree fully with (A); of course, whether women would want to compete with males, or should be made to, is another question.


(B), though, hints at a problem that Tamburinni and Tannsjo seem to obfuscate. If female athletes are genetically enhanced, any competition against unmodified male athletes simply isn’t fair anymore. In what sense is a victory by an enhanced female athlete over an unmodified male athlete a victory for equality? Presumably, Tamburrini and Tannsjo are either going to allow male athletes to modify themselves in a similar way (so they too can try to be the “best person”), or they are not. If they do, the modifications of the two sexes would seem to “cancel each other out” in a kind of biotechnological arms race (har har), as each athlete attempts to be that best person. And if they don’t, that would seem to be… err… sexual discrimination. (In the background I can hear Derek Zoolander screaming: “Merman pop! I’m a mer-MAN!)


I do hope, though, that in my lifetime genetic enhancements eventually allow one to drastically and safely alter one’s body shape. I have always thought that forcefully preventing me from running in the Grand National was speciesism at its most extreme. How can they separate me from those magnificent thoroughbreds, while farmers and locust swarms compete for the lands produce? While apartment dwellers and foxes see who can squeeze into each other’s living spaces, and humans, dogs and squirrels run together unfettered in Central Park? I don’t enjoy the fact that the market assigns very little value to my present long-distance running and hedge-jumping times, and I would be quite prepared to risk any of the possible side-effects of equine semi-transformation. My hope is that after a few good races, I am put out to stud in a vineyard.

1 comment:

Leslie A. Howe said...

I have to agree with the claim (A) “If a female athlete can perform better than a male athlete, this female athlete should be allowed to compete with, and beat, the male athlete,” and with claim (B) insofar as the condition of fairness can be reached (concerning which I am skeptical, for reasons to be stated presently). I also think Carl raises an important objection (which also bears on the question of fairness). But the deeper problem with these claims, as stated, is that they appear to be contextless.

Of course, women are discriminated against in various ways in sport, or more precisely in various sport-contexts. But men and women participating in the same sport events at the same time is not necessarily a solution. For one thing, there seems to be an operative presumption in such discussions that men's sports are better than women's or, at least, that they are normative–so why wouldn't women want to play "real" football, hockey, etc.; any suitably sport-ambitious women would want to play for real, wouldn't she?

Women's sports are occasionally defined or constructed differently from men's. Sometimes this is presumptive of a lack of skill, stamina, or the like on the part of women (as when basketball had "girl's rules"...and don't get me started on the dress code for volleyball....). But it might also be because there are good sport reasons to play differently, in which case something valuable can be added to the game/sport (say, the ban on fighting in women's (ice) hockey).

Context comes into play in a number of ways here: it is sometimes alleged that development of a given women’s sport can suffer if its best players abandon it for men’s sports. Moreover, that joining the boys does not alter expectations of how a sport ought to be played or pursued, that is, it does not challenge sexist practice if it is simply a matter of doing what they do, trying to fit into a male-defined and controlled ideal of performance. And let us not forget that for women to do this involves not just exceptional physical performance but countering a wall of sexist (and heterosexist) opposition, i.e., a social context of genderised performance expectation that extends well beyond how fast one can run.

I find the idea of biotechnological enhancement of athletes deeply confused (though not for that reason surprising) because, it seems to me, the point of sport activity is to use and develop what you already have; that sport is about me, not my coach or the pharmaceutical industry or even my genetic inheritance or supplementation. Granted, that means that because I’m just barely 170cm my chances of crossing the finish line ahead of someone of equal skill and fitness who is also 182cm are slim, but that’s (a) my bad luck and (b) as it should be. No?