Here’s a post that I wrote back in 2013 when there was a lot of discussion going on about it within the women’s MMA world. I recently had a message from someone asking me to put the article back up, so here it is (very slightly edited). I haven’t looked closely to see whether there has been any more relevant research since the article was written – if any readers know of any, I’d be keen to hear about it.
There’s been lots of talk recently about female transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox, and whether she should be able to compete in the women’s division. I’ve had a few discussions about it, and there seem to be a lot of misconceptions going around, so here are my thoughts on the subject.
1) Many of the comments about this subject have been offensive and unnecessary. I think this is a necessary debate, but it needs to be handled respectfully.
2) None of us have a right to compete in professional MMA. People are routinely denied a licence to compete if their medical status means that there could be an increased risk either to themselves or their opponent.
3) MMA is a relatively safe sport, providing that participants are evenly matched by size, strength and ability. We have gender and weight classes not only to ensure fairness, but also to reduce the risks.
4) Contrary to some of the assertions by Fox’s supporters in the media, there appears to be no good scientific evidence that proves Fox does not have a performance advantage over a cis female. Expert opinion is still just opinion – and it seems divided on the subject. Experts may also have their own biases and areas of expertise. Specialists in gender reassignment may not be equally knowledgeable about exercise physiology.
5) The experts supporting Fox have been quite cautious in their assessment. “She probably does not have a significant advantage” and “her musculature is comparable to that of a woman” are a long way from saying “we know for a fact that she does not have a performance advantage over a cis female”.
6) The differences between men and women in sport depend on a great deal more than current hormone levels and muscle mass. For example, men have a higher ratio of type II to type I muscle fibres, which is associated with improved speed and explosive power, and a heart that is larger relative to body size. It’s not clear to what extent either of these would change after sex-reassignment surgery, or what implications that would have for performance in this case. Because of the bone structure that is developed while still growing, men also have a greater lung capacity and a narrower pelvis, giving a biomechanical advantage – factors which are highly unlikely to be reversed by hormone treatment. There are likely to be other factors that differ between men and women in terms of athletic performance that we aren’t even aware of.
7) Fox’s supporters point to the fact that male to female transgender athletes are allowed to compete as female in the olympics to support their argument that she should be able to compete in the women’s division in MMA. The IOC appears to base it’s policy on the principle that without firm evidence that an unfair advantage exists, transgender fighters should be allowed to compete in the interests of inclusivity. I agree that equality of participation is a nice ideal, and it’s a reasonable argument if we’re talking about sports like tennis or kayaking. But in a sport where one participant is trying to do physical damage to another, the burden of proof should be reversed. We need good scientific evidence to support the assertion that Fox has no advantage as a result of having been born male. Lack of evidence of an advantage isn’t sufficient – especially when so little evidence exists.
8) We should also consider the possibility that the IOC decision may not be based entirely on scientific evidence (of which there appears to be very little), but also take into account factors such as social pressure and (rightly, in my opinion) the desire to be inclusive.
9) Good research on this subject that takes into account all the relevant factors is hard to do, for a variety of reasons. Several people have suggested that performance testing could establish whether Fox’s attributes (strength, power, VO2 max, etc) lie within “normal range” for a female athlete. Leaving aside the statistical issues, a significant problem with this idea is the question of how to measure performance variables in an athlete who – by the nature of the situation – would not have an incentive to produce her best possible performance.
10) I sympathise with Fox’s position, and I don’t agree with those who say that she should not be allowed to fight. On the other hand, I believe it was wrong that Fox’s opponents were not informed of the situation so they could make their own assessment of the risks and give consent. This will obviously not be an issue in future in Fox’s case; but I’m concerned about the athletic commissions’ position that the opponent has no right to know. My opinion is that if someone is going to be legally punching me in the face, then it’s absolutely my business if she went through adolescence as a male. While I understand the concerns about privacy, I don’t think that in this case the right to privacy trumps the opponent’s right to make an informed decision about the risks she is taking.
Finally – if anyone has access to any scientific research that I seem to have missed, please send it to me! I am happy to revise my opinion as and when new information becomes available. I’m hopeful that in the future there will be more good evidence available.
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