In defence of women’s sports

by Daphna Whitmore

Fallon Fox

Fallon Fox became a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter in 2013 and won her first fight in two minutes and the next fight in 39 seconds. A few days later Fox came out as a trans woman after being contacted by a reporter who told her “I know”. Fox had kept her trans status a secret from her trainer and her opponents. She stated it was a private medical matter and that the women she was competing against did not need to know.

Fox went on to win several more professional fights, beating Tamikka Brents in a TKO in two-and-a-half minutes. Brents was concussed, with a smashed eye socket and needed seven staples to the head. Brents described the fight:

I’ve fought a lot of women and have never felt the strength that I felt in a fight as I did that night. I can’t answer whether it’s because she was born a man or not because I’m not a doctor. 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… I still disagree with Fox fighting. Any other job or career I say have a go at it, but when it comes to a combat sport I think it just isn’t fair.”

There are gender and weight classes in sports to ensure fairness and to reduce the risks. So where does that leave trans women in sports competitions?

Martial arts commentator Joe Rogan believes Fox wasn’t winning because she was a good fighter, “she was manhandling the women”. Fallon Fox argued that she won her fights fairly, and cited her loss to fighter Ashlee Evans Smith as proof she was physically mid-range for a woman athlete.

Fox’s loss to Ashlee Evan Smith proves his point, says Rogan. “Fox is not good, she was just winning because she was a man.” Rogan points out that Fallon’s gender reassignment operation “doesn’t shave down your bone density. It doesn’t change. You look at a man’s hands, and you look at a woman’s hands, and they’re built different. They’re just thicker. They’re stronger. Your wrists are thicker. Your elbows are thicker. Your joints are thicker. Just the mechanical function of punching, a man can do it much harder than a woman can, period.”

The number of trans women competing in womens sports is small but notable. Earlier this year trans woman Laurel Hubbard competed for New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games after winning a string of international weight lifting competitions including gold at the Australian Open. Trans woman Kate Weatherly in February this year won the elite women’s division in New Zealand’s downhill mountain bike national championships. And this month Rachel McKinnon, a Canadian trans woman cyclist, won the UCI Masters Track Cycling World Championship.

If trans women’s sporting outcomes were spread from back of the field to front of the field there would be little concern. However when a tiny minority of participants scoop top spots repeatedly the question of fairness naturally arises.

In 2016, the International Olympic Committee established that female-to-male athletes are allowed to compete without restriction, but male-to-female athletes are required to undergo hormone therapy. Many sporting bodies now follow the IOC guidelines.

Was the IOC’s decision backed by science? Otago University professor in physiology Alison Heather believes there was a rush to include transgender athletes in male and female categories without adequate research.

The IOC rules that trans women must have testosterone levels of 10nmol/l. Normal reference ranges for women are less than 2nmol/l while the male reference range is 7-29nmol/l. (

Alison Heather points out “It hasn’t been studied, but logical science will tell you someone who has three times more testosterone has the advantage physically. We need to do more research before arguing either way.”

Hormone treatment and surgery changes phenotype (external appearance) but does not change the length of bones and many other physiological differences if the gender reassignment is after puberty.

On average men have larger and longer bones than women. They have greater bone density and a heavier skeleton can support more muscle. In trans women bone density is not lost when testosterone is lowered as oestrogen supplements they take protect existing bone.

Men also have thicker skulls and jaws, broader shoulders and larger hands. These are significant advantages in combat sports. Narrower hips make for faster more efficient running. These differences are still present after gender reassignment.

On average men have greater muscle mass and tougher ligaments. They have more fast-twitch muscle fibre which generate greater force and speed. Men also have faster reaction times for auditory and visual stimuli. They have more androgen (male hormone) receptors on muscles cells which is an advantage even when testosterone levels are lowered. For trans women who were formerly male athletes there is also muscle memory from muscle stimulus and skills learnt while being male. The mental advantage of having previously achieved at a high level is well recognised and was discussed at the time Laurel Hubbard was competing as she had been a competitive lifter as a young man.

There are also cardiovascular differences that remain. On average men have a 25 percent greater lung capacity. Even when men and women are matched for height and age there is a 10 to 12 percent difference in lung capacity as womens’ physiques are shaped to allow abdominal displacement in pregnancy. Men have larger hearts, with thicker heart muscle and greater blood volume output. They have higher red blood cell numbers with greater oxygen carrying capacity.

There are some sports where sex differences have less impact such as horse racing and equestrian events. Long-distance ocean swimming is another where the gap between men and women narrows where women’s higher body fat can be an advantage in cold water.

Across most sports sex difference is a reality. The gap is such that in 1998 a male tennis player, Karsten Braasch, who was ranked 203rd easily beat the Williams sisters: Serena 6-1, then Venus 6-2.

The gap in sport performance narrowed over the 20th century as women made headway in breaking down the barriers to participating in sports. The gap has not closed however, and has remained virtually static for three decades. In running from 100 meters to the 10,000 meters the gap between elite male and female performers is around 11 percent. In the long jump women are 19 percent behind men. Overall the male-female gap ranges from 5.5% (800-m freestyle swimming) to 36.8% (weight lifting).

Trans activists argue against any distinctions between trans women and those born female. They also maintain that hormone therapy ensures that trans women are not physically advantaged. Their argument is that people are what they claim to be and that gender identity is destiny and biological sex is a flawed concept. Some argue that ‘biological sex’ is a social construct used to defend transmisogyny.

As things stand the objective physical differences in sport cannot be swept away by proclamation and hormone supplements. Categories for sex, weight, age, and disabled are well established and accepted in sports competitions. It is time for transgender athletes to be able to compete in a way that allows full participation without trampling on women’s sport.


  1. “As things stand the objective physical differences in sport cannot be swept away by proclamation and hormone supplements. Categories for sex, weight, age, and disabled are well established and accepted in sports competitions. It is time for transgender athletes to be able to compete in a way that allows full participation without trampling on women’s sport.”

    Good, well-reasoned and informative article, except for the last sentence, which leaves the question unanswered. What is that way? Obviously there are not enough male-to-female transgender athletes to have a separate competitive category for them. And the author makes a good argument that allowing male-to-female transgender athletes to compete against women is unfair and potentially dangerous.

      • Might be an interesting option, to pit your self against the “best of the best.” Probably more people would enter the open gender-neutral category if they could also enter the category for their sex — men’s or women’s.

      • Team sports where there were trans and non-trans folks on both teams would be pretty fair and inclusive.

      • A better suggestion that is circulating now is to have men’s sport become open to all. Leave women’s sport for females. Fairness and full inclusion. An Open Category for men, transitioning males, nontransitioning males, women using testosterone, & all others who want to compete (within reasonable hormonal ranges).

    • It was a bit like that when Caitlin Jenner was announced Woman of the Year, 6 months after she had transitioned.

      I am surprised at what a narrow perspective the IOC took on deciding that testosterone levels would be the decisive thing. Not only is the level miles above the normal range for women, it is clearly just one biological difference between men and women.Insisting that biological difference are not real has some real life ramifications. When it comes to medical care of transgender people clinicians do have to consider what reference ranges are appropriate. For instance if a trans woman has respiratory disease, and she does a spirometry test to check her lung function she may well be within normal range for a female, when in fact she may have significant lung damage and be below the normal for a male. It is the male reference range that needs to be used.

  2. Great article. This is but one aspect of a broad and complicated set of issues, which unfortunately are not done much justice by leftist commentators. The good thing about the sports issue is the potential for some clarity: Fallon Fox is a male beating up a female. If you deny this fact, and pretend to be some kind of ‘materialist’ who supports feminism, you have a mighty circle to square. You will also have to turn a blind eye to the hate speech (‘TERF’ etc) directed at feminists who want to maintain sex based protections, the lesbians who face pressure from ‘cotton ceiling’ manipulation tactics and the children who are facing a future of medical experimentation.

  3. There is a point by point refutation of this article but I will limit myself!
    Your article “In defence of women’s sports” should be renamed “In defence of biological sex”, one because that is the obvious theme you try to hide your opinion behind with your appeals to the objectivity of science, and two because then you would reveal your objectivity for what it is – a brand of conservatism.
    Why don’t you cut to the chase and just shout “a woman is a woman, and a man is a man, God made them like that!” because then you would save yourself time and weasel words about “concern” for women? You approach the topic with all the intuition of a religious person who “just knows” no matter how things change before your eyes, things remain the same!
    The science says that biology is not fixed, and like all living things, exists as a variation even within species. So even on the biological level male/female exists on a spectrum. If you know about intersex people then on those grounds alone your argument about what to do about this latest version of “we need to save women’s spaces” becomes something else: why no concerns about this minority group of people, let alone transgender people? Do they “pass” in some mysterious way that trans people do not?
    But your target is not about unfairness for the minority of trans men in men’s sports, but how a minority of a minority of trans women supposedly affect the huge variety of women’s sports (think about it – how many must there be in reality, not in your fear-filled fantasy?).
    You can only police this boundary by trying to dictate how individual trans women just do not fit, whether it is biology or inherent maleness or a testosterone-driven propensity to violence.
    From a revolutionary pov, trans people are – by their existence – a refutation of conservative notions of both sex and gender as being fixed.
    Unfortunately, much of the Left is caught up in the defence of the past and a distorted view of what history is: the development of human relations in the widest possible manner. That history is being made in the now: in this case – how far can we human beings expand the notion of “gender”? The gender revolution is occurring despite what anyone thinks; its heralds are among us.

    • It is unfair for trans men in sports, and no matter how much testosterone they take it won’t make them generally competitive in men’s categories. That backs my point that the current rules which are based around testosterone levels are ignoring biology. The rest of your accusations I’ll ignore as they don’t relate to the content of the article.

  4. Fallon Fox on the bone density non-controversy (because unfortunately due to ill-informed prejudice, trans people have to become medical experts) – “ …black women [in MMA] on the average have the same bone density as white men. At the bottom of the list in bone density are Asians. They happen to fall way down there. This can easily be Googled. I dare either Joe Rogan or Ronda Rousey to express the opinion publicly that black women should be segregated in a fighting class of their own because of their bone density.”

    Women have been beating men at certain sports for a while now; the Williams sisters match you mentioned was only one of a series of exhibition tennis matches in which women won

    Your arguments also falsely imply transmen can be counterposed to powerful trans women – because of “genetics”; many transmen serving in the US military might disagree and so would Senor Robles from history: from working class history/libcom

  5. On bone density – it’s just one strength advantage men (on average) have over women that is evident in the results in most sports. In fact, trans women, if they are taking oestrogen get to preserve their better bone density despite the suppression of testosterone. But bone density is just one marker. of difference. No one suggests splitting sport up into dozens of different categories along the lines of lung function, haemoglobin, fast twitch muscle fibre etc.

    You are right there are some times when women beat men; but generally this is rare in top level sports competitions. For instance in the 2016 Olympics the fastest woman in the marathon would be placed 90th if it was a mixed race. There probably is a case for mixed sex competitions in ultra marathons where it’s even or if anything women may have an advantage.

    My main point is that testosterone is a not very useful measure and isn’t creating a fair playing field.

    I’m not sure what you are getting at regarding the military. Women have been fully involved in many armed liberation struggles and in more recent times in imperialist armies. Likewise trans people are being accepted into some imperialist armies. Besides, today’s high tech armies are less reliant on brawn, and their demographics are changing accordingly.

  6. I’ve just come across an article looking at various world records in sports comparing men and women. It is worth checking out. For instance Liao Hui a male weightlifter who is 69kg and 162cm tall (5’4″) can out lift the strongest woman in the world Tatiana Kashirina. She is 108 kg and is 1.77cm tall (5’10”).

    When body weight is matched Liao Hui compared to Oksana Slivenko the female record holder “outlifts Slivenko by 43kg in the snatch and 42kg in the clean & jerk, for a total of 85kg greater combined. 85kg is 13st5lb, about the weight of a typical male 100m sprinter, and over 30% of the female combined lift weight. Even when body size is approximately equivalent, females are not close to male strength.” (

Comments are closed.