What Do Sports and Reproductive Rights Have in Common?


See all our 2012 Title IX coverage here.

Saturday marked the 40th anniversary of what turned out to be one of the most important pieces of feminist legislation, Title IX. Title IX was a wide-ranging reform to educational standards in the U.S., one that required schools from kindergarten through doctoral programs to cease sex discrimination. It ended the traditions of barring boys from home economics and typing class while helping usher more women into STEM fields. But what most people think of first and often only when they think of Title IX is athletics. The requirement that schools invest as much in female athletics as male athletics has by far been the most controversial aspect to this amendment. People who wouldn’t dare suggest that only women should learn to cook or that unequal pay is fair often have no compunction about diminishing female athletes by claiming that their accomplishments simply can’t matter as much as do men’s. In the year 2012, female athleticism still causes overt anxieties.

Why is that? I propose it’s for the same reason that a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy — or even prevent one — is still controversial in our society. As with reproductive rights, female athleticism brings forth social anxieties about women exerting mastery over their own bodies. The female body has been positioned for so long as an object that exists for other people’s use that contemplating a woman using her own body for her own purposes unsettles, whether it’s a woman controlling her fertility or a woman using her body to compete in an arena, sports, which was previously considered only the domain of men.

The way this anxiety is expressed has changed over the years. In the past, women’s reproductive abilities were framed against their athletic aspirations, in much the same way the right still tends to see tensions between women’s reproductive control and capacity. (Look, for instance, at the ready assumption on the right that a woman being pro-choice means she’s intrinsically anti-motherhood.) While fears that athletic women aren’t “real” women have faded somewhat, there are still traces of that belief in modern athletics, from the overly defensive femininity displays of the WNBA to the risible and outdated practice of gender-testing female athletes competing in the Olympics. It seems the fear of stereotypes about women and athletics cause the powers that be in athletic competitions to feel like they have to prove that their athletes are “real” women in the way that men competing in athletics never feel they have to prove their maleness. 

The summer Olympics are starting in a month, which means anxieties about gender and athleticism are about to hit a semi-regular fever pitch. Watching women use their bodies to compete and win instead of to submit and serve just sends a lot of people spiraling off, and they don’t know how to handle the pressure. One strategy to put female athletes in their place is to aggressively sexually objectify them, and try to replace their obvious self-mastery with old models of women-as-objects-for-male-gratification. Alyssa Rosenberg chronicled an already egregious example of this at the Bleacher Report, where anxious male writer Thomas Delatte was so discombobulated by the idea that women might use their bodies for their own ends instead of just as objects of sexual display that he went so far as to argue that a certain soccer player should switch to volleyball simply because he prefers the skimpier volleyball uniforms. As the games draw closer, we can expect more of the same; anxious men who fear women controlling their own bodies using “jokes” and sexual objectification in an attempt to undermine those women.

It’s not just overt sexism that undermines female athletes, however. The anxiety produced by seeing women so in control over their own bodies expresses itself in subconscious ways, as well. As researchers at the University of Delaware found, sportscasters talking about the Olympics have very different frameworks when discussing male and female athletes. Male athletes who win were usually described as earning their victories through ability, but when female athletes win, the focus was on luck. In other words, men were granted their mastery of a sport, but women’s fortunes were framed as something outside of themselves. The fear of a woman controlling her own body runs so deep that it’s uncomfortable to even speak of it out loud, even for people who otherwise probably don’t think of themselves as particularly anti-feminist.

Understanding this anxiety around female athletes gives us a great deal of insight into why the topic of reproductive rights is so hard for our society to speak about honestly. It’s easier to advocate for women’s rights if you frame them in terms of women’s service to others, such as saying women need abortion and contraception so they can be better partners, mothers, and workers than to say something as discomforting as, “Women need reproductive rights so they can control their own bodies and therefore their own destinies.” We shy away from talking about women taking charge of their bodies to feel pleasure, and instead prefer to speak of women accessing health care so they’re better at their duties. We know we live in a society where people still squirm with unnamed discomfort at watching female athletes enjoy sports and winning for their own sake, and so certainly talking about women’s right to enjoy sex for itself is difficult to pull off.

But we’re never going to have equality for women as long as we dance around the issue of women’s right to totally own our own bodies, and to use them for our own ends instead of only for the ends of others. One place we can start is with this summer’s Olympics. Take this occasion to praise women for their strength, their athleticism, and above all, for their autonomy. If we can get used to talking about women’s relationships to their bodies in this way, then talking about sex and women will just become that much easier. 

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