Activism, Biology, Canada, Feminism, Sex, Sport, Top Stories, Women

Keeping Male Bodies Out of Women’s Rugby

From November 2015 until February 2020, World Rugby, rugby’s global governing body, incorporated guidelines established by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on transgender participation in sports. According to these rules, males who wish to self-identify into women’s rugby could do so if they committed to reducing their testosterone levels to 10 nmol per liter or lower for at least 12 months. (The average level for men is about seven times that level.)

During this period, instances of biological males playing in the women’s game increased, and some participants began to express alarm. One rugby referee posted on the website Fair Play for Women, for instance, that “being forced to prioritize hurt feelings over broken bones exposes me to personal litigation from female players who have been harmed by players who are biologically male. This is driving female players and referees out of the game.” Another wrote, “I volunteer my time to officiate matches because I love my sport. But I won’t continue much longer if I have stay quiet about the unfairness I see on the pitch or risk abuse by getting called transphobic if I turned a player away.” A chairperson of one UK rugby club expressed shock upon discovering that, as she reported, “If anyone suspects someone on the opposing team might have an advantage because they are transgender, ‘they must not ask.’ They must simply accept that all teams will be ‘complying with the rules.’”

In some cases, female rugby players and their coaches would show up to matches to discover that there was a biologically male athlete playing on the opposing team. As one player put it, “I have to play or forfeit my place even when I know it’s unsafe for me.” Those who enjoyed the advantage of having a trans-identifying player on their team, on the other hand, were sometimes found to be lacking in sympathy. On one occasion, a team captain was quoted as saying that their male-bodied player had “folded an opponent like a deck chair.”

With worries mounting about safety—especially concussions—and financial liability, World Rugby undertook a review of its transgender policy in February 2020. This might seem to be a common-sense step. Yet among global sports federations, it was actually seen as a ground-breaking moment. World Rugby turned out be the first sport to bring to the table experts on all sides of the eligibility issue, including sociologists, biologists, kinesiologists (my own specialty), and those with a background in human rights. The consultation is reported to have been respectful and thorough. All relevant opinions were heard.

The dominant view that emerged from this summit was that World Rugby would have to amend its policy. It was simply too risky to continue to allow male bodies into the women’s game. The decision-makers relied on data that had been published by the renowned Karolinska Institute (Sweden) in September 2019. Even after a full year of hormonal reduction in accordance with IOC guidelines, the researchers concluded, there was no appreciable loss of mass, muscle mass, or strength in transitioning males. In physical terms, it was just a man playing with women.

World Rugby had to come to terms with reality: Irrespective of hormonal intervention, male athletes are, on average, 40 percent heavier, 15 percent faster, 30 percent more powerful, and 25–50 percent stronger than their female counterparts. And these differences pose obvious risks for female players in full-contact rugby. World Rugby’s new policy document has not yet been made public. But according to those who’ve seen it (and the various media leaks), the organization is proposing a comprehensive ban on biological men in the women’s sport—though these recommendations won’t become official policy until they are reviewed and voted upon by the World Rugby Council later this year.

Women’s rugby isn’t a particularly popular mass-participation sport. But because World Rugby’s proposal, if enacted, would represent one of the first big cracks in the dam for those who insist trans-identified males should be allowed to compete with women, the case has attracted plenty of lobbying. The Canadian Women’s Sex-Based Rights group (CaWsbar), for instance, sent a letter to CEO Brett Gosper, thanking World Rugby for becoming “the first world sports federation to have undertaken a thorough and balanced review of the 2015 International Olympics Committee consensus.” Social-media commentary has been abundant. Even my own little August 20th tweet urging readers to send their appreciation to World Rugby generated (what was for me) unprecedented public support (and, notably, scant pushback).

Activist groups opposed to any reconsideration of the IOC’s rules, on the other hand, put out statements—many of them picked up by the press—with headlines suggesting that World Rugby was implementing a “ban” on trans athletes. In fact, no one would be “banned” under the proposal. Athletes would simply be required to compete with athletes of their own sex, as had been the case in rugby, and numerous other sports, until very recently.

Some observers may be tempted to conflate World Rugby’s proposal with the controversy surrounding elite runner Caster Semenya, which was the subject of a recent decision by Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court. Under World Athletics guidelines introduced in 2019, which were subsequently upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Semenya would be allowed to compete in long-distance running events only if she agreed to take testosterone-reducing drugs, a condition that Semenya opposes. But that case is distinct, because Semenya is one of a small number of people who exhibit differences of sexual development (DSD)—“a group of congenital conditions associated with atypical development of internal and external genital structures,” as experts define it. The trans rugby players who seek to participate in women’s leagues, on the other hand, are simply biological males who have changed their pronouns and social identity.

Nevertheless, both situations highlight the tension that exists between biological determinants and human-rights claims when it comes to access to women’s sports. And in both cases, there are at least two clear lessons: (1) sports federations should assert their authority to set their own eligibility guidelines; and (2) the sooner a governing body asserts such boundaries, the better. Once opportunists have taken advantage of a lax regulatory regime, they will do everything in their power to resist change. And they will have the media on their side, because they will be able to present themselves as victims.

A decade ago, prevarication and a lack of corporate discipline by World Athletics—then known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF)—resulted in a decade of unnecessary upheaval in the sport of athletics (which includes a broad range of pursuits, including track and field). Semenya had only recently broken onto the scene as a junior athlete, and already had demonstrated performance levels that were raising eyebrows. After failing to make the 800m finals at the 2008 World Junior Championships (with a time slower than 2:04), Semenya finished the 2009 season as reigning World Champion in the senior women’s division, with a time that was almost nine seconds faster. This kind of quantum-leap improvement isn’t normal, and the IAAF had no choice but to investigate.

Notoriously, this included a humiliating sex-verification test. It was supposed to be private, but somehow the information leaked. In the ensuing uproar, the IAAF chose to clear Semenya in 2010 without really dealing coherently with the results of the test. In one statement, it was announced that, “The IAAF accepts the conclusion of a panel of medical experts that she can compete with immediate effect.” In another, the general secretary said: “She is a woman but maybe not 100 percent.” Needless to say, this sort of comment set off lurid speculation about Semenya’s biology. So while Semenya continued to run, accumulate accolades, and win races, there was a cloud of suspicion that affected spectators and fellow runners. This is exactly the sort of protracted and degrading process that World Rugby can avoid by acting decisively.

What saddens me as a Canadian, someone who has long worked within the sports sector as both coach and provincial sport-association president, is the official response from Rugby Canada, which I had hoped would have endorsed the commitment made by World Rugby to “work with relevant groups to explore appropriate participation pathways for transgender athletes.” Placing male athletes in with female players for full-contact rugby isn’t the only option available for trans rugby players. There could very well be safer alternatives, if organizations such as Rugby Canada were interested in exploring them.

Instead, Rugby Canada used its voice to channel the opinions of one-note gender activists. Its official statement, released in early September, declared that the proposed new World Rugby rules “are not policy that can or will be adopted should they move forward.” Rugby participation in Canada, the organization said, would continue to be guided by the existing Trans Inclusion Policy, which states that players “should be able to participate as the gender with which they identify and not be subject to requirements for disclosure of personal information beyond those required of cisgender athletes. Nor should there be any requirement for hormonal therapy or surgery.” That’s right: The policy is pure, no-questions-asked self-identification. The only reference to safety in the entire document relates to the suggestion that someone might not feel “safe” if his “gender identity and gender expression” weren’t respected.

It seems to me that Rugby Canada can ill afford to posture against biological reality. It was only two years ago that a young man named Brodie McCarthy died as a result of a head injury suffered in a rugby tournament. Five years before that, it was a women’s team captain, Rowan Stringer, a 17-year-old from Ottawa, who died from a blow to the head during a game. In response, Ontario passed Rowan’s Law, requiring all youth sports, whether at the club or school level, to observe strict safety protocols pertaining to head injury and concussions. Canada’s federal government extended the movement nationally by developing its own public health advisory on the dangers of concussion. The advisory specifically identifies rugby as one of three especially dangerous sports: “Ice hockey, rugby and ringette are the sports with the highest proportion of brain injuries among children and youth 5–19 years of age, ranging from 27 percent to 44 percent of all injuries that happened while playing these sports.” Now imagine how much more dangerous it is for women who face men on the rugby pitch.

This month, British trans activist groups have been scrambling to update their policies to accord with new British government rules that prohibit schools from using materials that encourage children to question whether they are in the “wrong body.” These groups are doing this because failing to do so will now have legal and financial implications. Gender clinics, moreover, are now starting to get sued for recklessly transitioning children on the basis of flimsy or non-existing health science. And rightly so: Those who put women, children, and other vulnerable populations at risk for ideological reasons must face the legal consequences. One can only hope that Rugby Canada, and its counterparts all over the world, come to understand this before someone gets hurt—or goes bankrupt.



Linda Blade, ChPC, PhD Kinesiology, is a sport performance coach. She tweets at @coachblade.

Featured image: Army v. RAF women’s rugby, April 19th, 2017, at Army Rugby Stadium in England. Photo by John Walton


  1. Crazy, and totally unfair to women. Not to mention dangerous.

  2. It’s just insane that this article needed to be written.

  3. There is another article currently on Quilette about Jessica Krug, a white woman pretending to be black to gain an advantage. Indefensible.
    Men pretending to be women in order to gain an advantage in Rugby. Some how this is defensible by the Left.
    How are these positions even reconcilable? This is my biggest issue with the Left an utter lack of consistency.

  4. Three things:
    First, I’d suggest that when a female player is injured by a male player pretending to be a woman, lawsuits are launched, preferably against the idiot legislators. To aid such a case, make sure to video every game. Eventually, this stupidity will dissolve because there are more women than trans, and more parents of daughters than parents of trans kids. But legal action will make changes more rapidly than opinion.
    Second, all of this trans nonsense has its roots in feminist theory. For example, I remember when I took a psychology course at university in the 90s, one of the official textbooks was wall-to-wall PC propaganda. It included an essay by a feminist who argued that women were physically equal to men. As proof, she cited the example of a female shotput gold medalist who would have secured a respectable fourth place had she competed in the men’s division. What was being ignored was that the athlete in question probably used enough testosterone to be chemically male. I believe in women’s rights but feminism is all too often anti-male. It does not view men and women as a team that needs to work towards mutual benefit, but frequently sees men as an enemy that must be conquered. If feminism wants support, and keep female athletics fair, it must stop with embracing “gender performativity” claptrap.
    Third, we really do need more research into the different types of gender dysmorphia. Personally, I sometimes wonder if some trans are driven by some weird kind of misogyny when they compete in women’s sports. Honestly, it’s bloody weird to want to practically beat up women on a rugby pitch, and to tackle a woman with full force.

  5. Some have argued in the past that sports are just entertainment, and it shouldn’t really matter if trans women are included- obviously from the school of thought that sees participation trophies as a positive, instead of something which causes real harm, because the kids know it’s fake. But the evidence is clear, sports can have an incredibly beneficial effect on academic performance and the ability to study. On average, student athletes were present in school about three weeks more per year than non-athletes and boasted higher grade point averages by as much as 0.55 to 0.74 points.,as%200.55%20to%200.74%20points.

    Not only are there physiological benefits to sports, as oxygen rich bloodflow is improved to growing brains, but there is also an element of cross-pollination in conscientiousness as all the self-discipline required to maintain a rigorous program of physical fitness translates into harder study and the ability to persevere through more difficult or boring subject material. Anything which interferes with the natural incentives which occur within girl’s sports, making aspects of participation seem unfair, or putting the highest levels of relative attainment beyond reach, are likely to do lasting damage in terms of discouraging girls from competing.

    There really is a peculiar and specific type of fallacy which operates on the Left, where no thought is given to the harms that might be caused to pre-existing and incredibly benign established social systems, as though the state in which we live were somehow the default position of humanity and any social tampering to achieve positive objectives won’t possess any downside risk. It’s as though they’ve come into possession of a Giant Jenga tower and haven’t realised that a succession of generations haven’t already removed pieces to make the tower taller, whilst preserving its integrity.

    In this case, anything that comprises the likelihood that girls will participate in sport, will compromise access to opportunities for 50% of the population, adversely affect many young women’s future careers, ultimately reduce their ability to compete in the upper echelons of society and reduce the likelihood that women can participate at the top levels of highly cognitive fields. Improved cardio-vascular fitness is the only known way to improve IQ relatively quickly and it is likely to have more significant consequences during cognitive development. How much would you pay for a few more points of IQ? It’s almost as though they haven’t thought it through.

  6. Clearly the author is not au courant on Critical Rugby Theory.

  7. :joy: Right. ‘I identify as a productive member of society, and since criminality is socially constructed, I demand to be released from prison immediately’.

    We are living in SNL skits…

  8. Apparently you are unaware of the situation with trans women. Most have not cut off their dick, and it remains there as a fully functioning penis. They identify as women, and as lesbians. They call their dick a “ladydick”. But when naked fun time comes, they want to stick the ladydick inside the lesbian vagina.

    The transwomen call lesbians who do not want penetrative sex with ladydicks “transphobes”.

    It’s complete insane.

  9. There is no such thing as ‘cisgender’, There is no such thing as ‘trans’. There are only normal and mentally ill people. The mentally ill should get treatment for their sickness; where treatment is ineffective (the trans delusion) and they are unable to integrate with mainstream society they should be sent to insane asylums.

    The idiot left spitting in the face of reality need a severe wake up call; in this and many other instances regarding their lunatic religion, intolerance is a sane and warranted response.

  10. One of the weapons used by trans activists is the unwillingness of people to speak clearly. People talk about “bottom surgery” which is “cutting off a functioning penis”. They speak of “top surgery” which is “breast removal”.

    If people would use the accurate terms, there would be less acceptance.

  11. I’m Canadian. Your comment got a ‘like’ from me.

    I’ve come to think of progressives/SJWs from every country as ‘the ridiculous people’. But Canada does it’s best to win in the category of ‘most ridiculous country’.

    It’s one thing that Sunny Wonder Kid was elected as prime minister - by the time you get to the election the choice is largely between parties. The real shocker / appalling failing is that Liberal party members selected SWK to be the party leader, when they had other choices.

  12. The question has to be asked how it is that a microscopic sectional interest lobby with an ideological credo that would not have got past a school year 9 clear thinking exercise only a few decades ago, and would have been regarded as something out one of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, can now bulldoze its way into the female estate?

    How can public judgement and standards of social criticism have degenerated to the point that a bunch of ideological looney toons can bluff their way past the rest of us with such ease?

    Why has it taken so long to mobilize opposition to these ideological fruitcakes?

    How have we allowed the agents of these wretches to take over our system of social thought and administration, both in the private as well as public sectors?

    And the reason is that it didn’t just suddenly drop out of the sky, so much as assemble itself in small increments that kept building on one another, such that although we disagreed, each piece was not big enough to want to ‘make a fuss’ about and risk 'putting people offside and/or ‘offending’ them, and/or being being made to look like a nasty person who just perversely didn’t want to ‘understand’.

    So we learned to ‘let it go’, not make waves and have a peaceful life instead.

    Then one day, ‘the movement’ reached a critical mass where it had the money, social resources and institutional power to take over the shop. That happened during the ‘marriage equality’ plebiscite in 2017 and the tranzis are just the ‘cleanup’ follow on.

    The only reason we are not all dutifully bleating like a flock of sheep on its way to ‘the place of no return’, is that part of the feminist movement who had in 2017called opponents of LBGwhatever ‘marriage’ all sorts of nasty names, suddenly found that the uncomfortable feeling they were having 12 months later was a tranzi knife in their backs.

    And our feminist friends are quite understandably squealing, as you do when stabbed in the back, particularly by once friendly forces. It has a way of very suddenly peeling away the Wormtongue ideological fakery and baloney and revealing the awful truth that you have been had, you are down and the pricks have taken over.

    It is not too late to start moving against the ideological Wormtongues, but we are now way behind the game. A senator from Tasmania has just been hauled over the coals by the Tasmanian Human Rights Commission for asserting the ‘highly offensive’ proposition that it is biology that defines sex, not delusional sexual fantasies or the sexual politics of over hyped ideological drag.

    But the Red Queens are now in charge. They control the architecture of social and ideological discourse, and getting them out and ‘disestablishing’ them is going to be very, very nasty…

    Watch this space.

  13. One of the reasons why this happened - not the only reason, of course - is the natural sympathy of Americans, and the urge to be kind to the mentally ill.

    Any reasonably sane person knows in his heart and mind that transexuals are mentally ill but most of us alive today have been sternly taught not to diminish or denigrate the mentally ill because, poor things, they can’t help being mentally ill.

    One cannot tell a mentally ill person in public that the things they’re saying are nonsense because they’re mentally ill without incurring the irritation and remonstration of nearly everyone within earshot. For you to do such a thing is rude, and rudeness to the mentally ill will not now be tolerated in American society.

    You hardly dare ask a high school to remove a mentally ill child from your child’s classroom because of the disruption they cause. Again, one can’t be rude to the mentally ill.

    So, now, along comes Bruce Jenner who - in my personal opinion - is mentally ill, and he says he’s a woman. And most of America finds itself in the same position they would be in if they were trying to remove a schizophrenic 16-year-old from their daughter’s classroom.

    You can’t be rude to Bruce Jenner in public without drawing unwelcome attention to yourself from people who agree with you, but nonetheless don’t want anyone to think that they would ever be rude to a mentally ill person. No, we’ll all just go along with Bruce and address him as Caitlin because that shows we’re not intolerant. We want to be nice.

    You ask what we can do to reverse the madness? I honestly think that we’re going to have to start being blunt, candid and rude with the mentally ill, and accept that we’ll be criticized for it. We have to be able to tell Bruce Jenner to his face - in the admittedly unlikely event we were to ever meet him - “No, Bruce, you’re not a woman. You’re a man. A very ill man.”

    Not so much because we expect that the madness will suddenly clear from Bruce Jenner’s mind, but so that everyone else in the room witnesses what you, and hopefully a number of other rational people are doing, and the madness will clear from theirs.

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