Let’s keep women’s rugby for women

Kim Thomas takes a look at the steps the Rugby Football Union (RFU), English rugby’s governing body, has taken that will significantly undermine women’s rugby.

In all the hoo-ha last week about the new lockdown measures and US presidential race, you might have missed two big sporting stories: not only did the England men’s team win the Six Nations rugby tournament, England’s women won the Grand Slam, comprehensively beating the other five teams. 

With that in mind, it’s disappointing that the Rugby Football Union (RFU), English rugby’s governing body, has taken a step that will significantly undermine women’s rugby. It announced last month that trans women (biological males who identify as female) would still be allowed to play women’s rugby in England at all levels of the game below international level. The only stipulation is that the players must show that their concentration of testosterone in serum has been less than 5 nmol/L (nanomoles per litre) continuously for at least 12 months. (For comparison, typical testosterone levels in women range from 0.3 to 2.4 nmol/L: far lower than the maximum set by the RFU for trans women). It decided not to ban trans women from playing on women’s teams until more evidence was available.

The decision was puzzling because just a week earlier, World Rugby, the world governing body for rugby union, had announced that it would not allow trans women to play in women’s teams at elite level. I could, if you were interested, talk you through the comprehensive scientific evidence that World Rugby reviewed to come to its decision. I could cite its finding that adults who had been through male puberty “are stronger by 25% to 50%, are 30% more powerful, 40% heavier, and about 15% faster than biological females.” Or that the combined effect of these differences is to raise the risk of injury in general, and brain injury in particular, to female players. Or that testosterone suppression leads only to “small decreases” in lean mass, muscle mass and strength – and that taking drugs that suppress testosterone levels does not, therefore, negate the advantage gained by having been through male puberty. I could point to World Rugby’s conclusion that in a direct physical contest, “ciswomen [women, to the rest of us] will be at significant risk of injury.”

I don’t need to do any of that, however. Because you already know, just as I already know, that men are considerably bigger, stronger and faster than women, and that this provides them both with a significant sporting advantage and the ability to do a good deal of physical damage to a female player. Rugby, I don’t need to tell you, is a dangerous game, and the number and severity of injuries is on the increase.

And yet some people pretend otherwise. They pretend to believe – in the face of both overwhelming evidence and common sense – that trans women have no physical advantage over women. Stonewall claims to be disappointed at World Rugby’s decision, which they dismiss as “based on hypothetical data modelling.” One academic has argued, apparently without shame, that if women competed against men, “perhaps they would up their performance and be competing on more of that level.” Equally disingenuously, a female player from the US, Naima Reddick, claimed that “what truly makes someone an elite athlete isn’t size, speed or strength, but mental toughness, agility and resilience.” In which case, Naima, why not try out for Saracens, and see how that works out for you?

I’m not going to speculate about why people adopt a position that they must know is based on a falsehood. But let’s be clear: the RFU and its supporters are putting women’s lives in danger. Those differences in physique that World Rugby talked about are not trivial: at elite levels of the sport, male players’ average height is more than 6ft, and average weight about 15 or 16 stone – not something you’d expect if size was less important than agility or resilience. Since professionalisation, players have got bigger, stronger and faster: even the legendary 1970s outside-half Barry John, who stood 5ft 11in tall, and weighed 11st 11lb, might have struggled against today’s colossuses.

It’s not just at elite levels that women are at risk. The BBC’s approving piece about Kelly Morgan, a 6ft trans woman who plays for Porth Harlequins Ladies, recounts that she once “folded a girl like a deckchair during a game”, something that the team’s founder described as “quite funny”.

Well, excuse me if I’m not laughing. We have already seen that when trans women are allowed to compete alongside women, they cause injury. Trans woman Fallon Fox, a martial arts fighter, broke the skull of her female opponent, Taika Brents, and later claimed to have enjoyed doing so.  Trans woman Hannah Mouncey, 6ft 3in tall and 17 stone, has played in women’s handball teams and women’s Australian Rules football, and is reported to have broken a female opponent’s leg. It is only a matter of time before a female rugby player is seriously injured or killed by a player who is biologically male. Some rugby referees are already quitting the women’s amateur game for fear of the lawsuits that might arise as a result. 

So, here’s an idea. Let’s stop arguing about the finer details of what testosterone levels might be allowable and whether there is a “safe” way for trans women to compete in women’s sport. Instead, let’s agree a simple proposition: women’s sport should be for women. You don’t see trans men fighting to be included in men’s teams, so why should trans women – biological men – be included in women’s teams? Indeed, why do they want to be included in women’s teams? People who play sport usually like to compete with others of roughly the same ability, not with those at a clear physical disadvantage. If a 25-year old adult wanted to play on the under-15s side, we’d be questioning their motives, not lauding them as trailblazers.

Women have fought a long battle to be allowed to play traditionally male sports, and to be taken seriously as athletes. Yet at the point where women’s rugby is finally deemed mainstream enough to be shown on television, that achievement is about to taken away from them. How many women will want to continue playing rugby when they know that some of their opponents might be men?

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

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Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas has been a freelance journalist for more than 20 years, writing for national newspapers and magazines on topics such as technology, education and health care.

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