In this month’s column, we apply our thought experiment to the arena of sports and athletic events, and consider what such competitions might look like in a world free of the complications of human sex.
If sports games are not a direct allegory for sexual conquest, they at least echo it. The aggressive, competitive, and territorial nature of sports mimics the attributes found in the sexual reproductive drive of most mammals, (primitive) humans among them.
In no sport is this more painfully clear than American football, a multi-billion-dollar industry that glorifies the strength and importance of masculinity. A breakdown of how men and women each participate in football supports this. Men are players, coaches, managers, owners, referees, commentators, bloggers, reporters, and fans of the game while women are . . . well, women participate principally as cheerleaders and fans. Not exclusively, mind you; they do serve in other roles, but to a degree paltry enough to be notable.
My goal isn’t to tear down this beloved American sport, so don’t get your jock straps in a bunch. It just happens to be the most egregious example. All major U.S. sport franchises suffer from lack of meaningful female participation, while the women’s versions of these games are mere footnotes when it comes to recognition, funding, and popularity. Part of the issue lies with the dearth of press coverage for women’s sports while the other part lies with the perceived lack of inherent excitement in them.
Modern perceptions of sex and sexuality tell us that male strength and female attractiveness are the primary (if not only) physical attributes that matter. Don’t believe me? Do an internet search for “Lingerie Football League.” (Yes, this is a thing.) This limiting dichotomy feeds into our current major sports franchises. But, without the encumbrance of sexuality, sports wouldn’t have to rely on male strength (or women running routes in garters) to excite audiences.
It’s then possible our great American pastimes might change if we tackled, punted, dribbled, and scrummed in a world without sex. For starters, we might see an equal fervor and support for women’s sports. Real women’s sports. Softball and volleyball would receive just as much coverage on sports channels and news feeds as major league baseball, and stores would be just as likely to carry official WNBA apparel as they do NBA merchandise. On that note, men’s sports franchises wouldn’t be the default that calls for a qualifier of W for the women. It would be WNBA and MNBA.
It’s also less likely that sporting events would include skin-bearing, female-only cheerleading teams, if they featured them at all, as the female form would no longer be viewed in this venue simply as eye-candy entertainment for the male fan base. Rather, women might hold more meaningful positions in both gender-based sports franchises in most of the ways mentioned above. Of course, the degree of women’s participation also depends on how the lack of sex affects higher education, career opportunities, and advancement and financial independence for women—all potential topics for future columns.
A quick note on the above phrase, “most of the ways.” Opening full-contact sports to a mixed environment would require both the removal of protective male instincts and the expectation that men are not allowed to hurt women in any context. That may not be achievable in a world in which biological differences are still defined by testosterone and estrogen. Depending on the way you write gender in your world-building, ignoring biology in order to make men and women equally matched for physically aggressive co-ed sports may not be realistic. In that case, consider athletic competitions that capitalize on the joy of recreation, teamwork, and the use of intelligence in combination with physical prowess. Write games that tap into gender-free attributes such as intuition and agility, rather than sheer size and brute force.
Quidditch from the ever-popular Harry Potter series is an excellent example. J.K. Rowling’s magical sport is unapologetically co-ed. The skill of its players—specifically their broom-riding skills—is the primary focus, because it is played in a world where physical strength is secondary to magical ability, something to which women have equal (perhaps even greater) agency. Harry himself isn’t particularly strong or athletic when he’s selected as Seeker, but he has keen eyesight and can fly a broom.
Warcross by Marie Lu and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline also offer glimpses of co-ed sports that are not based on physical strength but on the skill and intuition of the player behind the avatar. These virtual sporting events reach international fever-pitch in their created worlds and are based on the mind, not the body. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that similar online gaming in our real world is typically NOT female-friendly, but I’m confident this would change in a sexually-neutered world, as would opportunities at large in the tech industry.
You don’t have to look to fiction to find inspiration for sports that are evenly balanced. Interest and support in the Olympics tends to be equally spread across men’s and women’s events. It’s not aggressive game play or overt masculinity that’s important; it’s the spirit of competition and the recognition and display of athleticism. While its history is not perfect, the International Olympic Committee has worked to increase opportunities for women athletes over the years. Unfortunately, viewership has declined in the last several decades, while ratings for the major male-centric sports franchises remain high. Again, a sex-free world could change the perception of what makes for exciting competition.
When it comes time to create sport-based entertainment—whether co-ed or not—for your world, the key is to write so that any gendered differences on the field don’t mean “less than.” Ensure your characters don’t view female sports as less exciting, less powerful, or less competitive. After all, female aggression exists, too, even if it’s not as popular as the male version. Don’t believe me? I know some women rugby players who would scrum to change your mind.