In September, the Atlantic published an article headlined “Separating Sports by Sex Doesn’t Make Sense.” In it, author Maggie Mertens bemoans the fact that “many people still view sports as a perfectly reasonable venue in which to enforce exclusion on the basis of sex” and seeks to explain why this is a misguided position.

Here we go again. The headline told me where things were headed. A strange trend had emerged on the left: many progressives were feverishly insisting that biological sex “isn’t real,” or is so complicated that it’s silly to say someone has a sex...

In September, the Atlantic published an article headlined “Separating Sports by Sex Doesn’t Make Sense.” In it, author Maggie Mertens bemoans the fact that “many people still view sports as a perfectly reasonable venue in which to enforce exclusion on the basis of sex” and seeks to explain why this is a misguided position.

Here we go again. The headline told me where things were headed. A strange trend had emerged on the left: many progressives were feverishly insisting that biological sex “isn’t real,” or is so complicated that it’s silly to say someone has a sex in a stable sense. These bizarre claims were being disseminated for one reason: to undercut arguments that trans women aren’t “real” women, or that trans men aren’t “real” men. The thinking goes that once people realize these claims are bigoted and empirically false, it will greatly accelerate society’s path toward trans acceptance.

This is a fundamentally confused position. Until very recently, everyone understood that sex (being male or female) and gender identity (feeling like one is male or female, if you believe in that sort of thing) are two very different concepts, and that arguments for trans rights don’t — can’t — rely on the idea of trans women, for example, literally being women. But the orthodoxy changed swiftly. These days, not only is the sentence I just wrote considered dangerously close to hate speech, uttering the term “biological sex” makes you a dinosaur. We’re supposed to say “sex assigned at birth,” as though delivery-room nurses are flipping coins.

The recent Atlantic article is a nice example of how these shoddy arguments are applied to the debate about trans people in sports (which is really why the article was written, I think, even if that particular issue only garners a glancing mention). Mertens explains that while sports have traditionally been sex-segregated,

it’s becoming more common for these lines to blur, especially as Gen Zers are more likely than members of previous generations to reject a strict gender binary altogether. Maintaining this binary in youth sports reinforces the idea that boys are inherently bigger, faster, and stronger than girls in a competitive setting — a notion that’s been challenged by scientists for years.

Challenged how? As expected, Experts and Studies soon appear to insist that we plebes don’t understand the true complexity at work here, for there are always Experts and Studies. One of the studies cited by Mertens insists that “[1] no scientific evidence supports assumptions that estradiol or female reproductive biology account for women’s lower levels of athletic performance, as [2] Serena Williams’s recent triumph while pregnant exemplifies.” Point one is ridiculous. Many of the reasons for the gap clearly hinge on reproductive biology. As Massachusetts General Hospital notes on a webpage about sex differences in injuries, “the anatomy of the hip and pelvis varies considerably in females compared to males. Many of these differences exist in order to allow for pregnancy and childbirth in women.”

These anatomical differences have a major impact on movements that are vital to athletic performance. Everyone knows this. The second point is a complete logical non sequitur — of course Williams winning a women’s Grand Slam while about two months pregnant is an impressive feat, but it also has literally nothing to do with the theory at issue here, which has to do with intersex differences.

One of the coauthors of that study delivers a gotcha in Mertens’s article: “If safety was a concern… you would see, say, shorter men excluded from competing with taller men, or lighter women from competing with heavier women, across sports.” For one thing, safety is just one reason for sex-segregated sports; the other is that almost no females would make competitive teams, from puberty on, if they had to compete against males. For another, many unathletic, weak and small men and women are excluded from competitive sports: either they don’t make the team or they know not to even try out.

Does her piece also make some fair points? Sure: as Mertens writes, some of the restrictions on girls playing boys’ sports (where girls’ teams are unavailable) are too strict, and certain male-female performance gaps could be partly explained by differentials in funding and training opportunities. But these sorts of articles never stop at these common-sense observations. Rather, the goal is to use every form of misdirection, distortion and Gish-galloping available to obscure from readers the giant elephant in the room: at the level of postpubescent competitive sports, males are by almost every important measure bigger, stronger, faster and higher-performing than women. With the exception of a few outliers, the gap is not close.

If you don’t want to see the elephant, cherrypicking is the best blindfold: it’s telling that Mertens cites a small, tightly controlled study of Norwegian teenagers to support her arguments about soccer, but ignores the fact that the U15 Dallas FC MLS developmental squad beat the US Women’s National Team 5-2 in a scrimmage. Which do you think is more compelling evidence?

In most other contexts, progressives — and the magazines we run — claim to be against misinformation. “Trust the science” and all that. But editors at outlets like the Atlantic should also consider the corrosive effect this has on public trust in mainstream journalism. Readers aren’t dumb — at least not when it comes to issues like boys and girls and men and women. They understand they’re being treated like children, and it’s only going to make them seek other sources the next time a scientific controversy rolls around.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s November 2022 World edition.