Stimulating exploration of the complexities of sex-integrated sport

Mark Brooke
Centre for English Language Communication, National University of Singapore

Alex Channon, Katherine Dashper, Thomas Fletcher & Robert J. Lake (red)
Sex Integration in Sport and Physical Culture: Promises and Pitfalls
279 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017 (Sport in the Global Society – Contemporary Perspectives)
ISBN 978-0-415-78381-1

As the editors point out in their preface to the book, much research (for examples, Cahn 1994; Hargreaves 1994; and Theberge 2000) has concluded that women and men are trained to learn approved gender behaviours through sporting practices, both at the local level and in the high-profile sporting environment. ‘Masculine’ virtues of strength, aggression, and discipline are highly valued. This is also reflected in wider social institutions helping to perpetuate patriarchal superiority. At the same time, female athletes face challenges through stereotyping and ridicule in sporting spaces. Therefore, watching and doing sport is part of the process of the social construction of gender and helps to produce and maintain gender differences. The impact of the process is the (re)production of inequality through the symbolic validation of male privilege (Messner 1988; Theberge 2000).

Scholars and athletes have long sought to challenge and subvert the overarching narrative of gender inequality. Through sport, as the editors state, there is great potential for women to be empowered and transcend the glass ceilings presented to them through the symbolic violence of patriarchy. Women’s sporting successes are also highly valued and prized. Elite-level female athletes such as Hailey Wickenheiser (ice hockey), Serena Williams (tennis) and Ronda Rousey (mixed martial arts) have demonstrated this. However, despite the increase in strong, competitive and resilient women in the field, segregated sport continues to distinguish and discriminate and push the message that men are and will remain the superior sex group.

In response to the propagation and perpetuation of patriarchal ideology, which often describes hypothetical, not actual, sporting spaces, sex-integrated sport may provide promise. This is the promise in the title of the book. Sex-integrated sport might challenge the assumptions underlying conventional sport forms and break down the barriers of the normative gendered logic. Rather than assuming general gender dimensions of ability, there is a focus on individual men and women and how they represent and produce the multi-faceted dimensions of athletic ability. Through this, deep and meaningful respect between women and men can be fostered in context.

While a great deal of promise exists, there are also pitfalls inherent to sex-integrated sport, as the title of the book also demonstrates. Sex integration is not a panacea to gender injustice in sport (Travers, 2008), which is deep-rooted. The marginalization of women also tends to exist through behavioural etiquette linked to the wider social environment. For example, the expectation that ‘boys don’t hit girls’ (Channon and Jennings 2013; Sailors 2015, in this volume; Snyder and Ammons 1993; Wachs 2002) or that women are viewed as a ‘handicap’ reducing the team’s competitive advantage (e.g. Henry and Comeaux 1999). Indeed, even in equestrian sports, despite physicality not being an issue, men still tend to dominate the competition, and this must therefore be an effect of diverse factors related to contemporary sport (Dashper, 2013). This situation has also led to the call for the continuation of women-only sport spaces as ‘voluntary segregation aimed at increasing group standing is an acceptable social practice for minority groups but not for dominant groups’ (Travers 2008, p. 93 as cited by Channon, Dashper, Fletcher & Lake, 2017, p. 5).

Hence the editors state that this is a fascinating area of research for sport scholars and debate for physical educationists as well as policy-makers.

This book goes into great depth to analyse and evaluate the promises and pitfalls of sex-integrated sport. It comprises a collection of eighteen papers from a special issue of Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics (volume 19 issues 8-9). Fourteen of these are full length research articles while four are short, ‘Research Insight’ essays by early career researchers to showcase their work (4000–5000 words). There are four sections organised thematically: theorizing sex integration in sport and physical culture; integration in PE and youth sport; integrated non-contact sports; integrated contact sports. The authors point out that they intend to increasingly ‘shock’ the reader with this ordering through a progressively increasing ‘scale of incredulity’ towards sex-integrated sport. Sex integration is more common in youth school sport, less-so in non-contact adult sports and even less common in contact sports for adults. Through this presentation, the authors seek to deconstruct the normative gender logic in sport at these different levels of competition.

Certain chapters stood out in my mind as particularly effective from each section.

In the first section is Pam Sailors’ essay ‘Off the beaten path: Should women compete against men?’ In this, Sailors presents and evaluates four possible answers, leaning on both theoretical and empirical research in the field, to the quintessential question of whether women can compete against men. These are: (1) no, so there’s no point in talking about it; (2) no, but they should make the attempt anyway; (3) yes, so mix all the competition and get on with it; and (4) yes, but there are good reasons not to allow it. The answer to these questions, in sum, is that it is important to recognise its complexity and how it is not solved by simple responses. To negotiate the question, it is important to ascertain the sport form – individual or team sport, direct or indirect competition, contact or non-contact sports – as well as the competitive level of the contest. Overall, her message is that any argument against women’s potential to do so tend to be based on false generalizations through selective evidence; that, even if the number is small, women should be allowed to compete, thereby sending a powerful message and model to girls and women. However, equality through sex integration will not take place with intentions alone, but requires fundamental changes to the socio-cultural landscape.

In the second section is a paper from Joaqium Piedra, Gonzalo Ramírez-Macías, Francis Ries, Augusto R. Rodríguez-Sánchez and Catherine Phipps (2015) entitled ‘Homophobia and heterosexism: Spanish Physical Education teachers’ perceptions’. They argue that overt homophobia is prevalent in Spanish PE lessons. The (mainly male) PE teachers are aware of this and do not deal with it as they should to stop the discrimination. They go on to point out that although homophobic language against gays and lesbians is not common amongst teachers, when it is present it is clearly more frequent amongst males.

In the third section, Donna de Haan, Popi Sotiriadou and Ian Henry (2015) present equestrian sport, where men and women commonly compete against each other at the highest levels. Their purpose is to present and evaluate ‘the lived experience of sex integrated sport and the construction of athlete identity within the Olympic and Paralympic Equestrian disciplines’. To do this, the authors conduct interviews with riders, performance managers and support staff of the British Equestrian Team. While they acknowledge that there is much research indicating the male domination of the sport, their findings suggest that equestrian sport in their context appears gender neutral and that their data reveals that there is an ‘absence of gender as an identity in the way participants see themselves and others’.

To conclude, Channon, Dashper, Fletcher & Lake’s edited volume provides great stimulus for further reading, reflection, discussion and future research. It describes views towards and practices of sex-integrated sport in diverse communities and its promises and potential pitfalls for the future. It covers a diverse geographical, demographical and socio-cultural range of contexts and hence provides projects that should be transferable for many other contexts. I am confident that this book is one of the major expert resources on the topic of sex integration in sport and hope it will draw collaborations from like-minded individuals and groups and provide a platform for more material of this ilk to be contributed for a reprint in the near future.

Copyright © Mark Brooke 2017


Cahn, S. (1994). Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-century Women’s Sport. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Channon, A., and G. Jennings. (2013). The Rules of Engagement: Negotiating Painful and ‘Intimate’ Touch in Mixed-sex Martial Arts. Sociology of Sport Journal 30(4): 487–503.
Dashper, K. (2013). Beyond the Binary: Gender Integration in Equestrian Sport. In Gender and Equestrian Sport, edited by M. Adelman and J. Knijik. 37–53. London: Springer.
Hargreaves, J. (1994). Sporting Females. London: Routledge.
Henry, J., and H. Comeaux. (1999). Gender Egalitarianism in Coed Sport: A Case Study of American Soccer. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 34(3): 277–290.
Messner, M. A. (1988). Sports and Male Domination: The Female Athlete as Contested Ideological Terrain. Sociology of Sport Journal 5(3): 197–211.
Sailors, P. R. (2015). Off the beaten path: should women compete against men? Sport in Society, 19(8-9), 1125-1137.
Snyder, Eldon E., and Ronald Ammons. (1993). Adult Participation in Coed Softball: Relations in a Gender Integrated Sport. Journal of Sport Behavior 16(1): 3–15.
Theberge, N. (2000). Gender and Sport. In Handbook of Sports Studies, edited by J. Coakley and E. Dunning, pp. 322–333. London: Sage.
Travers, A. (2008). The Sport Nexus and Gender Injustice. Studies in Social Justice 2(1): 79–101.
Wachs, F. L. (2002). Leveling the Playing Field: Negotiating Gendered Rules in Coed Softball. Journal of Sport and Social Issues 26(3): 300–316.


Table of Content

  1. Introduction: The promises and pitfalls of sex integration in sport and physical culture
    Alex Channon, Katherine Dashper, Thomas Fletcher and Robert J. Lake  

Part I: Theorizing sex integration in sport and physical culture  

  1. Off the beaten path: should women compete against men?
    Pam R. Sailors  
  2. ‘Preserving la difference’: the elusiveness of sex-segregated sport
    Lindsay Parks Pieper 

Part II: Integration in PE and youth sport  

  1. Homophobia and heterosexism: Spanish physical education teachers’ perceptions
    Joaquín Piedra, Gonzalo Ramírez-Macías, Francis Ries, Augusto Rembrandt Rodríguez-Sánchez and Catherine Phipps 
  2. Sporting equality and gender neutrality in korfball
    Laura Gubby and Ian Wellard  
  3. Negotiations of gender discourse: experiences of co-education in a Swedish sports initiative for children
    Karin Grahn and Viveka Berggren Torell  
  4. Transcending gender hierarchies? Young people and floorball in Swedish school sport
    Marie Larneby 

Part III: Integrated non-contact sports  

  1. ‘Guys don’t whale away at the women’: etiquette and gender relations in contemporary mixed-doubles tennis
    Robert J. Lake  
  2. Doing femininities and masculinities in a ‘feminized’ sporting arena: the case of mixed-sex cheerleading
    Esther Priyadharshini and Amy Pressland  
  3. The lived experience of sex-integrated sport and the construction of athlete identity within the Olympic and Paralympic equestrian disciplines
    Donna de Haan, Popi Sotiriadou and Ian Henry  
  4. Mixed-sex in sport for development: a pragmatic and symbolic device. The case of touch rugby for forced migrants in Rome
    Micol Pizzolati and Davide Sterchele
  5. “We have to establish our territory”: how women surfers ‘carve out’ gendered spaces within surfing
    Cassie Comley

Part IV: Integrated contact sports

  1. Challenging the gender binary: the fictive and real world of quidditch
    Jeffrey O. Segrave
  2. Challenging the gender binary? Male basketball practice players’ views of female athletes and women’s sports
    Janet S. Fink, Nicole M. LaVoi and Kristine E. Newhall
  3. ‘They kick you because they are not able to kick the ball’: normative conceptions of sex difference and the politics of exclusion in mixed-sex football
    Aleksandra Winiarska, Lucy Jackson, Lucy Mayblin and Gill Valentine  
  4. Men in a ‘women only’ sport? Contesting gender relations and sex integration in roller derby
    Adele Pavlidis and James Connor
  5. Playing like a girl? The negotiation of gender and sexual identity among female ice hockey athletes on male teams
    Danielle DiCarlo
  6. Friendships worth fighting for: bonds between women and men karate practitioners as sites for deconstructing gender inequality
    Chloe Maclean
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