The castrati of the title refers to male singers who had been castrated as boys – typically between 8 to 10 years of age. This was done in 17th and 18th century Italy in an effort produce singers of extraordinary abilities. That the practice was illegal in addition to being a moral outrage did not deter parents from mutilating their sons in the hope that they would become rich. Most these boys did not turn out to be great singers, but a notable few did. The bulk of the castrated men led miserable lives of abuse and poverty. But the few singers who made it became rich and famous. They were the stars of the operatic world during time of their prominence.
After castration, these boys underwent a long period of study and training to make use of their special abilities. As their voice did not change with the puberty they never underwent, they became sopranos and mezzo-sopranos. Some even could extend their range down into that of the tenor. One might wonder why maiming male children was thought necessary to get sopranos when there were plenty of women singers available. In many jurisdictions women were not allowed on the stage.
The reason for the popularity of the great castrati singers is simple; they were better singers than the best women. Because the epiphyses did not close in response to androgens they were taller than average and had bigger rib cages. Their voices were described as sweeter, more powerful, and with exceptional breath control. The great castrato Farinelli (his portrait is above the title) had a legendary voice spanning over three octaves, from C3 to D6 , and a thoracic development such that he could hold a note for a whole minute without taking breath. Contemporary critics speak ecstatically about Farinellli. Burney wrote in his General History of Music (c1776-89) “No vocal performer of the present century has been more unanimously allowed by professional critics as well as general celebrity to have been gifted with a voice of such uncommon power, sweetness, extent, and agility as Carlo Broschi, called Farinelli.”
The Voice of the Castrato published in the Lancet in 1998 gives a good discussion of the subject. My purpose in raising the topic here is to relate the performance of males relative to those females in any physical activity including activities independent of circulating androgen (testosterone/dihydrotestosterone) levels. What replaced the castrato in operatic popularity and prominence was the development of the heroic tenor near the end of the bel canto period from a light voiced singer using falsetto frequently into the trumpet sounding vocalist made great use of by Verdi and Wagner – but that’s a story for a later post. The end of opera seria and the increased presence of woman in opera also decreased the demand for castrati singers. The Vatican choir did not retire its last castrato until well into the 20th century.
Several of the sports regulating bodies, in response to males who have decided they are females and wish to compete in women’s sports, have issued rules that require that total testosterone levels be below a specified concentration in order for a self declared female to compete against real women. If the formerly male athlete had already undergone puberty his/her testosterone levels would be irrelevant as the musculo-skeletal development governed by testosterone would already have occurred potentially rendering strength, speed, etc at a level higher than almost any female athlete. But the male advantage in sports is likely even more complicated than just described.
The male-female difference in physical potential goes back to early fetal development. Androgens (mainly dihydrotestosterone formed from testosterone under the control of 5α-Reductase) exert an effect on the male fetus at 4-6 weeks of gestation including genital virilization such as midline fusion, phallic urethra, scrotal thinning and rugation (folding), and phallic enlargement.
During the second trimester, androgen levels are associated with sex formation. Specifically, testosterone, along with anti-Müllerian hormone promote growth of the Wolffian duct and degeneration of the Müllerian duct respectively. This period affects the femininization or masculinization of the fetus and can be a better predictor of feminine or masculine behaviors such as sex typed behavior than an adult’s own levels. Prenatal androgens apparently influence interests and engagement in gendered activities and have moderate effects on spatial abilities.
Thus, males and females differ significantly in a variety of characteristics and abilities, differences which are very wide even if a male never goes through puberty. The simple fact, so obvious that only a college education might disguise it, is that woman and men should not compete against each other in athletic events irrespective of hormone levels. Usain Bolt isn’t as fast as an automobile and no one cares that he doesn’t compete against one. The same reasoning applies to men’s and women’s athletics. There is a different standard the applies to each.
Finally, consider the case of Anne Andres who started life as a male and then “transitioned” to female. (S)he’s a power lifter who set a women’s national powerlifting record and an unofficial women’s world record at a competition in Brandon, Manitoba.
Andres, 40, had a total powerlifting score (based on the total of the heaviest weight lifted for the bench press, and deadlift and squat) of 597.5kg, (roughly 1,317 pounds) over 200 kg more than the top-ranked woman, SuJan Gil, who had a score of 387.5kg (854 pounds), at the Canadian Powerlifting Union’s 2023 Western Canadian Championship.
The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) issued an ultimatum to the Canadian Powerlifting Union warning the union to abide by its rules regarding men competing against women — which could mean a transgender powerlifter could be banned from the sport. “The athlete’s total testosterone level in serum must remain at or below 2.4 nmol/liter (nmol/L) and free testosterone at or below 0.433 nmol/L (or at or below the upper limit of normal of the laboratory reference) throughout the period of desired eligibility to compete in the female category,” the (IPF) rules continue. “Compliance with these conditions must be monitored by testing at intervals as determined by IPF Medical Commission. In the event of non-compliance, the athlete’s eligibility for female competition is suspended and reapplication for validity to compete in female category is required.”
As indicated above Andres’ testosterone levels could be zero and he (or she) would still win the powerlifting competition. The IPF is on the right track, but doesn’t fully understand the differences between the sexes. The Federation doesn’t need blood tests, a little common sense will suffice. The issue is simple – men and women should compete in separate events – mixed doubles excluded. Men and women are different in a lot of ways not just in their athletic performance. The French have known this for centuries. It should be celebrated, not defaced.