Caster Semenya to undergo sex determination

29 08 2009

In case you haven’t heard, there has been some serious bullshit going on about Caster Semenya, an 18-year-old world champion runner from South Africa, whose privacy is being invaded beyond belief in a controversy over whether the runner has too many male characteristics to compete as a woman.  On Tuesday, Semenya won the 800-meters race at the track and field world championships, just hours after it was determined by track officials that she would need to undergo sex testing to determine her further eligibility to compete as a woman.  Many people globally are rightfully angered about the public invasion of the young woman’s privacy.

Lamine Diack, President of the International Association of Athletics Federations, (the organization who ordered the investigation) has admitted that the confidentiality of the investigation was breached, called this “regrettable,” and asked for an inquiry.  However, these words are little comfort to those who are outraged by the implicit sexism, heteronormativity and racism in the investigation.  Controversy and finger-pointing has also arisen over who was the one to raise the question about Semenya’s sex to the I.A.A.F.  It has also been noted that white South Africans seem to be conspicuously absent as Semenya’s supporters.

Leonard Chuene, President of Athletics South Africa, said to The New York Times:   “We are not going to allow Europeans to define and describe our children…The only scientists I believe in are the parents of this child.”

According to a test three years ago, Semenya’s testosterone levels were in the normal range for women, and she was judged to be definitely female.  But regardless of the results, these investigations emphasize how global society continues to denigrate, mock, and intimidate those who do not conform to a rigid binary of gender stereotypes.

The New York Times notes that Semenya has been subjected to harassment about her sex before.  “Boys used to tease her all the time…Sometimes she’d have to beat them up,” said Semenya’s great aunt, Martina Mpati.  Semenya’s high school principal told South African newspaper “The Star” that at some track meets, the other team would demand proof of her sex identity, but after they returned from the toilets, “she would be cleared and the competition would resume.”

But as if physical exams and taunting weren’t enough, her sex has become an item of global attention and speculation, simply because of the way that she looks and speaks.  Semenya should not be subjected to this blatant gender discrimination.  But sadly, Semenya is forced to deal with this discrimination on both a private and public level, and she is being further taunted and humiliated globally because this most recent investigation was made public.

Dave Zirin calls out the “twisted, sexist, racist, and heteronormative” history of track and field in this MSNBC video on the subject.  Check it out.

Zirin also wrote an excellent piece on the subject in which he points out that:

fifty years ago, Olympic official Norman Cox proposed that in the case of black women, “the International Olympic Committee should create a special category of competition for them — the unfairly advantaged ‘hermaphrodites.'”

But it seems that we have remained relatively stagnant on this issue, and it still seems all too often that the athletic success of women (especially non-white women) causes their sex identity or honesty (or both) to be questioned.  The possibility of an endless spectrum of genders, even sexes, seems to be thought of as entirely impossible in a global athletics culture which values only a clear-cut gender binary in which male is the more athletically successful of the two categories.  We must resist this urge to define what is acceptable by these stereotypes of what it means to be male or female, masculine or feminine.  Perhaps only with the erasure of these stereotypes and this rigid gender/sex binary will we be able to stop the further humiliation and degradation of innocent people like Semenya.


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2 responses

1 09 2009
Michael

How do you propose the global athletics culture should adapt to a gender spectrum, as opposed to a gender binary? Should everyone be tested and grouped into competition grades based on testosterone levels?

2 09 2009
feminist1

@Michael: That is an excellent question, and a really difficult (maybe impossible) one to answer. It may be that the most progress we can realistically hope for is a broadening of the rigid definitions of what qualifies as male vs female (both in gender roles and biological sex). The question of a gender/sex spectrum brings up the debate of whether or not being female/male actually gives one entire sex an advantage over another in certain competitive sports. I am not qualified to answer this, since I don’t have extensive knowledge of the subject. There are certain sports in which one sex tends to perform at what is considered to be a higher level. Would that make it unfair to group all sexes/genders together in competition? Perhaps.

At the heart of Semenya’s case is gender discrimination, in which society’s rigid definitions of what physical characteristics make someone “male” or “female” played a huge part into the unfair treatment that Semenya has experienced throughout her life and now on a very public scale. Also, the call for Semenya’s testing was brought about because of the way that she looks. It seems unfair to subject her to sex-determination testing and not other athletes who are judged by the public to fit social definitions of acceptable masculinity or femininity. The latest tests also seem to have come about at least partially in reaction to her success, while other less successful athletes have not been subjected to this testing or public humiliation.

It should also be noted that in the latest call for sex determination, it’s not a question of whether Semenya is male or female, but “entirely female.” If Semenya is found in these tests to not qualify to fall into this definition, what does this mean for her? Does she then have no place in the athletics world? Where do trans or intersex people fall into the sporting world? The current confines allow little to no room for anyone who does not fit into what is considered to be “fully” biologically female or male. Whether or not athletics can actually fully adapt to a gender/sex spectrum, these rigid definitions must loosen to prevent further discrimination.

Would allowing men and women to run together give men an advantage? I have seen the argument that any physical characteristic could give athletes an advantage. One of the commenters at The Science of Sport made a good argument on the topic that is really worth thinking about.

“It’s a bit of a slippery slope in any case, when you think of the fact that top athletes in general have superior genetics that give them an “advantage” over their competitors, whether that’s Michael Phelps’ insanely big feet and double-jointed ankles, or Lance Armstrong’s long femur size. That’s part of what makes them top athletes, correct? If an internal medicine specialist needs to examine Caster Semenya in order to decide whether she’s eligible to compete as a woman or not, maybe we need to look at whether Andy Roddick’s flexible spine and hence extremely fast serve isn’t indeed some kind of unfair genetic advantage — maybe he should only be allowed to compete against similarly flexibly-backed athletes? Yes, it’s a ridiculous example to make my point: when it comes to what genetic advantages an athlete was born with, and how those advantages are classified, how do you decide how much is too much? I’m not talking about Oscar Pistorius here of course.”

But the question of whether to do away with sex-based divisions in sports is incredibly complex, and I have to admit I just don’t know the answer. I would love to know our readers’ opinions on the matter because it really is a very important question to be asked. So, I open the floor to the commenters. How could athletics adopt to the great complexity of gender and sex variation? Is it feasible to arrange athletics without grouping athletes based on sex? Or would this actually give males an “unfair advantage” and be detrimental in the long run?

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