Sex, Gender, and Caster Semenya

Have you heard about Caster Semenya? You might have, because she’s been in the news rather a lot lately. Ms. Semenya is an 18 year old South African, who happens to be a blazingly fast runner. She was introduced to the international athletics scene very recently, and in the last week, a controversy has been swirling around her: is Semenya actually of the male sex?

The controversy has arisen for two reasons:

1. She doesn’t “look” like most people think a woman should look. Ms. Semenya has superb muscle definition and a lean body.

2. She’s fast. Really, really fast. Obviously, if you’re fast, you must be a man.

Sports is sex segregated for a simple reason: there are biological differences between men and women which give men a distinct athletic advantage. Female athletes at their peak are far more fit than most men in the world, but they can’t always compete fairly against men in their peak. For this reason, events are primarily sex segregated. I think this is reasonable. Most people think this is reasonable. I also think, of course, that if you have a male sporting event in a competition, there needs to be an equivalent women’s event.

So, people think that Ms. Semenya’s sex is male, and that therefore she has an unfair edge on her competition. Ms. Semenya has been publicly humiliated to the point that she didn’t want to go to the podium to accept a gold medal for her superb performance. Her entry onto the international scene should have been triumphant and amazing, but instead: “No one has ever said I was not a girl, but here I am not. I am not a boy. Why did you bring me here? You should have left me in my village at home. (Source.)”

There are a lot of concurrent problems going on here. The first is the way that the situation has been handled. Public humiliation was not necessary.

The second is the concept of sex testing for athletes. Historically, there have been a few cases of nations entering male athletes in women’s sports. For this reason, sex verification started occurring for a lot of international events. Initially, it was of the crude “drop your pants for the jury” variety. Over time, as the understanding of human sexuality has expanded, “sex verification” has gotten much more complicated, with a battery of tests and a committee which includes endocrinologists, psychologists, and so forth.

In the course of sex testing, sporting bodies have in fact uncovered a few examples of female athletes who are biologically male and didn’t realize it. This is what people seem to think is happening in this case: no one (no one rational, anyway) is accusing Ms. Semenya of faking it, but rather, suggestions are being made that she has a biological condition which renders her biologically male, or which causes an increase in masculinizing hormones which could give her an unfair advantage when she competes with women.

This case has highlighted a lot of ignorance about sex and gender. Many people are not aware, for example, that sex is not as simple as “male or female,” and it is in fact extremely complex and nuanced. I’ve seen a lot of really, really, really ignorant and hateful things being said, both by average people and in the news media.

So I want to unpack some of those things.

First of all, news media: stop confusing sex and gender. Ms. Semenya is a woman. That is not going to change, that is not in question. She. Is. A. Woman. That is her gender. Her sex is what is being questioned here. Therefore, it is not appropriate to refer to “gender testing” or “gender verification” or “gender anything” when you are talking not about gender identity, but BIOLOGICAL SEX. Ms. Semenya doesn’t need gender verification; she already knows she’s a woman. So do her friends and family members. The question is: does Ms. Semenya have a genetic condition which renders her biologically male, or which has given her advantages not available to XX women?

The question isn’t even really “is Ms. Semenya a man?” It’s actually: Is Ms. Semenya female enough to compete in women’s sports? It may be that Ms. Semenya has some genetic abnormalities which could be medically treatable (such as with drugs to suppress hormone production), thereby allowing her to compete with women. It’s entirely possible that Ms. Semenya is your garden variety XX lady, and she’s just really good at what she does. It’s also possible that she will be deemed “not female enough to run with the women, not male enough to run with the men,” and that would be tragic, because it would mean depriving a talented young woman of the ability to do what she loves unless she wants to undergo radical medical treatment.

Second of all, for the general public, in re: transgender athletes: Transgender athletes are allowed to compete with their gender after two years of hormone treatment. That means that if someone is born biologically male but gendered female and chooses to undergo hormone treatment, she can compete with the women. Some sporting authorities demand verification of sexual reassignment surgery*. Others do not. I want to stress this, because this is important: other people’s genitals? Not your business. Some transgender people choose to get SRS. Others do not. In either case? Not your business.

Also, in re: transgender people: Please don’t call usĀ “transgendereds.” Please, especially, do not say “a transgender.” “A transgender” does not compute. It is insanely offensive. Would you say “a gay”? “A Black”? “A Jew?”

Also, in re: intersex people: Do not, ever, use the word “hermaphrodite,” unless someone specifically identifies as a hermaphrodite and uses that word self-referentially. If you use this word in my presence to refer to an intersex person, I will harm you. It is completely unacceptable, dated, and heinously offensive.

Third of all: Don’t tell me what a woman looks like. Don’t tell a woman “looks like a man.” Don’t tell me that a woman deserves to be publicly humiliated because she doesn’t meet your personal standard of “what a man looks like.”

Hey. I get that these issues are complicated, and when you haven’t been thinking about them or studying them, you are bound to make some mistakes. But I am seeing a lot of transmisogyny, transphobia, straight up misogyny, and shocking ignorance here. And it’s really pissing me off.

*Edited to add: the IOC requires SRS, hormone therapy, and certification of full transition from a recognized legal authority for athletes who transition after puberty.This policy has been criticized by athletes who argue that not all transgender people want/can afford SRS, and as a result they would be excluded from competition. I’m hoping that this will change as the IOC and other sporting organizations learn more about transgender issues; there’s no earthly reason to require SRS from transgender athletes. The Women’s Sports Foundation has an excellent article on transgender athletes which I would recommend people read if they want more information on this subject.

10 Replies to “Sex, Gender, and Caster Semenya”

  1. Thanks for putting this into words. The mainstream sports media coverage of Ms. Semenya was really bothering me, to the point of nausea, but I was having a hard time explaining why.

  2. Yeah, I mean, the coverage is problematic from so many angles, but the confusion of sex/gender has really been irking me. I’m glad to have been able to articulate some thoughts for you!

  3. Oh, I have a question! I always assumed that “hermaphrodite” was a physical description; can you explain/clarify?

  4. Sure thing!

    So, the term is used in biology to refer to an organism which has both male and female sex organs, and it continues to be used in biology for this purpose. Historically, it has also been used in reference to humans with both male and female sex organs, and more generally to humans with any kind of ambiguous genitalia/chromosomal abnormality relating to biological sex. This usage is now considered dated; kind of like how we don’t refer to people with cleft lips and palates as people with “harelips” or how we don’t use “retarded” to refer generically to people with developmental delays. (There are actually specific conditions for which “retarded” is medically appropriate, but for laypeople, it’s a good idea to avoid it altogether unless specifically told to use it, because “retarded” is used as a slur.)

    The correct term to use to refer to people with ambiguous genitalia or chromosomal conditions which cause “abnormalities” in sex development is “intersex.” “Hermaphrodite” in reference to human beings is generally perceived as offensive and inappropriate. It’s also not accepted by the medical community. (Sort of like how “partial birth abortion” isn’t a real medical term.)

  5. I understood from the mainstream media that in this specific case she’ll be tested to see if she is, in fact, “xy”. If so, she’ll have a problem. If she’s found to be “xx”, no problem. If any variant is found “the benefit of the doubt goes to the athlete”. Thus, she’d only be in trouble if she were “xy” as opposed to something other than “xx”. Did they get it wrong? Can you cite something?

  6. The mainstream media is, as usual, wrong. Sex testing for athletes is actually an extremely complicated process. It may have been simplified to “XX” vs “XY” for news reports, but the testing is way more extensive than that. Yes, a basic chromosomal test will be performed, but she may be XXY, XXX, and so forth, which could complicate matters. She may also demonstrate mosaicism, in which the genetic content of her cells differs; one cell might be XX, another XY.

    Additionally, she could have underlying medical conditions which have a masculinizing or feminizing effect. For example, she might have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS).

    If it was as simple as a test to check for a Y chromosome, the test would be way less complicated and way less invasive. Performing a full evaluation is actually going to take weeks or months, and includes a big medical team; geneticists, endocrinologists, gynecologists, psychologists, and so forth.

    Sex is not as simple as XX vs XY, and it’s really unfortunate that the media is mischaracterizing this case, as people are developing a lot of highly erroneous impressions, instead of learning more about the diversity of humans.

  7. OK, perhaps my ignorance is showing, but I believe what they said was that what they’re testing for is “xy”. Anything other than that, including the various possibilities you mention would be ok and covered by the “benefit of the doubt goes to the athlete”. I understand the issue is complex, but I thought it was rather positive that all the what-ifs were going to be flushed in this case. Are they really doing the more invasive testing in this case? I’ll take a look around myself and don’t want to see this story slide.

  8. After looking around I get the impression that you’re quite right. The more invasive testing is ongoing and my one exposure to the mainstream media regarding this story was quite misleading. Perhaps it is a case of wishful thinking on their part. It looks to me like the “benefit of the doubt” argument is just so much b.s.

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