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Aug. 20 2009 - 12:00 am | 58 views | 0 recommendations | 12 comments

Caster Semenya, sex, and sports

Cover of "Sexing the Body: Gender Politic...

Cover via Amazon

The sports world is confused.  Yet another athlete is refusing to fit neatly into the gender binary upon which it is based.  This time we have  Caster Semenya, a young woman who ran 800 meters in 1 minute, 56.72 seconds at the African Junior Championships.  Now she’s running in international competition and rumors are circulating that she’s really a boy.  According to an article in the Daily Telegraph, one of the international officials close to the case said:

“She has got the arms, the forearms, the throat and the facial hair of a young boy. They will keep coming up and saying she has passed the test but the test isn’t perfect anymore.”

Actually, the test was never perfect.  How, after all, is the sex of a runner to be determined?  This has been a problem since the introduction of women into organized sporting competitions.  As biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling has demonstrated, determining a person’s sex is a very messy business that is not easily confined in the neat little categories of boy or girl.

There are external body parts, reproductive organs, secondary sex characteristics, and chromosomes (not to mention gender presentation, cultural norms, and a bunch of completely non-biological ways of determining a body’s sex).  In fact, Fausto-Sterling argues, when all of these factors are taken into account, it means that something like 2-4% of all babies born are not easily male or female.  There are all sorts of variations: people with chromosome combos like xxy and xNull and babies with testes but penises under 1cm at birth who are considered “really” girls and people with male and female naughty bits.

As a culture, we Americans pretend not to see (or be) these intersex bodies.  They’re too messy, too disturbing to the binaries we hold dear: like male and female, black and white, good sportsmanship and cheating.  In fact, we so refuse to accept that these bodies exist that most hospitals in the US will treat intersex babies as a medical emergency, often forcing parents to decide on a sex and allow their infant to be surgically altered before they even leave the hospital.

But what to do with those bodies that slip through the sex police at the hospital?  What to do with those that manage to grow up and exist without being clearly male or female?  Perhaps the best thing to do is mark them as racially other?

Australian coach Nic Bideau, who has been around the international circuit for 20 years, said often the African nations produce these people who are born with a mixture of chromosomes and display both male and female characteristics.

Gender question about runner | The Daily Telegraph.

Oh, it’s the Africans producing intersexed bodies, not “”civilized” countries like Australia or America?  Such a ridiculous claim can only be made because of the Victorian racial science that produced both Empire and Sports.  According to the Victorian scientists, highly influenced by Darwinian theory, the most advanced cultures were those with the most extreme sex differentiation.  Who was more sex differentiated than the Victorian middle class?  The “ladies” stayed home and fainted; the men shot lions in Africa and were aggressive in the market.  Ah, but sadly, as industrialization swept all the men into desk jobs, a genuine fear arose that the men were being feminized by modern culture.  A movement developed to introduce sports into schools to butch up the bourgeois boys.  This movement, known as Muscular Christianity, was a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt’s and was what brought the YMCA’s to every town in America.

After all, if bourgeois boys only knew the soft hands and softer stomachs of desk jobs, they would be like women and the white middle class would lose their status as the most evolved group among humans.  They would become like other groups without extreme gender differentiation:  the working class, homosexuals, the Irish, and, of course, Africans.

So here is poor, young, Semenya running really fast, but everyone’s insisting she’s not really a girl since you know, those “Africans” produce bodies that are not sufficiently gender differentiated.  Because they’re not as evolved as Australians and Americans, where men are men, and women are women. 

In “civilized” countries, babies born outside the binary are surgically altered, hormonally treated, and forced to abide by iron law of sex and sports: play by the rules of gender or get thrown out of the game.


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    nice article. But I do have to say that the Western society’s Idea of Gender and machoness (from your last article) were around long before Darwinism and they basically reside at the the very core of Western Society. especially the influence of Greek and Roman culture with a larger influence of Judeo-christian beliefs. both were men dominated cultures(for the most part) and very specific when it comes to what males and females are. So then we must examine the core of our society to finally change our outlook on these and other subjects. Which we so desperately need if we are to in a sense “grow up” as a society.

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      Actually, a clearly binary sex wasn’t developed till about the Reformation. The Ancients had a “one sex” model which, not surprisingly, was male. Ovaries and fallopian tubes were but inverted versions of the penis and scrotum. What may be more surprising is this model was not disturbed by people who were neither fully male nor fully female since the one sex model allowed for different levels of inversion or extroversion. It was all an issue of “heat” and “humors”- if a female body got too hot, she might suddenly have a penis; if a male body got too cold, it might suddenly invert to a vagina. These things were “normal” and did not cause a category crisis. Once, however, a two-sex model came along and then was firmly established- not really till the 1700s- all bodies had to be one or the other. An excellent book on this is Thom Lacqueur’s Making Sex. Really fascinating stuff.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    Sports may wind up as an important catalyst for the discussion of gender issues. This story has become national in columns, blogs and sports talk radio which has at least put gender issues in daily discussion.

    I’ll be interested in seeing how this is handled at the 2012 Olympics.

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    You’re so right. Sports will surely be at the forefront of these discussions about the sex binary.

    I think the Olympic Committee switched to the vagina/penis method of testing as of Beijing. In other words, while athletes are watched urinating for the drug tests, doctors can also verify which bits they have. This was considered an improvement after decades of singling out female athletes for chromosome testing (started in 1968, I think). For instance, in 1986, Maria Jose Martinez-Patino, was deprived of a first place finish when a chromosome test showed that she had XY chromosomes (although she also had a vagina and breasts and considered herself female). She eventually was allowed to compete as female, but suffered severe emotional and social consequences as a result of her chromosomes. Not sure what the Olympic Committee will do if the genitalia is any way “unclear”.

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    Ms. Essig,

    Your points are very well stated, many people do not neatly fit into the categories of “either male or female”. We could quibble about whether it is a particularly “western”, “civilized”, or “Victorian” set of categories, I suspect that almost all human societies at almost every time has pretty well defined gender categories. We do need to recognize that there is probably more of a continuum of gender than just two poles.

    Having said all of that, what does is to be done on a practical level? The vast majority of competitive sports world-wide are divided by gender, males vs. males and females vs. female. Short of eliminating that gender division, I don’t see how there cannot be some sort of “gender standard”. It would be ultimately be artificial and arbitrary, as many standard are, but if the gender division in sports is indeed important and to be preserved, then what is the alternative?

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    Let’s not forget the individual involved in this matter. It matters that Caster Semenya is treated with respect as a valid and accomplished human being.

  6. collapse expand

    Well done, Laurie. Here’s a link to a NYT story from July of ‘08 talking about gender testing in the Olympics:


    Here’s what I don’t understand about this controversy. The anxiety about Semenya seems to have been triggered by her performance. Had Semenya not blown away the competition, I don’t think we’d be hearing about her – people saw that she ran fast and assumed that her accomplishment couldn’t have been achieved “normally.”

    If we flip the script, we begin to see how weird this is. Imagine a competition involving men. Can we even think of a performance by a man in an athletic competition that would cause us to become so anxious about his gender to the point where we’d compel him to undergo testing? Not really. We wouldn’t compel a man to undergo testing because we saw him “throw like a girl” or something along those lines. In our culture, that kind of focused gender panic about men (to the point where we’d start consulting medical experts) isn’t really intelligible. Male athletes are never subject to these same anxieties. It’s all very bizarre.

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    deleted account

    Gender is a tricky business in nature because so much of life is actually hermaphroditic and some organisms can even mate with themselves to produce viable offspring. [insert your own masturbation joke here] In primates, the differentiation evolved from mammal-like reptiles who developed the X/Y chromosome mutation around 160 million ago according to a study on platypus genomes.

    The vast majority of the time, XX and XY are reliable signatures of gender which is why we have very standard procedures for ordinary tests that return normal, expected results. What happened with Maria Jose Martinez-Platino was a stark illustration of the fact that the officials doing the testing have no guidelines for how to dig deeper into genetic abnormalities when they’re uncovered. This means that we should keep improving and updating testing procedures to reflect our current scientific understanding rather than cultural stereotypes.

    According to the Victorian scientists, highly influenced by Darwinian theory, the most advanced cultures were those with the most extreme sex differentiation.

    Actually, the Victorian scientists were not highly influenced by anything Darwin wrote. Many of them thought that natural selection as an evolutionary mechanism was just popular science, kind of like ideas about AI are today, and the theory only began getting real academic attention well after the modern synthesis phase and a steady stream of serious academic papers on the mechanics of natural selection and genetics.

    Victorians were guided by their arrogance first and foremost, and their cultural assertions were often packaged and sold as science to the public while in reality they were anything but. In fact, Victorians were fond of bizarre Occult manuscripts from Max Heindel and Helena Blavatsky who presented a horrifically mangled view of evolution, as well as pseudo-scientific screeds from Houston Stewart Chamberlain who helped inspire Hitler’s social views, the Nazi movement and who adamantly denied evolution in the first place.

    Darwin had nothing to do with determining how women were seen or treated by Victorian society. Those views were laid out before he was born.

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      Well, the Victorian scientists whom I read were most certainly influenced by Darwin- nearly all the sexologists were influenced by this idea of gender differentiation- Havelock Ellis- talks about the question of sex “and the racial foundation it rests upon”! Sociologist Emile Durkheim bases all of his anti-marxist work on it- especially the Division of Labor in Society– and then there is Darwin’s cousin, Sir Charles Galton- inventor of statistics and proponent of eugenics (not necessarily in that order). Unimportant, perhaps, to poor Semenya and the insane trial by gender that she is undergoing, but important to understand that much of the Victorian science that continues to shape post-Victorian understandings was highly influenced by notions of evolution in which gender differentiation and racial superiority were tied up. I highly recommend Siobhan Somerville’s Queering the Color Line on this point- or Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        deleted account

        Havelock Ellis was a eugenicist and his ideas about racial foundations of certain sexual acts run very counter to Darwin’s, who was actually an abolitionist and dismissed eugenics as a wishful idea in The Descent of Man. Likewise, he publicly stated that Galton and Herbert Spencer misunderstood his theory and that things like compassion for fellow humans and variety in our shape and form were obviously beneficial, otherwise they would’ve been picked off by nature a long time ago.

        There were distilled versions of Darwin’s ideas making their way around the Victorian elites, most of them wrong, grossly distorted by bigotry and sexism, and applied in ways that run counter to his conclusions. So there are all sorts of claims how pseudoscientists of the time were “inspired by Darwin” or read up on “the latest theory of natural selection” but really, they had no idea what they were talking about. Instead, they were mangling the science to justify their arrogance and malice.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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    No doubt, but that they based much of their work on this very simple idea: the most evolved species are the most gender diffentiated and that this idea was the absolute basis of not just the creation of the homosexual but also the color line not to mention much of anti-Semitism and Colonialist justifications is undeniable. Whether it was true Darwinian theory or pop Darwinian theory is rather unimportant- it’s like saying Lenin misused Marx. That doesn’t make his work less Marxist. Wrong headed, yes. But nonetheless, Marxist.

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    deleted account

    “Whether it was true Darwinian theory or pop Darwinian theory is rather unimportant…”

    Ah, but it is. In fact, it’s immensely important because the pop versions of natural selection were just plain wrong and mangled what Darwin was saying into pseudoscientific concepts that he would constantly try to counter in his follow up publications. In science, taking a theory and twisting it to say something it never says so much so, its author has to weigh in to dispute what’s being made out of it, is a terrible folly and it’s not just important, it’s critical.

    “…they based much of their work on this very simple idea: the most evolved species are the most gender diffentiated…”

    I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anything to that effect.

    “that this idea was the absolute basis of not just the creation of the homosexual but also the color line not to mention much of anti-Semitism and Colonialist justifications is undeniable.”

    Are you saying that anti-Semitism wasn’t based on centuries of religious hatred and tensions but the idea that Jewish men and women were too androgynous for the Victorians’ comfort? And that this is an undeniable fact? Huh?

    “it’s like saying Lenin misused Marx. That doesn’t make his work less Marxist. Wrong headed, yes. But nonetheless, Marxist.”

    Lenin used Marx’s work as a shield to rob the people and get rid of the nation’s ruling classes so he and his allies could fill the power vacuum afterward. He was as much a Marxist as a shark is a vegetarian.

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    I'm an academic who does not believe in abstract knowledge. Like Marx, I think the point isn't just to describe the world, but to change it. Unlike Marx I don't have Engels sending me my monthly rent. So I have a day job teaching sociology at Middlebury College. In my real life, I'm a fighter (taekwondo) and a writer

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