Caster Semenya, sex, and sports
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.
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.