Semenya, sex and sports
Remember the case of South African runner Caster Semenya? Her gender was questioned by the International Association of Athletic Federations after she competed in Berlin last summer for the World Athletics Championships. At question for the last ten months was whether or not Semenya was female or not. Fortunately for Semenya, medical experts decided yesterday that she was female enough to continue competing.
That’s good news for Semenya, who has endured ten months of scientific scrutiny as well as media attention.
According to many observers, the lesson to be learned is that athletes’ privacy should be protected.
Woman and Children’s Minister Noluthando Mayende Sibiya said
The privacy of Caster was violated very, very seriously. We need to ensure that the laws of the country are tightened so that the rights of people are observed and protected in that regard.”
The minister had written a letter to the United Nations last year complaining about the “blatant disregard for Caster’s human dignity. Nobody should be made to suffer in the way Caster was made to suffer in the past several months,” she wrote.
But the need for privacy is surely not the only lesson to be learned from Semenya’s case. Instead, the real lesson is that binary sex, the foundation of modern sporting competition, is a fiction. The truth is, sex is far more messy than a binary. As we know from the Semenya case, but a variety of other athletes as well, bodies and chromosomes come in more shades than black or white, penis or vagina or XX or XY.
Indeed, there are women with XNull chromosomes and even XXY chromosomes. There are bodies with both testes and a vagina. And to make matters even more difficult to figure out, there are a variety of persons taking hormones for a variety of reasons– from birth control to a desire to be more “masculine” or more “feminine.” In other words, between intersexed bodies, transgendered bodies, and hypergendered bodies, how are we supposed to find a nice separation between male and female in the future when that separation was always far from stable?
And can sports survive without imagining sex as either this or that? Modern sports were founded on the assumption that men required physical activity to remain masculine in the face of an increasing “office-i-cation” of labor. As farmers and factory workers moved into white collar or at least service sector jobs, they lost the physicality of labor. Thus “sports” were invented- as part of schools as well as communities- to turn boys into men.
Women’s sports were more complicated, more dangerous to the sexual binary. If sports could make a man out of a boy, what could they do to a woman? And masculinized women were dangerous not just to the sexual binary, but to heterosexuality as well since she was always assumed to be a lesbian. Still, despite the dangers of sports to women, girls pursued them with a passion, especially after the passage of Title IX. Sure they worked hard to feminize sports- to wear “cute” little outfits or flock to sports that made them thin (like track or tennis) and not sports that might bulk them up (like rugby or bodybuilding). But still, despite the anxiety over sports as a masculinizing influence, women’s sports grew alongside men’s.
And yet, what to do when someone like Semenya comes along? Clearly muscular, clearly fast, clearly not trying to look feminine, Semenya’s body and gender presentation acts as threat to the supposedly clear separation between men and women. Indeed, her body is so threatening that it had to be studied for ten months to decide to which sex it belongs.
And the conclusion of the experts: female. But the conclusion of the rest of us: sex is messy.