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Jul. 7 2010 - 3:23 pm | 403 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

Semenya, sex and sports

Caster Semenya during World Championships Athl...

Image via Wikipedia

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    I agree. The issue of defining what a female athlete is, is making a significant mess.

    The question boils down to what we expect of our sporting demonstrations. If we expect to demonstrate endurance and strength, then men will almost always perform better than women. However, if we ask for demonstrations of control, then women may actually be able to compete.

    Golf comes to mind in the latter. The same with shooting sports such as archery and sporting clays. In theory, one would expect that a Woman can race a car as well as the men, though with a few notable exceptions, there are very few women racing. Women are a match for any man when performing aerobatics, and I suspect that although male athletes would probably win against most female athletes in Tennis, that the women would still be quite competitive.

    So the question becomes this: If we can not define what a woman is for the purpose of segregating their performance as a sex in sport, is it still worth doing?

    I think it is.

    In the not so distant future we may very well ask ourselves what being human is. With augmented body parts, we may well discover that cyborgs could outperform most un-augmented humans.

    Then we’ll have to ask ourselves what spectacles of sport are for.

    • collapse expand

      Not sure about endurance- when women were allowed into the NYFD it was because they showed that they could outperform men on endurance, a necessary quality for fighting fires, even though the tests up until then were just strength based.

      But the real issue, I think, is that men and women are a varied lot- some women are stronger than some men, some men have more control than some women, etc. Let’s assume we’re overlapping Bell curves with a few extremes on either end. Most humans fall in the middle of these curves.

      I do a sport- taekwondo sparring- that once you match for age, weight, and rank- gender/sex goes out of the picture. In other words, if a man weighs more or less what I do, is a black belt, and old like me, we’ll have a pretty evenly matched fight- regardless of genitalia, chromosomes, etc.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    What if there were a separate “genderality” for each person on Earth and the only person whose concern it was were that of its owner?

  3. collapse expand

    Makes perfect sense–a highly unusual variation on the male/female divide comes along, and it’s time to overhaul the notion of “binary sex” in athletics and elsewhere. And time to stick quotes around “masculine,” “feminine,” “men,” “women,” and so on.

    Exceptions to the rule don’t destroy the rule. That there are athletes who don’t fit comfortably into the “binary sex” model in no way invalidates it. Now, if we had huge numbers of “people” (of both “genders”) who didn’t fit that “model”–and of course “I” mean “people” of the “planet” called “Earth”–then maybe “you’d” be on to “something.” Perhaps the “reason” that most “people” have no “issue” with “binary sex” divisions, whether in “sports” or outside of “it,” is because that “division” works for “them.”

    I subscribe to a bizarre belief–one utterly foreign to the “thinking” style of social science–that human constructs can (and actually do, at least in some instances) correspond to reality. Yes, to it. In accordance with. In the orbit of. On the same page as.

    I thought your brand of gender-denial feminism had gone the way of Pyramid Power kits and uni-sex TV anchors. The field has got a long, hard climb ahead if it wants to be seen as something besides a fostering ground for yesterday’s social science cliches.

    • collapse expand

      Despite your rudeness, I will respond:

      I am NOT denying gender- just saying it is far more messy than a binary. Also, the assumption that sex is a binary is increasingly drawn into question as MODERN science shows that 3-5% of all births are intersexed PLUS a growing transgender movement shakes up our notion of clearly marked male and female bodies.

      Talk about cliches- you decide sex and gender exist in a binary- : babies are born male or female, they become masculine men or feminine women (or maybe in your world, feminine men and masculine women as well) and despite all the mounting evidence to the contrary, you insist it is true, that we all abide by this fiction, and that if we don’t, you get to dismiss us as some sort of bad form of feminism?

      Hmm, you’re almost Austin Powers like, waking up to a world that you don’t like and insisting we should all want to get groovy with you and embrace hairy-chested men and fembots?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Well, you’re certainly King of the Hill when it comes to insult-topping. Congrats. Trophy’s in the mail. However, despite my usual low-key sarcasm, nothing in my comment was an insult. Yours, by contrast, is nearly nothing but.

        Rather than going on about “all the mounting evidence” against the “binary” sex “idea,” not to mention implying I’m a retrograde cretin for not acknowledging same, how about producing that evidence? I realize that nothing is holier than data in the religion of social science, but a sprinkling of statistics does not a case make. To wit, until you can give us cause to doubt the “binary” sex model, your rejection of that model amounts to denial of gender.

        Similarly, if I doubted the “binary” Moon/Earth model, people would logically ask which body I doubted the existence of.

        As far as gender features/qualities not being a consideration of sex, you’re welcome to that view, I suppose. No one can really argue with a conclusion that much at odds with observation, but I CAN (and do) question that MODERN science is with you on that score–I seriously doubt it. Nor have I ever observed that people, on average, are anything but fully aware of the variety of characteristics, features, attributes, etc., that exist within and without gender. You talk about fixed gender perceptions, yet you’re the one denying the sex/gender connection because a small percentage of births happen to be “intersexed.” In other words, any data that lends variety and substance to a model is cause for junking the model! Luckily, most people aren’t that severe or autocratic in their worldview.

        I’ve grown a fairly thick skin at T/S, where any disagreement with an author is considered treason. I wish I had a dime for everything I’ve been mistaken for–a conservative, a Bible thumper, a Man’s Man, etc. Oh, and an enemy of logic. Almost forgot that.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    When I was a boy, cooking and even writing, were defined as kinda queer and education for women was considered kinda dyke-y. Now celebrity chefs consort with the likes of Padma Lakshmi, the highly-educated, brown-skinned beauty once married to writer Salman Rushdie. There’s hope for “man”kind.

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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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