#ranthill: gender and distinction

the IAAF have today announced that South African track star Caster Semenya will be allowed to continue her career after nearly a year of official uncertainty about her ‘status’, and the results of the tests she has been forced to undertake will remain confidential.

problems began for Ms Semenya hours before she won 800m gold at the World Championships in Berlin last year, as a ball of rumours that had been circulating for a while suddenly hardened into an official investigation into her entitlement to complete in women’s athletic competitions. without ever being explicit about exactly what evidence lies at the basis of the suspicions (and therefore inviting speculation that it was simply a combination of her being fast, tall and broad), the IAAF reported that Semenya would have to undergo ‘gender tests’.

as you as intelligent RQT readers will be aware, the notion of ‘gender tests’ is a quite ridiculous one. despite what the IAAF thinks (and to be fair the BBC, The Guardian and almost every other news agency failed to correct them), in proper terms gender could never be ascertained by a test, given that gender is, as C20th philosophy and sociology has taught us, a fluid quality that each of us performs. in this sense, the term ‘gender’ is not synonymous with ‘sex’, which is what the IAAF really meant but was perhaps a bit embarrassed to say. in the simplest terms, ‘sex’ relates to biology, whereas ‘gender’ relates to social identity, which is why ‘gender tests’ is a nonsense concept.

the deeper problem, however, is that while a ‘gender test’ would be meaningless, a ‘sex test’ wouldn’t necessarily prove any more helpful. the issue is that while much of Western society continues to think of biological sex as being an essentialist and binary concept – i.e. a person is either a man or a woman – in reality this is quite far from the case. as the brilliant work on theology and intersex conditions by Dr Susannah Cornwall – my talented partner in crime and life (known to RQT readers as simply ‘The Dr’) – has shown, there are all kinds of experiences that disrupt this over-simplistic conception of sex, the most fundamental of which being that science is finding it ever increasingly difficult to find any absolute basis for the distinction at all. (for more info on her work, read Dr Cornwall’s blog here)

we can probably all see that sex cannot be determined on the basis of the external appearance of genitalia, because there are many conditions that result in unexpected relationships between external and internal apparatus. however, likewise, the best research shows that internal sex characteristics, chromosomes and even the size of gametes (considered until recently the only reliable location of sex distinction) cannot be relied on to give a universal decree as to the sex of the individual under consideration.

the IAAF’s decision not to publicise the results of Semenya’s tests might seem like a gesture of solidarity with the athlete (if a much overdue one), but in reality, the likelihood is that they feel they cannot release the results without also being specific about what it was exactly that they were testing for and how. if they were to publish any results, the decision that they have made would be open to all sorts of contestation, in this and any future cases. what is more, they would be forced to formalise the criteria that they themselves use to judge sex in terms of categorising athletes, which thus far they have seemingly been as vague about as possible.

whilst few of us would deny that on average male athletes tend to have qualities that make them stronger, faster and more powerful than their female counterparts, this is and has to be a matter of averages, not law. would Rowan Atkinson enjoy a ‘natural’ advantage over Serena Williams at tennis? while that might be a somewhat flippant line of argument, it also highlights the fact that there are all sorts of other aspects of human physiological and psychological makeup that function to distinguish the performance of athletes.

Michael Phelps might stand as a good example. he is built like a swimming machine: he has an abnormally long, thin but muscular torso, a massive arm span compared to his height (6’7″ span, 6’4″ height), size 14 feet and super-flexible ankles. i have none of these attributes, but if i were an international quality swimmer, could i legitimately expect an athletic body to regulate to distinguish between Phelps and me? in other words, should there be a category for people who have these or similar traits, and those that don’t, or would that be ridiculous? when compared to sex, the difference is a matter of frequency of the occurrence of advantageous characteristics, but one could argue that at the highest level that makes little difference – i.e. an examination of the differences between an averagely built male swimmer, an averagely built female swimmer and Michael Phelps might put the set of differences between the first two bodies into an interesting perspective.

of course one of the really fascinating aspects of Semenya’s case was the blatant fog of orientalism (or whatever the equivalent is in relation to Africa) that hung around the story. those who suspected that Semenya has an intersex condition regularly painted her as a country girl, who came from a deep-dark region of South Africa where such conditions are more widely found and as such constitute a ‘normal’ part of life. This racist and patronising discourse of ‘oh is isn’t her fault, she’s too backwards to realise she’s a man’ would be disgusting enough if it wasn’t also unbelievably ill-informed. Semenya might have grown up in a rural area, but she now studies at Pretoria University and works with their state of the art equipment, facilities and coaches.

i have only huge respect for the way in which Ms Semenya has handled the fact that her body has become the site of such a strange and political debate. she has consistently come across as a gracious, confident and highly focussed individual and i hope she goes on to excel in the sport and to be an inspiration for all people who find themselves in a similar situation. what is more, i hope that the IAAF are called to formally justify all of their actions.

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