Activity: Intersections of sex and gender in one life
This activity involves learning and thinking about the life of a very prominent and controversial person, Caster Semenya, a middle-distance runner and world champion from South Africa. Born in 1991, Mokgadi Caster Semenya is 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighs approximately 140 pounds. At the age of 17, Semenya won the women’s 800 m race at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games with at time of 2:04.23. Less than 9 months later, Semenya won the women’s 800 m at the 2009 African Junior Championships, with a time of 1:56. 72 – more than 7 seconds faster than the previous competition.
This phenomenal improvement led the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to order drug testing. Semenya was suspected of using performance enhancing drugs. But the IAAF and Semenya’s coach neglected to mention that they were also conducting “gender tests” (they actually meant sex tests) to determine whether the athlete was female or male. The announcement took the international sports community by storm and ignited a controversy that has yet to fully subside.
Semenya’s story has been followed closely by the media and the internet is chock full of coverage – images, articles, interviews and videos. Below you will find six selections. Read through the articles, listen to the interviews, watch the videos and decide if you believe Caster Semenya to be a woman, a man, neither or both. Consider the following questions as you are reading and listening: they can help you analyze why you have reached your conclusion.
Which dimensions of sex and/or gender are you focusing on to make your decision?
Where do sex and gender intersect in the controversy?
Who is or should be making a determination about Semenya’s sex?
Why might we feel the need to decide if Semenya is female or male?
Caster Semenya’s story is an exceedingly complex one when it comes to understanding the impact and interaction of sex and gender. Semenya was living as a woman when her sex was called into question and her parents and extended family insisted that she was and always had been a girl. But her performance as a runner caused some to doubt that she was female and officials as well as the media began an invasive investigation of her body and life.
Semenya was born and raised as a female and she performed traditional female chores, such as fetching water, cooking and cleaning. But she also avoided wearing dresses in favour of baggy trousers and shirts and played soccer with the boys, which resulted in her being described as a “tomboy”. She was still identified as a girl, but a girl whose behaviour required an explanation or label.
Following puberty, Semenya’s development appeared somewhat ambiguous – she experienced little or no breast development but also little or no facial hair. She grew to average height and weight for a woman, but had a low husky voice. During these years, Semenya competed in women’s sports without any problems, an implicit acknowledgement that she is female regardless of whether or not she appears “feminine”. This official reaction is perhaps not surprising given that many professional and elite amateur athletes have bodies that are very different from the average male or female body.
It seems to have been Semenya’s outstanding athletic performance that finally called into question whether she is male or female and from there both her sex and her gender became the subjects of intense scrutiny. The IAAF ordered “gender tests”, by which they meant testing Semenya’s DNA, hormone levels, and reproductive organs, while the media and the public had a field day with Semenya’s appearance, fashion choices, personal relationships, etc.
Whether we believe that Semenya is male, female, both or neither depends entirely on which aspects of sex or gender are given priority. Some people might assume that Semenya is male, based on reports that she has testosterone levels 3 times higher than a “normal” female. Others might decide that she is female based on her gender identity – she has always lived as a female and understands herself to be a woman. Still others might conclude that Semenya is intersex because of rumours that she has some male and some female reproductive organs.
Semenya’s case caused a huge fuss in the sporting world because officials believed that if she was really a male competing against females she had an unfair advantage. There is a troubling assumption here that women cannot compete against men, which is echoed across many sports. For instance, male tennis players play 5 sets per match while female tennis players are only required to play 3 sets. Similarly, until 2011 women were not allowed to ski in many Olympics events, such as jumping or half pipe, while men have long been able to compete in these events.
At the same time, it is troubling to realize that only female athletes have ever been subjected to sex and gender testing. An extremely large or fast male athlete might be suspected of using performance enhancing chemicals, including anabolic steroids which mimic testosterone, but this would not be grounds for questioning his maleness or his masculinity.
Perhaps one of the most telling comments in the controversy came from Pieter Weiss, Secretary General of the IAAF. The results of the IAAF’s “gender tests” on Semenya have never been released because of patient confidentiality, but before the results were even available, Weiss remarked to the press, “It is clear she is a woman but maybe not 100 per cent”. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/more_sport/athletics/article6829813.ece
Weiss statement zeroes in on the intersection of sex and gender in Semenya’s case. What does a 100 per cent woman look or act like, how is her body structured and how does it work? More importantly, why should it matter and, if it does, who should decide?