Hugh Adler explores the gender issues surrounding embattled South African sprinter Caster Semenya.
Caster Semenya’s success in the women’s 800 metres world championships was thrown into controversy immediately after her victory last month, as observers suspected the 18-year-old South African of being a man.
An Australian newspaper recently leaked the preliminary results of her gender verification tests, apparently stating that she has internal testes, and no womb or ovaries. A number of South African public officials – who really should know better – have since made increasingly provocative comments in the media, as have Semenya’s relatives.
Sports journalists have been providing most of the coverage of this extremely complex topic, but have not always been entirely accurate. We will not know the definitive results of the tests – or whether Semenya will be allowed to keep her medal – until the International Association of Athletics Federations convenes in November.
To begin, it is important to point out that “sex” and “gender” are not synonymous. “Gender” is essentially a social concept, dealing with whether a person defines themselves as masculine or feminine. “Sex” is biological – as a rule, if an individual has two X chromosomes, she is biologically female; if an X and a Y chromosome, he is male.
This distinction may be considered pedantic, but the sex/gender concept is important, particularly in the context of this debate. If the leaked report is true, Caster Semenya could be a person of the male sex. Her gender is still largely up to her – having lived as a woman her whole life, she can choose to remain a woman, whatever the medical report says.
Many commentators have begun referring to Semenya as a hermaphrodite – this is not the correct term. True human hermaphrodites are exceptionally rare, and have both testes and ovaries. More common are pseudohermaphrodites – people who have the outward appearance of one sex, but the internal organs or genetic makeup of another.
What gives rise to such individuals? In human development, the “default body type” is female – left to its own devices, every embryo will develop ovaries, a womb and a vagina. If the embryo is genetically male, then the Y chromosome allows the production of several substances, including testosterone, which suppress the development of female organs and cause the embryo to develop testes and a penis.
Rarely, problems can arise during this intricate process. One example of such a problem is Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (androgens are male hormones such as testosterone), occurring in one out of every 20,000 births.
These people are genetically XY and hence produce testosterone, but their bodies can’t respond to it. Thus, during development they follow the “default” pathway and develop a vagina. However, the development of internal sexual organs – either testes or ovaries – is controlled by more than just testosterone; people with AIS still produce other male hormones, and these successfully suppress the womb and ovaries and induce the formation of testes, which remain concealed in the abdomen.
Thus, these individuals look like women, but internally (and genetically) they are male. Interestingly, most experts recommend that they be considered female for the purpose of athletics competitions.
This is just one of a number of complicated conditions which can blur the distinctions between male and female. Many of Semenya’s relatives have asserted that, since they changed her nappies when she was a baby, they can swear that she is female. While they are undoubtedly sincere and well meaning, sex validation is unfortunately more complex than that.
Controversies of this nature first arose in the 1960s, when Soviet-bloc countries entered athletes who were biologically male, into female competitions. In those days, screening tests simply consisted of a chromosome scan – is this athlete XX or XY? Nowadays, a wide variety of tests and analyses can be conducted.
The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) does not require complicated screening tests or compulsory gender validation – in fact, its medical manual simply advises a “visual examination […] during the delivery of a urine specimen in the women’s doping control station.” Obviously, more sophisticated tests can be requested if questions arise during a competition.
South Africans are understandably furious that their national heroine might be stripped of her medal – but their comments have been far from helpful. The minister for sport went so far as to threaten a third world war over the issue. (Clearly South Africa’s constitution confers all manner of powers on the minister for sport; imagine if Martin Cullen could declare war on Ireland’s behalf.)
Meanwhile, the Youth League of the country’s ruling African National Congress party stated that they “will never accept the categorisation of Caster Semenya as a hermaphrodite, because in South Africa and the entire world of sanity, such does not exist.”
While I don’t want to paint a picture of South Africa as a backward, narrow-minded nation, this inflammatory rhetoric is incredibly insensitive. Caster Semenya needs and deserves her nation’s support, but this has been delivered in a manner that could end up causing her a lot of pain.
Semenya herself has maintained a dignified silence during the whole affair, saying “I see it all as a joke, it doesn’t upset me.” A South African fashion magazine gave her a makeover and put her on its cover – a much nicer gesture than anything done for her by government officials.
Ethically, Semenya’s case is extremely tricky – there is no reason to suggest that she is guilty of deliberate wrongdoing. All she ever wanted to do was to run, but now her most intimate personal details have become fodder for gossip and speculation. Given the poor levels of awareness and understanding in South Africa of conditions like AIS – let’s face it, most of the world’s population is poorly informed when it comes to these conditions – it seems likely that she never suspected she was anything but female. Now she is at risk of stigma and humiliation.
Let her keep the medal, and leave her alone.