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Wise Distinctions

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I was glad to see in today’s press that it was decided to separate the question of what sex Caster Semenya really is from the questions of whether she could keep her medal or compete in women’s sports. It seemed to me that the drive to publish the results of the sex determination tests was always sensationalist and intrusive, and that it missed the important points at issue in this situation. Yesterday’s decision by the IAAF goes part of the way to honour the complexity and vulnerability of the person here, but also to affirm the way her gender is bound up with cultural and familial modes of belonging and recognition. In fact, I wonder why we feel compelled to determine sex in a definite way, given that sex can be ambiguous (and is for at least 10 per cent of the population, and much more if you take ‘psychological factors’ into account), and the standards that we use to ‘determine’ it are clearly shifting and not always consistent with one another (chromosomal, hormonal, anatomical, to name a few). In fact, the negotiated agreement with Semenya is not based on the ‘facts’ of sex, but on a consensus achieved among the various parties to the case about how to proceed. Let’s applaud this distinction.

After all, the question of whether she should be allowed to keep her medal or to participate in women’s athletics is different from the question of what sex she really is – and should remain so. Given that so many people do not conform to the standards that establish univocal sex, we have to find other ways to decide the question of who can compete under what category. That is not an easy decision, but it is important to keep in mind that we can invoke certain standards for admission to compete under a particular gender category without deciding whether or not the person unequivocally ‘is’ that category. If the standard turns out to be, for instance, hormone levels, and it is decided that one cannot exceed certain levels of testosterone to play in women’s sports, then a competitor could still be a ‘woman’ in a cultural and social sense and, indeed, in some biological senses as well, but she would not qualify to compete under those standards. Conversely a ‘man’ in a cultural sense may not qualify to compete in men’s sports according to the same standard, but does qualify for women’s sports – why should that be a problem? In both cases, we would not have to first decide the sex to establish qualifications for competition under a particular gender category. I’m not saying that this should be the standard, but am only using it as an example in order to show how standards for qualification do not have to be the same as final decisions about sex, and these can certainly be distinct from larger and overlapping questions of gender. Similarly, the decision that Semenya can retain the title is a separate issue from what the scientific findings are – this is the wise distinction encoded in the agreement between the sports ministry and those representing Semenya in this proceeding.

It is important to remember why in 1999 sex testing was ruled out for world sports competitions. I gather it kept making ‘errors’ and that there was no agreement on results. Let’s remember as well that results of such tests always have to be interpreted, and that is the place where gender norms frame and pervade scientific findings (see Helen Longino’s excellent work on this topic).

I confess to being amused and interested by two propositions put forward by this morning’s New York Times article. The first comes from the South African sports minister: ‘Caster Semenya can decide to run as a woman, which she is.’ It would seem that if she can decide, then her gender is, to some extent, a matter of decision. But if she ‘is’ a woman, then it would seem not to be a decision. The statement contains two different standards for what we think about sex-determination, and it also belies a certain confusion between sex-determination and gender identity. The second claim is: ‘it is unclear what the exact threshold is, in the eyes of the IAAF, for a female athlete’s being ineligible to compete as a woman.’ One would think that if she is a female athlete, she can compete as a woman, but obviously the NY Times is making a certain sex/gender distinction. In fact, the sports association works backwards, trying to decide whether or not the athlete is ‘female’ at all. And yet, if we consider that this act of ‘sex determination’ was supposed to be collaboratively arrived at by a panel that included ‘a gynecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist and an expert on gender’ (why wasn’t I called!?), then the assumption is that cultural and psychological factors are part of sex-determination, and that no one of these ‘experts’ could come up with a definitive finding on his or her own (presuming that binary gender holds). This co-operative venture suggests as well that sex-determination is decided by consensus and, conversely, where there is no consensus, there is no determination of sex. Is this not a presumption that sex is a social negotiation of some kind? And are we, in fact, witnessing in this case a massive effort to socially negotiate the sex of Semenya, with the media included as a party to the deliberations?

The whole debate also elides the condition of intersex. We might say as well that the institution of world sports rests upon a certain denial of intersex as a persistent dimension of human morphology, genetics and endocrinology. What would happen if the IAAF or any other world sports organisation decided that it needed to come up with a policy on how those with an intersex condition might participate in competitive sports? If they refuse to come up with such a policy, then we could say that they have preemptively excluded intersexed peoples from competition, making discrete sex determination into a prerequisite for entering competitions. This would not only be blatantly discriminatory, it would make the ideal of sexual dimorphism into a prerequisite for participation. So rather than try and find out what sex Semenya or anyone else really ‘is’, why don’t we think instead about standards for participation under gender categories that have the aim of being both egalitarian and inclusive? Only then might we finally cease the sensationalist witch hunt antics of finding anyone’s ‘true sex’ and open sports to the complexly constituted species of human animals to which we belong.

Comments on “Wise Distinctions”

  1. Gina says:

    A supportive and useful article even thought it seems somewhat fuzzy.

    A little academic arrogance “on gender’ (why wasn’t I called!?)”. Maybe Ms Butler was not called because the issue was sex embodiment and not gender. There has never been any doubt Ms Semenya’s gender was “woman”.

    The use of ‘Intersex condition” is also problematic in that it tends to conflate difference with disorder. Intersex is a difference in sex physiology not a sickness.
    That Ms Semenya’s won the 800 metres should be demonstration enough that she is not ill; indeed she is fitter than you or I.

    The question of what sex Ms Semenya’s really is has in no way been separated from her qualification for further competition indeed it remains fundamental to it. The IAAF as simply decided to keep Ms Semenya’s medical records private. Sports officials may yet attempt to bar Ms Semenya from further competition based on the outcomes of medical tests or even, in a bizarre twist, insist on certain surgery to make her compliant to sex expectations for female competition.

    The officials have separated out Ms Semenya’s honest achievement from societies need for sex binary compliance. They have not ceased their pursuit of and discrimination against athletes who are sex diverse.

    Michael Phelps, who may have Marfan’s Syndrome that can give swimmers a competitive advantage, is hailed as a hero. There was never any suggestion he should be disqualified because of this difference. Likewise with basket ball players who are unusually tall.

    The hand wringing is about physical differences of sex. Other differences have never been a cause for such outrage, exposure and threats of disqualification.

    Gina Wilson
    Organisation Intersex international

  2. Peter Trinkl says:

    I applaud Judith Butler for her remarks:

    “The whole debate also elides the condition of intersex. We might say
    as well that the institution of world sports rests upon a certain
    denial of intersex as a persistent dimension of human morphology,
    genetics and endocrinology. What would happen if the IAFF or any other
    world sports organisation decided that it needed to come up with a
    policy on how those with an intersex condition might participate in
    competitive sports? If they refuse to come up with such a policy, then
    we could say that they have preemptively excluded intersexed peoples
    from competition, making discrete sex determination into a
    prerequisite for entering competitions.”

    For years, we have been trying to get the message out that the oppression of intersex people rests, in part, upon the sex binary, wherein it is seen as necessary that an intersex child be assigned a sex as an infant, an assignment that is done on a non-consensual basis. (But are not all sex assignments non-consensual when done in infancy?) For intersex children, this sex assignment often involves non-consensual normalizing surgery. I believe that she is saying that just as organized sports rests upon the assignment of sex, which has been all too problematic in the case of Caster Semenya, the treatment of intersex children rests upon the assignment of sex. I believe that Judith Butler knows that if the IAFF tried to come up with a consistent policy towards intersex athletes, they would be caught up in a web of contradictions. I have heard that, in the future, Caster Semenya will only be allowed to compete if she undergoes medical treatments for being intersex. She can only compete if she is not herself as an intersex person. I am horrified by these requirements. Judith Butler is definitely on the right track.

    Peter Trinkl
    Bodies Like Ours

  3. Imperialist says:

    “‘Caster Semenya can decide to run as a woman, which she is.’ It would seem that if she can decide, then her gender is, to some extent, a matter of decision. But if she ‘is’ a woman, then it would seem not to be a decision.”

    Here’s an alternative reading: Semenya can choose to run as a woman because she is a woman. She can also choose not to compete. I presume this is what Minister Stofile meant. If he was making the more radical statement that Semenya can choose also to compete as a man (and assuming that not any woman can compete ‘as a man’ because of the perceived competitive disadvantage) this is not equivalent to implying that gender definitions are infinitely unstable. He would, in that case, be recognising the distinctiveness of Semenya’s case, which implies fairly concrete, is elusive, definitions. Hence, ‘it is unclear what the exact threshold is, in the eyes of the IAAF, for a female athlete’s being ineligible to compete as a woman.’

    So how can it be that “the question of whether she should be allowed to keep her medal or to participate in women’s athletics is different from the question of what sex she really is”?

    If she is to compete as a woman then she has to satisfy the relevant criteria of ‘being a woman’.

    If these criteria are not as clear cut as many thought they were, that does nothing to dissolve the connection between the rules and reality. Rather, reality ought to force us to reconsider the rules.

    Surely the lesson we should take from the exploitation of Caster Semenya (who, let us remember, ‘is’ still a teenager) is that ‘women’s athletics’ might not be a sound or equitable category.

  4. gmfacius says:

    THE CASE OF CASTER SEMENYA AND IAAF GENDER TESTING

    During the last 43 years the IAAF has been conducting GENDER TESTING, as has the IOC, leaving behind a gruesome trail of abused and mistreated athletes, broken careers and broken lives.

    In their frightful ignorance they have been playing god, deciding over human beings, not concerning sport, but concerning the very nature of human beings, by what method they, in their hopeless stupidity, have seen fit at any given time, changing their methods all along as soon as one method after the other was deemed wrong and useless.

    The leaders and their medical “experts” have acted as the witch doctors of modern time.

    And now at last, after all these years, the ivory towers of these self appointed gods and kings have collapsed and their wrongdoings have been disclosed to all the world. With the CASTER SEMENYA case they have finally been forced to admit that they do not know how to decide the gender of a human being !!

    That is what I have been telling them ever since 2003, but they refused to listen, and when I persisted, they refused me my democratic right of speaking at the IAAF Congress.

    And mind you, it is today the general assumption among experts who are dealing with this issue that 1 out of 2000 is born with some kind of INTERSEX CONDITION, so it is not only about Caster Semenya –
    IT IS A GLOBAL ISSUE.

    In the ASSOCIATED PRESS release below is stated that:

    “The IAAF PLANS to develop a gender definition”

    “It would have been better if we had been prepared to, but we were not prepared (*)”, Weiss told The Associated Press on Saturday”.
    (* prepared as to how to perform gender testing)

    And now they will “start next week to examine how to determine gender”.

    WHAT ! – NEXT WEEK ?!
    This comes after the IAAF (and the IOC) for 43 years have been stating that they knew how to do it, and have been executing, all through these years, their mumbojumbo on innocent athletes.

    How can these people remain in charge of international athletics and international sport ?

    Georg Facius
    Denmark

    See the whole story, and all the background information on this website:
    http://www.123hjemmeside.dk/gender_testing

    ***************************************************************************

    HERE IS THE SHAMEFUL CONFESSION OF GUILT AND
    IGNORANCE ON THE PART OF OF THE IAAF:

    Saturday, October 10, 2009

    IAAF plans to develop gender definition

    By ROB HARRIS (AP)

    BIRMINGHAM , England — World track and field’s governing body will start examining next week how to determine gender in an athletics context, an initiative spurred by the case of 800-meter world champion Caster Semenya.

    The IAAF’s medical commission, which begins meeting Friday, could take a year to deliver that definition and the judicial commission will also be asked to consider future regulations, general secretary Pierre Weiss said Saturday.

    “We are obliged to react. It would have been better if we had been prepared to, but we were not prepared,” Weiss told The Associated Press on Saturday.

    “We will get a reply in the next 12 months — I don’t expect anything to come out before.

    “We were in Copenhagen (at the International Olympic Committee meetings) and I asked my colleagues from other sports if they had a definition and nobody has one. But nobody (else) has had the problem so far.” Weiss expects the IOC medical commission to also consider the issue in November in Lausanne.

    The most common cause of sexual ambiguity is congenital adrenal hyperplasia, an endocrine disorder in which the adrenal glands produce abnormally high levels of hormones.

    By the time Semenya won the 800 meters at the Berlin world championships in August, questions about the 18-year-old South African’s gender had been raised because of stunning improvements in her times and her muscular build and deep voice.

    Before the final, the IAAF announced it had ordered gender tests.

    The IAAF has refused to confirm or deny Australian media reports that Semenya has both male and female characteristics. It says it is reviewing test results and will issue a decision in November on whether she will be allowed to compete in women’s events.

    “They are being analyzed worldwide by experts,” Weiss said. “We will promote the outcome of this case as soon as it is known.”

    *******************************************************************

  5. EG says:

    First of all, a lot of the outrage expressed by intersex and various other “gender-negating” groups at this “case” is both naive and totally off the mark. Ultimately, and most importantly, any amount of IAAF gender testing remains merely a way for the *IAAF* to ensure “fairness” in competition by setting a characteristic under which the competitors need to be governed in order to be allowed to compete against others of their own “kind” (cf. weight categories in boxing). Nobody is attempting to assign to Semenya a specific sex/gender *without* those boundaries of organized sportsmanship. Whether someone “is” a man or a woman is, like Butler and others have long propagated, not that easy to determine, and depends on the criteria (whose criteria?) used to make this distinction.

    What this case truly opens up, and much more interestingly so than is the “private” case of Caster Semenya, is the question of set gender categories within competitive sports. What are they doing there? If both (or let’s say, for argument’s sake, all) genders would be allowed to compete against each other, is it universally assumed that the men would always win? Hence women need to compete with women, or it wouldn’t be “fair”. Isn’t this in and of itself a pretty misogynistic and outdated view in the 21st century?

    Like The Imperalist suggested, the gender dichotomy upheld within the IAAF is far less interesting than the light this whole affair shines on the mere existence of gender separation in sports.

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