Judith Butler · Thoughts on Caster Semenya
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.