Notes On A Scandal: The Future Of Intersexuality & Caster Semenya

Illustration for article titled Notes On A Scandal: The Future Of Intersexuality  Caster Semenya

Thoughtful articles by Ariel Levy and Judith Butler explore the larger issues of sex and gender behind Caster Semenya's story — and how the mishandling of the young athlete's "gender testing" has affected her life.


Butler, feminist philosopher and author of Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity writes persuasively about the flaws in the IAAF's gender-testing system:

[I]f 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?


Media outlets have generally used the phrase "gender testing" to describe the ordeal the IAAF put Semenya through, but many have pointed out an inaccuracy in the terminology — if sex is biological, and gender is socially constructed, then what was really at issue was Semenya's sex. However, as Butler explains, the testing appeared to be an effort to socially construct the runner's biological sex via the opinions of a panel of "experts." The bizarreness of this approach shows how poorly understood sex still is. And the sheer number of experts the IAAF relied on (maybe they should've called Butler) speaks to the fact that the group really hasn't arrived at a single standard of what makes someone "female enough" to compete. Butler says they should simply decouple the question of femaleness from that of eligibility. She writes,

[W]e 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. [...] 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.

If only the IAAF had adopted such a sensible approach — focusing only on whether Semenya could run and not on "what" she "was" — perhaps the media wouldn't have felt so free to define Semenya's sex for her. But few involved in the case have been sensible. Ariel Levy, writing in The New Yorker, quotes bioethicist Alice Domurat Dreger, who describes the IAAF's approach to sex testing as "a kind of ‘I know it when I see it' policy." And she talks to Athletics South Africa president Leonard Chuene, who not only lied about authorizing sex tests for Semenya, but allowed her to compete in Berlin against others' advice, even though he knew the test results were "not good" and scandal was likely. Chuene sounds fantastically self-absorbed when he tells Levy,

If I will do this, it's ‘Why did you withdraw her?' If I did not, ‘Why did you allow her to run?' Whatever way you look at it, I'm judged. I'm judged!


He adds,

This thing has given her more opportunity! Everybody knows her. The world is out there to say, ‘Your problems are our problems.' Imagine if I had not let her win!


Chuene's words about "opportunity" are pretty insensitive, especially given that Semenya has indicated she's uncomfortable with her notoriety. Still, her story has inspired more public discussion of intersex conditions, and it might encourage some people to examine their preconceptions about sex and gender. Levy includes in her piece an interesting discussion of various movements within the intersex community. Some object to queer and/or transgender people aligning themselves with those born intersex, while others go even further, preferring to describe themselves as having "disorders of sex development." Levy writes that "they want disorders of sex development to be treated like any other physical abnormality: something for doctors to monitor but not to operate on, unless the patient is in physical discomfort or danger." Whether intersex conditions are indeed "disorders" or simply points on a non-binary gender spectrum is an interesting question, and Semenya's ordeal may have done some good if it brings this issue into the open.

But what has it done to Semenya herself? Former ASA official Wilfred Daniels says, "now her life is over," and many others have had similarly dark predictions for her future. However, at the conclusion of her piece, Levy talks to Semenya herself:

I asked her if she would talk to me, not about the tests or Chuene but about her evolution as an athlete, her progression from Limpopo to the world stage. She shook her head vigorously. "No," she said. "I can't talk to you. I can't talk to anyone. I can't say to anyone how I feel or what's in my mind."

I said I thought that must suck.

"No," she said, very firmly. Her voice was strong and low. "That doesn't suck. It sucks when I was running and they were writing those things. That sucked. That is when it sucks. Now I just have to walk away. That's all I can do." She smiled a small, bemused smile. "Walk away from all of this, maybe forever. Now I just walk away." Then she took a few steps backward, turned around, and did.


Despite all she's been through, Semenya appears to have more dignity than any of those who have tried to test her or speak for her. Her running career may be over, but her life is not.

Wise Distinctions [London Review Blog]
Either/Or [The New Yorker]

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Once again I need to ask. Had no one read, "Middlesex"?