Saturday, August 22, 2009

Caster Semenya - An Intersex Perspective

Controversy and a lot of prurient interest exploded into the news this week when South African Caster Semenya outran her competition in the 800m world championships by a more than two second lead, only to be accused of cheating by being intersex. As an intersex person following this story, I've felt . . . well, largely appalled by what spews from the mouths of competitors, sport officials, news commentators, bloggers, and eyebrow waggling, head-shaking people on the street. It's hard not to feel depressed encountering innumerable snarky statements such as this one: "South African runner Caster Semenya (hehehe...she has semen in her name...hehehe) won the gold in the women's 800-meter at the World Championships in Berlin last night, but officials may snatch (peen, I mean, pun intended) away her victory if it turns out she's really a dude." (That one can be found here, if you're really inclined to read it.) So I wanted to share my perspective on this story. I do apologize to Caster for joining the pile of people giving her no privacy, but as the media are overflowing with details of her life already, I at least wanted to step in to defend her.

The basic outline of Caster's situation, as best as I can understand it through news reporting which is mediocre at its best, is that she was born intersex, assigned female sans surgery based on her predominant genital appearance, and raised as a girl. However, like lots of us whose genitals are visibly intermediate, she grew up knowing she was not a typical female, which liberated her from gender conventions. She was a classic tomboy, refusing to wear dresses and competing with boys in sports. From what I can gather from the news, Caster did not, however, question her female sex assignment, only gender role limitations. An excellent athlete, chances are that she was defined by her physical abilities, as are many tomboy athlete girls with typical female anatomy. When she began to compete in major sporting events, her status as a woman was questioned, and Athletics South Africa "cleared her," declaring her female. Now that she has proven her remarkable running ability on an international stage, her international competitors want her disqualified for "cheating" by not "really" being a woman. The International Association of Athletics Federations has stepped in and is investigating her status, in what most news sources are oddly calling "gender testing." Generally, the news media assume that they will be able to issue a definitive answer on what her "true" (dyadic) sex is.

The main thing that saddens me about this story is the emotional tone of the commentaries. Other athletes, people on the street, and low media blogs are full of sneers and winks and nosewrinkled disgust. The major media bring in scientists and voice patronizing sympathy for how humiliating this must be for Caster, meanwhile capitalizing on the prurient interest in the story to gather viewer attention. Underneath it all is a widespread impulse to yank down Caster's pants and let everyone have a good look. It's a freakshow, with an intersex person the object of millions of prying eyes.

Some basic themes that will be familiar to anyone intersex arise over and over in the news coverage. There's ignorance of the very existence of intersex people, evinced in frequent speculation by laypeople that Caster must have had a sex change or engaged in doping. There's confusion of physical sex with gender identity, with detractors, including some of Caster's competitors, referring to her with male pronouns and speaking disparagingly of her butch appearance. There's racist scientific hubris, with Western sports scientists asserting that they can determine Caster's "true" dyadic sex after doing an exhaustive investigation of her chromosomes, hormone levels, anatomy, gonadal tissue, and psychology, while speaking derisively of the ASA's investigation as being unsophisticated. And most of all, there's the overwhelming belief in the myth of dyadic sex. Caster must be female or male; intersex cannot exist as a sex category.

One depressing sideline of this insistence that Caster must have a definitive dyadic sex is the regularity with which the term "pseudohermaphrodite" is raised by detractors. I've posted on how this term emerged in Western medical science to try to define away the existence of intersexuality ( see here.) Basically, in trying to erase the challenge intersex people place to the medical ideology of sex dyadism, doctors in the 20th century decided to call all intersex individuals who did not have ovotestes as their gonads "pseudohermaphrodites," no matter what their anatomy or experience. Somebody can be raised female, with average-looking genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts, living a typical valorized heterosexual life, femme as can be (housewife, reader of romance novels, cookie-baker), yet all unaware, have internal testes and androgen insensitivity syndrome. If she goes to a doctor for treatment of infertility, suddenly she'll find herself labeled a "male pseudohermaphrodite." The medical term defines her as "really a man," not even intersex, let alone a woman. Anyone with testes is "really a man" according to this scheme of classification--which reveals the sex politics and semantics in supposedly "objective" science.

Those same politics emerge from the mouths of Caster's detractors. She is a "pseudohermaphrodite," they claim--not a woman, not even intersex, but a man trying to cheat honest female competitors.

Here's an irony for you. According to Western medical practice, the majority of infants discovered to be intersex are assigned female. This is done for surgical convenience (it being considered easier to remove an "inappropriate" penis than create an "appropriate" one), and due to a covert assumption about gender psychology, that women can deal better with gender ambiguity than can men. So we're assigned female, told we are "really women," subjected to mutilating infant surgery, expected to identify as female, not intersex, told to keep our medical history, if we know it, a secret, and sent out to live dyadic female lives. Many of us carefully live by the rules. But it turns out that if we do as we are told, we are still subject to being outed, discredited, mocked, and returned unceremoniously to the status of intersex oddity, as Caster's life illustrates--accused of breaking the rules.

What Caster's situation illustrates, from an intersex perspective, is that we exist. Dyadic sex is a myth--sex is a spectrum. Hormones, chromosomes, genitals, gonads--they are all arranged in many complex ways, and imposing a binary onto them is arbitrary. It's as arbitrary as saying all fruit is either sweet or sour. Sure, ripe cherries are sweet and ripe limes are sour, but most fruit gets its savor from both tastes, and some fruits balance at the tangy sweet-and-sour midpoint. You can measure all the fructose and ascorbic acid you want, scientifically. You can create a rule that divides all fruit into sweet and sour categories using precise measurements of sugars and acids. But that will not eliminate the fact that the experience of tasting fruit is complex, and that this complexity is what makes eating fruit delicious.

Given that sex is a spectrum, and that some of us live near its center, being obviously intersex, society needs to deal with us in better ways than by denying our existence, hiding us medically, and then reasserting our existence to disqualify us from participating in sports. And let us acknowledge that this disqualification is based on the insulting assumption that "real women" are categorically inferior to "real men."

Really, what Caster's case makes us consider is the strange fact that athletics are divided along dyadic sex lines. Sensibly, if one is looking at any particular sport, advantages exist according to physical distinctions--tall, long-legged people do better as hurdlers, for example. But millions of female-assigned people are taller and have longer legs than a typical male-assigned person, so why is gender and not leg-length used to create categories of competitors? There are significant differences in average height by race/ethnicity--would you therefore suggest that we divide people by race for sports competition? That would be no less arbitrary than dividing competitors by gender, though today it would be much more controversial. A much more sensible approach would be to create competitor classes by relevant physical category--as weightlifters are divided into weight classes. Then the question of "true" dyadic sex would be as irrelevant as the question of "true race" for athletic competitors.

My heart goes out to Caster Semenya, an intersex sibling caught in an impossible position--required to live in a dyadic gender, and then accused of wrongdoing because the assignment suits poorly.


  1. Hi Luminus
    My 1st visit to your blog. Would you mind if linked here:
    And Here:



  2. I really sympathize with your story....but
    You are assuming she is intersex like you. We call that assuming facts not in evidence. I think she is a female.

  3. Thank you Luminus - and for the insight and understanding that you offer.

    I don't know if Caster Semenya is intersexed. I don't even know where the nebulous and arbitary delineation between intersex and not intersex is!

    I suspect that her own culture's concepts will be very different from the screwed up, medicalized and disordered beliefs of western societies. And I suspect a strong undercurrent of racism and cultural colonization because of that.

  4. This is one of the best analyses I have read. I appreciate this very much.

    Kind regards,

  5. Jo, anonymous, there is no "clear line" between female and intersex, any more than there is a clear line between, say, red and orange on the color spectrum. Any divisions we make in a continuous phenomenon are arbitrary.

    Anonymous, I don't know Caster Semenya's diagnosis--nor do I think it much matters--but with all the sports authorities saying she has a "medical condition," I think it highly likely she is intersex--which does not in any way undermine her sex assignment as a woman, since she embraces that assignment.

    Jo, I absolutely agree on the colonialism and racism, in the way Western sports physicians sneer at the sex assignment process employed in Caster's nation as "unscientific," or "primitive," or "unsophisticated." Western paradigms are presented as objective and correct, other cultural approaches as inferior and subjective.

    Curtis, many thanks!

  6. @Joann

    Southafrica is culturally more of a western country.

  7. Wow. Such a razor sharp analysis. I was similary angered by the gender fascists who are obsessed with enforcing the gender binary. I tried blogging about it. I did not do nearly as good a job as you did.

  8. Thanks, Elián. Love your blog--keep up the good work of fighting gender constrictions.

  9. Excellent post, thank you.

    Quibble: You said, "There are significant differences in average height by race/ethnicity...". But two things. First, it's not about average, but the extremes. It doesn't matter if the average "man" is faster than the average "woman" - what matters is whether the fastest of one group is faster than the other. That means it's more about variation than central tendency. Same with height, etc. Since we're dealing with athletics on the world scale, you can more or less assume we are tapping into the best possible athletes for a given group (though on the one hand gifted athletes from privileged groups have more options so they might not pursue sports, and on the other hand some people don't get access to athletic training).

    Second, I don't know which race/ethnic groups you were referring to, if any, but most people don't know that in the USA the average White man is taller than the average Black man. That's just FYI.

  10. Thanks, badhairdays -
    There you go, I would describe South Africa as a 'cultural and ethnic cauldron' with a mix indigenous cultures such as Hottentot and Hausa more recently colonized by a white/European minority culture.

    I'm not sure how it could be described as "more of anything". But whatever Caster Semenya's cultural background, it sure isn't European and it most certainly is being violated by European concepts of sexual biology

  11. Hello Luminis,

    thanks for your writing. But I want to add some more dimensions to your fruit-example. Fruits also can be cold or hot, full of water or dried, hard or soft, aso ... is it really possible to define the middle? I don't think so. I think this is the reason why "pure man" and "pure woman" can't exist in reality...


  12. Awww wow, I really wish I had read this post before I wrote my post on how Male/Female binarism is broken language (scientifically and socially).

    I would be honored if you could read it and make sure my lack of perspective, as a transgendered person who isn't (presumably) IS, isn't making my mention of Caster and IS issues related to the Male/Female terminology system problematic.

    The post is here:

    Thank you!

  13. Sure people differ by leg height, but it is just one of many influences on running speed. It would be completely impractical to class athletes on a basis that took into account ALL of their inborn capabilities.

    Of course, this case points out, it is impractical to class ALL people as male or female, as it turns out. But what's the solution? Make all men and women run together?

  14. On my website:
    you can find in depth information about the shortcomings of IAAF gender testing and the reasons why I critisize it, and have tried, unfortunately in vain, to make IAAF (and IOC) realize the facts of life, and change its attitude and procedures.
    Georg Facius

  15. Thanks for this post. It's been interesting and horrifying to watch them tie themselves in knots trying to scientifically determine her 'true' gender.

  16. You're a great writer. I'm always amazed at where the Internet leads me. Hadn't really been following Caster's story beyond a brief conversation with my sister that went like this: "Leave the poor girl alone, already!" You've given me a lot to think about.


  17. I'd appreciate any comments you may have on the following article I wrote:

  18. Gerog, thanks for the work you've done on this--it's important. And I agree that the policies of the IAAF are uninformed and sad.

    Thanks, Ryan.

    WaltzingMtilda, glad you've now got material to think about!

  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

  20. Shawn, your article is excellent and well-informed. I did try to submit a substantial comment, but the site seems to be having technical difficulties and did not post it.

  21. I saw Caster Semenya on tv when she ran the race where she won the gold. I remenber thinking that she was just so beautiful and androgynous and the thought that she might be intersexed crossed my mind. But of course she might very well be 100% biologically female and still look like the way she does. I hope all the gossip loving journalists will live her alone and stop treating her like a freak-show.

  22. she might be a "true hermaphrodite" since south africa is the country where there is the most "true hermaphrodites" in the population. a studie I read said that something like 93 per cent of all "true hermaphrodites" in Africa have 46xx chromosome. so if she is a "true hermaphrodite" and they just run a chromosome test on her they'll probably conclude that she is female. but again, she just might be not intersexed at all.

  23. Caster Semenya has a unique condition of possessing remnants of both male and female genitalia. Intersexuality, as it is known scientifically, is indeed a rarity in 'higher' animals. With this condition, if an individual can not function as both a male and a female reproductively, it is more correctly termed pseudohermaphrodite. The rarest of this pseudohermaphrodite condition is a male pseudohermaphrodite in which an individual appears, phenotypically, female but whose internal genitalia are those representing “maleness.”(testes). Caster Semenya appears to be this type. A colleague and I have been studying a unique form of intersexuality on remote islands of the archipelago of Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific since 1993.( See
    On certain isolated islands intersexual pigs are found possessing this condition. On Vanuatu, pigs are woven into the very fabric of traditional life. Male pseudohermaphroditic pigs can be found here in relative abundance and nowhere else in the world. Occasionally intersexes are identified in pig and cow slaughter houses throughout the world. Because these unique pigs are revered by the villagers in Vanuatu that still practice “Kastom”, this condition is purposely bred for, thus perpetuating the condition. A man's value in a Vanuatu village is proportional to how many pigs he owns. These intersexual pigs are worth one hundred “normal” pigs and are, indeed, a valuable commodity.
    Because of our research, another mammal species with this condition has been identified which will enable us to learn more about this condition in humans.
    For more information contact;
    James K. McIntyre
    Southwest Pacific Research Foundation
    1009 White Street
    Fernandina Beach, Fl. 32034 USA

  24. Love your site & viewpoints. I want to comment on terminology though. You complain that "hermaphrodite" is inaccurate but then also that "psuedo-hermaphrodite," which denotes these people DON'T have both reproductive sex organs, erases them. I am a psuedo-hermaphrodite, or "intersex female" as I prefer to say, & never thought that term described me as "less than," but was just an accurate label when using gonads to define my sex, which is how "male" and "female" are also defined. I don't think t's an arbitrary way to do it b/c gonads are the most important health related factor in humans. If we're going to define sex at all, then isn't this the best way to do it? Social gender-- the "lived experiences" you mention, is a different thing. For example, I can feel I'm a "man" all I want, but i should be able to be told the physical/medical realities that having ovaries or testes will give me. Intersex people w/CAIS are the ones that defy a gonadal definition, so my suggestion is that we define them as "intersex females," to acknowledge both their intersex but also the fact that their bodies look female on the outside, which plays such a huge role in how we're socially identified.

    I think we need to stop blaming the labels for our identity with the prejudice towards our identity. People did this with "black" in the '80's,
    saying it was insulting b/c it was "inaccurate" (although notice no one ever said that about "white"), & changing it to African-American. But now that prejudice has diminished no one considers it an insult to be called black anymore.

  25. I guess when it comes to identity issues each person selects whatever it is they feel most comfortable with.

    Some problems occur when the only 'labels' available are those constructed by other people or their professional bodies.

    There's a nice piece on the issue here, on the OII-NZ site.


  26. Excellent post, by far the best thing I've read on this situation.

    I do have a quibble with the reconceptualization of biological sex as a spectrum, replacing male, female and intersex (I know this is a fairly well-known idea in people with an interest in these matters and I'm not attacking the blogger). The vast majority of people have a coherent biological status of male or female. Those with intersex characteristics are a very small minority, between 0.018% and 1.7% depending on the source. This is far too small to justify a spectrum approach. If 20% to 30% were intersex, then a spectrum would be reasonable. To me, it seems more accurate to stick with male, female and intersex.

    The bigger problem is with the concept of the "opposite sex". Positing male and female as opposites makes intersex conditions seem very bizarre and incomprehensible. This makes it difficult for the average person to grasp the fact that fetuses are physically identical, regardless of genotype, up to the 8th week, at which point male and female start to diverge, after the sex organs have already begun to develop, and that in many ways male and female sex organs are structurally parallel rather than opposite. If we could shift towards a concept of male and female that sees the biological parallels and similarities rather than using the concept of opposites, intersex becomes much more understandable. I guess this is sort of making the same point as the spectrum idea, but I think it's more concrete and understandable if it's grounded in fetal biological development.

    The use in the media of the term "unique" to describe Semenya is particularly annoying. Can't these so-called journalists take two minutes to take a quick look at Wikipedia? There is nothing unique about being intersex. Of course reporting it in this irresponsible manner feeds into the taboo and the continuance of the ignorance. Even reputable news sources are really falling down on this. Since this has been in the news fairly recently with other women athletes it should not come as such a "unique" surprise. This speaks to how deeply embedded and irrational ideas about sex and gender are.

  27. I'm glad you posted this, and my heart and prayers have been going out to her, and still will.

    The lack of tact the 'scientific' community had in this was very sad indeed. I expect something like this from the media, but honestly- it's disgusting.

  28. I know you didn't make another post after this... but I wanted to give this link to someone in hopes that it helps them. It's a manga called Inter Sexual and it's really wonderful...

  29. I found Hida's comments to be a bit ironic in that while she strives to have people understand the lives and thoughts of intersex people, she didn't show enough understanding of the African Americans she criticizes. I was offended by her sweeping statements about how all black people feel. I also don't appreciate how she oversimplified the issues surrounding the term "African American" to fit her argument.

    I'm not sure what her argument is, to be honest. She says, I think, that there is a group called X who is disliked, so they change their name to Y. She then says African Americans did just this: we found the label X ("black") to be insulting, so we changed our label to "Y" (African American). She says that we blamed the label "black" with (for?) the prejudices towards us. She adds that prejudice diminished so they are ok with being called X again. Huh? I mean, wow, what a way to simplify an issue affecting an entire group of oppressed people!

    The term "African American" became adopted after it was noted that because African-descended people were not being taught to recognize and celebrate our country of origin (as many whites are raised to do) we had lost a connection to our "mother" country- a connection that should be a source of pride and history. Surely Hida knows that white people aren't all just "white." They celebrate Scottish or Irish heritage, or call themselves Greek Americans, Italian Americans, etc. "Black" people, however, have been socialized to forget our connection to Africa, and our families were torn apart, with lineage records largely erased. We were then socialized to see ourselves as a color rather than a people with a history outside of the U.S.

    Is it really proper to appropriate the story of an ethnic movement - one that arose to reclaim a sense of pride, place and history -for the purpose of a cautionary tale against - what? Changing your label from X to Y because people dislike you?

    For black people, the "label" thing is a little deeper than that. Perhaps it's more than that for people categorized with sex and gender labels as well.

  30. It's clearly a matter of how the hormones are balanced in this girl's body, the hormones that we all have. It's also not her fault whatever they are.
    Categorizing stuff is part of life. And, in the sports, we normally use 2 classifications, male and female. If she has high levels of testoterone for a woman, it's obviously giving her an advantage over other women with less.
    Intersexed humans are clearly in the minority. She still is a lovely, strong human being.
    So does this make the sport unfair? I'm not a sports fan. There are no easy answers.
    She's a very brave girl who puts up with this with dignity. She likes to run and play football.
    I celebrate her for the amazing woman she is, how well she performs and her public dignity.
    I read somewhere that she may want to have a baby some day. If she can't, I find that sad but surely she will find other ways to compensate.
    I could not have a baby either, and I'm sure I have a much higher percentage of estrogen and progesterone in my body at any given time than she does.

  31. I admire this perfect athlete actually I've followed all her or his competitions, but I don't think that's fair she or he compete with women because she has a lot of male hormones.

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