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Stop the Sex Scare in Sports | The Nation

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Stop the Sex Scare in Sports

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Reuters Photos

Caster Semenya of South Africa after winning the women's 800 meters final during the world athletics championships in Berlin

About the Author

Sherry Wolf
Sherry Wolf is the author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation. Wolf is a...
Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin
Dave Zirin, The Nation’s sports correspondent, is the author, most recently, of Game Over: How Politics Has...

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The salacious sports media and the puritanical zealots that run international track and field have joined forces to hit a new low. Someone in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) leaked to the press that Caster Semenya, the 18-year-old 800-meter track champion from South Africa, is, in the words of Oren Yaniv in the New York Daily News, both "a woman... and a man!"

After being subjected to a battery of "gender tests," which included invasive exams by a gynecologist, an endocrinologist and a psychologist, Semenya's private business is now presented for public consumption.

If the leaks are to be regarded as true, they show that Caster Semenya has internal testes and no womb or ovaries. She is possibly one of the millions of people in the world (one of 1,666 births in the United States alone) who are classified as "intersex."

Or she may have Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), which affects two to five out of every 100,000 births. The different biological gender classifications are complex, ever changing and, ideally, private. But to the drooling press, it's vulture time.

As Yaniv wrote, "The tests, ordered...after Semenya's 800-meter victory in the World Championships, determined she's a hermaphrodite--having both male and female organs." Now the story has gone international, and Caster Semenya has gone into hiding.

Forget for a moment that the term "hermaphrodite" is as outdated and offensive as "mulatto." Forget that these test results were leaked first to the Australian press, which also referred to Semenya as a hermaphrodite. Forget that Australia was the country that brought these accusations against Semenya in the first place.

Besides being a cruel and idiotic practice, sex testing doesn't account for the idea that gender is at least in part socially constructed and far more fluid than the iron categories of male and female. An 18-year-old woman is being torn apart in the press for doing nothing but winning a race. If it is the goal of the media and IAAF to destroy the life of a young, talented female athlete by outing her as potentially intersex then they are not simply pitiless; they are socially repugnant.

From the notion that women are somehow weaker and slower than men, to the not-so-subtle racism of Western standards of appearance, and on to their profound ignorance about the fluidity of sex and gender, these institutions are threatening to catapult women in sports back into the Dark Ages. We can't let them.

Being a woman--or a man--is not reducible to internal organs or chromosomes. Social, historical, political and economic forces shape who we are and how we perceive our gender identities, in addition to our biology.

We should be enraged by the indifference and crass opportunism at "sexy" headlines. We must demand an end to gender testing in sports as an ill-conceived endeavor that only results in tormenting its subjects and projecting garbage ideas about what men and women really are.

And after all the horror, outrage and ogling from the Daily News and its media brethren, Semenya's condition may very well be allowable under IAAF policy.

As Science of Sport reported, "While it may be suggested that being an intersex individual, or someone who is 'not entirely female,' is grounds for disqualification, it is not. In Atlanta in 1996, eight women 'failed' the sex verification test because they had a Y-chromosome (strictly speaking, they had the SRY gene or the Y-chromosome). All eight were allowed to compete."

Since 2005 eight athletes that we know about have been investigated for "sexuality issues." Of the eight, according to the IAAF secretary general, only four "were asked to stop their career."

Dr. Myron Genel, a professor emeritus of pediatrics at Yale University who was part of a special panel of experts the IAAF convened, said, "She's born a female, raised as a female through puberty. Whatever is found, with the exception of deliberate substance abuse, she's going to have to be allowed to compete as a female."

If Semenya's biology is not "normal," it's worth asking, what world-class athlete does have a normal body?

No one brands Shaquille O'Neal abnormal because he is seven feet tall. Michael Phelps, as was remarked by breathless Olympics commentators, has unusually large and flat feet that act like flippers in a pool. Usain Bolt has a stride that allows him to cover an insane amount of ground in only a few steps.

As Tommy Craggs of Deadspin writes, "Great athletes tend not to come from the vast middle of human life. They're all freaks in one way or another.... But Semenya has nevertheless been portrayed as some lone oddity on the margins, like some Elephant Man of sports, with everyone obsessing like Victorian scientists over the presence of a couple internal testicles. It's funny: People seem to think her very weirdness is grounds enough for stripping her of her medal and drumming her out of track. But this is sports. Her weirdness is perfectly normal."

It's the "her" part that gets Semenya in trouble. Exceptional male athletes are treated like kings, not sideshow freaks. But for women to join them on the royal dais, you must appear as if you can step seamlessly from the court or track and into the pages of soft-core porn. Freaks need not apply.

There are real fears, expressed by Semenya's family, for her mental health in the wake of this maelstrom. We should stand without question in solidarity with Caster Semenya and express nothing but contempt for those who would get off, financially or otherwise, on seeing her destroyed.

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