Breaking the Binary: Caster Semenya and a Very Public Scrutiny

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By Kate Hollinshead

Type the name Caster Semenya into Google and the first suggested search that comes up is ‘Caster Semenya man.’ Click on the trending topic ‘Caster Semenya’ on Twitter or Facebook and the comments that appear are:

‘Caster Semenya sparks controversy again as she wins the 800m’

‘It’s unfair that Semenya is running in a women’s race’

‘It cannot be right that if she/he has both sex organs that she gets to pick the weaker option, it’s not wrong and it’s cheating’

‘She should be put into the Paralympics’

Last night, Caster Semenya won gold in the 800m final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Previously, she has won silver medals in the 2011 World Championships and at London 2012, and gold at the 2009 World Championships. Yet, coverage of her successes has consistently been underreported in comparison to coverage about her gender. In 2009, after her win at the World Championships, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ‘felt obliged to investigate’ and subjected her to gender testing. News of gender testing was leaked just before the start of the race, with a Russian rival saying ‘just look at her’ after Semenya claimed victory.  The IAAF’s handling of the issue generated many negative reactions, as public scrutiny of Caster’s biological make-up reached fever pitch. British bookmakers took bets on whether it would be proven that she is male, female or intersex. Details of Semenya’s sex organs and hormone levels became common knowledge, and, in her own words, she was subjected to ‘unwarranted and invasive scrutiny of the most intimate and private details of my being.’ It was announced that she has hyperandrogenism – a condition which means that Semenya’s testosterone levels are much higher than the majority of women. The IAAF ruled that women can be excluded from elite sports due to their hormone levels and she was forced to take hormone suppressant drugs, in order to compete. In 2015, insufficient evidence was found to suggest that naturally high testosterone levels give female athletes an advantage. The ruling was overturned and will be overturned for two years in total, while the IAAF decide how to respond effectively to hyperandrogenism and other conditions.

In amongst the mire of rulings and mishandlings, came the public outcry, something which rears its head every time Semenya excels at her sport. Unable to see Caster as ‘wholly female’, many misgender or dehumanise her, suggesting that she is ‘abnormal’, a ‘freak’ or ‘fit for the Paralympics only’, a comment rife with disablism, suggesting that the Paralympics are more lowly and for those that don’t fit with the norm.

Beneath the derogatory comments towards Semenya, lies society’s inability to understand and accept that biological sex is not, and never has been, binary. The pervasiveness of the idea that there are two sexes, male or female, is so hard to shift that cases such as Semenya’s are met with shock, disturbance and complete misunderstanding. Had the IAAF understood the complex nature of biological sex prior to athletes such as Semenya and those before her coming onto the athletics scene, the embarrassment and invasion of privacy that she persistently endures could have been prevented.

The persistent myth that sex is binary paves the way for discrimination and exclusion when people are met with cases that problematize the binary and that cause upheaval to strongly-held, deeply-embedded norms.

Lines between men and women are always going to be arbitrary, inside or outside of sport. Indeed, Peter Sonksen, Professor of Endocrinology at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, suggests that the average gap that exists for testosterone between men and women in the general population does not exist among elite athletes. Sonksen’s study found that 16% of the male athletes had lower than expected testosterone, whereas 13% of female athletes had high levels of testosterone ‘with complete overlap between the sexes.’

So, why is there no scrutiny of the men?

Combined with the persistence of the binary, White, western, patriarchal society’s obsession with how women should look means that anyone who lies outside of these stereotypical boundaries is suspect. The constant comments of ‘she looks like a man’ we hear whenever there is a woman who has a strong and powerful body, adds to the discrimination women athletes such as Semenya continue to face. Perhaps if she had competed in boxing or weightlifting, where bigger built female bodies are accepted as normal, her physical appearance would not have come under such scrutiny? Perhaps if Caster wasn’t a successful athlete, we would not be so concerned about her body? Indeed, she is not the first athlete with hyperandrogenism to compete in an Olympics or even in Rio, just the most successful. Perhaps if we were looking at the men’s category, rather than the women’s, being as big, strong and fast as you possibly can be would not be seen as an unfair competitive advantage? The interrogation of normality is so often laid at the feet of women. Anything that threatens the female norm must be suspected and quashed.

Michael Phelp’s 6 ft 7 in wingspan is disproportionate to his height. Unfair competitive advantage? No. Usain Bolt has longer legs than the majority of his competitors. Unfair competitive advantage? No. Sir Bradley Wiggins’ heart size and oxygen utilisation have contributed largely to his success. Unfair competitive advantage? No. A Black strongly-built woman has higher levels of testosterone in her body. Unfair competitive advantage? In a world where racism, sexism and transphobia determine the norm, yes.

So where do we go from here? Firstly, Caster Semenya’s body and identity are not public property. Discussions about her sex organs and people’s opinions on whether she therefore qualifies as a man or a woman are based on inaccurate scientific information and a lack of understanding of biological sex, socially constructed gender and innate gender identity. If you want to debate sex and gender, do so with the facts in hand. Secondly, as a society, we must strive to discontinue the myth that sex is binary. It is not. And we are unnecessarily excluding people from all areas in life because of it. And lastly, whilst we are having these discussions and unpicking these myths, remember that often at the very centre of it all, there is a human being…who has feelings.

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