An abridged version of this appeared in Solidarity505.
I started in athletics as a 15 year old middle distance runner in 2009, meaning Caster Semenya was incredibly formative to me, serving as a huge inspiration and becoming one of my heroes. I watched the Berlin World Championships, so famous for Usain Bolt’s world record display, but while I greatly admired the best sprinter of all time, it was Caster Semenya that made me fall in love with athletics.
It was recently announced that the IAAF have found evidence that highly elevated levels of testosterone in women is correlated with greater performance in middle distance events and will enforce a rule to make women with high testosterone levels take drugs to reduce the levels of the hormone in their bodies.
The policy has been enforced following a long and very public case surrounding Caster Semenya and was based on research that showed athletes in 400m, 800m and 1500m with hyperandrogenism (heightened testosterone but otherwise female sexual characteristics) had an advantage over female athletes without this condition. This research has been widely criticised by statisticians for the technical statistical approaches taken, the confused reporting by the authors and the lack of data made publicly available to replicate the analysis, but more importantly, for me, we should be criticising the political ideology that went into deciding how to report and interpret results and the influence of ideology in making recommendations for policies based on these results.
Let’s start in 2009. Things may have already been in motion behind the scenes, but the initial public questioning of Caster Semenya’s gender appeared to be fuelled by nothing but observation, that she seemed to be exceptionally strong. The way Semenya looked was enough to instantly influence some people’s thoughts, and in turn, these people went on to influence the thoughts of others who only needed the slightest amount of convincing. This quickly amounted to a pressure which the IAAF admitted to influencing their decision to carry out sex verification tests – a procedure that at first the ASA told Semenya were just routine doping tests. The arguments of those who still oppose Caster Semenya are supposed to be based on science but we are already seeing that any scientific ‘facts’ here were influenced by preconceptions from the very start.
It’s clear how much importance simple observations have on this debate by the way commentators feel the need to describe Semenya’s body shape almost every time she runs, or by the way that one of the most common arguments against Semenya’s gender is "just look at her!" It becomes more and more obvious that their views are fuelled by a fear of women who look like Semenya. With this importance of her appearance clear, the colour of Semenya’s skin must undoubtedly play a role in this. It’s been said many times that ‘controversy follows Caster Semenya’, but how much of this is because the androgynous black women is already viewed as controversial? And how much does this contribute to the lack of respect, privacy and humanity that has been granted to Semenya during this period? The argument against Semenya’s right to run is fundamentally a racist one.
At the root of these present-day sex verification tests we also see parallels to the disturbing history of intersex people in science, particularly that of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, intersex people were subject to experiments and studies in the name of science (and other fields) coupled with an insensitive and intrusive curiosity - even amusement. There is a similar atmosphere of scandalmongering and voyeuristic intrigue surrounding Semenya by the public, and certainly the same level of insensitivity and intrusion by the IAAF.
The IAAF have made this decision because they believe that they have shown that hyperandrogenism gives the runner an unfair advantage. This is unlike other natural advantages such as height or lung capacity etc. because athletics is not split into height categories or any other categories other than sex. The IAAF must argue then that heightened testosterone is an advantage that exists because the athlete falls outside one of the sex categories used in athletics. This is what we argue against. There is no scientific justification for saying that Caster Semenya’s body is not a female body for the purpose of sporting classification, and if she has a female body then any natural supposed advantage she has is exactly the same as any other natural advantage such as the height analogy.
Semenya has what we have defined as intersex characteristics but there is no scientific justification for defining some bodies as intersex and some female. The way language works means we can discuss some characteristics shared by a number of members of a class to learn how to employ a term. As such, every class in the world is a natural family constituted by a network of resemblances. The term natural family here is used to describe objects that have different characteristics but have a close enough family resemblance to be classified under the same term.
Scientists had a theory that there were two distinct natural families that they could assign the theoretical entities ‘male’ and ‘female’ to. This was found to be an incorrect theory, with many combinations of sex characteristics existing in reality. However, we could not eliminate these entities from the ontology of our theory so instead we persisted with the two theoretical entities and beat nature into two boxes. There were not female and male sets of sex characteristics but rather we called some sets of sex characteristics ‘female’ and other sets ‘male’. There was no scientific justification for choosing these sets and excluding certain other sets (which we would call intersex) when assigning these terms.
Saying a particular set of sex characteristics are female/male is not an objective truth and so the definitions of male and female are not immutable. The assignment of male and female was soon found to be insufficient and the term intersex was introduced. So yes, Caster Semenya is intersex as we understand the term but there is no justification for saying the particular set of sex characteristics she possesses should be called intersex or shouldn’t be called female.
There is no scientific justification for not classifying Semenya as female but there are several justifications for allowing her to compete as usual in the female category. Firstly, there has been a social reaction to Caster Semenya’s natural material body through her whole life and this is the social reaction that accompanies bodies interpreted as female. She has for the most part existed in the world as someone who has a female body.
Additionally, the mainstream narrative surrounding this situation overwhelmingly involves a Eurocentric understanding of sex and gender and enforcing this understanding as a global policy, one that in particular is targeting a black South African woman, is a form of ideological colonialism. Forcing your definitions of sex or gender onto a black woman from South Africa – where, incidentally, she is adored – is historically a white supremacist, patriarchal and colonialist act.
Primarily though, the reason why the ruling is wrong and Semenya should be able to compete in the category of her choice is because it is a cruel, humiliating punishment to not allow her to do so. After being stripped of her 2006 Asian Games medal for a failed sex verification test, Santhi Soundarajan described her experience: “I am treated as an outcast and am unable to even go out of my house and I was shunned by my own local community after being stripped of silver medal and I was banned from competing by the Indian Olympic Association. I come from a small village and had no one to fight for me, I feel it is unfair to detriment the quality of people based on chromosomes. I feel it is unethical and biased. It was a very bitter and humiliating experience for me and my family.”
She later attempted suicide. Since 2009, Semenya has had to deal with immense amounts of pressure. We should turn to simple respect and compassion to demand that this punishment of women shouldn’t continue.