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When Women Succeed In Sports, Their Sex Is Questioned


Note: this was originally published on Kinsey Confidential.

Caster Semenya crossed the finish line at World Track and Field Championships in Germany in mid-August winning the gold medal with ease.  That same day, the International Association of Athletics Federation announced plans to verify that Semenya is actually female.

Sex And Athletics

International athletic events, including the World Olympics, have a long history of hosting separate events for women and men — at least when women have been allowed to compete.  With the segregation of athletes by sex, there has also been a history of testing athletes to ensure that they are the sex that they say they are, particularly women.  With respect to women athletes, the primary concern is an unfair advantage, whether it be a man disguised as a woman or a woman who is considered to be more masculine than average.  Underlying this concern is the assumption that masculinity equals athleticism, and, since women are thought of as feminine, they should be worse at sports than men.

“Gender Verification Test”

International Association of Athletics Federation, in its announcement to verify that Semenya is actually female, noted that their concern is not about cheating, but is a medical concern.  In the past, verifying whether athletes were male or female was simply a matter of looking at their bodies, especially their genitals.  With advancing technology, the verification test moved to testing athletes’ saliva to analyze their chromosomes.  This form of testing was later found to be unreliable, and now a host of tests are used to verify athletes’ sex, including a tests by gynecologists, endocrinologists, psychologists, internal medical experts, and “gender experts.”  Like some athletes in the past, since Semenya was declared intersexed (having ambiguous sex characteristics, whether in terms of hormones, chromosomes, or anatomy), she might lose her gold medal.

The Irony Verifying “Gender”

The sheer number and diversity of tests indicates how complex sex and gender are.  The test is said to be verifying athletes’ gender, yet it analyzes both sex characteristics and how they feel and think about themselves with respect to gender.  Further, even having to verify their gender highlights how gender is not a natural, but rather a social concept.  The fact that women are competing in athletic events and meeting and surpassing the achievements of male athletes is a clear sign that gender is not natural and clearly changes over time.  A move to do away with such tests would allow for the inclusion of intersexed and transgender athletes, and quite possibly move away from the segregation of athletes by gender.

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