Under the microscope

In a month’s time 18-year-old South African runner Caster Semenya will find out two things. One: if she can keep her gold medal, earned at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Berlin on 19 August. And, two: if she is a girl. Muscular and lean, with noticeable facial hair and a deep voice, Semenya has been singled out by the IAAF for ‘gender verification testing’. If a battery of tests on her genitals, hormones, chromosomes, internal organs and psychological state indicate that she is not, strictly speaking, ‘female’, she will be stripped of her gold medal for having an unfair advantage.

Sex tests have a long and dubious record in the history of sport: first introduced in the 1960s to prevent men from posing as women, many ‘butch’ women have had their gender assessed, their medals stripped, and their careers and self-identity torn to pieces

The IAFF has come under a storm of criticism, especially in South Africa where Semenya’s countryfolk have sprung to her defence, denouncing the tests as unjust and racist. The criticism is fair: if they insist on testing, they ought to have done so beforehand, rather than after her victory and publicly humiliating her. But moreover, the IAAF’s approach is deeply flawed because they are trying to determine if Semenya is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’, when she could be neither. 

The traditional view of gender has been that having an X and a Y chromosome makes one male, and having two X chromosomes female – but this is a gross oversimplification. ‘Hermaphrodites’ have long been known to us – they feature in stories and myths dating back millennia. But over the past several decades scientists have come to recognize up to a dozen different biological states – many of them subtle and identifiable only with genetic tests – that cannot be neatly classified as ‘male’ or ‘female’. 

These range from ‘girls’ who hold just one X chromosome, ‘girls’ who carry XY chromosomes but develop physically as female (due to an insensitivity to the effects of testosterone), ‘boys’ that are XX but whose adrenal glands produce so many masculinizing hormones that they develop to look male, and boys that have an extra X chromosome. Sometimes the external genitals of ‘intersexuals’ look like normal vaginas or penises, but sometimes they blur the lines and lie somewhere in between. 

According to the Intersex Society of North America an estimated one in 100 births can be considered to be intersexual – and this doesn’t even account for transgendered individuals who are biologically ‘normal’ XX or XY but psychologically identify with the other gender. 

There is certainly no evidence that Semenya is intersexual, but it would not be implausible.

Leonard Chuene, the President of Athletics South Africa, was quoted as saying: ‘The only scientist I know, the only scientist I believe in is the parents of the child. Show me a scientist who knows her better than her mother who raised her for 18 years.’ 

Such a view reflects hostility, suspicion and distrust of modern ‘science’ that is widespread. But it is not ‘science’ that is to be criticized, but rather the way that it is used. ‘Science’ is not good or bad, racist or sexist, biased or unbiased. People are, and it is people who conduct science. 

So much of what is investigated and what is determined by science is dictated by societal context, especially when it comes to human nature. At various and regrettable times in our history medical doctors and scientists have tried to use the tools of their trade to prove that one race was superior to another, or that homosexuality could be ‘fixed’ with the right treatment. 

But as society evolves, so does the scientific consensus. While sexual orientation was often ‘blamed’ on parents and upbringing, scientists have since found that homosexuality is not only widespread in other animals, but is also linked to specific genes – reaction in gay communities is often enthusiastic because such studies are seen as validation of their life choice (‘See? I was born this way – it’s perfectly natural.’)

It is becoming more and more apparent that intersexuality is widespread, and that the black and white distinction between male and female is crude. And treatments are evolving: doctors would in the past, as a rule of thumb, assign a gender (usually female) to an intersexual baby with surgery and hormone treatment, but physicians and scientists are now widely questioning this practice: frequently children grow up confused and unhappy because they do not identify with the gender that was chosen for them. 

Moreover, modern science can also improve the lives of intersex individuals in new ways: thanks to chromosomal identification, testicles that develop internally in ‘girls’ and breast tissue in ‘boys’ that are highly prone to developing cancer can be removed pre-emptively. Hormone shots can often alleviate cognitive and behavioural problems and improve their overall health. The list goes on. 

But physical biology aside, ‘gender’ is still a complex question, and many would still like to believe that it is purely a social construct, with no grounding in our physical makeup: in other words, if we were all raised under equal conditions, we would none of us feel ‘boyish’ or ‘girlish’. 

But this idea, as appealing as it may be to our postmodern sensibilities, is not supported by modern scientific findings: neurologists have even documented differences in how our brains are structured and wired. Men and women, simply put, are not the same, and no amount of philosophical theorizing will make us so.  

That being said, there are always exceptions: as biologists say, ‘exception is the rule’. Some women have brains that more resemble a typical male brain than a female, and vice versa. Studies have indicated, for example, that the brains of gay men more typically resemble the brains of straight women than of straight men.

And as intersexuality shows, exception is indeed the rule: up to one per cent of us – some even peg the estimate at two per cent – do not neatly classify as male or female, from true hermaphrodites to people with ‘ambiguous genitalia’. For good reason, many intersexuals feel that we should recognize that there is a third category to gender, rather than trying to pigeonhole all of us into one of two strict definitions. 

The more we put human sexuality under the microscope, the more we realize that humans come in far more than just two flavours. ‘Gender’ comes in many colours, spreading across a broad spectrum – not a black and white ying-yang. The more we learn, the more we realize how diverse we really are. 

Competitive sports has gleaned so much from the tools and findings of science, from high-tech equipment and apparel to highly sophisticated nutrition and training regimes (and of course, doping). 

Sports associations like the IOC and the IAAF are more than willing to use the tools of modern science to single out and disqualify athletes, and yet are so reluctant to recognize the natural diversity that modern science has revealed. Rather than cherrypicking what they like from biological studies, to the humiliation and denigration of talented women like Semenya, they could accept that the question of gender is far too complex to be determined by a few tests – and perhaps come up with a new set of rules to accommodate and celebrate people who don’t fit neatly into our outdated notions of gender.

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