Caster Semenya and the apartheid of sex


Xeni asked me to give a brief analysis of her earlier post on the International Olympic Committee's decision regarding sex tests for athletes like South African sprinter Caster Semenya. Caster is one of the millions of people in the world who challenge our simplistic male/female sex binary by their very existence.

Most intersex people are unremarkable in appearance; in fact, many people who would be classified as intersex do not even know it.

The only time it becomes an issue is when they are subject to our prevailing reproductive ideology, which organizes the world around procreation. People like Caster are so controversial because they challenge many of the most deeply-held beliefs people have about sex.

The comments sections in my recent posts here show what a hot-button topic reproduction is, even among techno-progressives, hipsters, and people who are on the leading edge of other critical 21st-century paradigm shifts. Reproduction as well as policing sex and gender boundaries will get increasingly more complex in coming decades, and technology always outpaces ethics. Reproduction issues have major ramifications for other causes near and dear to Boing Boing readers, including privacy, intellectual property, mind/body hacks, and the pathologization of human diversity. Still, it's often considered impolite or too political or too controversial, so it doesn't get discussed enough.

Caster also challenges our most deeply-held beliefs about sports. Sporting has a long tradition of "fairness" that expresses itself in numerous forms. Boxers and wrestlers are evenly matched by weight class, for instance. We currently ban performance-enhancing drugs as "unnatural" and "unfair." Another South African runner, amputee Oscar Pistorius, raised questions about whether his prosthetic legs gave him an "unfair" advantage over those with "natural" legs. We usually don't care if someone is a "natural" athlete. But what if we decided anyone over 7 feet is "too tall" to compete fairly in basketball? That's the question Caster poses in terms of sports philosophy.

Caster is being subjected to the latest "sex science" in order to fit her into our neat little binary, so that the apartheid of sex can be upheld within the sporting tradition. Many people who consider "race science" intellectually problematic (e.g., eugenics, The Bell Curve, etc.) think "sex science" is no problem at all. They often imagine sexologists as noble and objective iconoclasts tackling a topic full of shame and taboo, rescuing human sexuality from morality and religion. Many feel that anyone who has concerns about sex science is just a prude, or a religious fanatic, or anti-porn feminist, or an anti-science zealot, or sex criminal, etc.

This simplified "us vs. them" is often perpetuated by journalists, since it's the story sexologists themselves want to present. In fact, lazy journalists know that writing about the latest evidence produced by "sex science" is a guaranteed ratings winner for their media outlet. That has led to a certain kind of laziness endemic in science journalism. As an example, hardly a news special, talk show, or documentary exists where the authors/producers don't trot out some "sexpert" to explain sex and gender minorities like Caster or me, since we are clearly unable to articulate anything but subjective viewpoints, and we're incapable of self-analysis. The few outlets critical of bad science journalism are rather obscure and are largely ignored.

Sex science emerged from the eugenics movement at the same time as race science, criminology, phrenology, and a number of other fields used to intellectualize and justify state action against "the unfit," in what Edwin Black calls "the war on the weak." Early sexologists sought to categorize and pathologize traits and behaviors deemed "degenerate," caused by bad genes that were the opposite of those deemed "eugenic" (good genes). Sexology oppresses women and sexual minorities by describing their bodies, desires, and behaviors as exotic and diseased.

The latest technologies like fMRI get misused in the service of biological reductionism and neo-eugenics (euphemistically called sociobiology and evolutionary psychology). What we are seeing with Caster is no different than the blood quantum laws that used to be in place to maintain slavery and anti-miscegenation laws. The only difference is the newfangled tech being misused. What we are seeing with Caster is no different than the standardized tests used to classify people into normative categories based on personality or intelligence, testing that has in the past led to "scientific" categories like moron, idiot, and imbecile, and led to sterilization of the "unfit" here in the US (a key tenet of reproductive ideology). Unless you've been affected by it, understanding how social realities like a sex binary get reified and justified through technology can be hard to see. It all gets framed as "natural" and "normal," while anything that disrupts social realities gets labeled "unnatural" and "abnormal." The words created by "sex science" reinforce the binary and uphold the primacy of procreation: homosexual, bisexual, transsexual (across to the "opposite" sex), intersexual (between two). There's an inherent danger with looking to the body for absolute truths, but that's in fashion right now. Famed sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld believed in "justice through science," meaning that findings would eliminate prejudice against sex and gender minorities.

That has not come to pass. We know of several genes that affect skin and hair pigment, and that hasn't stopped racism. We know of several genes and environmental factors that affect characteristics associated with sex, but that hasn't stopped sexism. Researchers have recently found genetic repetitions implicated in gender identity and expression, but that hasn't stopped transphobia. In fact, science, as we see in the Caster case, it often misused to reinforce prejudice and prevailing ideology.

Medic_alert.jpgOne of the most troubling aspects of the Caster case is the repeated use of the controversial term "disorders of sex development" (DSD). This disease model of human diversity was concocted by a handful of misguided and short-sighted academics. I've called it "The Sextard Movement" in earlier commentaries about this controversy.

The person who has made the most money from promoting this terminology is Alice Dreger, a former mommy blogger turned bioethicist who exemplifies the reproductive ideology behind DSD. Dreger is sort of the Diane Arbus of academia, exploiting conjoined twins, transgender and intersex people, people of short stature, or any other vulnerable minority where its members rarely get to speak for themselves. She got paid to be a key promoter of the term "disorders of sex development," even working with the DSD Consortium to jam their ideology down the throats of everyone else through a number of pamphlets and unilateral "consensus statements."

As you might imagine, hack sex journalists love Dreger for the reasons enumerated above. Organisation Intersex International is the world's largest support group for intersex people, and they actively oppose Dreger and the "disorder" terminology that's being foisted onto their community by "sex science."

What is the "disorder" Caster has? Clearly she has a naturally-occurring advantage under current sporting rules, so that's not the disorder. Being declared a disorder means that there is an order. In a social order based on racial ideology, blood quantum laws were not devised for whites who were "too black." They were devised for blacks who were "too white." In a social order based on reproductive ideology, sex tests in sports were not devised for men who are "too feminine." They were devised for women who are "too masculine."

It's nothing new: check out this trailer for the remarkable documentary Pumping Iron II: The Women. This social order will be challenged again and again in coming decades. That's what's really being challenged here: the belief that human diversity can fit into some clean orderly binary of male and female. Caster's "disorder" is that her body disrupts the social order.

As with my other posts on these very complex topics, I'm just skimming the surface to make more people aware. This post's title is a reference to Martine Rothblatt's 1995 must-read book on the topic, The Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender. Martine is one of the many super-brilliant trans women who have made major scientific contributions (real science, not sex science), and she is also a leading voice in the transhumanist movement.

Her work was very influential in my own political awakening, and I feel this book holds up 15 years later.

Apartheid of Sex: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Gender (book)

Organisation Intersex International (online support and information)


  1. Two things:

    1) DSD is not a synonym for Intersexuality, as you seem to think. As used medically, it’s just a newer name for Hermaphroditism.

    2) Hermaphroditism is a *birth defect*. How a birth defect that screws with your sex wouldn’t be considered a disorder just because you bizarrely believe that biology should espouse a vague liberal conscience is beyond me.

    1. To your second point: who defines birth defect? Why is hermaphroditism a birth defect and maleness or femaleness isn’t?
      If we were to argue with the assumption that there is a normal and abnormal, a proper development and a birth defect, we can easily argue that being born male is a birth defect. Early exposure to testosterone distorts clitoris and vulva beyond recognition and development of vagina and uterus is repressed altogether thanks to Anti-Mullerian hormones. If entire organs fail to develop I am pretty sure that can be classified as Disorder of Sex Development.
      But we don’t give men a hard time. We just call their overcrown clitoris “penis” and be done with it. Men aren’t defect and neither are hermaphrodites.

    2. I agree with this point. Being an admixture of races is not a biological issue; the offspring of mixed race families are at least as fit as their ‘racially pure’ peers with very few and extremely obscure exceptions; in many cases they may be fitter. With regard to people who are physically intersex (and I’m at this point excluding those who psychologically ‘feel’ transgendered or intersex, as that whole thing is way too woolly to speak with authority) their reproductive fitness is generally affected, if nothing else – which leads me to consider these sorts of people to be suffering some kind of disorder rather than (no, sorry, I mean as well as) being part of the rich tapestry of phenotypic variation of the human race. So I do understand why people who manifest these characteristics are difficult for governing bodies to accommodate.

      I also agree that sporting organisations are not particularly adroit in grappling with the issues surrounding their legislation, in this or in drug issues. Particularly in instances when the norms of human hormone production are simply unknown (a few years ago, Nandrolone was an issue) it is simply idiotic to proscribe arbitrarily set levels of hormones, whilst engaging in competitions which, by their very nature, select individuals who are likely to be producing unusually high levels of these hormones. However to state, as the blogger appears to, that this is a policy of selecting against abnormal women, is facile. Sport generally selects towards masculine characteristics in both genders; women atheletes are phenotypically, for genetic and training reasons, towards the masculine end of female characteristics. Perhaps if we introduced competitive ‘listening to people’s problems’ then we would have to introduce rules about oestrogen abuse or exclude unusually hyperfeminised males – I jest, of course. But it is the nature of atheletics, and not the political will of sporting bodies, which drives this apparent anti-female bias.

      As for the general accusation that society is more prejudiced against ‘masculine women’ than ‘feminine men’ this is patently ridiculous – one only needs to investigate legislation against homosexuality (generally, and in my opinion incorrectly, seen as a manifestation of abnormal femininity in men) to find that there is far more concern, now and historically, regarding male homosexuality, than female homosexuality. In dress, it is far more acceptable for women to adopt ‘masculine’ fashion – be it trousers, shirts or brogues – than for men to wear ‘women’s clothes’. This may be seen as an indicator of prejudice against women generally (and maybe it is) but it is the feminine man that society abhors. In sport they are selected against long before official games or competitions.

      Though the article identifies correctly philosophical difficulties relating to sport and gender (and sport in general) I think that generally, governing bodies are trying to make a complicated issue into simple rules, and that is the mistake – not bearing ill will against those who happen to be born with internal testicles. It is an issue of circumstance to be debated and accommodated, not an issue of prejudice to be howled at indignantly.

    3. “Hermaphroditism is a *birth defect*.”

      True, but the danger is in seeing the biological as static. No biological forms that exist now will always exist. Mutability is the nature of the thing, and a population that kills/shuns their mutants is doomed to stagnation.

      It is a complex issue.

  2. Not to be snippy, but throughout all of that ranting I didn’t see an answer to the initial question, just an expression of frustration at what others picked for a solution. If don’t segregate in sports through some method, men will almost universally dominate in anything that involves physical strength and speed. Gender segregation in sports is an attempt at gender equity. The alternative is near total male domination. I am guessing that you would be upset if in the Olympic games every contest of strength and speed had nothing but men in it.

    So if you accept gender segregation in sports, you now need criteria. Can you just use self identification? If a person who is biologically male declares himself a woman with no medical alteration, can he compete in the women’s league? Should intersex folks be able to pick which league they want but no one else? Besides wanting everyone to feel your anger and empathize with it, what exactly is your solution?

    I am all for further breaking down gender barriers. I am for letting any two consenting adults marry, regardless of what their pluming looks like or how they use it. Non-gendered bathrooms are great. I find it really distasteful to see little kids get shoved at “boy” and “girl” toys without letting them make up their own minds. That said, I recognize that there are divisions that cut pretty clearly across gender lines where inequity is going to be the name of the game. The strongest and fastest men in the world will almost always be stronger and faster than the strongest and fastest women in the world. You either separate and segregate so that women can run in track and field too, and in doing so define “women”, or you do it off of pure merit and watch as women are driven out of most sports. Pick your poison.

    The same goes for prosthetics. If they do not already have the capacity to be superior to the organic equivalent, they will be soon. In fact, I would bet my soul that with the right prosthetic arm you could crush the shit out of the javelin and shot-put records. My lazy unathletic self could probably break the high jump record with the right prosthetic legs. It isn’t a trivial question to ponder how to deal with people who are starting to blur the line between man and machine when the competition is supposed to be without machines, and the question is going to get much harder as time goes on.

      1. Let me know where I can collect your soul. Prosthetic arms aren’t really all that yet

        You could probably hack a prosthesis into one of these with stuff that’s laying around your garage.

    1. After reading through all the comments so far, this remains one of my favorites.

      There are, unfortunately, separate distributions for physical ability in male and female individuals. If women should win sporting events or otherwise participate at the highest level of sports, it is statistically necessary to provide separation between the major distributions.

      What you do with people in between becomes a confusing issue.

      So! Some actual information! Testosterone levels are remarkably variable, subject to emotional, dietary, and other influences, but in general males have forty to sixty times more testosterone than females, which means that even with an order of magnitude change day to day (such as the rapid drop caused by fasting), men will on average have more testosterone circulating. The 40-60 being from Wikipedia, the former variability information being from a good friend who currently does research on testosterone.

      @cub: Earlier commenters pointed out that this openness is the case in most sporting leagues, to no avail.

  3. Question: do you believe men should be allowed to compete directly against women in Olympic events, or in other sports for that matter? If no, how is that distinguishable from the case of an intersex person who has natural advantages?

    This whole discussion is confused immensely by the utterly arbitrary nature of sport. We love talking about “fair play” and so on, but what we’re really talking about is “adherence to a ridiculously strict set of rules and a certain degree of superficially honourable behaviour”. There’s nothing fair about it, other than that. The whole nature of sport is drawing arbitrary, unfair distinctions between people and calling one of them better than the other, typically because of the way they were born.

    Another question: is it really justifiable to compare the perhaps insensitive but arguably not inaccurate labelling what amounts to a biological error (in that many intersex persons are infertile due to abnormal conditions during their development) to the entirely arbitrary discrimination against non-whites under Apartheid?

    Caster’s “disorder” is that her body disrupts the social order.

    Well, if we want to be rational then depending on her status her “disorder” might be… a disorder. Which stops her reproductive organs from performing their evolved biological function. Nothing in that description bears any relationship to her worth as a person, of course.

    If I’m taller than you, it’s not discriminatory if I use my height to pick an apple from a tree that you can’t reach, is it? But it is discriminatory if I make you sit at the back of the bus because tall people are “better”.

  4. I completely support the rights of self-identifying non-male and non-female persons to have their own categories as they so desire. I’d love some new pronouns, too.

    I will not support their rights to compete in Olympics events restricted to those self-identifying as male or as female. Change the Olympics if you must.

    You can’t have it both ways.

    1. There are certainly gender neutral pronouns – Hir comes to mind but I may be wrong. I had a run-in with an transgendered individual who insisted on referring to everyone gender-neutrally, where I had to explain that I was happy to refer to others however they were comfortable, but would appreciate the same courtesy, in that I would prefer to be referred to as male in the traditional manner. This desire was apparently wrong of me.

  5. Also, lots of claims in this article are highly suspect.

    ‘We usually don’t care if someone is a “natural” athlete.’

    Counter-examples are numerous; every American professional sports league has some form of testing for the UNnatural athlete. There is a great deal of concern over what is a natural athlete (e.g. in baseball, some are arguing to strip Bonds & McGuire and return the HR record to Maris!). I am not certain that this concern is manifesting itself in an unusual way when it comes to athletics and ambiguity surrounding deterministic gender.

  6. Yes, I’d like to see men competing against, and along side women in sports.
    The assumption is, that men will always have the upper hand in that scenario.
    But that is an assumption.
    Spelled out in definit terms, the belief is simply that women are physically weaker than men.
    Now, apart from that being a huge generalization, it is also a self-perpetuating assumption.
    Because based on this belief men and women never compete against each other, and therefore, the expectancy in performance for women will always be a reflection of that belief.
    So lets challenge that. Lets see what happens.

    Besides, it’s sports people. It’s supposed to be a fun thing to do. It’s a game, remember?!

    1. It’s not just “an assumption”. If you look at the top world records for men and women in many sports (e.g. track, swimming), the male record is higher than the female record. Do you think the top female athletes in the world are just not trying hard enough?

      At the level of local or casual sport, of course there are many women who can be faster or stronger than the men they compete against, but when you get to setting the top athletes in the world against each other, you are right at the top of the bell-curve, and the bell curve for men goes that tiny bit higher, which is all they need in order to win all professional or Olympic-level competitions.

      I don’t know what the solution is for people like Semenya, though, since I also believe that the gender binary is a load of crock. Perhaps splitting the population into bands based on testosterone level (sort of analogous to weight classes?) since that’s probably one of the main factors advantaging male athletes. But I think testosterone level in the individual varies too much throughout the day and over time to make that work.

    2. No, Marcel, it isn’t “just an assumption” that females would be greatly disadvantaged in most sports if they were competing with males. Compare the records for males and females in the same events. That doesn’t mean that all males could beat all females; nobody is saying that.

      And it’s not “just a game.” Caster Semenya reportedly won $60,000 for her victory in the 800 m race. Big money is at stake. For elite athletes, it’s how they earn a living.

    3. Argh.

      WR 100m Women: 10.49 s
      Slowest male in Beijing 100m semis: 10.20s

      Marathon WR women: 2h15:25, that would have been 21st place in the Beijing Olympics’ men marathon.

  7. I’m enjoying this rant enormously. I had a lot of fun commenting to the first post that dealt with this.

    I would also like to point out that at many schools worldwide, at least one day a year – sports day – is set aside so that less physically able children can be ritually humiliated in public in the name of “sportsmanship” and “fair play”. It’s as if the first World War never happened.

    For a reason, clearly connected with their limited mental faculties, sports teachers don’t seem able to equate sports day with, for example, a similar hypothetical day on which dyslexic children are forced to read a passage from David Foster Wallace aloud in front of the assembled school, teachers and parents.

    Fine. Do sport. Just do it in private and don’t ask me in any way to be interested or involved. And definitely don’t get me started on boxing.

  8. Since men and women cannot, and for the forseeable future, will not be able to compete on equal terms in sports where phsyical strength is essential, for those who have been gimped by a bug in the gestation process so that their sex is indeterminate will simply have to accept that they’re going to find a career as a professional sportsman a troubling one.

    1. those who have been gimped by a bug in the gestation process so that their sex is indeterminate

      Wow, that’s empathic. Nice language, there.

  9. Those pointing out that sex segregation is a matter of fairness are missing the point here.

    This is not a case where some nefarious man pulled a “Tootsie” and started dominating Women’s Tennis. This is the case of a human being being analyze and probed by very dodgy “science” that seems more interested in securing the herteronormative value system than any kind of empirical truth.

    Caster has been treated like a criminal and a freak because of her genetic code. That shouldn’t sit well with any forward thinking person.

    Think of the people in your life who have not fit neatly into given gender roles. Male and female. Would you see them subject to extensive “gender testing” based on junk science?

    The mythos of the “manly” East German team is the stuff of cheap stand-up comedy and bad sketch humor. These are human beings who identify, live, and love as men and women. The notion that we are “protecting” anything by subjecting them to these indignities is ridiculous as it is untrue.

    Thank you Andrea and Xeni for keeping this issue alive and in the public conversation.

    1. What’s the alternative for the IOC? Allow Caster to compete even though all her competitors, most sports fans, and the IOCs rules, and biology says she’s basically cheating, albeit only semi-intentionally?

      I find it hard to believe that she never realised she was a special girl long before this happened. Especially not with her decidely manly features.

      I agree the IOC handled her case in a hurtful and humiliating fashion, for which lessons must be learned, but having learned what they did, it’s hard to see how they could expect to allow her to compete as a normal woman.

      1. Nice language there. “Special girl” and “Normal woman”. Seems you’re keen on minimizing her, or at very least putting her in a neat little “weirdo” box.

        Whether she realized her gender identity or not is not the issue. Making a person’s genitalia and sexual identity the subject of fakey (I’m running out of adjectives for just plain fraudulent) “gender scientists” is a repulsive and dehumanizing act. That it’s being taken by a group who, ostensibly, seek to bring humanity together through peaceful athletic competition is just an ugly irony.

        And you speak of evolution, to which I would ask how old are you? Over, say, 25 or so? Still have all your teeth? You’re cheating evolution. Do you fear smallpox, polio, or any other of a host of communicable diseases? You’re cheating evolution? Using evolution as an excuse for gender bias makes about as much sense as social darwinism.

        As for women being constantly outclassed by men, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I’d put any team in the WNBA against their male counterparts. The women play hard, tough, fundamentals focused basketball. There’s a lot less showboating and star play, better teamwork over all. Female softball players are as tough and talented as any male baseball player. Even allowing for the usual reasoning that males make better use of oxygen in their blood (one of several explanations I’ve heard) and are therefore faster, women as still quite competitive.

        1. It’s not a matter of “fakey ‘gender scientists'”. Some people really are male (they produce sperm). Some people really are female. And some people really are impossible to fit easily the descriptions for ‘male’ or ‘female.’

          Also, in many types of athletic competition, males in general are likely to have an advantage over females in general

          Given those realities, it’s difficult to decide what’s the best solution. But we haven’t even had a discussion yet of what the criteria are: how would we recognize the “best” solution when we find it? Assuming there’s such a thing as “fairness”, are we trying to treat everyone involved with a similar level of fairness? Or to ensure that everyone is treated with at least some minimum amount of fairness? Or maximize the total amount of fairness, even if it’s not equally distributed?

  10. Do “sports fans” complain about the advantage conferred on Micahel Phelps by his “freakish” biology? No. Is he “semi-intentionally cheating” because he happens to have a set of innate biological characteristics which make him astonishingly fast at swimming? No.

    That’s one of the point that underpins this article, and it’s a point many of you criticising it seem to have missed. Why is Semenya’s biology too weird for her sport, but Phelps’, for example (one could also pick Yao Ming in basketball, or Nikolai Valuev in boxing) are fine and even celebrated?

    It’s arbitrary normativity.

  11. Marcel you do your arguement and yourself a disservice when you say things like this:
    “Besides, it’s sports people. It’s supposed to be a fun thing to do. It’s a game, remember?!” It makes it hard to take you seriously when being so facetious. You know full well that sports is more than a trivial fun game, it’s a billion dollar business that pays professional athletes million tracks to play, gives Olympic players huge endsorements, and pays the way to college many students. If you want sports for fun, then you can play with friends at the park but if you’re looking for “fun” than you are not looking for the olympics.

  12. You might wanna try telling a million years of human evolution that male and female is “arbitrary normativity”.

    So, do you think men and women should be allowed to compete on equal footing? Cos getting rid of this “arbitrary normativity” would mean no woman ever winning anothe sporting event ever again.

  13. My understanding is that Semenya is not intersex, or a hermaphrodite, but that she is fully male with a common male birth defect–testicles that never descended out of the abdomen. However, it is not clear as the contest officials rather belatedly decided to respect her privacy by not releasing the results of these “sex tests,” which were probably just simple karyotyping and imaging tests to see what her chromosomes and anatomy indicate about her gender. This is a personal tragedy for the athlete, but other than that it is a nonissue. There is no such thing as a true hermaphrodite. Every person has either a male or female gender, but may have ambiguous-seeming genitals. For sports competition, it is only a question of whether the disrupted development was initially male or female.

    It is foolish to pretend that males do not have an advantage in many sports, and without separate classes for males and females, most female athletes would be marginalized.

  14. Grabcoque: Compare this sentence with your original. It may highlight the error you’re making:

    “I find it hard to believe that Yao Ming never realised he was a special boy long before this happened. Especially not with his decidely tall frame”.

    Yao Ming is not a “normal man”, but in basketball his “abnormality” is praised as a strength, not condemned as cheating. Why? Because his “abnormality” is not one of sex, but one of a different biological characteristic. It makes no difference that Yao Ming’s height gives him an advantage over “normal” people to basketball fans. No-one shouts “unfair” at the fact that his presence in the NBA makes it that little bit harder on shorter guys to make it. His biology helps him in his sport. Why should Semenya be treated differently? If it means that world records go to intersex women, and intersexuality becomes more prevelant in athletics, that’s fine – it’s turned out that the conditions which give rise to intersex morphology also happen to make you really awesome at running. Complaining against it is no different from complaining against the fact that tall guys have an unfair advantage in basketball, or guys with big feet do better at swimming.

    1. Yao Ming is not a “normal man”, but in basketball his “abnormality” is praised as a strength, not condemned as cheating. Why? Because his “abnormality” is not one of sex, but one of a different biological characteristic.

      A fairly common biological characteristic. There are enough other people with the same advantage to create a competitive league. Yao Ming doesn’t automatically dominate everyone he faces. Like gambling, sports are about creating contests in which the outcome is uncertain and hard to predict. There’s a reason the two often go hand-in-hand. Spectators rarely want to see a foregone conclusion. That’s why we have different leagues for men and women. It gets boring to watch the contestants you identify with lose all the time.

      There aren’t enough intersexed competitors or spectators to support a league, and allowing them to compete in existing categories removes the appeal for most of the spectators. Sorry.

    2. So many great comments! My analysis was not intended to offer answers, but to take a big picture look at what’s going on. I’m not sure I have the answers.

      My own view is that the banning of performance-enhancing procedures and products is one source of the problems. I believe that requiring people to undergo performance-suppressing options is even worse. It’s one thing to impose something like a golf handicap, but requiring competitors to alter their bodies in order to compete while requiring other competitors not to alter their bodies in order to compete seems hypocritical.

      The other main issue that was touched on in several comments is what we value in terms of competition. The sports that make the most money are the sports that men are better at. To me, that’s more of a reflection of male dominance in society than male dominance in sports. It’s similar to how “IQ” tests measure the things that are of value to the testmakers’ arbitrary idea of intelligence. Our choices of which athletic skills we value create these feedback cycles that validate men through the sports at which they are better. It’s kind of like how some rich people value polo and yachting because you have to be rich to participate in those sports. It creates a cycle of reinforcing validation of their superiority in the sport and in their social status.

      Nods to Squibble, Anon#54, and pauldavis (as well as everyone in those threads) for bringing up important points.

  15. “People like Caster are so controversial because they challenge many of the most deeply-held beliefs people have about sex.”

    That is a funny statement. It sounds very similar to how creationists challenge scientists of their most deeply-held beliefs on evolution.

    For the foreseeable future, the strongest woman will always be physically weaker than the strongest man. As a result, sports have been segregated so that women can have a chance at competing on their level. A person with gender issues will pollute women’s competition with an unfair advantage (ala East German “Female” Olympians).

    Unless you do away with segregated sports, people born with these gender disorders need to compete in the male arena.

  16. These gender-issues posts always bring out the back-and-forth debates and arguments. It’s an inevitability that I always enjoy.

  17. Well, at least one of the issues you raise has an easy enough answer… or at least an easy enough way to think about it.

    A person’s gender and sex, whether a typical example or otherwise, shouldn’t determine their standing in society or their treatment as an individual, nor should it result in them being given discriminatory labels. This is obvious enough for someone trying to think fairly. I can understand why the medical world would view such things as disorders, though. This is a realm of science where every deviation from the norm is viewed through a pathological lens, it’s the way they think. It doesn’t make it right but it makes sense.

    The issue of whether someone in an all-women’s competition should be allowed to compete when the presence of heightened levels of testosterone gives them a certain advantage in, for example, muscle development, is by far a more complicated issue and a lot harder to come up with a just answer to. Caster does likely have an advantage. Is it fair or unfair? It’s not an easy question to answer. I certainly can’t think of a fair answer to that, myself. Without meaning to sound critical, (I don’t intend to be) I’m not sure you can answer that either.

    I suppose that’s part of your point, though. Olympic sports is segregated into polar halves and Caster technically doesn’t fit perfectly into either. This isn’t a disorder, it’s just something people don’t know what to make of, because they don’t think that way.

    After typing all that out, and mulling it over, I guess the real disorder here is that many people just don’t adequately understand these issues, and don’t know how to react.

    Sorry for the rambling comment. Responding to things like this helps me to understand them. (Thanks for the stimulating post on this subject, by the way.)

  18. Here’s a simple proposal that would sort it all out: have an open competition and a limited competition.

    Open competition: Anyone can enter (you can decide later if you want it limited to the unmodified by drugs or harware).
    Limited: Only those with some specific limitations can enter (e.g. limited testosterone levels (i.e. women plus limited men/other), limited limb quantity (i.e. paralympians), limited age, etc.)

    This how motor racing etc., juniors and seniors sports leagues etc. handle it.

    That would also settle the “should women get paid the same at Wimbledon” thing that always comes up. The open competition winner gets £X, the limited competitions (women, juniors, seniors) get £(X-Y).

    It’s not sexist, racist, geneticist, or whatever because if you are good enough you can always enter the Open. If you’re not good enough then feel free to win a lower amount of money by competing at a lower level.


  19. Clearly we need at least one new sex.

    Hermaphrodites or Intersex or Neutrals have always been around ever since sexual dimorphism – in fact it should be now named sexual trimorphism. So “its unnatural” are spurious and offensive – as is calling such folk disordered.

    If evolution did came up with this then it is certain that it was a bloody good idea at the time.

    The point is Folk of the third sex have always been a gender just not one society could deal with.

    Perhaps when they get liberated they’ll find they have abilities all their own but right now they are discriminated against and often operated on without information or consent usually at birth.

    I heard on the BBC Radio 4 that 8% of those identifyed as female gender were in fact intersex or hermaphrodite and were thus infertile.

    I think this is a discussion society will find it difficult to even concieve of having.

    Stop operating on the children of the Intersex.

    Lets just have one big race for everyone and then scientists can spend time controlling the results for drugs and biology and endlessly arguing over who really won.

  20. “Yes, I’d like to see men competing against, and along side women in sports. The assumption is, that men will always have the upper hand in that scenario. But that is an assumption.”

    Testosteron and other androgens are used in Doping because it makes people stronger.

    Women produce 0.25 mg Testosteron per day
    Men produce 11.0 mg Testosteron per Day

    So it is not just an assumption

    Or just look at the worldrecords.

  21. I’m not sure what the argument of the OP is. Do you want a single class? If so – fine, but you’ve removed somewhere near half the professional sportspeople from competition.
    If you agree that people should be offered lower ability classes to allow sensible competition, then you must agree to some sort of arbitrary class boundary.
    Traditionally, we’ve used men and women. This causes problems with people who aren’t clearly one or the other. What is your solution?

    There are many possible solutions (one class; default everyone to male; default female; allow athlete to chose; allow regulators to choose; allow a group of athletes to form a new class based on some sort of voting/quorum system), but none is mentioned in the OP.

    Please note that whining about gender sterotypes and heteronormative hegemonies is not a solution to the problem.

    Hell, maybe they should let me in to the female category. It’s not fair that I must compete as a man just because I’m missing a bit of a chromosome.

    I accept that for any given definition of ‘female’, there will be some people that are let down. I favour a simple definition, like the possession of 2 (or more?) X chromosomes. I’m aware that this will make many self-identified men qualify, while many self-identified women will not.
    Caster shouldn’t be humiliated in the way she is. She should have simply been asked for a cheek swab BEFORE competing. If she failed the definition of female, she should have been politely told that she does not qualify.

  22. History:

    The modern Olympics was designed to be a competition of privilege — the working class was excluded, on the grounds that their innate strength would dominate the competition and prevent the fratboys winning. Additionally, women were unilaterally excluded at first.

    The current IOC has many of the same problems; it’s a rich-&-powerful men’s club that demands everyone else pay to indulge it. Our cultural fascination with sport is powerful enough that we do.

    Women’s events were created as a somewhat-progressive response to proto-feminism. Should men and women compete directly? (Making intersex athletes a non-issue) Or if division is maintained, how to be fair? (ish) Sports is inherently unfair, after all, and arbitrary besides — hundredths of a second are never replicable results!

    @ Andrea James,

    Based on my sampling (1.5 hour) reading of Dreger, it seems she has a ‘nuanced’ view of intersex, so what is your problem? Is it her talking about the book written by the jerk that interviewed 4 transwomen hookers with specific pathologies? Her analysis of that seemed rather balanced to me, warts and all. Or is it the fascination with ‘difference’ that bothers? I’d love to pursue this.

    — GimpWii

  23. Aren’t male/female/weight categories are imposed in sport to prevent that particular sport from being dominated by whichever sex/weight category is able to reach (on average) the physical apex of performance for that sport. In other words the rules are there to keep competition interesting for everybody.

    So ideally the rules should impose strength/skill boundaries?

  24. Why is Semenya’s biology too weird for her sport, but Phelps’, for example (one could also pick Yao Ming in basketball, or Nikolai Valuev in boxing) are fine and even celebrated?

    It’s arbitrary normativity.

    No, it’s not.

    Phelps’ “genetic advantage” is not in an area where lines have been drawn in the rules. Separation of males and females is a rule in this sport, so having a condition in which those lines are blurred, or in which the intent of those rules is broken is a problem.

    If my solution to being a more celebrated female swimmer is to have longer arms and lower body fat, and there are no regulations governing those, then all power to me. If my solution to being a more celebrated female swimmer is to not be female, that’s not right because the variable that I chose to change is regulated.

    How exactly those regulations are to be applied with respect to genetic gender issues is up for debate, but don’t try to compare a female with male genetic characteristics competing as a female with a tall man competing among short men.

    1. I have to laugh:

      “No, it’s not [arbitrary]. Phelps’ “genetic advantage” is not in an area where lines have been drawn in the rules.”

      Yes. The line is drawn arbitrarily.

      The question was: why should one particular set of advantageous biological characteristics be problematic, but another fine and dandy? Your answer is essentially “Just because those are the rules”, which was precisely my point and precisely the point made in the post.

      What sound, coherent reason supports the exclusion of intersex people but does not exclude people with other biological characteristics which give them an advantage over their peers? Why is Semenya’s body “unfair”, but Phelp’s feet aren’t? Spell it out for me.

      1. I’ll be happy to spell it out for you to. Because of differences in typical strength distribution among men and women, we divided sports *competition* into male and female categories, believing that this provided an improvement over either no division at all (in which case, women would rarely win at most of the sports that people like to play, and perhaps more importantly, watch), or some other arbitrary binary divide. As an earlier poster said, anytime someone has characteristics that place them on both sides of such a division, it will be hard to fit them into the scheme.

        You can call this arbitrary normativity if you want. We could have divided sports competition up by height, weight, skin color, eye color, or preferred soda. However, none of these have shown any particular correlation with performance, and so they have little justification and more to the point, little purpose in creating interesting and useful platforms on which meaningful competition could take place.

        Moreover, had we divided competition up by foot size or height, we would have a much harder time finding people whose characteristics made them span the divide. I suppose one could hypothetically imagine a phelps variant with two different foot sizes and a rule that split racing between those with size 10 or above and those with smaller feet. Such a person would face exactly the same issues that Semenya’s case is raising.

        Biological sex turns out to be a non-binary characteristic (news at 11), and thus using it as the dividing characteristic for sports competition makes it *slightly* more likely that there will instances where invididuals could rightfully be said to belong to both (or neither) sides of the divide.

        Similar issues would arise if we pick a measurement of some biological property that varied over time (such as testosterone levels). Either you simply don’t accept that dividing sports competition in any way makes sense, or you’re going to have to choose some characteristic(s) that will likely end up, from time to time, generating problem cases where people span the divide that you pick.

      2. The sport is not divided into “men with long arms” and “men with short arms” so those characteristics don’t even come in to consideration. Do they make you a better swimmer? Likely, but the rules have not been set up to deal with that.

        The sport *is* divided into “men” and “women”. A man can not compete in the women’s arena. A woman can not compete in the men’s arena. These rules are there for specific reasons.

        There is a a difference between specifically exclusionary rules and rules that are not broad enough to cover all possibilities. “You must be demonstrably female to compete here” is not the same as “No intersex people allowed”. There is apparently a category missing from competition, but it’s not deliberately or maliciously excluded, no matter how often eugenics and Nazi imagery gets spouted.

        How to deal with intersex people is a problem that sports needs to deal with. How? I don’t know. But to say “Well, females and males are separated in competition for a reason, and she’s not entirely female as the rules require, but that’s just an advantage she has” is absurd. If she’s between categories, why not force her to compete at the higher level? Would that be more fair to the other competitors?

      3. What sound, coherent reason supports the exclusion of intersex people but does not exclude people with other biological characteristics which give them an advantage over their peers? Why is Semenya’s body “unfair”, but Phelp’s feet aren’t? Spell it out for me.

        Because Phelps doesn’t compete in one of the fairness restricted competitions. They wouldn’t let him compete as a woman, either.

      4. Yes, drawing the lines at sex, as opposed to body mass, or arm length, or femur length, or whatever is arbitrary. Sports are ENTIRELY about arbitrary rules. Why can’t you touch the ball with your hands in non-American football? Why can’t you ride a scooter in a marathon? The point is that a particular type of competition is DEFINED by it’s arbitrary rules. The point of a backstroke race is to see who can swim fastest doing the backstroke, not who can swim fastest.

        Personally, I wish we had a lot less gender separation in our world, unisex bathrooms, in particular, would seem to solve a lot of resource allocation issues. However, to decide that a sport can force competitors to run in a particular way, or wear a particular kind of equipment, but NOT decide to exclude other things, seems a little odd.

      5. “What sound, coherent reason supports the exclusion of intersex people but does not exclude people with other biological characteristics which give them an advantage over their peers? Why is Semenya’s body “unfair”, but Phelp’s feet aren’t? Spell it out for me.”

        Nobody is excluding Caster Semanya from anything. She will be able to compete if so she wishes once it is determined in which competitions is fair for her to compete.

        All sports are arbitrary by nature, but some rules make more sense than others. In normal life we normally don’t divide people by the length of their arms or how tall they are, but something that is unquestionable is that all human societies assign roles according to sexuality, and even people that don’t fit the conventional gender roles will be the first to accept that it is more important to society what sex you are than how long your arms are.

        Also being tall in some sports is advantageous but not definitive, there are plenty of people that are tall but rubbish at basketball, in the other hand testosterone levels are easily probable to give an advantage in pretty much all sports.

  25. Some professional sports already have “open”/”women” classes of competitors. That’s why there have been a few women that have competed in PGA events. The PGA tour is often informally called the “men’s golf tour”, but it’s open to anyone who can make the cut. Women also have the option of the LPGA, the pro tour limited to women. Presumably, intersex people who wanted to play pro golf could try out for the PGA, and might also be eligible for the LPGA depending on the physical requirements for that more limited class of competition.

    I see no reason why the Olympics can’t work the same way. (Actually, has anyone verified that it doesn’t? Could a female [or other] athlete compete in the “men’s” division if [s]he wanted to, and made the athletic cut for their country’s team?)

  26. I have no animosity towards Caster Semenya. I feel very sorry that the whole business has become a media circus and that this should have been avoided.

    However, I have to agree with many here.

    If you don’t fit the physical requirements, then you don’t.

    Colour/race is not something that immediately affects one’s abilities and claiming the advantage Caster will necessarily obtain is related to this issue is a long bow to draw.

    This is NOT the same as racial discrimination wherein the differences are superficial. The issues here are not about superficial differences.

    Further, I grasp the issues from a sociological perspective (having a post-grad research degree in this field) but from a sport perspective there has to be an answer that allows greater general equity between athletes and if you don’t fit the mould created then too bad.

    I also oppose ‘faster’ swimsuits and such and don’t get me started on the bikes. In my view these should all be standardised and each athlete gets to use the same as the others. So should tennis racquets and other bits and bobs…shoes too. That would kill Nike and the rest of them.

  27. One more comment on the issue of segregation.

    Caster is potentially being refused to play sport because of physical/physiological differences.

    There is no-one saying Caster cannot live somewhere, be educated somewhere, get a job somewhere because of this issue. No-one is saying that Caster will be refused access to a community service, political office or restaurant.

    These and worse are what happens when segregation is instituted.

    I’d suggest the OP really compare the experiences of those against whom segregation has been applied, the conditions of their lives and the restrictions imposed and then what is happening to Caster. I’d dare say that any such comparison will show how flawed the claim is.

  28. The normally progressive readers of boingboing really have to examine why they get their backs up about transgender issues. Just about any other issue and you people are ready to storm the ramparts and overturn the establishment (or you talk that way anyway) but when it comes to this it’s exactly the sort of attitude you’d expect from a bunch of geeky engineering types.

  29. Put another way: which is more important, sports or the rules?
    What’s the point of this activity again?

  30. But what if we decided anyone over 7 feet is “too tall” to compete fairly in basketball?

    Personally I think it’s about time for a midget/dwarf pro basketball league. I’m not joking– I think it would be at least as good as the current “giants-only” NBA.

  31. You can’t force someone into one of two categories if they simply don’t fit. It doesn’t matter if the other 98.whatever percent of the population does fit neatly into one. Unfortunately human societies don’t seem to deal well with minorities unless they are willing to assimilate. Well, some of these people assimilate and then in a few instances are attacked for it–this reminds me of people who “pass” for white in segregated or prejudiced societies.

  32. Separating the human body into a neat little binary i.e. male and female is not a new thing. It is not ‘in fashion right now’. It is part of human culture.

    Not fitting in to one of these categories must be hard and I accept our culture could be more sympathetic generally on the subject. Also the Olympic Committee’s use of the term treatment and disorder is unfortunate, but this does not make your comparison to apartheid or racial profiling correct.

    The apartheid of sex within the sporting tradition is the segregation of men and women into separate sporting events. Apartheid in South Africa was discrimination based on sex. The key difference is that one is designed to make sport fairer. The other is designed to make society less fair.

  33. While I don’t have any political, social, or theologic axe to grind, I’m wondering how you can even use Semenya as an example since the outcome of the tests were never made public. We can make assumptions, which are likely correct, but aren’t you overstating conclusions based on rumor? You have no idea what’s in her (his) medical file because you’re not privy to it.

    1. Yes, this has also been annoying me. The fact they haven’t been made public (her medical test results) make me think that yes, in fact the test did prove that she is all woman. Now speculating on that, she is being singled out because she looks “too masculine” and based upon my limit knowledge of hormones and biology I’d have to say she has more testosterone than the average female olympic athlete. With that extra testosterone, she probably has more muscle mass, hence bigger muscles (or the ability to have bigger muscles) than most women. So what? Let her compete. Like another poster said, are we going to disqualify Mr. Phelps cause he’s too good at swimming?

      On another note, if Ms. Semenya is transgendered (hermaphrodite, which ever term you prefer/is correct), I highly doubt that having both pairs of genitalia make her a better athlete. I also don’t think she should be turned into a martyr for any cause, unless she wants to champion one for being discriminated against.

      No one has the right to claim what is normal or abnormal, when the closest thing to a copy nature can provide (twins, triplets, etc..) are not even exact copies of each other.

      1. “No one has the right to claim what is normal or abnormal”

        No one gets to choose what normal or abnormal is, because “normal” defines itself. It means “roughly average”. And intersexed people are not normal.

        That’s not a value judgement. It’s statistics. They are outliers. They are the long tail. The peak of the curve is incredibly high and incredibly narrow. There are plenty of people who don’t fit within the middle part of the curve, but they by definition are not normal.

        Don’t complain that I’m getting all semantics on you. I could just as rightly complain that you are twisting the perfectly useful word “normal” to mean “acceptable” which it doesn’t mean. The more we twist words to push causes, the less we can discuss anything because we speak different languages.

        The rules have difficulty with outliers, but that’s not because the rules are fascist, it’s because rules are *meant* to deal with the general, the average, the normal, to remove exceptions from the field.

        What to do about the exceptions is another issue, but stop attacking the rules as wrong. They’re doing what they are meant to do.

        1. By definition normal and average are synonyms, and occasionally used in each others definitions (depending on your source). So yes, it is statistics, but all to often “normal” for people becomes “like me,” not average and if you aren’t average then you must have a “disorder” or “disease” to explain away your abnormalness. That is the kind of thinking I have a problem with.

  34. I mean, we can rage against gender norms all we want, but the truth is that the only way this sort of thing stops being a problem is if we integrate athletics by gender. If that is off the table, then determining which gender you are for the purposes of what your caliber of competition is has to happen.

  35. this topic needs to go away.

    its this simple. when you go to the store to buy a (product), you want the full product with all the advertised features.

    Im a broke product. no one wants a broke product when they can have the fully functioning working product right next to it for the same cost.

    but i just dont give a sh*t anymore. ive accepted it and it sucks. but im not the one to try and convince a whole world otherwise. im going to take whats available to be and try to make myself happy. and i dont talk about it to anyone these days, not even to my parents. no one has to live my life but me.

    If i were Caster id tell them ALL to get bent, gtfo and withdraw. screw that crap, having to explain yourself when none of it is your fault. its so shitty. plus its none of your freakin business. Then i would go beat the piss out of whoever convinced me the Olympics was a good idea.

    I blame her parents or coach or whoever convinced her that the money to be made from this horses%it is more important than her emotional well being, because she obviously was oblivious to the sh*tstorm of controversy this would surely create. you will not convince me someone was not well aware beforehand but explained it all away with thoughts of living the high life.

    its a complicated subject, and talking about it doesn’t do a damn thing.

    Its more likely to make people like me withdraw even more. because i don’t WANT to join any ‘groups’ or ‘identify’ or whatever the crap the new thing is.
    I just want to live, to be happy and that’s all.

    BUT THAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM. Every human on earth has similar desires. Most want happiness, love and security.

    at least i can find happiness and security. start talking more and ill lose some of the only 2 i have left.

    just go away.

    blah bad taste now =(

  36. I’ll just say one relatively unrelated thing – Criminology is the study of crime, its causes and consequences. It’s an important interdisciplinary field necessary for evaluation and development of criminal policies and punitive and preventive methods.
    While some of the early theories dealt with the idea of natural born criminals and intrinsically evil social classes, to list it along phrenology and eugenics is not very different from the practice of equating “Darwinism” with Holocaust.

  37. AFAIK, every sports is, by its nature if not by definition, a set of arbitrary rules with an arbitrary objective. The rules exist to insure participants that they will be judged as fairly as the rules permit. More people participate if they feel the rules are fair enough for them to win the rewards. Never 100% fair, but enough to make it worth participating. And that’s not just entering, but to judge, watch, sponsor, etc.

    As kids on the playground, we can play loose with the rules. As you move up the scale, the rewards increase and the importance of rules increase. At the Olympic level, not only is it big business, but national pride is at stake.

    Rules at that level are designed to appeal as fair to the largest number of people, not to everyone. Obviously gender became part of the rules. Because science figured out how to monkey with gender through surgery and hormone treatment, the IOC decided to use science to settle gender disputes. They asked science “What makes a man a man and a woman a woman?”

    Contrary to thousands of years of social custom based on external anatomy, science settled on internal anatomy, the endocrinology, then genetics. External and internal anatomy were deemed superficial (though still a pretty powerful predictor of gender).

    So whereas in a game of dodge-ball you don’t care about gender, multi-billion dollar sports care. A lot. They want as many participants (especially the audience) to believe that the rules are very fair. Fair to everyone? No, that’s not even the point.

    Jump to someone like Castor, who is now caught in the cross fire of decades of rule refinement and big business. The rules say she doesn’t qualify for the women’s division. But she would for the men’s. Pronouns, what she deems herself, etc don’t factor in. It’s her genes. By the rules, she’s not born a genetically advantaged woman, but a man. It’s arbitrary, but that’s sports.

  38. One thing I would really like to see discussed more is what the range of testocerone levels naturally occurring in ciswomen (non trans-intersexed) is. I think Andrea did a good job here of describing the validity of sex-science, but I think there are a lot of base assumptions that are going unchallenged above, specifically:

    1) Testocerone levels are the single biggest determiner of physical prowess
    2) Women all have one level of Testocerone
    3) Ovotestes put your testocerone level significantly higher than ‘naturally occurring’ testocerone levels.

    My understanding is that there is so much variation in naturally occurring testocerone that the entire division between mens/womens divisions is arbitrary and unfair anyway. I think that if you consider what happened to Caster to be justified by a neccessary division in the sport, then you may find that the division is so arbitrary as to be practically useless anyway, and that we could probably devise a better one that would be more fair to all genders, including cismen and ciswomen.

    1. Thank you, Allen. You raise an excellent set of questions.

      Looking into it, and stripping away some of the truly sensationalist language in the articles, it appears that:

      1) The insistence that Caster stop competing as a woman and be stripped of her gold medal is based on the claim that her testosterone is three times higher than that of a “normal woman.” This appears to be the only actual objection to Caster’s right to compete as a woman. (I recognize that as an intersex person, she has ovotestes, but primary sex characteristics aren’t the point of discussion– secondary sex characteristics are, specifically testosterone, and how it impacts muscle development.)

      2) However, women’s testosterone levels vary widely, and there isn’t agreement on what levels are actually normal. Even using the most conservative estimates, it looks like Caster’s levels are still within the high range of women’s testosterone.

      3) Ovotestes do seem to raise testosterone levels… but so can a lot of other factors, in all sexes. Including eating avocados. Mmmm. Delicious avocados.

      In conclusion: Caster identifies as a woman, was raised as a woman, and appears to fall within the broader hormonal ranges of a woman. She wants to compete as a woman. What is the problem here?

      Andrea mentioned two words in her article, in articulation of the fears that are circulating right now: “unfair” and “unnatural.”

      Many of the concerns articulated above seem to be founded on the fear that letting an intersex athlete compete with women will disadvantage those competitors. I say, stuff and nonsense. Testosterone is only one of dozens of factors that impact an athlete’s development, and I do not feel threatened as a woman or an athlete by a competition with someone who has somewhat higher testosterone levels than I do.

      That said, men (with an XY chromosome pattern) have testosterone levels up to 100 times the levels of some women (again, these vary widely). Looking at a differential like that, it makes sense that there are different categories of athletic competition to reflect this difference. (If we really want athletic competitions to be equal, should we make everyone get antiandrogen or testosterone shots beforehand, to “even them out”, a la Harrison Bergeron? That would be plenty spooky.)

      So, how can everyone compete on an equal playing field? We can’t. Some, like Michael Phelps, are tremendously gifted. Many receive exceptional training and support. And thousands with testosterone levels higher than Caster Semenya’s will never be great athletes, simply because they lack the discipline, determination, or opportunity to compete.

      The question is not “how can everyone compete equally,” but: “how can everyone receive an equal opportunity to compete?” To my mind, that should begin with letting everyone compete. Including Caster Semenya.

      Info from this post from “Basic and clinical endocrinology” (2004) by Francis Sorrel Greenspan and David G. Gardner, a news search on Caster Semenya, and Wikipedia.

  39. I mentioned this in the other thread, but doesn’t saying that there is no ‘disorder’ or ‘abnormality’ here imply that something like Down’s syndrome ALSO is not a disorder or abnormality?

    It certainly does affect the ‘social order’, as legal abortion makes having Down’s babies a choice, and those who make that choice ‘strange outsiders’. I suppose if there were easy tests to determine intersexed people in utero, we’d see a lot more abortion of them too.

    You write

    “We know of several genes that affect skin and hair pigment, and that hasn’t stopped racism.”

    I think its reduced it, though. Knowing the scientific basis for common humanity is helpful.

  40. How long can it be before the IOC lawyers jump on you for using the Olympic logo, I wonder. Maybe we should have a sweepstakes.

  41. Did you know that you can use the associative property to make almost anything bad? Genetics was used by the eugenics people, eugenics was used by the Nazis, therefore geneticists are Nazis.

    It feels to me like that’s all this article is. It’s a continuous stream of weak analogies and associations.

  42. While being an ambitious piece of writing, and a great addition to boing boing, I feel the need to correct an inaccuracy in this essay. The author equates evolutionary psychology and sociobiology to “neo-eugenics”. This is not only factually wrong, but also slanderous to those scientists and millions of curious people in the public who believe that it is important and worthwhile to consider the influence of our evolutionary heritage on the way we think and behave. These researchers are not interested in purifying the genetic basis of society, controlling people’s reproduction, or otherwise making any claims about what “ought to be” based on their studies of “what is”. If you believe that the following question is important: “how does our evolutionary heritage, our culture, and our local ecology influence the way human’s are”. Then you may find an intellectual home in evolutionary psychology or sociobiology (which is more often called behavioral ecology these days). These researchers consider genes to be just one part of the equation, and are certainly not in the business of controlling anyone’s reproduction except their own. I happen to believe that the writer of this piece is well aware of this simple to understand, and often-articulated difference between eugenics and evolutionary psychology / sociobiology / behavioral ecology. I propose that the factually inaccurate equating of these fields was done to support the thesis that Caster should lead us to confront the problems associated with placing socially defined labels where they do not belong. I agree with this thesis, but sadly, I think the argument loses credibility when the writer thereafter places the label “eugenics” where it does not belong.

  43. As for women being constantly outclassed by men, I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I’d put any team in the WNBA against their male counterparts. The women play hard, tough, fundamentals focused basketball. There’s a lot less showboating and star play, better teamwork over all. Female softball players are as tough and talented as any male baseball player. Even allowing for the usual reasoning that males make better use of oxygen in their blood (one of several explanations I’ve heard) and are therefore faster, women as still quite competitive.

    Actually, American sports leagues are already gender neutral with the exception of ones that are for women only. A woman can play in the NBA, MLB, NFL, or any other league that tickles their fancy. None of them have any language preventing women from competing, and I know for a fact that at least the MLB has specific language in it clearly stating that there is no gender requirement. Every few years there tends to be rumbling about some woman that might make the cut to any one of these sports leagues. Believe me, there is not an owner alive that would not kill to have a woman on the team for the marketing opportunities alone.

    Women just don’t make the cut. The genetic deck is stacked too much against them, especially when you are talking about the genetic freaks at the edge of the bell curve. So, if gender neutrality in sports is what you want, turn off that sexist soft ball or the sexist WNBA, and watch professional American sports. Just don’t expect to see any women playing. Gender neutrality means that women don’t make the cut.

  44. “I’ve called it “The Sextard Movement” in earlier commentaries about this controversy.”

    Andrea, your article is excellent and shows a lot of forward thinking, but this sentence stands out as completely hypocritical when you’re taking “techno-progressives, hipsters, and people who are on the leading edge of other critical 21st-century paradigm shifts” to task for not being open-minded about sex identification. It’s really easy to come up with some words to explain your disdain for faux sciences without using a mental disability to do it.

  45. I was going to write in defence of the binary definition of male and female on the basis that it is a pretty useful way of thinking about things as long as you are prepared to accept special cases.

    Anyhow I thought I would be more constructive and try to move towards a solution. How about in major events (world championships, olympics etc)there is the facility for a guest lane. This would be for special cases such as intersex or paralympian athletes who would not be traditionally eligible. They run all the races as per normal. If they win a medal they get that medal but don’t deny anyone else it i.e. if they come first they receive a gold, but the person who comes second also receives gold the person who comes third gets silver and so on. Their times are recorded with a note of explanation.

  46. I don’t think anyone’s said the intersexed cannot compete in the Olympics, just that they cannot compete as women. How is this any more discrimination than banning the able bodied from the Paralympics?

  47. foobar +1 regarding paralympics

    The only “fair” to do you be to have single events with no gender distinction. This of course will be thousands of girls and women will be denied scholarships, and professional opportunities.

  48. The article is fine and all and does not give the solution to Caster’s problem. Who is a suitable competitor for Caster?
    The East German women were given steroids and hormones that made some of them turn male. This docu was shown on PBS and the young girls had sex change operations later in life and still could not cope with this deceptive sports regimen that left them with many health problems . Hardly comedy.

    What is the right thing to do for Caster?

    1. Does s/he go in the mens’ category because the women complained?

    2. Do we start a 3rd category for those athletes with enhanced bodies like Caster’s ?

  49. So you never quite identified just what this condition is that you call “Caster”. Or whether you think it’s genetic or optional. You gotta specify those things so we can pick sides and insult each other.

  50. Here are some examples of perfectly sensible “discrimination” which are in common use and accepted by everyone involved.

    Amateur tennis teams and volleyball teams put upper limits on the total (or average) player skill level, said levels being set by certified instructors or referees.

    Our town softball league requires a minimum of 3 players of each sex (ok, only two categories, male and female, count :-) ) be on the field at any time.

    Heck, horse races put weights next to the saddles to even out total carried weight.

    So there’s lots of ways to limit games to reasonable levels of equality among the participants.


  51. Solution change male and female to type A and B. Add a C if you want. Define the “types” and problem solved.

  52. Gender has been used to segregate sports because it correlates so well with a large gap in physical performance. It’s the easiest way of doing things, but not the only, or the most accurate. Instead of using the gender shortcut, we can use the physical characteristics that directly affect athletic ability. Collect data on weight, BMI, red blood cell count, etc, and match it to performance, then divide up what you get into, say, 4 (or however many) competition classes. This is not an intractable problem for modern statistics. A woman may occasionally end up competing against a field of men (or any other variant of this scenario), but they will all be competing on the basis of skill and psychology, which is really how it should be at the highest levels in sport.

    A potential flaw with the above is that rookie men would routinely be schooled by women matching their physical profile but with greater experience. It could be very discouraging.

  53. I think there should always be a third option for completely unregulated bodies. Then we will see what humanity is really capable of without limits.

  54. From what I read, we still aren’t clear on how Catser Semenya is so very, very different from a “normal” woman, or a “normal” woman athlete, except for the fact that she is much, much faster.

    The rumor is that she is intersex, but I don’t think that rumor has been confirmed – so why do we assume it’s true, and proceed to draw conclusions about her right to compete on the basis of it? It is fundamentally wrong.

    But suppose that we knew that she was intersex, to the extent that “intersex” has a clear definition. So what? There is no evidence that the average intersex woman would have a competitive advantage over the average non-intersex woman. Indeed, the average non-intersex woman might have a competitive advantage over the average intersex woman. WE DON’T KNOW. It would be fundamentally wrong to deny an intersex woman the right to compete with non-intersex women on the basis of the mere belief that intersex women have a competitive advantage over non-intersex women.

    But suppose the average intersex woman did have a competitive advantage over the average non-intersex woman? Again, so what? I don’t care for athletics, but as noted above, natural variation often provides a competitive advantage to one body over another. If this natural variation provides a competitive advantage to intersex women, so be it. Why should this natural variation disqualify an athlete, while another doesn’t? Absent a way to distinguish between those variations that provide a “fair” competitive advantage and those variations that provide an “unfair” competitive advantage, it would be fundamentally wrong to deny an intersex woman the right to compete against non-intersex women on the basis of their advantage.

    I don’t think I agree with Andrea’s broader criticism of science, psychology, etc., but in this case, she is clearly correct. Society’s attack on Caster Semenya (and others like her) has been outrageous and reflective of our hostility to not merely a harmless difference, but even the suspicion of a harmless difference. It’s a perfect example of how utterly irrational, arbitrary, and destructive we can be.

    1. Well this all stems from the IOC questioning Semenya’s performance (apparently too good) and because she’s too good at a sport, there must be shenanigans afoot! Just because the woman is masculine doesn’t make her inter-sexed/transgendered/hermophrodite. The fact that the test results have not been released lends credence to this postulation, that and the IOC doesn’t want to sound like a bunch of sexist assholes for accusing this woman of shenanigans because she is better than her competitors.

  55. A Modest Proposal

    It seems to me from the tone of many of the comments in this thread that we must consider channeling BB comments into two separate comment streams. One for those with Asperger Syndrome and related conditions. And one for normals. It is patently unfair to those who cannot fully understand figurative language, recognize irony or enjoy a full measure of empathy to compete in debate with those whom nature has gifted with greater neurological strength. It’s a sorry spectacle to see some commenters going higher, faster and stronger while others are doomed by the circumstances of their birth to watch them whiz by.

  56. oh, for the love of screaming yellow zonkers, why did the author have to put anti-porn feminists in the same category as sex criminals and religious zealots?! a-p fems are against exploitation; the author is against exploitation and wrongly accuses diane arbus of said affront; so many wrongheaded assumptions served only to distract me from the fact that, in spirit, i sympathize with the article’s intent.

    i think we could all use a little more wiggle room, grey areas, and freedom from violence and exploitation.

    1. I didn’t *think* that was the authors intent. To be honest I can’t make much sense of that wall of words and think it could have used a transitional period as an outline. I guess I belong in Antinous’s special olympics of debate :(

      I feel I’ve been yelled at and I don’t even know whether I agree with any of the points or not, but it’s hard when confronted with that much, um, passion not to just yell back “F- off” and leave it at that. I think the author said in that statement that any one who questions “Sex Science” the way one might question “Race Science” gets called some of these things (x,y,z). Right or wrong “Anti-porn feminist”, whatever the reason, is often said as an insult. Also regardless of the intent or purpose of anti-porn feminists, calling some one that because they question the standard canon of Sex is inaccurate whether or not “Anti-Porn Feminist” ever *should* be an insult anyway.

      These problems are all related, btw.

  57. oh, for the love of screaming yellow zonkers, why did the author have to put anti-porn feminists in the same category as sex criminals and religious zealots?! a-p fems are against exploitation; the author is against exploitation and wrongly accuses diane arbus of said affront; so many wrongheaded assumptions served only to distract me from the fact that, in spirit, i sympathize with the article’s intent.

    i think we could all use a little more wiggle room, grey areas, and freedom from violence and exploitation.

    (i got a preview page twice–pls forgive me if i dbl-post)

  58. I chose shot put because the judging is completely objective

    FYI, in Olympic competition, men put a 7.26 kg (16 lb) shot and women put a 4 kg (8.82 lb) shot.

    The top male shotputters, then, are able to put a shot that’s about twice as heavy a roughly similar (but slightly longer) distance than the top female shotputters are able to put.

  59. that was one of the bits I whole heartedly agreed on: Diane Arbus was a freakhound of quite scary and upsetting proportions; and looked down on her subjects.


    And as I was going to write in the other post – what’s this ‘normal’? Doesn’t actually exist unless you mean ‘average’ in statistical senses. Certainly doesn’t exist in sexuality; and I suspect gender is probably has enough levels of gray to make Ansel Adams happy.

    See what I did there? ;-)

  60. Oh and also the notion that Arbus only photographed “freaks” to exploit them is a cruel caricature of her. First of all people tend to forget just how many of her pictures were of “normal” people, and also that many people would rather pretend the “freaks” didn’t exist. Most of her work does deal with this duality in all form, do we face difficult facts or turn away from them?

    More than anything though she often got to know people. Her style is very intimate and so it’s easy to believe that these are accidental snapshots some times, but that was just a part of her ability to create that feeling with her photographs. She caught people at their worst moments, but is it really better to prop them up with braces so that they can look “right” and how “right” does anyone look?

    Having looked at a lot of photographs over my short life I think personally of her work that she didn’t see any of the people she photographed as so different anyway, just with some obvious marker that other people might not have so clearly visible.

    My god, it’s almost like this author is raging against the fact that people slam down on you for asking questions while slamming down on people for asking questions.

    Sort it out. We can’t make sense of it all for you!

  61. I was also thinking about the point glaborous immolate made about Down’s Syndrome. Isn’t being intersexed an error in genetic reproduction? I know there are other genetic abnormalities like that we’ve classified already.

    And is there a law written into the Olympics that says someone with Down’s can’t participate? Is that why Special Olympics exists?

  62. I’ve often felt that sport lags decades behind the rest of the world in terms of discrimination. It actually seems pretty preposterous to me to have separate events for men and women in the present age. Of course, I understand the argument that mens’ physiques mean they tend to be much better at many sports than women. But then, there are sports at which black people’s physiques also tend to make them better, but we don’t have separate events for non-black people. Even the sporting world realises that would be intolerable.

    Of course, one of the results of abolishing gender segregation in sport would be that for many events, all or almost all of the winners would be men. To my mind the solution to this is to promote events that focus on fine motor skills rather than brute strength in addition to the male-biased traditional events. These events would likely be dominated by women.

    1. “But then, there are sports at which black people’s physiques also tend to make them better, but we don’t have separate events for non-black people. Even the sporting world realises that would be intolerable.”

      This is a typical misunderstanding about how sports work, and typical about utter ignorance of how human physiology and genetics works.

      Let put the first thing down to rest. There is not such a thing as “black people”. It is an idiotic term. Really. There a hundreds of groups of people with black skin, but their genetic make-up is different (as different as it can be between groups of the same species)

      Funnily enough, most of the dark skinned people in the US have recent European ancestry (I hope I don’t need to explain the horrendous circumstances of why this is so), but other people that have probed great runners come from the Caribbean or Africa, where the ancestry is entirely different. In Africa itself, from where clearly most dark skinned people come, the genetic differences between different groups of people is much greater than the one between some of them an European (or Asian, or Native American) people.

      The difference normally comes down to hard work and individual physical ability. The Kenyans for example win everywhere where they run, when interviewed about this particular phenomenon they will tell you that they train harder than anybody else.

      In other words, Usian Bolt is not great because his skin is dark, he is great because he is Usian Bolt.

      “Of course, one of the results of abolishing gender segregation in sport would be that for many events, all or almost all of the winners would be men. To my mind the solution to this is to promote events that focus on fine motor skills rather than brute strength in addition to the male-biased traditional events. These events would likely be dominated by women.”

      Go on, which sports are you suggesting?

      Even chess is segregated by sex, not because women are less able, but because the physical demands even in such a game are best suffered by men.

  63. The problem with that is that women benefit from playing sports, but they will never win against men with perhaps the occasional unusual exception. When it comes to it then you will end up with no women in sports at all, and all women being taught needlepoint or something. Getting women’s sports was a major achievement in encouraging girls to excel at it. No one is going to waste money on it if it won’t be compete, meaning no one is going to bother with the few girls who may or may not be able to from the beginning. This means any girl athlete would be required to do that completely on her own time and away from school, which at that point pretty much ends up with sports are for males only.

    Yeah, that’s where we’ve been. It sucked. Let’s go some place better.

  64. It would solve most of these problems if people stopped idolizing individual sports and started idolizing team sports.

    The more players are in the game, the less important any unusual advantages are, and the more smoothly any rules can accommodate any unusual advantages, without ungendering or excluding any athletes. If they say no more than 2 out of every 10 players can have any of a list of unusual advantages – potentially including intersex conditions among these – that restores some balance without violating anyone’s bodily autonomy.

  65. Competition is wonderful, and people of all sexes should be free to compete against one another.


    On an international level, there are few sports that women can successfully compete against men. Someone above mentioned the WNBA. Yes, professional women’s basketball is a great sport, but they’re not even in the same class as NBA players. I just heard a great story about how the original Dream Team (of NBA players headed to the Olympics) played a series of scrimmages against college all-stars (full of future NBA stars). One day the college team managed to win. This upset some of the Dream Team-ers enough that they announced that the college team wouldn’t even score that day. And they didn’t. Would a women’s team be able to compete against even an elite men’s college team?

    I’ve heard Mia Hamm asked how she and her team of US soccer (who were dominant at the time) would fare against a team of men. She said they could be beaten by good junior teams, since the men (boys, really) were so much faster they could just chip the ball past the women’s defense and run around them.

    The shot put example that someone cited above is another case. The women are close to the men (the men’s world record is nearly 76 feet, roughly 1.5 feet past the women’s), but the shot put weights are significantly different (16 pounds vs under 9 pounds).

    Yes, I compete against women in my games of choice (volleyball!), but at an elite level there would be few women if we didn’t somehow segregate. How to do this is a reasonable question, but we have to first see that some segregation is necessary for women to have a significant chance to win in many events.

  66. well, this is a fairly well reasoned post, however it is unfortunate that you are so utterly bias throughout the entire thing. Your constant jabs at the opposition greatly undermine your point. One thing in particular though that bothered me was saying that disorder classifications are the same as disease classifications. This is just wrong. The entire reason that psychology now considers bipolar, Schizophrenia and so on mental disorders as opposed to what they used to be called, mental diseases, is because they are not diseases. this is due mainly to work in the field of the philosophy of science. Similarly though, biological disorders such as transex or so forth are not diseases, as you say they simply do not fit with the way human beings tend to develop, which is binary. the problem, which you allude to many times, is that people begin to attribute ethics to normality, and assume anything seen as “abnormal” is unethical.

  67. Isn’t fairness for the majority of women athletes a valid concern? It’s easy to be radical and edgy and simplistically declare that of course Semenya should be allowed to compete in women’s events without question.

    Biologists know that many things in the living world don’t fit into neat categories. We need to recognize that there is no solution that would be fair both to athletes such as Caster Semenya and to women who would be competing against her. It’s not just a matter of biology.

    It’s not simple, either way. We need some serious discussions on what we mean by “fairness”, and careful consideration what to do when it’s not possible to treat everyone involved fairly.

  68. No, no. You see, scientists who study the biology of these issues already know that people don’t fit neatly into two categories. The problem isn’t the scientists, it’s the sports authorities, journalists, and others who expect science to settle a question that isn’t scientific so that they don’t have to do the hard thinking themselves.

    It’s odd, really. Some people criticize evil scientists for oppressing everyone but then expect them to come up results that settle what are fundamentally social, philosophical, and ethical questions.

  69. A minor and slightly off topic point, but nonetheless important: evolutionary psychology is NOT a euphemism for neo-eugenics. The former involves the application of evolutionary theory to human psychology in order to answer ultimate ‘why’ questions about human minds, brains and behaviour and has absolutely nothing to do with the idea that artificial selection of ‘good’ genes over ‘bad’ should be encouraged. I can see how they may be conflated in that they both look to human genetics in order to understand behaviour, but one is a science (albeit often a controversial one), and the other, an ideology.

  70. In her typical dishonesty, Andrea James neglects to mention her long history of animosity toward Alice Dreger. This animosity has included a parade of unstable and disturbing attacks including threatening Dreger, calling Dreger’s young son a “womb turd,” and after an email altercation, showing up uninvited at Dreger’s office, and more, easily found on the internet . James is angry at Dreger for writing critically about James’ attacks on me and my book. James’ attack included a webpage with pictures of my young children referring to them with obscenities, among other antisocial acts that Dreger documented in her important peer-reviewed article that helped win her a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship: “The Controversy Surrounding The Man Who Would Be Queen: A Case History of the Politics of Science, Identity, and Sex in the Internet Age.” Highly recommended reading which is available online.

    1. The author of this comment is J. Michael Bailey, a rather odd figure in sexology who refuses to be open and honest about his erotic relationship to transgenderism. He wrote a deliberately offensive book 7 years ago (long since out of print) that led to a formal ethics investigation by his employer, Northwestern U. Google “Northwestern U. Psychologist Accused of Having Sex With Research Subject” for details. Bailey and Alice Dreger take turns defending and promoting each other in the press and online. Google “Alice Dreger’s attacks on critics of J. Michael Bailey” for just a few of the critical papers and presentations which she unsuccessfully tried to suppress.

      Dreger’s “disorders of sex development” concept is now beginning to manifest itself in these problematic ways, in the same way that “gender identity disorder” before it has caused so many problems. Until these “experts” stop proclaiming that human diversity is disease and disorder, they are going to cause further problems for sex and gender minorities, as well as for people like Caster whose bodies disrupt the social order.

  71. In her typical dishonesty, Andrea James neglects to mention her long history of animosity toward Alice Dreger.

    She may not have mentioned it, but from the tone of her post, it’s not surprising. It’d be nice to read something about Caster Semenya’s case that’s more interested in understanding the world and coming to equitable solutions rather than just scoring political points.

  72. Michael Bailey’s book is highly recommended by Michael Bailey. But many transgender people disagree strongly with his speculations (his book cites no data in any conventional scientific sense, and his “research” was conducted by hanging out in gay bars).

    Bailey claims that all trans women fit into two and only two categories. Those are 1) feminine gay men who transition to life as women because they’re uncomfortable thinking of themselves as gay, and 2) men who are sexually obsessed with the idea of themselves as women, a condition he calls autogynephilia.

    When anyone says that Bailey’s scheme doesn’t fit their experience, he says they’re lying. His “evidence” for autogynephilia is that some trans women in their erotic imagination think of themselves as women. I would have thought that most non-trans women do, too, but apparently in trans women it’s indicative of a pathology.

    Bailey’s scheme completely ignores the existence of trans men, female-to-male transsexuals, trans people who eschew medical transitions, genderqueers, etc. Overall, Bailey is essentially saying to trans people that either he understands you better than you understand yourself, or you really don’t matter at all and aren’t worth thinking about.

    For the record: speculations by Andrea James or anyone else regarding Bailey’s sexuality, Dreger’s personal life, etc., are inappropriate ad hominem attacks, and are unacceptable in intelligent discourse.

  73. Andrea James (#111) wrote “My analysis was not intended to offer answers, but to take a big picture look at what’s going on. I’m not sure I have the answers.”

    To me it reads as if you’re offering what you think are clear, simple answers, viz., that male and female or man and woman is an arbitrary dichotomy with no basis in reality, and that any attempt to distinguish between males and females in sports competition is oppressive.

    If that’s not what you’re saying, you might want to clarify. Do men and women, males and females, really exist, or are we all just undifferentiated people? Is it reasonable to consider that females should have the opportunity to play sports with and against other females and not males?

  74. I agree with a whole lot of what you’re saying here. But I’m really totally appalled that you’re using the term “sextard” for any reason. Especially in an article where you reference the troubling history of eugenics, I honestly can’t believe that you’d evoke the term “retard” as though that was an okay derogation. Maybe read some Eli Clare?

  75. rps13: nope, unfortunately Prof. Bailey’s comment is still here…

    While the earlier Anonymous commenter correctly described his work, it’s actually worse than that. He believes that only the trans women who are “really” gay and transitioning for that reason are real trans women. The autogyneophiliacs are considered fantasists, fakers who should not be allowed to transition. This is based on his belief that all gays are fundamentally effeminate (yes, really – look it up!).

    Of course, the person who actually coined the term “autogyneophilia” and came up with these ideas, Ray Blanchard, actually ended up working on the DSM-IV and DSM-V in related areas.

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