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)