What's a woman without her ovaries?

A writer relates the prospect of losing her reproductive organs to Caster Semenya's sex scandal

Published September 15, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

What does it mean to be a woman? Ever since controversy arose last month over whether South African runner Caster Semenya is "truly" a woman, people have tirelessly asked that question. Now, just days after a report claimed that the 18-year-old was found to have internal testes and no womb or ovaries, Peggy Orenstein has asked the question yet again in the New York Times. Thankfully, though, she delivers a unique and compelling answer based on a threat she received to her own gender identity: cancer.

Orenstein was diagnosed with breast cancer at 35 and learned that she was almost surely genetically predisposed to reproductive cancers. The best way to cut her risk would be to have her breasts and ovaries removed -- or, as she puts it, "to amputate healthy body parts ... associated in the most primal way with reproduction, sexuality, with my sense of myself as female." The prospect rattled Orenstein to her very core: "Without breasts or hormone-producing ovaries, what would the difference be, say, between myself and a pre-op female-to-male transsexual? Other than that my situation was involuntary?" That may be true as far as physical reality goes, but the fundamental difference is in how they identify themselves.

For now, Orenstein has chosen against parting with her healthy but potentially dangerous reproductive parts. Even if she changes her mind, though, she has come to the conclusion that the operation won't actually change her sex, it won't make her any less of a woman. That isn't true simply because she was born a biological female, but because she strongly identifies as a woman. She puts it more succinctly: She's a woman because she says so.

As someone who identifies with her biological sex, which happens to be unambiguous in the first place, Orenstein is privileged. The prospect of losing her breasts and ovaries might unsettle her sense of femininity, but it doesn't change the fact that she was born with those lady parts and lived with them for much of her life. She's also privileged in being a writer and not a professional athlete: Losing her reproductive organs will not put her out of a job.

No matter what the official investigation into Semenya's sex finds, Orenstein writes, "I doubt that will change who she considers herself to be." That may be true, but it will certainly change who much of the world considers her to be.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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