What makes a woman?

The case of Caster Semenya proves that we simply don't know

Published November 23, 2009 10:15PM (EST)

No one knows the definitive difference between men and women. That may sound like the dubious thesis of a women's studies 101 essay, the result of feminist philosophy carried to its ultimate political extreme, but it's plainly true. For proof, you need only read Ariel Levy's sprawling article in this week's New Yorker about Caster Semenya. Not only does it offer the richest telling yet of the scandal surrounding the 18-year-old runner by grounding it in the history of sports and racism, and the culture of the 18-year-old's hometown in South Africa -- it also puts it in the absurd and unscientific context of sex testing.

We can all easily sketch out the differences between the sexes: Women have breasts, ovaries, a uterus and a vagina; men have testicles and a penis -- end of story, right? For most folks, it is, but then there are the exceptions: A person can be born with one testicle and one ovary, or with a penis, uterus and ovaries. Someone with XY chromosomes can have both a vagina and undescended testes because of a condition that blocks their bodies from responding to testosterone. You can have two X chromosomes, one of which is merged with a region of the Y chromosome. And, and, and ...

I could easily go on, if you had a couple of hours. As Alice Dreger, author of “Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex,” tells Levy, "People always press me: 'Isn't there one marker we can use?' No. We couldn't then and we can't now, and science is making it more difficult and not less, because it ends up showing us how much blending there is and how many nuances, and it becomes impossible to point to one thing, or even a set of things, and say that’s what it means to be male."

The International Association of Athletic Federations, which is investigating Semenya's sex -- still! -- "does not define the criteria that its group of experts must use to reach their determination," Levy reports. Dreger, a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, refers to it as the unscientific "I know it when I see it" approach. Worse still, the organization allows for any athlete to undergo testing if someone, anyone raises a stink about his or her sex. In Semenya's case, all it took was a speculative blog post and the gender hounds were unleashed. The good news is that IAAF is holding a conference at the start of the new year to review its policy -- but it's hard to be too optimistic about the outcome considering that they're asking the wrong question to begin with.

Levy, however, asks the right question: "If sex is not precisely definable, how else might sports be organized?" She considers a couple of different solutions to this foundation-shaking query: There is the possibility of categorizing athletes "by size, as they are in wrestling and boxing" (downside: "women would usually lose to men") or "skill level" (downside: "the strongest elite female athletes would [almost always] compete against the weakest elite male athletes"). A more drastic scientific approach would be "to divide athletes biochemically" since testosterone has an enormous impact on athletic performance. In that case, "the division would be determined not by gender but by actual physical advantages that gender supposedly, yet unreliably, supplies," she concludes.

Of course, international athletic competition isn't about fairness and equality; ultimately, someone is supposed to win. "Different bodies have physical attributes, even abnormalities, that may provide a distinct advantage in one sport or another," she argues. For example: The many N.B.A. players with a condition that causes growth hormones to go into overdrive and the double-jointed Michael Phelps with his primate-like arms and legs. If the speculation about Semenya's biology is true, why is her particular abnormality worth policing? The IAAF attempts to control for potential physical advantages by dividing athletes by sex, as opposed to any other criterion because it's the easiest shorthand we have -- in sports and generally in navigating day-to-day life -- but this case shows just how incredibly fallible it can be. Unfortunately, Semenya is suffering now because it's so much easier to point the finger at her than it is to call into question the way we've organized sports -- and, as Levy puts it, "the way we've organized our entire world."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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