As many will recall, the gold medal performance in the 800 meter track competition by caster-semenyaCaster Semenya, a South African athlete, last month at the Berlin World Championships, sparked a “sex panic” when some observers questioned Semenya’s “real” sex.  Well, things have turned a troubling corner in this matter this week.  An Australian newspaper reported today that Semenya’s “gender verification” test results revealed that she failed the female sex test.   That is to say, the results are reported to show that her body does not fall within the prescribed definition of a woman for competitive international sports.

I put the issue this way for a reason – failed the female sex test – because the International Association of Athletics Federations’s (IAAF) gender verification policy applies only to women’s events.   Their testing is not designed to determine an athlete’s “real” sex, but rather seeks to discover whether a competitor such as Semenya is “enjoying the benefits of natural testosterone predominance normally seen in a male.”   In essence, to pass the test the competitor must show “female levels of testosterone” (my term).

Mind you, not all athletes in women’s track meets have their testosterone levels tested.  Caster PhotoThe IAAF ceased routine gender verification testing in its events in 1991, and now  forces a competitor to undergo such testing only when a challenge is brought by another competitor or a ‘suspicion’ is raised as to an athletes’ gender“.  In this case, Semenya looked “too masculine” and a suspicion was raised.  She tried to fix this problem last week when she underwent a makeover to “feminize” her look and posed as a covergirl for South Africa’s You Magazine.  But this performance came too late.  Suspicions had already been raised.

In the end, the nub of the matter, really, was that she didn’t run like a girl – she ran too fast to be a real female.   It would have been highly unlikely that “gender verification testing” would have been ordered if she’d finished with the back of the pack.  In this sense, Semenya shares something with Oscar Pistorius who, aided by oscar_pistorius_niketwo prosthetic legs, runs too fast to be human and was disqualified by the IAAF from competing in the Olympics.

Castor Semenya has reportedly gone into hiding now that the results of her “gender verification test” have been made public.  Her athletic career has likely ended (unless she is willing to undergo transgender surgery, in which case, ironically, the IAAF will allow her to compete) and the public humiliation and ridicule she may suffer for being an “hermaphrodite” and not a “real woman” are likely to be crushing.  Recall that when Santhi Soundarajan underwent a similar public inquisition several years ago she attempted suicide.

We would be all well advised to pull Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto off the shelf for a re-read.  Haraway’s groundbreaking deployment of the “cyborg” challenged naturalist and essentialist notions of “real” women and “real” men by exposing the ways that things considered natural, like human bodies, are not, but are constructed by our ideas about them.  These legally and culturally enforced notions of normality are enforced even in a case such as Semenya’s whose body and capacities are absolutely part of the natural variation of the species, but who is rendered unnatural and abnormal by virtue of a test that arbitrarily locates her outside the domain of “real women”.

To those of you who say: “I don’t think it’s fair that someone with such high testosterone levels be allowed to compete in the women’s track events.  What’s to stop men from competing in these events and winning all of them?”  I have the following answer: Then don’t call them women’s and men’s events, define the events by testosterone levels – those with levels up to some ceiling run in one event, those with higher levels run in another event.  Collapsing “female” and “male” into testosterone levels is both bad science and bad social policy.  Sexual categories are, after all, social and cultural categories, not biological ones.

APTOPIX Germany Athletics WorldsWe all have a stake in Caster Semenya’s ongoing treatment.  That suspicions about how she looks can lead to having her identity as a “real” woman publically revoked communicates a clear message to all of us who consider ourselves female:  Don’t talk too loud, don’t throw a ball too well, and don’t look too comportable in pants or walk with a “masculine gate.”   And whatever you do, don’t look too triumphant when you run really fast.  The gender police are out there looking for you.

One last thing: for accurate information on the definitions of, incidence of, and “treatments” for a range of intersex conditions, go to the Intersex Society of North America.


  1. What triggered the debate about Caster’s sexuality and sexual identity was the fact that she did not appear feminine enough. Because of this, Caster was denied the right to define her own identity.

    Societal control over women, dressing and appropriate behaviour has raged fast and furious. While men too are sometimes subject of a similar debate (if they appear too effeminate) somehow, women seem to preoccupy society more.

    Had Caster appeared like she did on the cover of ‘YOU’ magazine before the championships, then there might have not been controversy about her sex. (Although she may have still been given the 3rd degree for running too fast – that was not womanly)

    Attempts by the Malaysian religious council to outlaw tomboy behaviour and their reasons for doing so is another illustration of this control – links below).

  2. While the IAAF has since distanced itself from the Australian news report (Sydney Daily Telegraph), the controversy in Caster Semenya’s case continues to rage unabated.

    Some reports mentioned that Caster Semenya can still be allowed to compete among women, if the tests show that her body does not respond to the high testosterone levels as men do and the characteristics of her body are female. On the other hand, it may be argued that the gender verification tests are wrong and unnecessary in principle.

    My own sympathies, on balance, lean against the gender verification tests. It is hoped that the IAAF learns from the 1980s case of Spanish hurdler Maria Patiño which had prompted calls for the elimination of gender verification tests in sports. Maria Patiño was publicly humiliated when she failed her gender verification test due to androgen resistance, was stripped of her titles and disqualified, only to be reinstated almost 3 years later. By then, however, her career as a professional athlete was over.

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