Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Caster Semenya: All 'Sexed Up' With Nowhere To Go?

by Candice Carboo-Ofulue @Candaloo

Poor Old Caster Semenya. Is there any light at the end of this controversial tunnel? For those of you whose memories need a bit of a nudge, Caster Semenya sprinted into our collective conscious this summer after her win in the women’s 800 meters was clouded by speculation about her sex. First it was the “leak” that exposed the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF)’s suspicions about Semenya’s sex, followed by a tsunami of angry words from South African Athletics (ASA), the South African Government, and Semenya’s family. Not to mention the preferred tactics of avoidance and defence by the IAAF. Oh, and the public discrediting of Leonard Chuene, Head of the ASA.

Poor old Caster has been left exposed under the microscopic spotlight, publically dissected, and of course ‘glammed up’ for that all essential glossy front page makeover. And yet still the saga continues. There is contradiction between the ASA and IAAF about Semenya’s future: whilst the South African Ministry of Sport has declared that she can keep her gold medal, the IAAF claims to be in negotiations. And the long anticipated results of her gender verification test, which were due to be announced last Friday, are “still to be completed”. Poor old Caster Semenya.

But, can someone please enlighten me. Why all this frenzy surrounding the alleged ambiguity of her sexual anatomy? Seriously, I’m confused. I mean, if her gender verification test results confirm that she is indeed a ‘hermaphrodite’, she wouldn’t be the first. In fact, to be born ‘intersex’ is somewhat normal. Admittedly statistically uncommon, but then there are lots of genetic rarities, not all of them result in outright hysteria. And I refuse to accept that this is some kind of public reaction to the ‘unknown’. Anyone, like me, who was raised on cable TV, will remember the obsession with ‘transgendered’ and ‘intersex’ people on day-time freak shows (sorry, I meant talk shows) such as Sally Jessie Raphael.

For some the answer is obvious. It’s the incompatibility of ‘intersex’ people within sport, which is defined along the lines of ‘sexually decisive’ men and women. Possibly. But that doesn’t explain the confusion. From the leak, to the fact that she was allowed to run despite the speculation, to the protracted gender verification test; disorder is an understatement. Semenya might just as well be a Martian. In fact, that just reinforces my question. How to ‘deal’ with ‘intersex’ people is a well established dilemma within competitive sport; gender verification tests were introduced into the Olympics in 1968 for that reason. Since then there have been a number incidents of gender speculation, such as in 2006 when Indian middle-distance runner Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her silver medal after failing the gender verification test. Surely, it must have been someone’s job to develop some kind of policy, or at least a transgendered Olympics? But no, just a bunch of headless chickens wearing suits and IAAF name badges.

So I wonder: does the source of the hysteria go beyond the track? Maybe all this bewilderment surrounding Semenya is our belief system in meltdown? I mean, what led to the initial speculation? Was it that this young girl’s body is just too masculine? Her voice just too coarse?

Maybe it’s not that ‘intersexuality’ is incompatible with sport itself, but rather that our sporting competitions fall short in accommodating the sexual variations that actually exist? Do we feel uncomfortable with ’intersexuality’ because it rips the heart out a belief system that masquerades as natural but is in fact socially created? Surely, the presence of ‘intersexuality’ mocks our restricted view of men and women. In fact, many scientists believe that sexual ambiguity is statistically underrepresented, since not all people born ‘intersex’ have external male and female anatomy. What if you have the internal anatomy of a woman, but the external genitalia of a man? Does that make you an ‘unwoman’ or an ‘unman’. So even within the context of ‘intersexuality’ there are variations. Should sex be viewed and understood as a continuum? Furthermore, if nature is content with creating ambiguous sexual anatomies, why are we so absolute?

I wonder if this challenge to our ‘natural’ belief system explains our frenzied and possibly aggressive reaction to ‘intersexuality’? We’re fraudsters. Rather than accept this ambivalence we defend our beliefs. We view it as wrong, abnormal, pitiful. We feel safe in dichotomies: men and women, old and young, ugly and beautiful. So instead, we talk about the need to rectify maldeveloped, abnormal or defective reproductive systems through ‘corrective’ surgery? It is up to the ‘other’ to ’correct’ their reproductive systems to conform to our ’normal’ ideas of sex. Of course, many may chose to have surgery, but this choice should determined by the individual, and not be the result of a ‘gender dogma’. How do we know what is natural if the ‘other’ is corrected and suppressed?

So I’m left in the position where my confusion has been substituted by questions. Is this just an issue for the minority of people who are born ‘intersex’? Maybe there is no need to challenge our entire belief system solely to incorporate a few? But if our collective thinking is so intrinsically intolerant to the extent that our social views create sex, where are the boundaries? Within our present climate of body ‘dysmorphia’, should this be asked? Consider this: last year the number of women seeking labiaplasties (cosmetic surgery on their female genitalia) rose by 70 percent. Women having operations to become more womanly. Have our ‘socialised’ beliefs of sex become so ‘natural’ that now they are ideals to which our bodies should aspire? Now that is interesting.
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1 comment:

  1. Hmmm what a challenging post. I couldn't agree more with the mishandling of the gender verification tests. At the risk of exposing my feminist status let me just say, it wouldn't have happened to a man. While we're at it, let's go a step further, would it have been handled in the same way if black African Caster was in fact white French Casie for instance? I'm just asking.

    The question about how we view gender is a fascinating one. Male and female are of couse as socially constructed as the notions of masculine and feminine, but, that's not to say that having such binary classification isn't without purpose or advantage.

    Our confusion at the sight of metrosexual men the world over reaching for their hair straighteners has slowly dissipated. Our gasps of horror about the behaviour of binge drinking "ladettes" have gradually softened to gentle sighs of dismay. This change in expectation pehaps reflects our changing definition of what it is to be masculine and feminine in the 21st century.

    We're not quite there in terms of rethinking what gender actually means, but, I'm proud of being a woman as opposed to being a man and I'm not sure where I stand on the idea of a continuum. Maybe what's needed is simply more control over our individual definitions and choices. Maybe gender should become to sex what ethnicity has been for race.