What Makes a Woman a Woman: The Case of Caster Semenya

Sugar, spice, and everything nice or snaps, snails, and puppy-dog tails? A controversy over a South African runner makes us ask what boys and girls are made of.

South African runner Caster Semenya continues to make headlines after a series of stunning victories. Her success has sparked controversy from those who questioned whether this successful female runner might not actually be a man. Tests found Semenya to have elevated testosterone levels and she is suspected by some of being genetically male but having some of the physical properties of a woman.

The issue here is not, it is repeatedly stressed, a suspicion of cheating. Of course, men who pretend to be women in order to compete with women should be and are disqualified. No one believes this to be the case about Semenya.

Nevertheless, the real issue is somewhat muddled.  Is the question whether Semenya and others like her, who have, in some cases, a Y chromosome but female organs, really a man?  If so, gender testing would presumably be carried out in order to determine who could compete as a woman, who as a man.  That this is what is under dispute is suggested in a recent New York Times analysis, in which Alice Dreger writes, “there needs to be explicit rules about who is considered a woman.  But what rules?”

This concern with whether Semenya is really a woman should be distinguished from a different concern that has been raised, namely, a concern for fairness: Is it fair for Semenya, and others like her, to compete when she has some of the biological advantages typical of men? This worry need not concern itself with the question of whether Semenya is really a man, and its resolution would not be done for the sake of reclassifying a runner into male competition, but only, it seems, for the sake of disallowing competition as a woman. The goal would be to prohibit those with unfair physical advantages from competition so as to level the playing field.

I propose to address the “true gender” and the fairness concerns, both of which I think are deeply flawed.

Is it possible that Caster Semenya is really a man?  To what extent should our understanding of Semenya’s gender be informed by scientific and medical considerations unavailable to the naked eye, and unknown to Semenya herself, presumably, until quite recently?

That understanding would be expected to focus on an athlete’s genotype—the genes she possesses—rather than her phenotype—her observable physical properties.  But the relationship between the two turns out to be quite complicated. In a summary of the recent scientific literature, Nicanor Austriaco describes a case from the American Journal of Human Genetics of a female with a normal uterus and normal ovaries who nevertheless possesses a Y chromosome. How is this possible? She lacks the CBX2 gene on chromosome 17, which is apparently necessary for the functioning of the male determining gene on the Y chromosome. As Austriaco notes, the case indicates that “sexual development in mammals requires not one, but a network of functioning genes, many of which remain unidentified.”

Similarly, in Dreger’s Times analysis, different scientists propose a number of different tests, none of which seems sufficient for a determination of gender.   Such considerations raise questions, and have broad implications well beyond the ethics of sport.  For example: if, at the genetic level, gender must be understood holistically, and not in terms of a single and simple genetic factor, then our understanding of what genetic factors are relevant at least in part is controlled by our prior understanding, based on phenotypical characteristics, of what makes someone male, or female.  And, arguably, the phenotypic characteristics of gender are thought to be important precisely because of their significance for sexual acts and, by extension, marriage.  This all suggests that someone’s “true” gender might, in fact, be partly or wholly a function of what marital acts they are, in a broad sense, capable of, and this, of course, in turn raises deeply contested questions about the nature of marriage.

For our present purposes, however, we may put most of these questions aside. For the moral of the preceding considerations is that it seems highly dubious that the IAAF—the International Association of Athletics Federation—possesses the competence to make a determination of gender for its athletes in any deep sense. Rather, the likelihood is that any such “determination” would, in fact, be oriented not towards the true gender of the athlete but towards the question of whether she possesses any unfair biological advantage, whether genetic or hormonal. Of course, some criterion is necessary—it is not a matter of choice whether an athlete is to compete as a woman or a man. But the traditional phenotypical determination based on observable sex traits seems not just good enough, but perhaps the best approach in a deep sense.

Even if Semenya is not a man, is it fair for her and others like her to compete when she has some of the biological advantages typical of men? She has been virtually untouchable in recent meets and this is unquestionably in part a result of her physical circumstances.

Yet several considerations militate against the claim that she should therefore be forbidden from competing as a woman. After all, exceptional physical endowments, sometimes bordering on the miraculous, sometimes bordering on the freaky, are the stuff of which athletic excellence is frequently made. No one thinks that Usain Bolt’s body has just the same set of natural gifts as the bodies of his competitors—in fact, his gifts seem wildly disproportionate to those of every runner with which the world has hitherto been aware. That is, for him, good luck, and for his competitors, bad luck. It is not the business of the IAAF to address such natural disparities, no matter how “unnatural” they may seem.

Second, few seem to believe that Semenya, or other women like her, should be made to compete as men if they are not allowed to compete as women. Such a proposal would likely be rejected as impractical; it would almost certainly disadvantage the women involved were they to participate in the highest levels of male competition; and it would be profoundly insensitive to those who, with good reason, believe themselves to be women. Several commentators have noted the similarity of the Semenya case to that of Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped of her silver medal in the 2006 Asian games after a gender test. Soundarajan had lived her entire life as a woman and subsequently attempted suicide.

Finally, in the absence of a genuine correlation of “fairness factors” such as increased testosterone or a Y chromosome to true gender, a set of criteria based on considerations of fairness would require a drawing of the lines that would leave some physically advantaged women within, and some only marginally more advantaged women without, the permitted boundaries. But where to draw the line would be, ultimately, arbitrary, and those on the “outside” of the boundaries would be disproportionately affected in the extreme.

The IAAF, and similar governing bodies for athletic competition, rightly concerns itself with the issue of fairness when it concerns cheating—the deliberate attempt to gain an unfair advantage by cunning means, going beyond reliance on hard work and natural endowment within the framework set by the rules of play. But beyond that, sport celebrates the disparity of natural gifts between the athlete and the spectator, and amongst the athletes themselves (Michael Sandel’s recent work on enhancement and sport is worth taking note of in this context). Those disparities are partly responsible for the eventual division of athletes, in any contest, into winners and losers. Acting as a referee for deliberate infractions is entirely within the mandate of the IAAF, but acting as a referee for the distribution of good and bad luck, gifted and less gifted bodies, or even of maleness and femaleness—all of these go beyond any authority reasonably held by an athletic organization.

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