Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Policing Femininity": Gender and Sports

Caster Semenya, South African sprinter

A friend recently Facebook commented on a blog about the policing of femininity in elite athletics.  I read the blog, found here, and the original article that inspired it, which you can find here.  The article features the story of a South African female track runner, Caster Semenya, whose gender has been "investigated" by the International Association of Athetics Federations (IAAF) and who is now apparently undergoing "treatment" because her body naturally produces higher levels of testosterone than the average woman.  She will be competing in the 2012 Olympics while continuing this treatment.

I found this story both interesting and disturbing.  When I've thought about gender and sports in the past, it's usually been related to athletics as a gender segregated space and how this affects transgender athletes' opportunities to participate.  I've also done some thinking about LGBT athletes and sports and the difference in the dynamics of openness and acceptance of queer athletes between men's and women's teams.  I had not really considered the question of intersex athletes or folks whose bodies don't fit into what science considers "normal" for male and female bodies.  I guess that's what I find most disturbing about the above-linked story.  Most of us who have taken a sociology or Intro to Women's Studies course are familiar with the idea that gender is socially constructed (i.e., created and reified by social tradition and norms), but that sex is biological (i.e., a fact - people are born male, with a penis, or female, with a vagina).   One of the ideas that completely blew my mind in college was the notion that not just gender, but biological sex as well, is a social (or in some instances, medical) construction.  Infants born with what we might call "ambiguous" genitalia are not actually that uncommon.  However, many such infants, sometimes called intersex, end up undergoing surgical "correction" to genitals that medical science has deemed outside of the norm.  What this means is that babies born with a large clitoris or very small penis might have their genitals cut off so that they can be raised as girls with "normal" sized clitorises.  But there's nothing abnormal about these babies to begin with except that their bodies don't reflect what their doctors expect to see in male and female bodies, so they are made to fit.  The same thing is happening to the female athletes under investigation for "abnormally" high testosterone levels:
"In a move critics call 'policing femininity,' recent rule changes by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of track and field, state that for a women to compete, her testosterone must not exceed the male threshold."
Who sets the "male threshold"?  Are there males whose testosterone levels fall below it?  There must be, just as there are clearly females whose testosterone levels "exceed" it.  The article asks if high levels of testosterone give these women an unfair advantage.  It likely gives them some advantage but I'm not sure I'd call it "unfair."  It's an accident of birth the same way someone having a critical mass of fast-twitch muscle fibers (good for explosive strength/speed) has an advantage in the 100 meter dash over someone with more slow-twitch muscle fibers (better for distance and endurance).  I'd be surprised if I have a single fast-twitch muscle in my body, but if I wanted to be a sprinter I wouldn't force fast-twitchers to undergo treatment to make it more "fair."

Ultimately, I think this goes beyond the IAAF "policing femininity," which it certainly is.  I think we're learning that biological sex and the human body are more diverse than we may have ever imagined.  People have anxiety related to gender and performance for this exact reason - male and female are not the clear and mutually exclusive categories we like to imagine them to be.

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