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August 21st, 2009
09:32 PM ET

Testing for "real" sex obscures a more important issue

Anne Fausto-Sterling
Professor of Biology and Gender Studies
Brown University

With all of the attention given to Caster Semanya, the new women’s champion and world record holder for the 800 meter run, you would think that the problem of sex verification in women’s athletics was brand new. But ever since 1912, when women gained the right to compete in the Olympics, sports officials have worried that a man would masquerade as a woman in order to win (a woman’s) medal.

Olympic officials long have been vigilant. Early on, female Olympians had to parade naked in front of a board of examiners. If they had breasts and a vagina, they counted as women. But with time (and complaints from the female athletes) athletic officials opted for what they thought was a more scientific approach—compulsory testing of all competitors in women’s events for XX or XY chromosomes. By 1968, when this type of test became the official marker of sex, scientific advances made it a simple matter to scrape out a few cheek cells and look for that second X. As it turns out, however, real bodies are not that simple.

Take, for example, the case of Maria Patiño, who, in 1988 was Spain’s top woman hurdler. When her verification test revealed that she had a Y chromosome, she was stripped of her title, Spain revoked her scholarship, her boyfriend left her, and her life was thrown into disarray. Although at the time she did not know it, she later learned that she had a disorder of sexual development (DSD) that made her cells unable to respond to testosterone. As a result, physically, physiologically, and psychologically she was a female. After a protracted battle, she convinced officials of this fact and four years later rejoined the Spanish Olympic squad.

After Patiño became a cause célèbre, and realizing that chromosomes alone could not accurately determine whether a person was a man or a woman, international athletic officials tried out more complex methods of compulsory testing.

At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, they also instituted a counseling program for women who “failed” the test. That summer eight of 3387 female athletes did not pass, although in the end all were allowed to compete. Medical scientists and athlete activists continued to press the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to abandon sex verification. Prestigious organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American College of Physicians, among many others argued that the skimpy and body-revealing clothing now used in athletics made it impossible for a man to masquerade as a woman. Further, the verification procedures were complicated, expensive, inconclusive and hurtful to the women with DSD’s that they uncovered. Finally, just before the start of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the IOC discontinued compulsory testing.

But there was a catch. The new system, although not compulsory, allowed for individual challenges. Chinese officials made much of an announcement that “suspicious-looking” women would be forced to take sex verification tests. These would involve a physical examination, a chromosome test, blood tests to measure hormone levels, and a test for genes known to be involved in sex determination. And it is this new version of–shall we call it male-baiting– that Caster Semenya has been caught up in. How she will fare is anybody’s guess, but there are a couple of points we will be left to think about.

First, there is no perfect scientific method to determine sex, because sex is multifaceted. Usually, all the facets line up, but sometimes not. (In the Atlanta games, that “sometimes” was two tenths of a percent). And even when the facets of sex are perfectly arrayed each group sports enormous variability. To understand this point, one need only compare the 6’2”, quavery voiced Julia Child to the 5’3” Tallulah Bankhead with her bourbon baritone, or (if he weren’t dead) to stand Gary Cooper (6’3”) next to Gary Coleman at 4’8”.

Second, all the fuss about “real” sex, blinds us to an equally important fact. Athletes do a lot of body sculpting. They train, they lift weights, they diet and carb load. In other words, there is a lot more to making bodies than genes, chromosomes, hormones. In the end, the decision about who may fairly compete and under what circumstances is a social one. It comes from International Athletic Officials who, among other things, channel social norms when they decide who can count as male, and who as female.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Women's Issues
soundoff (29 Responses)
  1. Julie

    The way it's been explained to me, if you have a "Y" chromosome, you're technically male, even if you don't look male or have the genitalia that is considered to be male.

    The Spanish hurdler had an advantage over XX females because she had the genetics to potentially be a man, therefore she had the potential for strength that women don't have. Just like taking steroids, that's cheating, because the playing field isn't level.

    I wouldn't want to be competing against someone who's basically got the strength of a guy. In high school, I wouldn't even play volleyball, because at 5'2", I couldn't compete with the Amazon scandinavian girls in my geographic area. Imagine what it's like to compete against a guy.

    August 24, 2009 at 12:56 am |
  2. Sandi

    I feel so sad for this incredibly gifted and talented young athlete. No matter what happens now, she's lost.

    August 24, 2009 at 12:00 am |
  3. Dale

    Mr. Freeman, how many gay men have asked to compete as a woman? None that I know of. Your bigotry is showing.

    Unfortunately there are times when a baby is born intersex and their parents and doctors make the decision for them. If a child has been surgically altered at birth and given hormones all their life to be a woman, they should be able to compete as a woman. I do question someone living their life as a one sex, then undergoing sexual reassignment surgery competing as their new sex.

    I am not sure about that situation, though other than Renee Richards in Tennis (if I recalled the name properly) I am not aware of any other m->f or f->m person requesting permission to compete.

    My concern would be mostly for a male -> female transition only due to the years of male hormones and that men typically do have a stronger build than women. In that situation that individual may have a strength advantage.

    August 23, 2009 at 11:05 pm |
  4. Larry

    What's the problem with a chromosome test; its good enough for paternity tests; a;though there is a question of Obama's paternity as being another already married african-American man involved in the civil rights movement of the day Frank Marshall Davis, which may explain Obama's affinity to Chicago.

    August 23, 2009 at 7:43 pm |
  5. Gina

    Athiep, you need to learn basic biology before you start presenting yourself as someone who knows a lot more than he does about it. Nothing you stated makes any sense, nor is it even true. Women are XX and men are XY (which was the only thing you were correct on). Those are the ones traditionally found, but there are other combination because of chromosomal abnormalities, like XXX or XXXY, but I've never heard of simply YY by itself (there is XYY or even XYYYY) - as you absurdly proposed as a scientific fact that might explain why she has a masculine build because maybe she's XY while women are typically YY. A simple look-up in even wikipedia could have cleared that up for you before you made a fool of yourself.

    This is how it works: A baby is formed by a sperm meeting an egg. The egg is always an X chromosome. The sperm is either an X or a Y. Egg + sperm = either XX (girl) or XY (boy). The sperm determines the gender.

    You might want to complete school with passing grades (and clean up your spelling, grammar, and blatant missing punctuation) before you become any sort of journalist (or any professional for that matter). Turning of the all caps would help as well.

    August 23, 2009 at 12:32 pm |
  6. Dara

    Funny, Freeman, I thoroughly agree with you and yet–what do you know–I am very much a liberal.

    August 23, 2009 at 12:16 pm |
  7. Diana

    it's pointless subscribing to see oneself unpublished!

    August 23, 2009 at 8:18 am |
  8. Remby

    He / She looks alot like Kobe Bryant if you ask me. Does Kobe have a younger brother ?

    August 23, 2009 at 12:06 am |
  9. Em

    You're right, John Freeman. This article by an expert on biology and gender is totally bogus. Chromosomes and the myriad ways they shape our bodies are certainly not as complicated as she makes them out to be - it isn't as if they're still such a mystery to science that we can't pinpoint exactly how they cause chronic illnesses, and simply manipulate them to cure all the illnesses that plague mankind! No, you, John Freeman, surely know more about the subject than this Brown University professor, and if you say the biology of sex is simple, then it MUST be so! Thanks for having the courage and wisdom to share your vast stores of knowledge with the world.

    August 22, 2009 at 11:25 pm |
  10. KIm

    She won and congradulations !

    August 22, 2009 at 11:22 pm |
  11. anna leone

    Gender Identity and California’s Proposition 8 and/or (Fe)male Runners from South Afrca.

    As Shakespeare wrote in The Two Gentlemen of Verona: "I have no other but a woman's reason:
    I think him (or her) so, because I think him (or her) so."

    Proposition Eight defines marriage as a legal union between a Man and a Woman and is therefore in accord with the legal opinions of several other states. However, aside from the prototypical Judeo -Christian projection of Adam and Eve, gender is not so easily categorized or understood. In high school genetics we learn that a Man is XY and a Woman is XX. Such simplicity is required for Proposition 8 to make sense since how else can one define a Man and Woman with rigor? This is also at the center of the challenge presented by Caster Semenya an obviously masculine looking and sounding female runner. But is the situation so easily resolved by a genetic test? In a word, no.

    In reality the human genetic map is much less clear than is commonly thought and consists of a very wide range of genetic possibilities – including chromosomal deletions and additions. There are women with only one X chromosome i.e. Turner’s syndrome and there are males with multiple ‘female’ chromosomal additions -for example Kleinfelter’s Syndrome. The incidence of these genetic variations is surprisingly high and is often quoted to be in the 1 in 2000 – 2500 range. Put another way, there likely at least 100,000 'straight' marriages in which one of the parties is genetically neither the uber pure XX or XY. This is a far higher number than all the ‘gay’ marriages in the United States.

    Furthermore, even if the genetic profile is clearly XY – a male – for example, there are often confounding endocrine factors which make the situation even more complex. Androgen insensitivity syndrome affects by some accounts around 150,000-200,000 males in the US alone. This X-linked recessive disorder is characterized by feminized external genitalia. In complete insensitivity males present almost perfectly as females and are typically only diagnosed when discovered to be infertile. In other words the genetics are fully (and purely) male (XY) but the body is to the lay observer, or spouse for that matter, fully female. Combine all of the above and one sees that a very significant number of the married US population is at variance to the ideals of Prop 8. As Shakespeare so succinctly put it “I think him (or her) so because I think him or her so”. To be clear here, we have not thrown in the staple fodder subject of the Discovery channel, transsexualism. In that case there may well be genetic clarity but of course the presenting gender is obviously and deliberately at odds with the defining chromosomal identity. Ironically in Texas a male to female transsexual was denied the right to marry a man as he was in fact XY although presenting as a female. Ironically the same confusion and complexity is at the heart of the current chatter over the female runner Caster Semenya. Just as with marriage do we exclude all athletes who do not conform to our High School understanding of genetics?

    For the intention behind Proposition 8 to make sense, or for that matter any law or amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, one needs to be sure that the marriage candidates are truly such. It seems clear then that genetic screening would make the law work optimally and thus all XX and XY couples, and only such couples, should have the blessings of the State. So what to make of the hundred thousand or more marriages which are not in conformity? Should they have Prop 8 style leniency with its retrospective fix? Can we have compassion for the husband who is told that his wife of many years is in fact a genetic male and that is why they cannot have a child? He has thought her so for many years.. does he now think her not? Equally how do we rigorously decide who is female enough to run for their country?

    As I hope is clear from the above there are, and always have been, a very large number of (non-gay) marriages in the US between two genetic males and there have been since the institution of marriage began. Yet the Institution is still with us. Apparently it is stronger than the supporters of Prop 8 or Texas judges would have us believe. Interestingly the case of Caster Semenya highlights in a very public way (to my mind rather cruelly so) the issue of Gender reaches across the globe from California to South Africa. The genetic map is complex no matter what time zone one hails from. It is a discussion which we have never had yet is impacts the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and creates significant issues of fairness and exclusion. It is time for a serious debate of the realities of Gender not the Christian derived myth informed ideals. The science has evolved– the law and the public have not.

    To my mind, as a Biochemist and a lesbian with no particular desire to marry, it seems that a fuller understanding of the issues of genetics, biochemistry and gender identity, hopefully will inform the Supreme Court when it ultimately decides the issue of marriage in all its complexities and idiosyncrasies.

    Anna Leone Ph.D.

    August 22, 2009 at 9:49 pm |
  12. Scott, FL

    If this is a woman, then I am a woman. I can prove my gender.

    August 22, 2009 at 9:41 pm |
  13. janinpenna

    Miss Semanya should immediately file an invasion of privacy lawsuit. To have her most personal life discussed worldwide is appalling. This testing notice should NEVER have been released to the public.

    August 22, 2009 at 4:24 pm |
  14. Verra

    Athletic South Africa ( ASA) has the responsibility of making sure that this athlete is not damaged because this body had the duty originally to establish that the athlete they field for all events are what they purport to be. If this young girl looked like a man and spoke like a man, it was their duty to ensure that she was female for purposes of qualification and more importantly, it was their duty to stand behind her once she has been so presented as a female. If they failed in their duty, they should be ready to admit it to the world and say why they failed .

    If medically or biologically she is found to be both male and female, what percentage of femaleness qualifies her as a female and what percentage of maleness qualifies her as a male?

    Without a definit answer for the above question, it would be unfair to destroy this young girls life for on the bases of her sex if we can not emphatically show that she is not what she claim to be all her life.

    We are watcching to see how human, or technical the ( The International Association of Athletes Federation (IAAF) would be in this instance.

    Verra

    August 22, 2009 at 3:52 pm |
  15. Mr. Britt

    people are idiots, no heart

    August 22, 2009 at 2:37 pm |
  16. Jose

    If we want a fair and square competition in the sporting world particularly in the Olympics and the IAAF a gender tests must be made mandatory. To let a male athlete wittingly or unwittingly represent himself as a female one is an insult not only to the civilized world but also to modernscience if no sex tests can be made. This kind of deception is worst than an athlete taking drugs to enhance his or her strength like steroids. You can add in the criteria for determining female sex the absence or presence of uterus.

    August 22, 2009 at 1:31 pm |
  17. Teresa, OH

    I hope this turns out to have a nice ending– That this GIRL really is a Girl, no questions about it.

    Caster is a guy. Go look at other pics on the net of Caster as a younger person with his sister by his side. The sister is dressed as a girl– no doubt. Caster is in full boy clothes.

    God forbid I am wrong and I would truly feel awful and shamed if I was.

    I'm guessing the ones grumbling about the gender are the WOMEN who raced against Caster and want to make sure they are competing against a female who happens to look 99% guy. Caster doesnt wear girl running garb. Caster has ZERO breast contour, like a guy. Caster is very tapered in the stomach/ waist area, whereas a gal is not tapered. Caster wears LONG running shorts and some type of undergarments, the gals wear only short running shorts, Caster's musculature differs from the gals running beside him, Caster's eyebrows need mowing. Check out the middle finger knuckle on Caster's right hand... guy knuckle. What happens in the girls locker room before races? The other gals would know if something is amiss.

    Caster is most likely a hermaphadite who is gender confused. With this new age of techonology and intelligence, the GP (gen. public) are being duped more and more frequently. This will be no different. Have you ever seen such sadness and shame in anyone's eyes as you can see in Casters?

    August 22, 2009 at 9:34 am |
  18. misfitchris

    There obviously are strong feelings about this and everyone as a point, I just think the whole world should be more thoughtful about making their opinions known.We must remember this is a person we are talking about.

    August 22, 2009 at 9:06 am |
  19. Diana Taylor

    John Freeman "Enough of this PC liberal garbage. Gay men, transexuals, etc.",
    I would suggest sir, that you do a little research before making statements regarding transgendered women! It is common knowledge that the hormone regime that we transgendered women undergo as part of the transitionary process moves the muscle and body fat placement to a great extent, that is why fully transitioned transfemales actually look like women! I would have thought that should someone have the dedication to excell as an athlete then it should follow that they should be permitted to compete with the most appropriate people of a similar calibre! If they want to carry out gender tests why not make ALL the athletes undergo the tests!

    August 22, 2009 at 6:38 am |
  20. Sandra

    Do "men" have to undergo these procedures as well?

    August 22, 2009 at 3:10 am |
  21. Sara Ray

    This is a case where basic ethical conduct has been ignored by the insecure opinions of a few in control, and for what? She passed as a woman before the Olympics, and that should be the bottom line. This is such an insult to this talented athlete, and to women worldwide.

    August 22, 2009 at 1:20 am |
  22. OnyiBi

    Has anyone noticed that most of these complaints are only lodged against winners. why can't the one in fifth position be a man... Thes people are bound to ruin the poor girls life... at such a young age too... pity...

    August 22, 2009 at 12:48 am |
  23. athiep lual canada age 14

    well Anderson, i would think it's about her chromosomes. Men should have one X+one Y, women two Y. Now she could actually have one Y +one X, which might explain her masculine build but she's still a woman as she'll have the woman bits womb, female genitals etc. If she's found to have x+y and has mens bits possible as testes not dropped then unfortunately she's a man technically under IAAF rules and her whole world comes crashing down. She may have been born with both bits but Drs made the choice at birth.

    ........ BY THE WAY ANDERSON I AM YOUR BIGGEST FAN ...... IM MAKING MY WAY TO BE JUST LIKE U ...... have a great night

    August 22, 2009 at 12:06 am |
  24. Dionne Seevers

    This is petty and should be an embarrassment to the Olympic Committee. Are they going to develop other versions of the Games to categorize people according to their blood types, DNA, organ counts, hair color, skin color, genetic heritage, or race? What is next on the list of ridiculous?

    August 21, 2009 at 11:40 pm |
  25. John Freeman

    Bogus article. It is absolutely unfair that a man parading as woman be allowed to compete with women just because biology is "complicated" and he says "doesn't feel like a man but more like a woman". No matter how great women athletes are there is no questioning that men are biological stronger and faster and therefore have an unfair advantage over women who are biologically female. Enough of this PC liberal garbage. Gay men, transexuals, etc. should not be allowed to compete as women, end of story. Not surprsingly, CNN did not bother to disclose the enormous odds of someone having DSD that Maria Patiño had. I dare CNN to publish my letter. They never publish letters that disagree with their liberal biased opinions.

    August 21, 2009 at 10:16 pm |
  26. lena

    gosh wish people would leave this poor girl alone! sad -_-

    August 21, 2009 at 10:07 pm |
  27. angryblkfeminist

    I am so appalled at this. I wonder if she wore her hair long and wore pretty little earrings whether there would be a cry for tests? Please, this is ridiculous. She is obviously a woman. I hope this appalling act against her becomes a venue through the mainstream issues of gender.

    August 21, 2009 at 9:54 pm |
  28. Annie Kate

    If she passed the tests going into the Olympics she ought to be left to enjoy her victory in peace. Since there is no one reliable test to determine sex she should be able to live and compete as the sex she always believed herself to be. Especially after the debacle of Maria Patiño and what the questions did to her life, I would hope the Olympic board would be more hesitant about insisting on this invasive, embarrassing, and demeaning series of tests and the charge.

    August 21, 2009 at 9:12 pm |
  29. corvedacosta

    This is an embarrassing moment for this 18 year old. I hope the issue will go away because her own country, parents have confirmed that she is a female. They have expressed disgust saying she will not undergo those tests. Will they mount a China challenge? This has a bad taste.

    August 21, 2009 at 8:41 pm |