Policing Women's Bodies: The Sport Edition

Should women with naturally elevated levels of testosterone be able to compete in women’s events? That’s the question with which athletics has been grappling over the past decade.

It has been announced that South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya will not compete at the World Championships in Doha.

The decision was made by a Swiss court on Tuesday who stood behind an International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rule that would require her to take testosterone-reducing medication.

The 28-year-old had been expected to defend her world 800m title in late September after the Swiss Supreme Court had temporarily exempted her from an IAAF rule relating to athletes with differences in sexual development (DSD).

That decision has now been overturned by a tribunal at the same court.

The sex testing debate is a complicated one which harks back to a time where men were seen to boast peak physicality. 

In a time when gender binaries are finally being openly discussed – albeit reluctantly – Semenya's 'problem' in the eyes of the IAAF is that she is the owner of a body whose natural testosterone levels are produced at a higher rate to her counterparts.

Her natural hyperandrogenism, which aids her athletic performance by way of increasing muscle bulk and overproduction of red blood cells, has seen her berated, discriminated against, mocked openly and subjected to heinous racist and sexist remarks by fellow teammates. 

The narrative which has been shaped around her story is often a misguided or inaccurate one.

To be clear, Caster Semenya is not transgender, but the lack of a standard for using terms like “sex” and “gender” has left many people confused about the actual circumstances of the case and Caster Semenya’s involvement in it.

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The core issue is that “sex” is different from “gender” and there are many ways a person’s sex can develop beyond typical categories for men and women. When athletic officials try to divide athletes by sex, the line drawn changes depending on what criteria they use.

Accepting the case for separate male and female athletic categories in sport – despite growing more complicated in recent times – has been met with a certain practicality that allows all genders to flourish. 

Defining who belongs to which categories has, however, creates much debate.

Different methods have been adopted, from crude physical inspections to genetic tests – all of which have proven unsatisfactory.

The latest in a series of intrusive probes has been that of functional testosterone trials. Testosterone levels in women are, in most circumstances, lower than in men. It is because of this that the IAAF decided to limit the testosterone level that makes women eligible for certain events.

The trouble is, while all-male elite athletes lie in the high testosterone bracket – a few women, such as Semenya, have elevated levels that take them into the “male” category, through no fault of their own. 

The controversy reflects a critical misunderstanding of biological sex, interpreting it as a strict dichotomy, and how we should apply it to athletics. 

This view sees people like Caster Semenya as an outlier. In fact, Semenya exists on an extremely normal spectrum of sex characteristics that we all have.

Fluctuating levels of sex hormones in men and women are natural. Having higher or lower levels of estrogen or testosterone, with overlap between men and women, is common.

The forced binary between the sexes creates a misguided notion that women like Semenya are abnormal, that her testosterone level was a glitch that should be removed. In reality, Semenya exists within the normal curve of testosterone fluctuations among women. 

The concept of a physical inclination to a sport, hobby or career is not a new one. By its very nature, it's natural – and by media standards, it's lauded. 

Michael Phelps is frequently hailed as 'The Man Built To Be A Swimmer', due to his long torse and webbed feet. NBA All-Star LeBron James is 6 foot 8 inches with a wingspan of seven feet. Teammate Dwayne Wade is 6'4" -- his arms are 6'11" across.

Semenya is being asked to drug herself to lower her testosterone levels to compete is as ridiculous a concept as asking seven-foot-tall basketball players to chop their legs off at the knee. 

Her case is yet another of women's bodies being policed for something they neither had control over nor want to be 'regulated'. 

For Semenya – fast, female, and an openly gay POC – her fight isn’t just for her self and her own dignity and freedom, but for her country and her fans.

“It’s not about performing; it’s about inspiring the world, changing the world…changing how people see life,” she tells Out Magazine

“When I walk on the track is when I feel free.”

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