Semenya’s Sex: Male or Female?
August 28, 2009
Steroid use and equipment tampering are familiar controversies in sports, but a recent controversy involves something we take for granted: biological sex.
South African runner Caster Semenya is one of a handful of athletes to have had her sex questioned by sports officials. Judges will strip the 18-year-old runner of the gold medal she won last week in the 800-meter world championship, if she cannot pass a sex-verification test. But why are tests necessary to verify her biological sex? Isn’t someone simply a man or a woman? Well, not necessarily….
A person’s sex is determined by his or her sex chromosomes: XX for biological females and XY for biological males. But, sometimes, a person’s sex chromosomes can come out differently—XO, XXY, XYY. These chromosomal variations are usually defined as “intersex.” People used to refer to this as being a “hermaphrodite.” But that term isn’t used anymore, mostly because it implies that someone has a full set of male and female genitals, which is rarely the case. When a person is intersex, this person may appear male or female, but have chromosomes, genitals or internal reproductive organs that do not match his or her outward appearance. Sounds complicated, right? Well, that’s because the human body is complicated.
Determining whether Semenya is or isn’t female isn’t as clear-cut as we might think. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone didn’t have to fit neatly into our simple male-female ideas about biological sex? But in the sports community, it’s been agreed that men should compete with men and women with women to maintain a level playing field. But when someone doesn’t fit into our male-female categories, then what?