ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Observations

Observations


Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Caster Semenya and the issue of gender ambiguity

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



Caster Semenya, World Athletics ChampionshipsThe controversy over South African athlete Caster Semenya‘s gender has given the public a view into the complexities of gender. At first blush, the issue should be fairly straightforward: a person is either a male (with an X and a Y chromosome) or a female (with two X chromosomes). But the reality is that a number of conditions can blur the gender line.

After her 800-meter final on August 19 at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced that they had asked Semenya to undergo tests to verify that she was female, with IAAF spokesman Nick Davies describing the tests as "extremely complex, difficult," according to the journal Nature. (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group.)

Some people with two X chromosomes can develop masculine characteristics, whereas others with one X and one Y chromosome never develop masculine characteristics, Nature reports. Still, others (most notably, males who are XXY) defy conventional thinking of gender along the lines of XX females and XY males.

Some people with two X chromosomes have medical conditions that elevate androgen levels (which stimulate or control the development and maintenance of masculine characteristics); other people born XY fail to develop as men because of androgen insensitivity syndrome. Whereas XX individuals with plenty of androgens develop male characteristics, XY individuals who are not sensitive to it may grow up with female characteristics. This androgen-insensitivity makes gaining an athletic advantage through these conditions unlikely in most cases, Myron Genel, a pediatrician and expert in sexual development disorders at Yale University, told Nature.

About one in 4,500 babies show ambiguous genitalia at birth, such as a clitoris that looks like a penis, or vice versa, Scientific American reported in a 2007 article. In that story, geneticist Eric Vilain of the University of California, Los Angeles, noted that, lacking the Y chromosome, an embryo will follow the "default" genetic pathway that leads to ovary development, although "antimale" genes are required to make functioning ovaries.

The controversy has also spotlighted the taboos associated with someone who might share both male and female characteristics. (The IAAF has asked Semenya to undergo a number of complex gender tests, according to The Los Angeles Times, so any judgments about her gender are premature at this point.)

Semenya’s case is not without precedent. At the 1996 Olympics Games in Atlanta, eight female athletes were determined to have XY chromosomes and were not allowed to compete, The Los Angeles Times reports, adding that further studies showed that they were physiologically female even though their genes said they were male, and they were reinstated. The Times article includes several examples of how genetics and gender don’t always match.

Image of Semenya © Erik van Leeuwen





Rights & Permissions

Comments 13 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. dewert 3:33 pm 08/21/2009

    Do I have it completely wrong, or do most of the articles I’ve read on this issue?

    I understood that gender is psychological, but that it usually goes along with sex, which is biological. In the cases where it doesn’t, the person is transgendered, and may or may not choose to have their sex (at least somewhat) changed to fit their gender.

    The article says that Semenya’s *gender* is in question – why is this important in sport at all? Shouldn’t sex be the issue for sports performance?

    I realise I’m kind of splitting hairs over the use of one word, but for an issue that is so misunderstood, it’d be nice if everyone could at least agree on the terms, no?

    Link to this
  2. 2. quincykim 5:35 pm 08/21/2009

    Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary generally supports what you’re saying about definitions, but does allow each term (sex and gender) to include both biological and social/psychological aspects,.

    I agree "sex" would have been a better term, but it’s not set in stone.

    Link to this
  3. 3. notslic 6:15 pm 08/22/2009

    My gender is male. I like to have sex with women. Everything cleared up?

    Link to this
  4. 4. David D 9:37 pm 08/22/2009

    Historically, words had gender and people had sex. Gender is masculine or feminine; sex (the noun) is male or female. A ship is a she (gender), but that she is not female (sex).

    However, the word sex makes some people uncomfortable, and so (when used as a noun, but not a verb) gender has come to mean the same thing as sex. This is the situation in this article.

    (When used as verb, gender is not a replacement for sex. Saying "I have never had gender with that woman, Monica Lewinsky" has even less meaning than the original quotation.)

    So, Dewert, you are correct; it is not her femininity or masculinity in question, but her sex; however, English has changed to have gender and sex mean the same thing in some situations, and so while substituting gender for sex is not incorrect, this usage does lead to some confusion.

    So after these ‘extremely difficult, complex’ tests, not only will Ms. Semenya know if she is able to compete as a woman, she will also know in which states it is legal for her to get married, and whether or not she is a homosexual.

    Link to this
  5. 5. FAM 12:38 am 08/23/2009

    Gender identification is psychological. Gender is physiological. In most cases, genetics and the endocrine system agree and maleness and femaleness are unambiguous. But sometimes, genetics may cause problems (e.g. 45xo (Turner’s Syndrome), 47xxy (Klinefelter’s Syndrome), 48xxyy or other mosaics). Then, too, the production or lack of production of androgens, estrogens or anti-androgens can affect the presentation of primary and secondary sexual characteristics (e.g., genitals and breasts). Congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a condition involving mutation of genes that mediate cortisol production, may result in ambiguous genitalia in persons otherwise identified as female.

    Link to this
  6. 6. notslic 11:36 pm 08/23/2009

    I have seen her in the locker room. AND THAT’S NO VAGINA. You are too angry biat. Anger does not help the plight of people who are genetically different. Neither does insensitive humor. I’m sorry. What stands out for me is that she is a great athlete. She has overcome ridicule and stigma and is a person to be admired. In her culture it is probably better to have a son than a daughter. The son will take care of the parents while the daughter goes to another family. I believe her dad. She is a woman.

    Link to this
  7. 7. sjd0218 6:40 pm 08/24/2009

    Wow, that last statement "…she will also know in which states it is legal for her to get married, and whether or not she is a homosexual." puts a whole new twist on this situation doesn’t it?

    Our world is nuts. When the hate and fear toward one group jumps the fence to hit the unrelated bystander in face it becomes even more obvious how ridiculous it all is.

    Link to this
  8. 8. happy_go_lucky 1:27 am 09/11/2009

    I think Caster should send the IAAF a bloodied pad. This should shut them up!!

    Link to this
  9. 9. happy_go_lucky 1:29 am 09/11/2009

    I think Caster should send the IAAF a bloodied pad. This should shut them up!!

    Link to this
  10. 10. PabloDeeee 9:08 am 09/12/2009

    Erm …hard to send a bloodied pad with no womb or ovaries !!!! … The problem is everyones focussing on Semenya when the real victims are the female athelets who now don’t get the recognition they deserve … Perhaps Semenya is a wondeful person and really didn’t know but the IAAF and SA athletics both knew that Semenya had Abnormal testosterone levels and still let her compete … if the medals and recognition are not taken back and given to the real winner Atheletics organisations all over the world will start looking for gender ambiguity in women athletes to CHEAT ! …. if the news reports are true then Semenya is physically much closer to a man than a woman lets see if "she" feels disadvantaged running against people with much higher testosterone levels …MEN !

    Link to this
  11. 11. jmcint6317 1:24 pm 09/13/2009

    Caster Semenya has a unique condition of possessing remnants of both male and female genitalia. Intersexuality, as it is known scientifically, is indeed a rarity in ‘higher’ animals. With this condition, if an individual can not function as both a male and a female reproductively, it is more correctly termed pseudohermaphrodite. The rarest of this pseudohermaphrodite condition is a male pseudohermaphrodite in which an individual appears, phenotypically, female but whose internal genitalia are those representing maleness. Caster Semenya appears to be this type. A colleague and I have been studying a unique form of intersexuality on remote islands of the archipelago of Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific since 1993.( See http://www.swpacificresearchfoundation.com)
    On certain isolated islands intersexual pigs are found possessing this condition. On Vanuatu, pigs are woven into the very fabric of traditional life. Male pseudohermaphroditic pigs can be found here in relative abundance and nowhere else in the world. Occasionally intersexes are identified in pig and cow slaughter houses throughout the world. Because these unique pigs are revered by the villagers in Vanuatu that still practice Kastom, this condition is purposely bred for, thus perpetuating the condition. A man’s value in a Vanuatu village is proportional to how many pigs he owns. These intersexual pigs are worth one hundred normal pigs and are, indeed, a valuable commodity.
    Because of our research, another mammal species with this condition has been identified which will enable us to learn more about this condition in humans.
    For more information contact;
    James K. McIntyre
    Director
    Southwest Pacific Research Foundation
    1009 White Street
    Fernandina Beach, Fl. 32034 USA
    jmcint6317@aol.com
    904-261-5630

    Link to this
  12. 12. jmcint6317 1:25 pm 09/13/2009

    Caster Semenya has a unique condition of possessing remnants of both male and female genitalia. Intersexuality, as it is known scientifically, is indeed a rarity in ‘higher’ animals. With this condition, if an individual can not function as both a male and a female reproductively, it is more correctly termed pseudohermaphrodite. The rarest of this pseudohermaphrodite condition is a male pseudohermaphrodite in which an individual appears, phenotypically, female but whose internal genitalia are those representing “maleness.” Caster Semenya appears to be this type. A colleague and I have been studying a unique form of intersexuality on remote islands of the archipelago of Vanuatu in the Southwest Pacific since 1993.( See http://www.swpacificresearchfoundation.com)
    On certain isolated islands intersexual pigs are found possessing this condition. On Vanuatu, pigs are woven into the very fabric of traditional life. Male pseudohermaphroditic pigs can be found here in relative abundance and nowhere else in the world. Occasionally intersexes are identified in pig and cow slaughter houses throughout the world. Because these unique pigs are revered by the villagers in Vanuatu that still practice “Kastom”, this condition is purposely bred for, thus perpetuating the condition. A man’s value in a Vanuatu village is proportional to how many pigs he owns. These intersexual pigs are worth one hundred “normal” pigs and are, indeed, a valuable commodity.
    Because of our research, another mammal species with this condition has been identified which will enable us to learn more about this condition in humans.
    For more information contact;
    James K. McIntyre
    Director
    Southwest Pacific Research Foundation
    1009 White Street
    Fernandina Beach, Fl. 32034 USA
    jmcint6317@aol.com
    904-261-5630

    Link to this
  13. 13. shawnsyms 5:37 pm 09/21/2009

    Caster Semenya should not be placed on trial — it’s our society’s outmoded perspective on gender that’s due for an overhaul. That race for equality won’t be won until we’re all free to safely cross the finish line together. Read more: Stop Policing Caster Semenya’s Gender | RHRealityCheck.org http://bit.ly/17qVML

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Dinosaurs

Get Total Access to our Digital Anthology

1,200 Articles

Order Now - Just $39! >

X

Email this Article

X