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Caster Semenya’s Interesting Illustration Of The Difficulty In Defining “A Woman”

It is always the edge cases which are difficult, of course it is. But it’s also those edge cases which aid us in defining the underlying distinctions that we wish to make. Which is what makes the Caster Semenya case so interesting, for she’s very definitely one of those edge cases. So much so that she’s going to get caught under new rules:

The Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya could run up to seven seconds slower under new rules requiring her to lower her natural testosterone levels to race internationally, a prominent sports scientist has predicted.

Under rules due to be announced on Thursday morning by the IAAF, the world athletics governing body, a separate female classification for an athlete with differences of sexual development (or DSDs) will be introduced. Such athletes, including Semenya, will have to reduce and then maintain their testosterone levels to no greater than 5nmol/L by 1 November if they want to compete in events ranging from 400 metres to a mile.

No, I’m not even going to speculate on what those differences of sexual development are. But there’s a collision going on here between one set of definitions of femininity and another. And there’s simply going to be an inevitable clash between the two sets of definitions. There simply isn’t a right answer here, sadly.

The Only Point Of Track’s Dumb New Testosterone Rules Is To Make It Illegal To Be Caster Semenya

Well, no, but then there’s never been any shortage of people willing to write drivel, has there?

Some female runners with naturally high testosterone levels will have to race against men or change events unless they take medication, under new rules issued by athletics’ governing body.

The rules, which start on 1 November 2018, would apply to women who race in track events from 400m up to the mile.

The IAAF believes the new measures will stop women with high testosterone levels gaining a competitive advantage.

Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya is expected to be among those affected.

Imagine that we were doing all of this a few decades back. 5 decades back say. We didn’t really know much about any of the intersex conditions and so had really pretty simple definitions of male and female. Drop your knickers and a VJ means female, a d**k male. Compete in those classes then.

This did, undoubtedly, mean that some with these interesting conditions which lead to high testosterone levels would have competed against women. But then it’s also true that world beating athletes are pretty weird beings anyway. Right at the limits of human performance and physique by definition.

Essentially, we all just shrugged. Ah well and so what? Even when such things bumped into the problem of having children there was simply a shrug and well, that’s how it goes sometimes. Oh, and have you thought of adoption?

Now we know a great deal more. Androgen insensitivity, testes turning up where ovaries normally are, XXY and all sorts of wondrous other variations along that spectrum from wholly male to wholly female. We need a dividing line for the very same reason that we have male and female competition. The Australian national women’s soccer team got soundly beaten by the under 15 colts from a local male football club. Any full contact rugby game containing men and women would be banned on the grounds of the injuries that would be sustained. And male middle distance running times are about 10% faster than women’s. There simply wouldn’t be female sport without excluding the men from it.

Which means we’ve got to define what a man is, even if we just say that women is “not man.” Or we can do it the other way if we wish, here’s the definiton of woman.

OK, but this is now running headlong into that other societal change, our more general definitions of male and female. Which is approaching, if not already there, whatever the individual decides to declare. Nothing wrong with that as a societal approach. Indeed, it’s rather what we have all done for decades. Sure, certain expressions of whatever were punished but simple politesse dealt with all the vagaries of dress, pronouns and so on. If someone with a bulging chest and no beard desired to be known as Mr Somethingorother well, why not? The societal definition is the easy part to deal with. Pretty much all of us will go with “Yeah, whatever” and go back to doing something more interesting like observing the froth on our pint.

But this cannot coexist with the necessity of having a firm definition for sporting matters. Which is where the problem is, isn’t it?

And there’s no actual solution here. We cannot have the entirely liberal – and just, for why the heck not – self-definition of gender in sports as we do in wider society. Because if we do then we will not have women’s sports. Or rather there is a solution which is to have two different sets of rules for what is male and what is female. Something which doesn’t accord with the demands of some substantial – at least loud – fraction or faction.

The only suggestion I can come up with is to do as we have for a very long time indeed. Worry about such things when they’re important – like baby making or perhaps sports – and not when they’re not, like bond trading or clothing. Something which will annoy both sets of extremists which rather adds to the joy of it. And it really annoys those who insist that there’s only one set of rules we can or should have about something as complex as human beings.

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6 years ago

Caster is not guilty of misbehavior. But even when a person is — a Texas wrestler who wants to pretend he is a girl, a voter who can’t be bothered figuring out where to go to get on the voting list, and by when, or a foreigner who, when the time comes, elects not to obey the terms of his visa — we morph misbehavior into victimhood and race to see things from the point of view of the newly minted victim. The new rules grant Caster a chemical way to remain in competition. It would be equally reasonable (and,… Read more »

6 years ago

Does it work the other way? Allow biological men with low testosterone levels to compete against biological women? The ultimate end-point is what happens in special games, where competetors are classed into competetion groups based on their individual characteristics, so blind runners compete against blind runners, mentally imparied runners compete against mentally impaired runners, limb-loss runners compete against limb-loss runners, but not against wheelies, they have to compete against other wheelies. You’ll end up with 4nM-5nM competition class and a 5nM-6nM competetion class, and arguments over whether somebody with 5.00nM should be allow to be the top of the 4-5… Read more »

6 years ago
Reply to  jgh

I am betting that the 4nM-5nM competition is not self-financed through ticket sales. The question then becomes: To what extent do the sponsors of the meet elect to skim money off events that people want to see, to fund events that people do not want to see, so that “everyone has a chance”? It may be that the competitors themselves pay to compete; I hold the down marker for a late-summer gridiron league organized on those terms. Bottom line, this is not a question for society, but for individual meets, and different and competing organizations might come to different decisions.… Read more »

6 years ago
Reply to  Spike

Caster Semenya is guaranteed a venue, she can race with men and do poorly. she should not be allowed to race as a woman – nor should any of the others who benefit from above average testosterone. The three medalists in the last Olympics all fall in this category:

Paper showing why those with higher levels of testosterone should be limited

6 years ago

I’ve seen complaints about how much more the male players in Mexico’s top league are paid than the female players in the top league, amusingly the clips they used showed a packed stadium for the men’s game and a deserted one for the womends, these people are nuts and you won’t ever satisfy them

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