Let’s Talk about Sex

I wavered a lot on whether or not I would write about this topic this month. Writing for mass consumption comes with some risk (okay, ‘mass’ might be an over-statement – I have two followers), in this case a barrage of well-sourced comments in the comments section that I am not necessarily prepared to answer to. After all, this touches on science and I’ll be the first to admit my high school bio is a little rusty, and it was never great to begin with.

In the end I decided to go for it, partly because I don’t think you need a degree in science to care about scientific issues. Just this year we saw a sixteen year-old Swedish girl do more to fight climate change than some climatologists. Also, this is only my fourth posting, so I guess I’m still working under the naive assumption that it’s possible to have a civilized conversation on the internet. Maybe if I acted in an all-female Goonies reboot or had a Twitter account I’d feel differently, but I want to believe that under the deluge of misogynistic, homophobic rhetoric that we’ve come to expect from the internet,[1] there exists a powerful minority that came here to share ideas and to learn. If those people end up reading this post and sending me questions or comments I can’t answer, so be it. More than anything I just want to start a conversation because I can’t be the only non-scientist out there twitching because something is clearly not right.

So let’s talk about sex.[2]

No, not that one, the other one. The one your parents ticked off on your birth certificate.

No, stay with me because I think this is important.

In April 2018, Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya lost her case against the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which decided that female athletes with differences in sexual development (DSD) must take hormone suppressants if they intend to compete in specific events. Semenya – like many womyn – was born with elevated testosterone levels, which many believe offers her a competitive advantage over other female athletes. The ruling is predicated on the assumption that testosterone is responsible for the lean body mass developed in puberty, which offers male athletes a competitive advantage over female athletes. The degree to which elevated testosterone levels in female athletes lead to improved performance is still inconclusive, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s true. What I don’t understand is why we’re punishing them for it.

There are many, many natural phenomena that can give someone a competitive advantage in sport. Some people are taller, have faster metabolism, greater propensity to build and maintain muscle mass, etc. The sad truth is that while healthy lifestyle habits are important, Mother Nature is a fickle bitch who prefers to roll the dice when deciding our genetic make-up. Many of us will lose. Caster Semenya happened to win. Why can’t we just congratulate her and cheer her on from the comfort of our lazy boy recliner like we would for anyone else? We did that for Michael Phelps when scientists determined his body produces less than half the lactic acid of his rivals, and is basically engineered for swimming. Or when Eero Mäntyranta, a cross-country skier from Finland was found to produce approximately 50 percent more oxygen-carrying red blood cells than a normal person. Or when Oliver Wood told professor McGonagall that Harry Potter had the perfect build to be a seeker.

Alright, so I don’t follow organized sports, but the point still stands. We tolerate genetic advantages in star athletes unless they happen to challenge a very narrow and problematic definition of what it means to be a woman.

The gender binary owes at least some debt of gratitude to the scientific community’s predisposition to sort human beings in to false dichotomies, white – non-white, gay – straight, man – woman, the list goes on. This was largely driven by a desire to group human beings together to justify some of the worst social experiments of the modern era, such as slavery, colonialism, and of course the disenfranchisement and exploitation of womyn and sexual minorities. What makes cases like Semenya’s so threatening is they illustrate that the supposed scientific, empirical evidence that underpins these assumptions, is flawed. If the assumptions are flawed, what about all the social baggage attached to them? Do we have to reassess our outdated consensus of what womyn are and what they are capable of? What might that lead to? These are difficult questions, and sometimes it’s just easier to compel someone to take hormone suppressants than try to answer them.

While the IAAF ruling referred exclusively to Caster Semenya’s biological sex, it’s hard to not to wonder to what degree racism and homophobia might have played in the proceedings. The ‘angry, black woman’ trope is a time-honoured tradition employed by frightened white folks to prevent black womyn from challenging the unique discrimination they face on account of their ethnicity and sex. In 19th century minstrel shows, black womyn were often performed by overweight white men in exaggerated makeup to reinforce the false narrative that black womyn were ugly, inhuman and unfeminine. This characterization has affected womyn of colour across the board but has especial bearing on Caster Semenya, because her biological sex is what’s under dispute. Adding to this is Semenya’s sexual orientation. She is openly gay and gay womyn are often regrettably characterized as unnatural and unfeminine, which may have further undermined her ability to defend herself. Any time she spoke up or challenged the panelists, she risked reinforcing the ‘angry lesbian’ trope, which could have biased the panel against her.

I read the executive summary of Semenya’s case and it concluded with a section entitled “The Panel’s expression of gratitude to Ms. Semenya”, where they thanked her for her “dignified personal participation and the exemplary manner in which she has conducted herself throughout the proceedings.” Of course she did. Of course she refused to give voice to the pain, anger and humiliation she’s endured since winning gold at the 2008 World Championships, tainting what should have been one of the proudest moments of her life. Discrimination against SDS women is inextricably linked to sexism and any display of negative emotion would only have reinforced the opposition’s case that she wasn’t really a woman. Add that to the fact that Caster Semenya is a gay, black woman from the continent of Africa and you have a perfect storm of prejudice that effectively strangled her defence. She had little choice but to sit there, calmly and patiently, while the panel issued its ultimatum: suppress your genetic makeup or quit doing what you love. And that to me speaks to the real tragedy of this case, because no one should have to make that choice.


[1] don’t bother, I moderate every comment before it gets posted

[2] baby

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