Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sex verification test reveals Caster Semenya is “innocent”

This August, Caster Semenya astounded sports fans by running 800 meters in one minute and 55.45 seconds. Most track races are won by fractions of a second. At eighteen-years old, Semenya beat the second place finisher by more than two seconds. Watch the race here (fast-forward the clip to 3:00).

Instead of celebrating Semenya’s incredible performance, the press focused on speculations about Semenya’s sex and gender. For instance, this New York Times article discussed Semenya’s “male characteristics,” like her “husky voice” and “muscular” physique before it mentioned her record-breaking time. Responding to the press’ speculations, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), confirmed that “Ms. Semenya was undergoing sex determination testing to confirm her eligibility to race as a woman.”

After three months, the IAAF announced that Semenya is “innocent.” This means that Semenya will keep her gold medal and prize money. However, “the question of whether she remains eligible to compete as a woman remain[s] uncertain.” Out of respect for Semenya’s privacy, the IAAF will keep the results of her sex verification test confidential. To read an article announcing Semenya’s “innocence,” click here.

So does the IAAF’s announcement vindicate Semenya? Absolutely not! Fellow runner and reporter, Jill Greer calls this story a “Greek tragedy of Sophoclean proportions.” Greer admonishes spectators who “snicker or sneer at an athletic woman because she doesn't look like a Barbie doll.” Questioning Semenya’s sex “simply because of how she looked or how low her voice was” does more than undermine her athletic performance. Thanks to speculations about her sex, Semenya’s “entire life has been made the subject of intense public debate, cruel jokes and salacious rumor-mongering.” To read Greer’s blog entry, click here. To see clips of Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman making fun of Semenya, click here and here.

Semenya is not the first athlete to endure the indignity of a sex verification test. In 1985, Maria Patino qualified to compete as a hurdler for Spain in the World Games. Before the competition started, the IAAF gave every female a chromosome test. To Patino’s surprise, her test revealed that she had XY chromosomes. Rather than disqualifying her, officials allowed Patino to fake an injury and withdraw from the competition. Neverthless, Patino was devastated. Years later, Patino compared the experience to being raped. More recently, Santhi Soundarajan was stripped of her gold medal from the 2006 Asian Games after failing a sex verification test. Devastated, Soundarajan attempted suicide.

The IAAF admits that its current “Gender Verification Policy” is “far from completely resolved,” and insists that it is still searching for “an acceptable and equitable solution.” Click here to read the IAAF’s current “Gender Verification Policy.”

If the IAAF is sincere about developing a more “equitable” gender verification policy, I hope it will consider the following suggestions...

(1) This is not a “gender” verification policy. The IAAF is testing an athlete’s “sex,” not her “gender.” Change the name.

(2) If the IAAF wants the results of the test to be “confidential,” it needs to ensure that the every part of the testing process is “confidential.” The public can easily infer the results of a sex verification test depending on whether or not the IAAF deems the athlete eligible to compete. Challenges to an athlete’s eligibility and subsequent sex verification testing should be handled privately.

(3) Do not use the term “innocent” to convey that an athlete passed her sex verification test. It equates atypical sexual development with “guilt.”

(4) Until the IAAF has a clear idea of what makes an athlete “female,” it should not disqualify any athlete with atypical sexual development. Athletes like Maria Patino and Santhi Soundarajan passed some sex verification tests and failed others because the IAAF kept changing its definition of “female.”

(5) Consider the possibility that there are some athletes who are neither male nor female. Ideally, the IAAF will find a way to include these athletes. If the IAAF cannot include these athletes, it should still treat them with dignity and respect.

I invite bloggers to add their own suggestions, and look forward to reading your responses.


BSH said...

Anne, I think all five of your suggestions have merit. Under the current system, the first four really must be implemented. Semenya's case is a great example of someone's privacy and genetic make-up being exposed. For someone like Semenya, will it really matter if she is "innocent?" She has already been discussed in the media as "masculine" - will people without a sophisticated (or even willing) understanding of sex and gender really accept her as part of women's athletics? Seems doubtful to me.

The fifth suggestion is the direction in which I'd like to see the IAAF head. Though I don't really have many suggestions of my own because I don't know much about this area of both genetics and athletics, I do know that being intersexed is a real and relatively common aspect of human life. I'd love to see the international (and national) sports acknowledge this and work towards a solution. Wishful thinking, perhaps.

Erin S. said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestions. It's a travesty how Semenya was treated by the IAAF and the media. It's a nice gesture that they're invoking "confidentiality" now, but combined with the language of innocence/guilt and the way her identity was publicly called into doubt, it seems like an empty one.