The Ambiguity of Sex

I’m not a big fol­low­er of ath­let­ics, but two news items have some­how made their way to my men­tal inbox from the IAAF World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­on­ships in Ber­lin: how ridicu­lously fast Usain Bolt is, and the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Caster Semenya.

On the lat­ter, Caster is cur­rently under­go­ing gender veri­fic­a­tion tests and in the pro­cess has garnered a lot of press attention—attention that appears to come from people who are vastly uneducated on the issues being debated. The Nation looks at these issues and describe­s how sexu­al­ity is more ambigu­ous than you might think.

Let’s leave aside that being male is not the be-all, end-all of ath­let­ic suc­cess. A coun­try’s wealth, coach­ing facil­it­ies, nutri­tion and oppor­tun­ity determ­ine the cre­ation of a world-class ath­lete far more than a Y chro­mo­some or a penis ever could.

[…] Gender–that is, how we com­port and con­ceive of ourselves–is a remark­ably flu­id social con­struc­tion. Even our phys­ic­al sex is far more ambigu­ous and flu­id than is often ima­gined or taught. Med­ic­al sci­ence has long acknow­ledged the exist­ence of mil­lions of people whose bod­ies com­bine ana­tom­ic­al fea­tures that are con­ven­tion­ally asso­ci­ated with either men or women and/or have chro­mo­somal vari­ations from the XX or XY of women or men. Many of these “inter­sex” indi­vidu­als, estim­ated at one birth in every 1,666 in the United States alone, are leg­ally oper­ated on by sur­geons who force tra­di­tion­al norms of gen­italia on new­born infants.

There are a num­ber of good art­icles writ­ten on this, one of which is this excerpt from Robert Peel’s Eve’s Rib (that dis­cusses the case of María José Martínez Patiño), and the Wiki­pe­dia art­icles I’ve linked to above.