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.