Everyday Ethics

Everyday Ethics

Caster Semenya: Should We Take “Her” Word For It?

posted by hfields

What is gender? Apparently, as the case of South African
runner Caster Semenya is proving, it’s less absolute than penis versus
vagina. As controversy swirls over
whether the gold-medal-winning 18-year-old is wholly female, I wondered, should
it even matter?

Assuming this isn’t a cynical ploy on the part of the South
Africans to win at all costs (and if you read this
, you’ll see Caster’s childhood friends will defend her gender
identity to the bitter end), the issues raised would seem to be legitimately,
and, er, organically developing through nobody’s fault. The humiliation and scandal for Miss
Semenya, who never asked for this, must be brutal. Her countrymen, certainly, are outraged and many consider
the entire issue to be racially, not sexually, motivated. 

But there’s an ethical question here about which people seem
to be presuming there’s an obvious answer. Namely, if Caster Semenya is found to be intersexed, should she be banned from competition as a
 Everyone seems to think
the answer is a given – naturally, yes, she must be banned. I say, let’s give it a couple minutes
of examination before we rush to a conclusion.


Banning Caster would be grossly unfair to her, but perhaps only fair to women’s teams. 


For Semenya, it’s not as if she can be reassigned to an intersex team, so it would be, effectively, ending her career – a career that’s given an unknown South African athlete a chance to shine on the international stage, perhaps take her immense talent all the way to the Olympics.

On the other hand, if she’s got secondary male characteristics, her increased strength is an advantage with which the women on the track team cannot hope to compete (right?). They’d be at a disadvantage against her.

On the other, other hand, one could argue that all Olympic-caliber athletes are genetic prodigies. Perhaps what we’re tending to look at as a mutation or malformation is just another gift, like Michael Phelps’ enormous arm span or Ian Thorpe’s colossal feet. We don’t know quite what makes Usain Bolt so fast (though he is much taller than the average sprinter), but though we test and test him for performance enhancing drugs, all we can say is, man, that dude is fast. No one is forcing these fellows out of competition for having a natural advantage.

So what I’m asking is, when does leveling the playing field go too far? What’s a natural advantage, a gift from the genetic lottery (or God, depending on what you believe), and what’s unacceptable to the mainstream?

If Caster Semenya has, indeed, been given the ambiguous gift/curse of ambiguous gender, life will be hard enough for her. It seems a terrible shame to reduce yet further the opportunities available to her by denying her the right to compete. 

What do you think?  Are those the breaks, or should we give her a break?

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Comments read comments(19)
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posted August 23, 2009 at 1:40 pm

This is such a complex medical issue. Whether she has testicle,that
never descended,whether she has a higher level of male hormones vs
female hormones? All elite athletes as you point out have genetic
abilities to make them “elite” athletes. I could exercise from now
until eternity and never got 6 pack abs or the fleetness of Michael
Johnson. We need to see what the genetic testing says(and if any of it is really conclusive.) Most elite female athletes have little to
no body fat, which eliminates breast devolopement, hips and all the
other intricacies that say- WOMAN.
I would like her to suceed but the competitive field does have to be
as fair as can be. If, she does possess the middle-of-road gender,
her life and, she has lived her life as a female, is going to be
even more difficult.
I remember a few years ago when the female Chinese swim team was
demolishing the American women. They claimed they were only drinking
a tonic. Well, apparently a tonic with steroids. The Chinese women
had shoulders of a linebacker.
The American womens team began serious weight training, and they began beating the Chinese.So how much do hormones, natural or made-
made give an advantage?
We wait and see.

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posted August 23, 2009 at 3:44 pm

This is going to sound like and overly simplified argument, but if she considers herself a female and identifies with females and was raised as a female then she’s a female. We don’t have a society that is equipped to decide these things since we don’t have anything in place to really handle the decision. I think we need to identify her as she identifies herself. It is not as if she had gender reassignment surgery. She didn’t have a choice. Nonetheless, I would probably say a transsexual should be treated and judged by the gender with which he/she identifies most and has ultimately chosen.

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Your Name

posted August 23, 2009 at 4:10 pm

If the test reveal “ambiguous” gender, it would be unfair to have her compete against “unambiguous” women in the future. So get ready for Transgender Olympics!

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posted August 23, 2009 at 11:21 pm

I don’t understand why the anglo press has been so silent regarding SA’s head coach. Even without the allegations all over the German and latino press this weekend, Arbeit’s proven doping track record, starting with his two decades in East Germany, is horrible.
Caster Semenya’s ex-coach has claimed the sex test controversy athlete is actually a hermaphrodite. The unnamed coach told Swiss tabloid ‘Blick’ that tests to determine her gender had already been taken. “South Africa carried them out in March. The result is clear. Semenya should not have been allowed to start with the women at the World Championships in Berlin.“
The unnamed source also claimed that South Africa’s head coach Ekkart Arbeit, who used to hold the same position with East Germany, “knew exactly what had to be done“ to get Semenya past authorities in previous competitions.
Her testosterone level can be altered using medication so that she was not found out in previous doping tests.
Arbeit was head coach for throwing events of the East German track and field team from 1982-88 and chief coach in 1989-90. This includes the infamous East German shot put team and Heidi Krieger, who was given so many hormonal drugs, she later changed into a he.

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posted August 24, 2009 at 3:37 am

Semenya is from a poor background, but she did not come directly out of the bush. She is a sports science student at the University of Pretoria, down the road from where I am now. UP is probably the country’s top Sports Science centre – they train the national teams in a dozen different sports. Which means that we can just drop this “poor little girl, she didn’t ask for this” nonsense. She and her coaching team would have known that this storm would break sooner or later. And her handlers will have done their own tests long ago. If they let her run, they are confident that the results of another test will back them up.
And she is only eighteen! Middle-distance athletes don’t peak till their mid-to-late-twenties. Like the guy who won the men’s 800m. Oh, did anybody notice that was another South African?

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posted August 24, 2009 at 10:27 am

Clasqm – well noted and thanks for the additional info on Caster. I had read he was at university, but didn’t know it was Sports Science. Of all subjects!
And the only interview I saw of Caster gave me a really bad impression of him. No little victim and not any girl either. There seems to be nothing in Caster’s own mind about being female himself, and he seems to me quite aware of his hermaphrodite condition, which is clearly male as far as his own gender identity seems to be concerned. I am leaning more and more towards fraud by S African Athletics. And Caster, although young and easily manipulable, not that innocent either.
On the team of experts conducting the IAAF sex tests there is supposedly a psychologist. At first, I thought this professional was part of the team to explore questions of gender identity, but if the IAAF is smart about its testing, a psychologist’s useful role here would be to investigate lying and concealing.

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posted August 24, 2009 at 5:25 pm


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Jane Doe

posted August 24, 2009 at 10:02 pm

A couple points:
1) Sex and Gender are two different issues. Sex, refers to the biological characteristics of women(chromosomes, and physical characteristics like breasts, having a penis, etc). Gender, refers to societal “norms” as to what is being male vs female(behavior, defined roles, etc). In the movie, Boys Don’t Cry, Tina’s(Brandon’s) SEX was female, but gender, was male.
2) Determining Sex is not as easy with some individuals as it may seem and no, she/he wasn’t born in a high tech medical facility, where even in a modern facility determining sex isn’t always easy…this may be strange to learn, but this is a fact. From all outward appearances(from teachers, family, people in her town) she was always raised from when she was young AS A GIRL. Whether or not her biological sex will reveal this, maybe she is intersexed, it’s clear that she was raised as female, but was always “tomboyish” from all accounts of teachers, and those that have known her since she was young.
Alessandra, I don’t know what sort of weird issue you have with this particular athlete in insinuating that she/he is not “innocent”, WHEN SHE IS ONLY 18, and by all accounts has been raised as a girl. Maybe her parents really had no idea she was intersexed at birth, as trained medical professionals(doctors) cannot even tell with visual inspection. What a piece of work you are for being so nasty with assuming the worst.
Let’s operate under the assumption she is intersexed, but has been raised since she was a child as a girl, she is somehow to be faulted for this and blamed??? These questions I wish would have played out privately, with the exam, tests, etc done without this media glare of speculation. Regardless of the outcome, this young GIRL, and yes 18, is a child in my eyes, is being put through a lot.

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posted August 25, 2009 at 3:12 am

The young lady is a woman. It is just hard to believe she excels in what she does. Not all women look like Beyonce. Imagine how bad this woman feels being judged or put under the microscope in such a way. Seems every African American has to constantly prove themselves when they are over achievers.

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posted August 25, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Alessandra, the link you provided did not bring up any of the supposed interview points you mentioned. I haven’t seen any such evidence of a deliberate attempt to conceal anything.
I think the only reason for disqualification should be if Caster Semenya is an unambiguously male sexed person (as opposed to gender).
People who are intersex prove that even defining sex becomes highly subjective at the margins. The NY Times has a great summary of this:
Frankly, I think intersex athletes who identify as female should be allowed to compete as women. There may or may not be some rare genetic advantage to be had there, but that’s still extremely variable and doesn’t guarantee success at the elite levels of competition. I’m a man, and I sincerely doubt that all the training I could possibly do would make me faster than these elite female runners. If someone’s a serious, serious athlete, and just happens to have some biological advantages (like Michael Phelps or Lance Armstrong), well, that’s life. Sports isn’t graded E for Effort – it’s a combination of the best dedication, the best training, the best strategy, and the best biology.
As a side note, I wonder if Olympic sports that have no advantages based on sex (target shooting? archery?) divide up the competitions by sex. If so, that seems silly to me, except as a way to give twice as many medals out, and based more on tradition and gender politics than to provide competition. That brings me to sports like boxing and judo which have weight (and sex) divisions for a reason, which is purely to provide competition. That seems legitimate to me. Intersex status in and of itself does not seem like a legitimate reason to force disqualification, because in many cases, intersex status doesn’t really provide athletic benefits, and it’s a very case by case basis, at which point we’re talking about disqualifying unusually physically gifted individuals such as Phelps or Yao Ming.

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posted August 25, 2009 at 6:25 pm

Related paper – East Germany’s monstrous doping program
This is the contextual background for Ekkart Arbeit, SA Athletics head coach.
For a fascinating read on the subject:
Hormonal doping and androgenization of athletes: a secret program of the German Democratic Republic government
Werner W. Franke1,a and Brigitte Berendonk2
1 Division of Cell Biology/0110, German Cancer Research Center, Im Neuenheimer Feld 280, D-69120 Heidelberg, Germany.
2 Hölderlin High School, Heidelberg, Germany.
Several classified documents saved after the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1990 describe the promotion by the government of the use of drugs, notably androgenic steroids, in high-performance sports (doping). Top-secret doctoral theses, scientific reports, progress reports of grants, proceedings from symposia of experts, and reports of physicians and scientists who served as unofficial collaborators for the Ministry for State Security (“Stasi”) reveal that from 1966 on, hundreds of physicians and scientists, including top-ranking professors, performed doping research and administered prescription drugs as well as unapproved experimental drug preparations. Several thousand athletes were treated with androgens every year, including minors of each sex. Special emphasis was placed on administering androgens to women and adolescent girls because this practice proved to be particularly effective for sports performance. Damaging side effects were recorded, some of which required surgical or medical intervention. In addition, several prominent scientists and sports physicians of the GDR contributed to the development of methods of drug administration that would evade detection by international doping controls.

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Jane Doe

posted August 25, 2009 at 8:09 pm

The article you brought up have nothing to do with regards to Semenya’s SEX. Her actual gender might be questionable, whether she views herself as a woman based on societal roles is none of our damn business and you are clouding the actual issue, which is: What is biological sex?
Doping issue is a separate matter, and the ethics of her coach is also a separate matter as that has absolutely NOTHING to do with the argument at hand which is does she possess both male/female biological components to her body.
The facts are as follows as you seem to be going down the wrong road:
1) By all accounts, when she was born, it was believed she was a girl and raised as such.
2) Her GENDER, not SEX, while growing up was questioned by many people as she seemed masculine.
3) She identifies, and people in her town and in her school have always treated her as a female.
Now, she might be biologically partly male, and been that way since birth, and not know this. Many, many medical experts have come forward on this issue and stated that determining sex is sometimes very hard so if this were the case, it would come as a shock to her and her family it’s sad it is being played out on a world stage as it is now.
How would you feel if a doctor told you although you relate to the world as a woman you are also partly biologically a man and you were 18? Now, this may not be the case, but have some compassion, and yes, don’t be such a nasty person assuming the worst and smearing everyone around her, until all the facts are aired. She is only a teenager, and I wonder how you would weather a similar storm at her age?
Until the results from the exam come out would you please stop this disgusting smear until all the facts are in and avoid speculating over something you know nothing about.

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Your Name

posted August 26, 2009 at 3:19 pm

Well Well Well. From what i understand this girl was born with a vagina. she now has overies and a uterus. Now I dont know what part of the universe some people originate from, or what edition of BIOLOGY 101 they have been reading, but last time i checked these characterics makes you undoubtedly 100% female. an arguement can be made that Semenya is pumped full of steroids maybe. but anyone who paid attention in biology class in high school will know that she is female. plus she can concieve and give birth to a child naturally. Now if that dosent make you a female then I have been living under the wrong rock.

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posted August 26, 2009 at 3:41 pm

It’s thanks to the large number of people who don’t want to learn or face how much doping has infested just about every sport, that it goes on and on.
The only reason that some athletes have been caught doping and cheating is because honest people have insisted on questioning again and again what was going on. Only the corrupt are afraid of testing. (And even hysterical, as we can see by some comments here).
Furthermore, doping is no separate matter to hormone levels, or andronization of sportswomen, for that matter.
Let us pray that they haven’t infiltrated the Testing personnel. More on this practice in the article I referenced.
When big money intersects sports, it all becomes so ugly, so quickly, doesn’t it?

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posted August 26, 2009 at 3:46 pm

It’s thanks to the large number of people who don’t want to learn or face how much doping has infested just about every sport, that it goes on and on.
The only reason why some athletes have been caught doping and cheating is because honest people have insisted on questioning again and again what was going on. Only the corrupt are afraid of testing. (And even hysterical, as we can see by some comments here).
Furthermore, doping is no separate matter to hormone levels, or andronization of sportswomen, for that matter.
Let us pray that they haven’t infiltrated the Testing personnel. More on this practice in the article I referenced.
When big money intersects sports, it all becomes so ugly, so quickly, doesn’t it?

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posted September 10, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Please take this opportunity to learn about some fascinating biology. Intersex is a very well documented phenomena. One in 3000 girls are XY instead of XX. The development of genitals is controlled by an on switch that leads to male. Otherwise, the default is always female.
Look up Dr. Veronica Drantz. Or go to Entrez Pubmed and type in intersexed or sex reversal. Or just simply Google it or look in Wikipedia. Gender is NOT 100% for all of us. The biological pathway for female versus male development is long and complex.
This kind of complexity is not usually covered in high school biology classes. Which is unfortunate. There has been a great deal of solid scientific research in this area.

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posted September 15, 2009 at 2:20 pm

If this lady is affected by an intersex condition then it’s likely that her cells do not respond to testosterone anyway… hence her outward female appearence.
Which means the level of testosterone produced by her body is irrelevant and she is actually at a disadvantage to the other “females” who were able to get the benefit of the testosterone naturally occurring in their bodies to which they were able to respond?

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posted May 21, 2011 at 7:05 am

She identifies herself as a woman which is fine sociably, but to compete amongst women professionally who spend their life training and competiting…it’s unfair have to compete with basically a male…she has more of the genetic make up of a man ie testosterone etc. She should compete with the males.

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posted May 21, 2011 at 7:20 am

I’m speaking from a scientific and personal view point and not a sociable one on how she should perceive her self. It is apparent not only from the many tests they have done on her, but just physical signs alone indicate that her body reacts and utilizes the higher testosterone. So she not some freakishly gifted woman with an unexaplainable athletic trait. She may have female characteristics, but it is clear that she also has male characteristics which are more prominent. So again I say it’s unfair for her to compete amongst women. Now perhaps she could compete with males perhaps she has what it takes. I would bet money on that.

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