Caster Semenya: When Gender is Not Sex

Posted on October 23rd, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Gender, Postmodernism, Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Caster SemenyaImagine what it must be like for Caster Semenya, the top South African female runner who was in the news recently because her sex has recently been challenged. By “sex” I am not referring to her sexuality, but to the physical, biological characteristics that determine whether one is male or female. That basically comes down to whether one has testes or ovaries. Her fantastically impressive victory in the 800 meters in Berlin recently raised questions about her sex—questions that she herself shrugged off as “a joke.” Semenya has no penis; all of her life, she has thought she is a girl—a very athletic girl who loves to run and compete. Actually, to say that she “thinks she is a girl” probably misrepresents that unthinking sense of simply being who you are, living the life that you have, in the context of the roles and values that are given to you as a male or female within your culture. That’s gender: the sociocultural expectations based on sex, usually related to different roles in sexual reproduction, related to normative notions of masculinity (for males) and femininity (for females).

For Semenya, sex and gender are not aligned—although she didn’t have any idea that this was so. It wasn’t until a much deeper physical examination prompted by her record-breaking speed revealed that, in fact, despite her lack of external male genitalia, Semenya had some form of testes, not ovaries. At the time that I’m writing, her fate as a competitive athlete has not been decided, but it seems pretty likely that she is no longer going to be allowed to compete as a female in the sport that she loves and has trained so hard for. And probably even more disturbing is that she may not be able to live as a young woman, which for the eighteen years of her young life is who she has always thought herself to be.

It’s a touchy subject. Semenya is still pretty much a kid. It’s hard not to feel that I’m simply rubbernecking at a scene of a cultural accident in blogging about her. It is humiliating for her and her family to have this most private of matters become the subject of public scrutiny. I felt it was important to do so in order to point out how we take for granted that the way we think about sex–male or female–describes a universal truth. And that our notions of masculine and feminine are likewise truth. (I’ve just done a presentation about those tricky concepts with my friend and colleague Cindy Wigglesworth at the Integral Leadership in Action conference that was held October 15-19. More on that in my next post.)

Another story of sex identity uncertainty, discovered by the ultimate postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, shines a light on how the way we think about sex and gender has changed over time. Foucault found and republished the diary of Herculine Barbin, who, like Caster Semenya, lived into early adulthood as a woman, only to be examined and declared to be a man. Barbin, who was born in the first half of the nineteenth century in a small French village, grew up in a cultural context that was still primarily medieval—she started her life in a Catholic orphanage and attended a convent school. We assume that the Middle Ages were grimly repressive times where individual freedom was squashed by the rigid moral codes enforced by church dogma. But Foucault, in his introduction to Barbin’s memoir, tells us that this wasn’t so. At that time, individuals whose genitalia were ambiguous at birth were not considered monstrous or perverted because they violated the principle that every person must fall into one sex/gender category or another (that happens later). Medieval social structure was based on caste or class, which meant that your assignment to a specific class (the one you were born into) was irrevocable but your assignment as male or female wasn’t necessarily so. (In fact, there were quite a few popular medieval tales about women who spontaneously turn into men or vice versa….) As Foucault explains, “it was a very long time before the postulate that a hermaphrodite must have a sex—a single, a true sex—was formulated. For centuries, it was quite simply agreed that hermaphrodites had two.”

Having a single sex identity—male or female–that aligned with your gender identity as appropriately masculine or feminine, just wasn’t that important. Hard to believe, I know, but true. Foucault, who has dug into the historical details of the transition into modernity with the patience of an archaeologist, acknowledges that persons of indeterminate sex sometimes were executed in ancient and medieval times. Not because they were inherently “deviant” and thus dangerous—a view that still taints our discussions of hermaphroditism or intersex today. According to both church and civil law in the Middle Ages, he reports, someone of indeterminate sex was given a temporary sex identity by the infant’s father—the best guess at the time. Then, when the child matured and was of marrying age, s/he would decide which sex role s/he would fill: the individual was given the chance to change the earlier designation or keep it. However, if one kept switching back and forth, well, that wasn’t okay—that was considered to be disruptive to the social order because you were not staying in and fulfilling your role. ROLE was more important than some binary biological determination of male or female based on the characteristics of one’s body. You see, the medieval mind is actually very similar to the mindset that we see in kids around the age of seven when they become obsessed with the rules of games and are morally outraged (“Cheater!!”) at anyone who breaks them. So you might say that switching one’s sex identity was cheating, messing with the rules of society that provide distinct roles for men and women within each class.

I’m trying to make a subtle point—because it wasn’t that sex and gender were unimportant; it was just that the most culturally significant factor in determining your life’s course was social class or caste. Foucault writes about Barbin as an example of a human being caught in the transition from medieval traditionalism to modernism. As I have written about before, modernity gave us the ideology and values whereby gender roles and characteristics are considered to be binary and oppositional—where masculine and feminine are deemed to be mutually exclusive. In the diary that Foucault published, Barbin bemoans the fact that she cannot choose her own gender and that she cannot live as she wishes, rather than how the authorities decide that she should live. Within modernity, she has no choice: there are only two sexes, and they are binary opposites. So, her “true” sex had to be determined and she would have to live accordingly. This binary thinking that so characterizes modernity—and was very important to the development of human thought—was applied to sex/gender at the same time that society itself began to be divided into the male public sphere and the female private world.

I’m deliberately trying to mess with our unthinking sense that our notions of sex and gender are natural, true, and express some fundamental principles of the cosmos. Not to leave us in a swamp of relativistic indeterminacy, but to show that these aspects of who we are as human beings develop. They change over the course of human history and cultural evolution. We have not, as a culture, moved beyond a binary construct of gender as a central organizing principle for life and identity. Not even in our postmodern times of sexual and gender liberation—we just keep re-inscribing the sense of binary, dualistic difference rather than being free from it. Even in the most far-out fringes of gender bending—the world, say, of transsexual provocateur Kate Bornstein—the polarity of man/woman, masculine/feminine is still the binary construct that underlies one’s options for identity. Perhaps if we no longer held onto this binary notion of gender, individuals who exhibit what we now consider to be masculine traits but are in female bodies (and vice versa) wouldn’t feel compelled to change their sex. They wouldn’t need to–it wouldn’t matter so much.

Maybe one day someone like Caster Semenya will be able to compete as an athlete, and these questions won’t be raised. We’ll divide the competition by, say, weight and testosterone levels or something else that determines performance, rather than sex. That may be strange and hard to imagine. But it’s important to realize, when we think about our next evolutionary steps, that these aspects of life that feel so deeply natural will inevitably change in ways that we cannot now foresee.

One response to “Caster Semenya: When Gender is Not Sex”

  1. Carol Raphael says:

    This is an excellent post, Elizabeth, for prying open a view into such deeply held notions of selfhood that we all inhabit. I, too, was fascinated by Caster Semenya’s story though I hadn’t taken the implications of gender conditioning nearly as far as you’re pointing us to. But I did contemplate the fact that the scope of this whole phenomenon could only have occurred in such a widely narcissistic culture as our own. One of the hallmarks of a narcissistic culture, as Christopher Lasch pointed out so many years ago, is to fill our empty selves with the victories and defeats of athletes, starlets, and other media personalities whom we devour. I did read recently of another mind-bending physical anomaly in which a man carried the fetus of his unborn twin inside his body, undetected, into adulthood. Not an issue of sex identity per se but it does reveal how malleable human life is, even at the most dense, physical plane.


From pop culture to politics, sexuality to spirituality, whatever and what-have-you, I'm commenting on it, hashing out my own thinking on the upward trends and troubles of our times. Please join in with a comment!

Beyond Polarity: A New Encounter between Women and Men

The day after my very first appearance on New York cable TV—it was the 80s, so cable was new and small—I got...

What Makes a Truly Global Education?

In the middle of nothing—that is, nothing but sand stretching in every direction—there is a peculiar oasis. It has huge palm trees with thick...

Time to Be Human: Gender Liberation and the Creation of a New Culture

The United Nations declared 1976-1985 the Decade of Women, which created an international consensus on the importance of women’s political and social equality. The...