by Elizabeth Reis on Sep 15, 2009
Caster Semenya, the South African runner who won the women’s 800-meter race at the World Track Championships in Berlin last month, has been unofficially declared intersexed. If she is, it means that she was born with some discrepancy between her external genitals, internal sex anatomy (ovaries or testes and her hormones and chromosomes.
The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) will not make its official ruling as to whether it considers Semenya a woman until November, but an increasing number of news outlets around the world have reported that she’s “a hermaphrodite.” What does this mean, exactly?
The media’s terminology itself reflects the ignorance and confusion surrounding intersex. Doctors and informed lay people no longer use the word hermaphrodite because it is vague, demeaning and sensationalistic. “Hermaphrodite” continues to conjure images of mythical creatures, perhaps even monsters and freaks. It’s thus not surprising that most have rejected the label.
Historically, hermaphrodite has been one of the more neutral descriptors of those born with atypical sex development. Derogatory terms such as “freak of nature,” “hybrid,” “impostor,” “sexual pervert,” and “unfortunate creature” pervade early American medical literature. In one standard 19th-century text on malformations, one doctors referred to “these mortifying and disgusting imperfections.”
Intersex bodies have always aroused suspicion. But many people’s distrust of them has not been limited to the playing fields, nor is it new. Throughout American history, doctors and lay people in authority have assumed that those born with atypical bodies were dishonest and fraudulent (say, in illegally voting when the franchise was limited to men), or were seeking illegal sexual relations. These authorities persistently tried to define ambiguous bodies as either male or female.
Yet over the years doctors’ evaluations of intersex bodies have shifted. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, a person with a female-appearing body would have been counseled to undergo surgery in order to appear more like a man because of her internal testes, particularly if doctors discovered that she was sexually attracted to women. In the 1940s, doctors turned to the new field of psychology to guide their decisions and determined that it was more sensible to let such an individual continue living as a woman, if she so chose.
These “medical” decisions were informed by social anxieties and therapeutic trends, not scientific findings. From the 1950s onward, doctors have tried to intervene surgically at infancy, before patients had a chance to develop an identity as female or male. Doctors would decide an intersex baby’s gender primarily by how well they thought the external genitals could be surgically reshaped to appear “normal.”
The thinking was that there was a window of opportunity in which a baby’s gender could go either way. All it took was the parents’ unwavering commitment toward raising either a boy or a girl, and this could only happen, doctors believed, if the baby’s genitals looked distinctly male or female. Nurture, they believed, trumped nature, particularly when nature seemed confused.
In each era, attitudes toward intersex bodies have expressed the social norms of their time and place. Today, the response to Caster Semenya highlights the pervasive yet misguided insistence that the sexes are unambiguously distinct and easily distinguishable. As some declare Semenya too manly to compete, for example, a popular South African magazine features a glamorously feminine Semenya on its cover, as if she were Oprah. Real life is more complicated.
If Semenya has female external anatomy but male internal anatomy, as the recent reports suggest, is she a woman or a man? Medical authorities have pondered such cases for years, and only one thing seems clear: interpretation of these findings is as much (or even more) social than scientific.
Today authorities (like the IAAF) have spent much time trying to determine intersexed people’s “true sex.” Their efforts have been invasive and sometimes degrading and embarrassing to women like Caster Semenya.
And what’s the point? Our two-gendered world forces all people to be classified as male or female even when the boundaries are more blurred than we imagine. We simply do not have a social category for intersex people, despite the fact that intersex occurs in one out of every 2000 births.
We necessarily make social decisions about whether to raise an intersex baby as a boy or a girl. Once these decisions have been made, we should honor a family’s judgment. Caster Semenya was raised as a girl, considers herself a woman, and is regarded as a woman by her community. Yet now she has had to submit to a humiliating public inspection and deal with new knowledge about her body that casts doubt upon her identity as well as her integrity.
Intersex people have endured such scrutiny for years because their bodies posed a threat to our assumption that the male and female are completely distinct categories. Perhaps Semenya’s test results with her public defense will challenge this notion.
In recent years, the medical world has made strides in letting intersex bodies stay as they are by holding off on infant surgeries and by letting people decide for themselves about their own bodies when they are adults. This autonomy is a good thing; it gives credit to the person himself or herself. Let’s give Semenya some credit too and congratulate her on a good race.
Elizabeth Reis is the author of "Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex" (2009). She is an associate professor of women's and gender studies and history at the University of Oregon in Eugene and a writer for the History News Service.