Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles in which ETSU faculty from various departments will evaluate life and current events using their specialized expertise. Hilary Malatino is the assistant director of the ETSU Women’s Studies Program.
I’m endlessly fascinated by the Olympics.
I’m entranced by the feats of athletic prowess that seem superhuman, beyond comprehensible, particularly to us folks who don’t spend the majority of our lives training.
As a professor of Women’s Studies here at ETSU, as well as an athlete – a runner and rock climber – I’m deeply interested in questions of gender, strength and athletic performance.
And as someone who has spent the last decade researching the medical treatment of intersex conditions – instances wherein folks are born with atypical forms of gendered embodiment – I’m also extremely invested in the phenomenon of what is called “sex verification testing,” a battery of tests that some Olympic athletes have been forced to undergo. Sex verification testing, which is also called gender verification testing, or simply “sex testing,” is a practice that began in the mid-20th century following suspicions that male athletes were going “undercover” – passing as women – in order to compete in women’s sports.
Athletes were subjected to intrusive physical examinations and, later, chromosomal and hormonal testing in order to prove their sex. From the mid-20th century until 1992, all athletes governed by the International Association of Athletics Federations were subjected to sex verification testing; now, it is implemented on a case-by-case basis, most frequently on women with intersex conditions whose chromosomes and hormonal levels may be gender-atypical.
Caster Semenya, a runner from South Africa and someone with an intersex condition, is one of these women.
In 2009, Semenya – after a sudden dramatic improvement in her sprint times – was subjected to sex-verification testing by the International Academy of Athletics Federations.
They suspected she was too fast for a women – that she must have “abnormally” high levels of testosterone that altered her performance, that surpassed the so-called “upper limit” on testosterone levels within female athletes that the IAAF enforced.
She was prevented from competing until 2010, and ran, then, only under the condition that she undergo hormone therapy to bring her testosterone levels back within the female-typical range.
In 2016, after years of continuous pressure from intersex and trans rights advocates, medical professionals, and bioethicists, officials have revised their stance, effectively eliminating this upper limit.
In the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Semenya is competing, for the first time in years, with the cocktail of hormones her body – her intersex body – naturally produces.
Semenya reminds us that sex and gender is infinitely more varied and complex than “sex verification” tests lead us to believe; her case is a reminder that gender and biological sex – like strength, speed, and fine-motor coordination – exists on a spectrum, can change over time, and is wonderfully manifold.
Just as we embrace the beautiful amalgam of bodies, nations, and sports on display at the 2016 Olympics, let us embrace sex and gender diversity, as well.