Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sex typing is fuzzy science

Verifying physical sex assumes a sharp line between male and female

Inclusion of ‘expert on gender’ implies assumptions have been made, writes Sally Gross

  • Athletes: Sex vs gender

    CASTER Semenya’s situation strikes powerful chords in my personal experience. About 15 years ago, the determination that I am intersexed pulled my life comprehensively apart.

    It brought a brutal end to my career as an academic pedagogue and teacher of philosophy and it killed an almost completed doctoral thesis in which the Oxford University Press had expressed interest.

    The ostracism I experienced and the shattering of expectations and hopes left me a dead person on leave.

    A few years later , medical evidence documenting the ambiguity of my genitalia led to the denial of any official South African identifying documents, making me a non-person in the South African legal context, unable even to return to my land of birth.

    The two examinations that informed the documentation I was required to submit were respectful and gentle, but I still remember them as deeply traumatising.

    I became a person in South African law again only after a 15-month battle leading to ad hoccery on the part of the authorities, for which I am grateful.

    Given my background, I have some sense of the extent to which the tests and the controversy are bound to have an impact on young Caster, notwithstanding the brave face she puts on, and I feel obliged to challenge what is being done.

    Semenya is not suspected of pretending to be female. Nor is she thought to be a post-operative transsexual — regulations permit post-op transsexuals to compete in their new genders from two years after surgery. What seems to be in question is whether she is perhaps intersexed, and this brings her right to compete as a woman into question.

    Information in the media about the character of the testing indicates that this involves, inter alia, a chromosomal screen, gynaecological examination, an endocrinological screening, examination of internal structures of reproduction and sex glands, as well as a barrage of psychological tests. An “expert on gender” is also to be involved.

    Chromosomal screening focuses primarily on whether the chromosomal pattern is XX, typically female, or XY, typically male.

    The far less likely “genetic mosaicism”, where some tissue is XX and some XY and, though extremely unlikely in this case, the OX pattern of Turner’s syndrome and the XXY pattern of Klinefelter’s Syndrome, will also be covered.

    The gynaecological examinations will presumably examine the external genitalia, the endocrinological screening will look at levels of testosterone, oestrogen and progesterones. The internal medical screening will presumably look at gonadal structure, ovarian or testicular, also screening for mixed gonads or streak testicular tissue.

    An impression of rigour and scientific objectivity is given. The process, after all, is to be conducted by experts in their fields, apparently yielding a panel with unassailable expertise in the domain of the verification of sex and gender. Applying good sense and logic to what is proposed and what is alleged suggests that the appearance of scientific rigour and objectivity is deceptive.

    Suspicion that Caster is not a “real woman” is based on purely secondary sexual characteristics: muscular build, deep-ish voice, and some facial hair. OK, she is butch; but are butch women barred from women’s events?

    A female athlete who turns out to be intersexed is most likely affected by one of two syndromes: complete or near complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), or congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH).

    In complete or near complete AIS, the chromosomal pattern is XY and gonads in the abdomen turn out to be testes churning out testosterone. However, no cell of the body is able to respond to testosterone in a way that allows the body to be masculinised.

    AIS women lack facial, underarm and pubic hair. Semenya’s hairiness, as well as her physique, seem to rule AIS out. Should tests indicate CAH, where chromosomes are XX, classification of sex is likely to be as female.

    Odds are thus that Semenya is not intersexed. So she’s butch — not a big deal. And if she’s intersexed, so what?

    The process of verifying physical sex assumes a razor-sharp boundary-line between male and female. The theory: investigation will always uncover an underlying “real sex”, either male or female.

    In fact, boundaries are often awkwardly fuzzy. Physical sex in real-world terms is better viewed as a continuum with two poles, one male and the other female.

    There are XY women and XX men. Both testosterone and oestrogen are found in male and female bodies. Setting sharp boundaries, whatever the consequences and ignoring the fuzziness, flies in the face of objectivity and is anything but scientific.

    Including psychological testing and involving “an expert on gender” are extremely worrying. Sex and gender are different. Sex is physical; gender, by contrast, is a social construct. Gender norms vary radically in different cultures and social contexts, and stereotypes are part of gender.

    Psychological gender-screening and bringing a so-called gender expert to the party suggest that far-reaching assumptions about masculine and feminine patterns of behaviour and mind-sets taint the process.

    Given the extent to which gender norms vary across cultures and the known oppressiveness of gender-stereotyping, inclusion of psychological testing and the gender expert makes it clear that the process is neither objective nor scientific. Against the backdrop of media speculation, it is a humiliating ritual.

    It is reasonable to ensure that someone born and reared as male and, who is unequivocally male, does not masquerade as female. Examination of the external genitalia should suffice. Lifting the skirt of Hermann “Dora” Ratjen in the 1930s resolved the issue once and for all.

    The panoply of both physical and psychological tests in Semenya’s case goes way beyond what is reasonable and infringes her dignity as a person.

    Support for her in South Africa is heartening. All who support her should lobby for the arrogant and humiliating process of “gender verification” to be ended once and for all, be it in athletics or elsewhere. Whether or not Semenya turns out to be intersexed, her supporters are also honour-bound to support an end to any prejudice against the intersexed.

  • Sally Gross is the founder of Intersex South Africa —www.intersex.org.za

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