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January 28, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Square Pegs in Round Holes – Hermaphrodites


Published by Farrago in 2009

Caster Semenya easily claimed gold in the World Championships in Athletics 800m race in Berlin this year. In so doing, she reignited an ancient controversy at the centre of public debate over gender and sexuality. The 18-year-old world championship gold medallist has sparked an international furore in women’s athletics after gender tests revealed she had internal testes and no womb or ovaries. At the time of printing, Semenya is in danger of losing her gold medal. The media ran with the story so thoroughly that it is quite possible most people in the developed world know more about Caster Semenya’s biology than they do their own. Semenya’s situation, and the furore surrounding her participation in women’s athletics, encapsulated public feeling about intersexuality. In a society where gender-defined status is universally-pervasive, hermaphrodites such as Semenya are trapped in an uncomfortable purgatory.

The Macquarie Concise Dictionary defines ‘hermaphrodites’ as ‘a person with male and female sexual organs and characteristics’, but the Intersex Society of North America prefers to term ‘intersex’, arguing that ‘hermaphrodite’ suggests someone who is both ‘fully male and fully female’ (which is biologically impossible for humans). Interestingly, all fertilised embryos are initially primed to be females; it is an influx of hormones which initially encourages the growth of testes and triggers the development of typically masculine tendencies. If this sequence doesn’t occur in perfect order, an intersex individual or child with ambiguous genitalia can develop as a result.

Current rates are difficult to find, but 1998 research from North America put the prevalence of intersex births at 1 in every 1500. This does not include children born with cosmetically ‘unacceptable’ genitalia, including unusually large clitorises or hypospadic penises (where the urethra is somewhere other than the tip of the penis). When intersex babies are born, parents (particularly in the developed world) are generally encouraged to ‘make’ their baby a boy or a girl.

The presence of testes within an intersex patient can put them at a higher risk of cancer and can also cause hernias; as a result, testes are routinely removed from intersex patients. In this instance, the medical system operates to protect intersex patients from a clear threat of illness. But does infantile sex-assignment surgery offer any positive benefit to intersex patients?

Justine Schober, a urological surgeon at the Hamot Medical Center in Pennsylvania, presented a follow-up study in 1988 of 20 boys and men who did not have surgery for a condition called micropenis. The findings directly contradicted common medical practice, which recommended surgically reassigning the boys as girls. Her study found that those with untreated micropenis were generally happy with that decision and testified that they had fulfilled lives, with the older subjects reporting good sex lives and normal marriages, including one who was a father. Alice Dreger, an ethicist at Michigan State University, argues that an intersex individual is not necessarily traumatised by their condition, but by ‘finding out they have been lied to…what it says it that your condition is so shameful we can’t even speak of it. It’s like the way cancer used to be treated’.

This kind of attitude to intersexual biology is reflected in the furore surrounding Semenya’s sex. Being ignorant of one’s own gender essentially challenges one’s knowledge of self. Sexual identity is vital to personal identity, as recognising one’s own gender allows society based on whether that individual is ‘male’ or ‘female’. Recent rumours suggesting Lady Gaga was a hermaphrodite caused one persistent reporter to be thrown out of a press conference, with the singer claiming the journalist ‘insulted her vagina’. If such a report is true, it exposed an underlying social discomfort with sexually ambiguous people. Society’s heavy reliance on gender-based conditioning means that, regardless of the fact that intersex people are otherwise essentially healthy people, they are placed at an enormous disadvantage when attempting to engage in society without a clear gender.

If Semenya has no womb or ovaries, can she be classified as a woman? If she can no longer perceive herself as a women, then how does she prepare to enter society without that ‘key’ to social engagement in a gender-defined world? In Semenya’s case, she considers herself to be female, even if her biology makes that a disputed subject. If Semenya acts female, and ‘feels’ female, then how can she be otherwise?  

One of the most infamous transgender patient cases in America, David Reimer, suggests that nature can sometimes override socially-ingrained reactions. Born in the United States, David was a healthy boy whose penis was accidentally ablated during a circumcision at 8 months of age. The decision was made to alter the damaged genital tissue to give the appearance of a vagina and rear the boy as ‘Brenda’. David’s testes were removed as part of the process. As David was an identical twin, the ‘control’ twin was a perfect biological clone to compliment the social experiment, a pet case for David’s primary childhood psychologist, John Money. At fourteen years of age, David was a frustrated and depressed teenager; his father admitted the truth, and Brenda chose to become ‘David’, (later David Reimer). His case was widely publicised, resulting in the book David Reimer: The Boy Who Lived As a Girl, and used to discredit Money’s theory that gender was socially imbued and not physically dictated. David was not intersex, but his case demonstrates that society is probably not the only factor which results in someone instinctually acting in a feminine or masculine way. 

Interestingly, the Intersex Society of North America advocates assigning a male or female gender to an intersex baby ‘depending on which of those genders the child is more likely to feel as she or he grows up’. It seems to suggest that even if the impetus to act ‘male’ or ‘female’ may be psychologically inappropriate for an intersex child, it is the closest thing society can offer in terms of inclusiveness for those who don’t toe the boundaries of biological conformity.

In terms of athleticism, people with intersexual characteristics such as Caster Semenya face an impossible reality. Allowing intersex people who identify as female to compete against biological women is generally considered an unfair advantage, as the higher levels of testosterone in some intersexual people permits better muscle development, improving athletic ability. However, Semenya would be at a distinct disadvantage competing against men. So where could an individual such as Semenya compete? The decision to go up against the top men in her event would leave her, on average, ten seconds behind the pack. Either way, being stuck in the middle of gender politics guarantees that her professional sporting career is in tatters.

Intersexed people competing in professional sport—with or without the knowledge of their complete biological history—is not a new phenomenon. In 2005, Samukeliso Sithole was sentenced to four years in prison after competing in female athletic events, even though Sithole was a man. At the 1932 Los Angeles Games, Polish athlete Stanislawa Walasiewicz won gold for the 100 metre sprint, winning silver four years later in the same event. In her career, she set over 100 national and world records, and if it had not been for a freak armed robbery in 1980, Walasiewicz would never have been revealed as an intersex person. Shot dead during the robbery, an autopsy revealed she had male genitalia.

In Semenya’s case, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) spokesman Nick Davies has made it clear that hers is a ‘medical issue’, and that ‘these tests do not suggest any suspicion of deliberate misconduct but seek to assess the possibility of a potential medical condition which would give Semenya an unfair advantage’. The question of whether to allow Semenya to keep her medal will most likely be answered using a precedent set in 1964, when the Polish women’s 4 x 400 relay team won Olympic gold but one runner turned out to be a man. The team was allowed to keep its medals, and while Semenya is unlikely to receive the US$60,000 she received for her win in Berlin, she may get to keep her championship gold.

Even if an intersex gender becomes an accepted category in human society and the sporting world, this system is still centred around using biological characteristics to define social traits. As intersex people can be mostly male, mostly female, or somewhere closer to the ‘middle’ of both sexes, this still means that sexually-unique individuals are square pegs being forced into round holes. Intersex individuals highlight the rigid gender-based framework that defines an individual’s interaction with others, when this should not necessarily be the case.

For Caster Semenya, she will almost certainly be banned from competing in women’s athletics; her extra testosterone gives her a distinct advantage over her female competitors. Testosterone, as a primarily ‘male’ hormone, is responsible for building muscle bulk, as well as body hair and a deep voice. Extra muscle bulk in an athletic tournament would clearly have advantageous repercussions, regardless of whether it is naturally or artificially created testosterone.

It is also reputed that she was not aware of her biological structure, meaning that when the world discovered she had testes, Semenya will forced to redefine her concept of self, undoubtedly an enormous psychological challenge. When quizzed by You magazine in September 2009 on the imminent test results, Semenya simply said that she sees the tests “as a joke…God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I’m proud of myself.” It is up to Semenya to decide whether she should choose a gender to inhabit or find a new method of self-conceptualisation. The IAAF has an objective to ascertain whether Semenya can qualify to compete in women’s athletics, but the sensationalist nature of the story inevitably provokes debate around what being a ‘real’ woman means.

The debate surrounding intersexual individuals is as old as civilisation itself, complete with its own ancient history of artistic inspiration. Polycles, an artist at his peak at around 370 BC, has become famous for his celebrated statue of a hermaphrodite. A Roman copy of the statue rests in the Louvre, Paris. Lying on a cushioned bed and draped by a blanket, the plump, womanly figure is resting, unaware of his or her audience. The hermaphrodite is almost nymphlike, unashamed of his or her nakedness and wearing a serene countenance on a placid face. It is only when the viewer encircles the statue that the hermaphrodite’s male genitalia is perceived. The figure doesn’t seem to care about being exposed, even if his or her audience is does. The viewer is confronted with the unexpected, which is sculpted to greet the eye with a classical depiction of the human form. Polycles’ most celebrated masterpiece is undoubtedly a reflection of reality, regardless of how the world defines his or her existence.

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