Intersex Women in Sport: Privacy or Play?

Contributor Diya Nair is a third year Law student at KCL, who is interested in post-colonial feminism and the intersection of culture and gender identity.

[Featured Image: Caster Semenya holding a South African flag just after winning a sport competition.]

Dutee Chand was deemed ‘suspiciously masculine’ with her muscles supposedly being too pronounced and her stride too impressive for her female form; Eva Klobukowska was viewed as ‘unnaturally robust and mannish’; Santhi Soundarajan was scrutinised for her ‘deep voice and flat chest’ and Caster Semenya was castigated for her ‘unshaved armpits’ and her ‘flexed-biceps pose’. These women share a common genesis: a rags-to-riches tale of their extraordinary sporting ability being nurtured and flourishing, despite challenging circumstances, eventually propelling them to international fame. Once these women are in the public eye, however, their notion of their own femininity and womanhood is shattered. They are all revealed to be intersex and are forced to grapple with a sports industry, underpinned by a ‘dimorphic understanding of sex’.

The term ‘intersex’ has been coined by the United Nations as a term for individuals who are born with sex characteristics or genitalia that ‘do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies’. Attempts to statistically estimate the number of intersex people in the world are often extremely complex, given the nuanced manifestations and symptoms an intersex individual may exhibit. Some intersex women may be born with all the identifying female sex chromosomes but may have ‘ambiguous genitalia’. Others may have male chromosomes and ‘undescended testes’ but an enzyme formation makes them appear female. A few others will have male chromosomes and ‘internal testes’, however appear visibly female due to their bodies ‘being insensitive to testosterone’.

International sporting administrators have been haunted by an, as-yet, unfounded fear of imposters fraudulently attempting to manipulate the sacrosanct level playing field the sporting industry is renowned for. This has been especially marked with regards to female sports. In the 1940’s, female competitors in international sporting events were required to produce medically sound ‘femininity certificates’ to prove their gender identity. By the early 1960’s, a mandatory genital check of every female participant consisted in women having to splay naked before a host of medical professionals. Soon after, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to introduce a more humane verification procedure with a chromosome test. ‘Researchers estimate that between 1972 and 1990, sex-testing procedures disqualified approximately one in 504 elite athletes’.

Mired in controversy for policing gender identities in the 21st century, the IIAF refocused their efforts, in 2011, on implementing a remodelled test to exclude intersex women termed as the ‘hyperandrogenism’ test. Women, ‘reasonably believed’ to have testosterone levels higher than the limits mandated, would be tested. These women selected for testing were subjected to debasing invasions involving ‘evaluating their breast size and pubic hair’, and ‘palpating their clitoris’ with reference to a ‘five-grade scale’. If found to have high testosterone levels, they would then be given an ultimatum: quit sports or undergo painful surgical procedures to fundamentally alter their body, in order to be female enough to compete.

In 2009, Caster Semenya’s test results were leaked to the media suggesting she had no womb or ovaries and would be classified as intersex. The impact was instantaneous with certain sections of the public alleging deception, and some of her female teammates lamenting the unfair advantage Semenya would have if she were still allowed to compete. Blindsided by the vitriol and lack of control over her own narrative, Semenya suffered in silence for almost six years. Bombarded with confusing medical jargon following the revelation that her body produced more androgens than most women, Dutee Chand recalls feeling ‘like an alien’. She recounts the humiliations she endured in her village, where people would openly point at her and ask her whether she was ‘normal’. Similarly, for Santhi Soundarajan, running offered a golden ticket to a better life that her low-caste status would never allow for. She heard of the news of her ‘failed’ sex test on television and recalls feeling that her life was destroyed. In 2007, Soundarajan, attempted suicide.

By delineating the boundaries of female identity, the IAAF and IOC continue to promote binary oppositions, in an age of increasingly fluid gender identifications. Sports organisations continue to defend the exclusion of intersex women in female sports, citing their increased testosterone levels or male sex characteristics as affecting the equal footing all athletes must start at. In this manner, testosterone is utilised as a litmus test for determining gender identity. Critics disagree with this diminutive approach to ‘arbitrating a male-female divide’ as it discounts the fact that ‘gender is a sloppy proxy for a whole constellation of biological markers and lived experiences and cultural norms”. In 2015, Chand brought a case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, alleging the ‘hyperandrogenism’ test was discriminatory against women, as men were not screened for natural high levels of testosterone. Men with higher levels of testosterone are permitted to compete against other men with lower levels, amidst no concerns of unfair advantage.

Scientific research has yet to come to a definitive conclusion on the causal link between greater levels of testosterone and athletic performance. The IAAF and IOC point to the fact that the ‘number of intersex athletes in female athletics is 140 times more than what you would find in the normal female population’ as indicative of the effect of high testosterone levels. Intersex activist, Morgan Carpenter counters this notion, illustrating how an intersex woman’s high level natural testosterone would not function and be utilised in the same manner as the usage of artificial testosterone. Chand’s 2015 case also affirmed that other variables such as access to specialist training facilities, biological factors and nutrition, may have more of a significant impact on athletic performance.

In 2018, the IAAF implemented their new policy enabling intersex women to compete in restricted events at non-international events, compete in non-restricted events or compete against male athletes. Should they choose to take hormones to lower their levels of testosterone, they would be allowed to compete in restricted events at international events. These incremental steps represent a slow movement towards inclusion, and yet intersex women are left wondering: will they will ever feel woman enough?



[Image Source: ABC News]


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