Page last updated September 2020

The Caster Semenya decision is 18th century sexism, again

Caster Semenya decision

Debating what does and doesn’t make a woman is one of the most popular activities on the internet today. But while the bots are a new touch, the ‘debate’ is centuries old — and it’s still being used to repress us.

It was announced yesterday that Caster Semenya, a superstar Black South African runner, lost her long-running appeal against the rule requiring women with high testosterone levels to lower them with medication if they wish to compete in certain athletic events.

Semenya is a cisgender woman who has raised testosterone levels due to differences in sex development (DSD). She is not the only female athlete — nor the only woman — to have levels of testosterone that are higher than average, known clinically as hyperandrogenism.

But she had won her 30th consecutive 800m race just before the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) came up with new regulations in May 2019, forcing female DSD athletes to take testosterone-lowering medication if they wanted to race in events from 400m up to a mile.

If women didn’t conform to their gender role, something considered essential and innate, they were pathologised and restricted from participating fully in the world around them

Have these rules been invented because she’s a Black woman who is winning too much? Almost certainly, yes. Was this an easy solution because there is a long history of using biology to justify the repression of women? Also yes.

Using biology to equate womanhood with certain traits, and therefore to justify discrimination, was popular among 18th century Men of Science. Charles Darwin is perhaps the most famous sexist from this time, reasoning that “males are more evolutionarily advanced than females”1 among peers who concluded that “women’s brains are analogous to those of animals”, having “overdeveloped” sense organs “to detriment of the brain”.2

Darwin and friends believed that women were inferior intellectually — and more emotional, docile, and adoring — because that was simply the way they were; a course in life they were to inherit because of the bodies they were born into.

By the 19th century, expectations around womanhood were so tied to the physical fact of female bodies that a medical term emerged for those who deviated from their gender role: hysteria. Nineteenth-century physicians described hysterical women as difficult, narcissistic, impressionable, suggestible, egocentric, and labile3 — personality traits that only became pathological once they were attached to a female body.

Make no mistake: this was a means of controlling women. If they didn’t conform to their gender role, something considered essential and innate, they were pathologised and restricted from participating fully in the world around them.

Excessive testosterone has been shown to improve sports performance in both women and men. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be any cap imposed on the naturally-occurring testosterone levels in men

Today, the argument that to be a woman is to have certain biology is thriving. It’s used to harass and attack transgender women, saying that because they were not born into a body with a vulva and breasts, the fact of their existence is invalid.

It is being used with Caster Semenya, saying that because she has too much testosterone, a biological trait coded as male, she is therefore not ‘woman enough’ to compete in female-only track events.

The truth, however, is that testosterone is not exclusively found in men, nor is it ‘fixed’ or consistent in its effects. Women also have naturally-occurring testosterone, and it is estimated that around 5-10% of cisgender women have hyperandrogenism.4 Excessive testosterone has been shown to improve sports performance in both women5 and men6 — taking testosterone supplements is banned from most professional sports for this reason. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be any cap imposed on the naturally-occurring testosterone levels in men.

Testosterone is considered to be a marker of sex difference because cisgender men have, on average, much higher levels of testosterone than cisgender women. Authors of a 2015 study note that this has lead to the understanding of testosterone as “the essence of maleness, fixed and unchanging” — a conclusion that is “empirically dubious”.7 The study, while small, measured levels of testosterone in participants performing in competitive tasks, in which they needed to wield power in both stereotypically masculine and feminine ways. When women wielded power, their testosterone levels increased — regardless of whether they were behaving in typically masculine or feminine ways.8

Other researchers have noted that while biological parameters of sex exist, they are not neatly divided into two categories nor do they account for consistent differences in traits between men and women

Other researchers have noted that while biological parameters of sex exist, they are not neatly divided into two categories9 nor do they account for consistent differences in traits between men and women.10

In Semenya’s case, there is also the important intersection of race to consider. Black women have historically been left out of the women’s movement and experience discrimination due to racist stereotypes that they are overly angry and aggressive. The entitlement towards ownership, control, and domination of Black bodies also has a well-worn history in slavery, contraception, hypersexualisation, and more.

Using women’s biology as reasoning to restrict their participation in society was oppressive in the 18th century and now, the Caster Semenya decision has added ‘testosterone levels’ to the list of traits to police.

 
Featured image is two images of Caster Semenya, which have been put together into the frame to create a ‘cut out’ collage effect. In one image, Semenya is running, and in the other, she is smiling after finishing a race

Page last updated September 2020

Monica Karpinski

Founder & Editor, The Femedic

Monica is the Founder and Editor of The Femedic. Against a journalism background and after years of leading content marketing projects in the healthcare space, it became clear that health information out there for women simply wasn’t good enough. No-one had bothered to look deeper into the ways women were searching for information, or consider the depth of what they actually needed to know. Instead of waiting for the perfect publication to approach her, she created The Femedic.

Monica has been named one of The Drum’s 50 under 30 for influential women in digital 2018 and was shortlisted for Female Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2018 British Business awards. She speaks and writes widely on gender and health inequality.

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References

  1. Kevles, Bettyann, 1986. Females of the Species: Sex and Survival in the Animal Kingdom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  2. Fee, Elizabeth. 1979. “Nineteenth-Century Craniology: The Study of the Female Skull.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 53:415-433
  3. Ussher, Jane M., Diagnosing difficult women and pathologising femininity: Gender bias in psychiatric nosology, Feminism & Psychology, 2013, vol 23, no 1, pp 63-69
  4. Yildiz, Bulent O, Diagnosis of hyperandrogenism: clinical criteria, Best Practice & Research: Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, June 2006, vol 20, issue 2, pp 167-76
  5. Bermon, S., et al., Women with hyperandrogenism in elite sports: scientific and ethical rationales for regulating, The Journal of Clinical endocrinology & Metabolism, March 2015, vol 100, issue 3, pp 828-830
  6. Wood, R.I., and Stanton, S.J., Testosterone and sport: current perspectives, Hormones and Behaviour, January 2012, vol 61, no 1, pp 147-155
  7. Van Anders, S.M., et al., Effects of gendered behaviour on testosterone in women and men, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, October 2015, vol 112, issue 45, pp 13805-13810
  8. Ibid
  9. Bermon, S., et al., Women with hyperandrogenism in elite sports: scientific and ethical rationales for regulating, The Journal of Clinical endocrinology & Metabolism, March 2015, vol 100, issue 3, pp 828-830
  10. Joel, D., et al., Sex beyond the genitalia: the human brain mosaic, PNAS, December 2015, vol 112, no 50, pp 15468-15473