Thursday , 20 January 2022

Sporting bodies: accounting for the intersex

The announcement last week that an Indian sprinter, Dutee Chand, has been forbidden from competing in Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games because she has high testosterone levels has highlighted a problem that sport can’t see to shake. Although our whole society is built around a binary division of sexes, it’s in sport that it really comes to the fore – and so it’s in sport that we ultimately have to acknowledge to gap between societal habit and biological reality.

It should be noted that although Ms Chand has been prevented from competing (by her own national sporting body) there is at this point no proof that she is intersex. Neither has there been any public announcement of this in the case of Caster Semenya, the South African athlete who encountered the same problem in 2009. Of course, this doesn’t decrease public speculation, which can have devastating effects on young people who have, after all, worked for years for a chance of glory that will quickly pass out of reach as they get older. Actual diagnosis can be life-changing and difficult enough to deal with without the glare of media attention. But given the importance of fair competition, is there any way the subject can be avoided?

Fairness is an inherently difficult question in sport, and there are all sorts of advantages we don’t call into question at all: height, for instance, is likely to make a bigger difference than testosterone in the average race. The case of ‘blade runner’ athletes like Oscar Pistorius and Johnny Peacock makes clear that it’s possible to make assessments of fairness that don’t call character into question. But when it comes to sex, and when it comes to women, there’s a lot more than fairness at stake.

That this is as much a social issue as a practical one becomes apparent when we look beyond intersex to the way women’s bodies have been understood in sport more generally. The 2012 Olympics in London saw a concerted effort to move away from the old stereotypes, prompted by widespread concern that girls were risking their health by abstaining from sports because they didn’t want to look masculine. Not long before this, however, vicious media attacks were made on former javelin thrower Fatima Whitbread, hinging on the suggestion that she looked like a man. The following year, Wimbledon winner Marion Bartoli faced similar ridicule over her failure to fit conventional expectations of beauty. The media love a success story, but when it comes to sport, they don’t want to see female winners with actual muscle.

There’s an element of racism to this. Most of those attacking Caster Semenya’s appearance were comparing her not to other African women but to white women, whom they held up as an ideal of femininity. Tennis players Venus and Serena Williams have also been treated in this way when being attacked for having ‘thick’ arms. During the Cold War, sportswomen were judged against the imagined ethnic differences of Russian women, who were portrayed as naturally burly, a handful of shot-putters presented as typical examples and ridiculed in the press. Among the other comments made about them was the frequent assertion that they must be lesbian – in other words, that how a woman presented herself must be bound up with her sexuality and desire to please men, even when it was her job to excel at sport.

Sex policing in sport goes way beyond concern with fairness. Rifle shooting, for instance, is divided into male and female categories, despite there being no evidence that one of these groups is better at it than the other. And where individual women prove themselves quite capable of competing with men, they often find they are forbidden to do so, as is the case in football. Trans men are accepted, having crossed a line and ceased to threaten the binary model, but strong, muscular women who identify as women are another thing entirely.

This leads to the popular assumption that any female competitor found to have ‘unusually high’ testosterone levels (itself a problematic concept, as all athletes have testosterone levels that are higher than average) must, in fact, be a man. The assertion that someone is intersex is often taken as code for this. Many people seem to think it describes someone who looks female but is male (or vice versa), rather than someone whose physiology doesn’t fit the standard model of either. This means that athletes claimed to be intersex find their gender identities and even their sexuality called into question; they are also presented as deceptive, although intersex can be very difficult to diagnose and is not always apparent at birth, even to experts.

It is disappointing that, as we prepare to celebrate a diversity of talent in these Commonwealth Games, Dutee Chand will have to stay at home; but the personal burden the current investigation places on her is worse, and much of it is quite unnecessary. It is time women like her stopped having to carry the can when society fails to recognise that there is no neat line between male and female bodies – especially not when women get proper nutrition and are encouraged to keep themselves fit. The average man will probably always be able to outdo the average woman in most sports, so sex categories may be necessary, but sports culture has always been about celebrating the exceptional, and it’s damaging for all involved when, instead, it becomes about reinforcing the conventional.

About Jennie Kermode

Jennie Kermode is a professional journalist who also edits at Eye For Film and who has written for publications including The Independent, The New Statesman, The Press Gazette, Pink News and Mosaic. Chair of reform charity Trans Media Watch, Jennie is also a member of the Equality Network and the Scottish Transgender Alliance.

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  6. Ah Jennie, let’s throw all women under the bus just so we can pretend to be all nice and inclusive, eh?

    Do you even realize that caster and Chand for that matter, are intersex?

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