Wednesday 8 May 2019

Sex, Gender, and the Tragedy of the Castor Semenya Affair

The Caster Semenya Affair is a tragedy, and a very modern one-- turning, as it has, the world historic movement for women's/gender liberation against itself, and reducing the human rights of at least one person to collateral damage in the process. In a different period, or under more enlightened sports leadership, the worst aspects of the whole business may have been avoided. On the other hand, the historic conservatism of sport culture and institutions (often a breeding ground for political reaction, including staunch resistance to women's participation in the first place) probably insured that it would at some point enter into open conflict with progressive currents of the 21st Century in some form, just as it did those of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

The early 20C demands of women for equal access to the means of leisure, and to sport in particular, were authentically revolutionary. But ongoing male supremacist reaction to women's participation would mean that the revolution was never complete. In particular, the number and type of sports women were "permitted" by the sports establishment to do was limited to those that were deemed to "enhance", or at least not threaten, women's (19C) femininity. The entry of women into other sports has had to be fought for-- and has been strongly resisted-- up to the present. And, most crucial to understanding the Semenya affair in particular, the potential of "women's" sport was limited from the start by its foundation in the 19C conception of human sexual biology-- the male/female sex binary, a pseudo-science that sport has preserved in amber since first acceding to women's demand for access to the means of competitive physical recreation, and in spite of the onward march of both science and culture.

What explains the persistence of sex binarism in general? Why has it persisted in any form, and in the face of ongoing scientific and cultural progress? Like all persistent science-based ideologies, the idea of binary sexuality "works" because it has just enough claim on empirical reality to answer some basic questions about human social organization. There is, after all, sufficient complimentary difference between the sexes for the practical purpose of biological reproduction. The equally natural reality systematically occluded by the idea of a sex binary, however, is the small but significant of blurring of the dividing line between the sexes, owing to the fact that, all life on earth being somewhat related, nature typically does operate to produce firm binary distinctions (binarity being a conceptual tool for understanding the world, not something we have learned from observable world itself). Then, of course, there's the fact that a non-trivial number of human beings identifiable as one sex or the other who are nevertheless naturally incapable of biological reproduction at all.

In fact, the concept of sex binarism has no more scientifically objective reason for continued existence than its 19 C cousins, phrenology and "race" science. Its longevity is attributable to its relative usefulness in explaining and reinforcing the "gendering" of human individuals -- i.e. the assigning of a larger cultural meaning to, and justification for, the roles human beings find themselves playing in the larger process of reproducing society, including biological reproduction, child-rearing, and the distribution of material resources-- in stratified ways. In this sense, the strict sex binary concept has always been an important feature of the larger ideology of male supremacy wherever we find it.

We can see the Caster Semenya affair as a clash between sex binarism-- preserved, as I said, in pristine form within the insular world of sport-- with modern social and scientific conceptions of "gender" as a largely social and not strictly biological matter.

Here, as I see it, is what happened:

A child from rural South Africa was identified as a biological female at birth and raised (gendered) as a girl in that cultural context, according to the prevailing norms of her family and community. It turned out that this girl was, biologically, closer to the blurry middle of the sex continuum than average-- but, nevertheless, in gender terms, a girl (although, at some point, also a non-gender conforming lesbian girl, like many girls the world over). This girl chose, as many teenagers do, to play sports, one of which (running) she happened to be very good at. Because she was very good, and because sport purports to operate according to a strict biological sex binary, her non-binary body attracted scrutiny. Eventually, and to stop her from "taking" things (victories, attention, and eventually money) from athletes perceived to be sexually binary, sport, in the form of the IAAF, track and field's 100+ year old governing body, attempted to invoke the unreconstructed 19C sex binary to rule her out of its "women's" category. After one successful legal challenge against this sex binary, she was eventually told, via a subsequent legal decision, to bring her body into closer conformity with it, or suffer removal from "women's" sport.

Perhaps unfortunately for sport, and for the IAAF's case against Caster Semenya in particular, the "women" in sport's "women's" category evoked for many observers the modern social concept of "gender", not the sex-as- exclusively-biological concept-- the concept upon which the category was originally founded, but which the sport of athletics (track and field) had not been called upon to explain or defend for many years-- years during which the social science (not to mention the actual practice) of gender and the natural science of human biology had combined forces to all but completely discredit. Defenders of Caster Semenya would thus, and with a clear, modern, social and scientific justification, go on to assert her right, based on having lived as a girl/women since birth (in other words, having been "gendered" female), to continue competing in the "women's" category, in spite of her non-sex binary body (and, for some, her non-gender conforming behaviour).

I see the broader conflict that ensued over the meaning and future of women's sport as not merely unfortunate, but as tragic. And the tragedy was not the all too predictable behaviour of alt-right opportunists and others who saw an opening in the Semenya case to assert revanchist conceptions of gender against the prevailing tide of gender and sexual liberation-- THAT battle having been lost before it had even begun. It was the spectacle of defenders of women's sport as a world-historic, revolutionary gain for humanity battling tooth-and-nail against contemporary defenders of gender liberation. Finding no other resources within the antique and insular world of sport and sport culture, defenders of women's sport-- at one time a reliably feminist and pro-liberation constituency-- felt compelled to stand alongside a conservative sport establishment in reasserting that most anti-feminist of pseudo-scientific constructs, and the very one that had so often been deployed to resist women's entry into sport itself: strict biological sex/gender binarism. In response, the voices of a pure gender constructivism seemed prepared to see "women's sport" all but disappear, if necessary, in order to further the ongoing project of gender liberation, of which some viewed Semenya (without her active complicity) as an avatar. Forgotten in all but symbolic form in this conflict was Semenya herself-- a passionate athlete and exemplar of the liberatory potential of both women's sport and the progressive 21s C discourse of gender.

The only consolation for the supporter of women's sport and gender liberation is that this tragedy has not reached its denouement(and thus isn't really a tragedy just yet). Moral panic by a conservative (and cynical) sport leadership (and it is not incidental that the head of IAAF, Lord Sebastian Coe, was once a sitting member of the British Conservative Party caucus) bent on removing Caster Semenya from the women's division as quickly as possible (largely, one surmises, to end the ongoing PR disaster of a non-binary woman winning repeatedly at the highest levels of the sport, and in an event-group sold in part based on its hyper-feminine hetero-sex-appeal) created the worse possible environment for deliberation on this looming issue. The result of this official overreaction was a legal ruling so obviously targeted at one athlete (only one event range-- 400m to 1500m-- was targeted for sex binary policing-- that of Caster Semenya, the only athlete, male or female, to do all three of the specified events within it on a regular basis!) that the Court or Arbitration itself was compelled to characterize its decision as "discriminatory". With the inevitable challenging of this ruling-- in the courts of both law and public opinion-- there remains hope for a rapprochement between supporters of women's sport and gender liberation. It will not be easy, but it remains possible to arrive at a way to circumscribe the category of "women" in women's sport that is fair and humane-- in other words, that honours and promotes the radical potential of sport for all. This project may eventually entail the addition of new gender-based categories in the sport of athletics; but, an equitable resolution is not impossible, if animated by a spirit of inclusivity and a belief in the humanizing potential of play. What will be required-- and what perhaps has now already begun-- is a long overdue opening up of sport's culture and institutions to the social and political realities of the new century. Also required, and ardently hoped for by any lover of sport, is an appreciation by the larger world of progressive cultural politics of the still valuable historical legacy of "women's" sport. The job of highlighting this legacy and of encouraging appreciation of it falls to those of us who find ourselves with a foot the worlds of both sport and progressive politics.