News coverage of the controversy regarding whether or not track star Caster Semenya is “really” a woman is giving everyone a crash course in postmodern gender theory. Can one’s chromosomes determine once and for all whether a person is “really” a man or a woman? Nope. Shape of genitalia? Nope. Hormones? Nope. Now that we’ve reviewed the general issue of how subjective sex attribution can be, I’d like to focus on who, in this case, gets to be the subject.
In tough cases any rule for determining sex is going to be arbitrary, but whose arbitrary rules are governing Ms. Semenya? Nobody (of course!) cares about her own opinion regarding which sex she belongs to. The judgement of the family and community in which she was raised also counts for nothing. The laws of the country where she is a citizen do not apply.
Instead, this 18-year-old is going to be examined by “a geneticist, an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, a psychologist and so forth” (Ms. Semenya, if the psychologist asks you if you played with dolls as a child, say yes), who will put her through “chromosome testing, gynecological investigation, all manner of things, organs, X-rays, scans”. These worthies will report their judgements to the International Association of Athletics Federations, which will decide whether or not Ms. Semenya qualifies as a female athlete. Does she get five points for a vagina, lose a point for facial hair, gain another ten if she menstruates, with 100 points needed to qualify? Or is this like figure skating, where the American, Russian, French, and British judges will each score her based on some combination of technical merit and aesthetic judgement, and then her average score will determine her fate? Nobody is saying.
No objective procedure—no medical exam or legal certificate or other kind of attestation—could have settled the question before Ms. Semenya competed and thus prevented her from suffering this indignity. The only thing she could have done was avoid falling under suspicion in the first place. So, girls, pay attention: If you want to become an international track star, it’s not enough to be the fastest woman on two legs. You have to be the fastest lady.