Field Theory by Hadyn Green

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Field Theory: Testosterone and the running woman

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  • Rachel Prosser,

    First to start discussion (perhaps because of the complexity of the material you've brought us Hadyn.)

    I want to dive in, but am not quite sure what to say.

    Caster Semenya's physiology brings into question the issue of what is normal. It also a reminder that gender/sex isn't quite such an either/or case as we usually think it.

    I'd hazard a guess that most elite, non-cheating, athletes will be exceptional in some way.

    Instinctively, I'd draw a distinction between naturally occuring variations in human physiology, and deliberate interventions aimed at changing it by introducing artificial hormones.

    It's tricky to discuss, because there's so much misinterpretation of research into gender differences - like Cordelia Fine points out http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/487630

    Christchurch • Since Mar 2008 • 225 posts Report Reply

  • Grace Dalley,

    Yes, wow, this sure is a complex issue.

    But as Rachel says, it's not like any really successful athlete has an average physique.

    My feeling is that if Semenya's physiological advantage is natural (ie. not caused by performance-enhancing drugs) then she's a legitimate champion, just as Michael Phelps is with his unusually long arms. And she sure doen't deserve the public humiliation. If she's freakishly athletic, it's hardly her fault!

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2008 • 138 posts Report Reply

  • LegBreak,

    Interesting that a country that, for so long, saw no nuances in race should find nuances in gender.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1162 posts Report Reply

  • Grace Dalley,

    Oh and PS, has anyone been worried about Usain Bolt's testosterone levels? Is anybody rushing to test him in case he has a hormonal advantage? If it doesn't matter in his case, why does it matter in Semenya's?

    Nobody is refusing to race with him just because he's freakishly gifted.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2008 • 138 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    Oh and PS, has anyone been worried about Usain Bolt's testosterone levels? Is anybody rushing to test him in case he has a hormonal advantage? If it doesn't matter in his case, why does it matter in Semenya's?

    Nobody is refusing to race with him just because he's freakishly gifted.

    They have been worried about Bolt. His testosterone levels will have been repeatedly tested to ensure he doesn't exceed the 6:1 ratio which would mean he had (most likely) taken some kind of steroid hormone.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2079 posts Report Reply

  • dyan campbell,

    Oh and PS, has anyone been worried about Usain Bolt's testosterone levels? Is anybody rushing to test him in case he has a hormonal advantage? If it doesn't matter in his case, why does it matter in Semenya's?

    Usain Bolt is a man competing against other men though - if Caster Semenya is intersex then the advantage that would give her would disqualify her from any women's event. She may have been raised as a girl, but if she is intersex, then she can't legitimately compete against women.

    auckland • Since Dec 2006 • 595 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart,

    She may have been raised as a girl, but if she is intersex, then she can't legitimately compete against women.

    Then what can she do? I think that's why this *is* a legitimate feminist issue - because it brings up questions about gender binaries, how we define gender, and the exclusion of intersex people.

    Interesting that a country that, for so long, saw no nuances in race should find nuances in gender.

    I see it as less accepting nuances than denying them - because she has been accepted as female, it is insulting to question that, to blur the gender boundaries, no matter what the physiological realities of the situation might be.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2087 posts Report Reply

  • Grace Dalley,

    Haydn: I'm not suggesting Bolt takes steroids, my point was about normal variability of hormones from one male to another. If, say, he naturally had more testosterone than his competitors, would that give him an unfair advantage?

    And how would natural hormone levels be different than any other natural physiological characteristic?

    Dyan: I don't think there's any actual evidence that Semenya is intersex, is there? Isn't it just speculation at this point?

    And as Lucy says, if she *is* intersex, is she unable to compete with anyone? Differences in hormone levels between men and women are clearly much less dichotomous than we'd like.

    Christchurch • Since Nov 2008 • 138 posts Report Reply

  • Graeme Edgeler,

    And as Lucy says, if she *is* intersex, is she unable to compete with anyone?

    Has anyone suggested that if she's ineligible to compete against women she'd also be ineligible to compete against men?

    Wellington, New Zealand • Since Nov 2006 • 2968 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart,

    Has anyone suggested that if she's ineligible to compete against women she'd also be ineligible to compete against men?

    No, but looking at the 800m record times she would be grossly uncompetitive - the world record for the men's 800m is around 1m41.11; she won the gold in the world champs with 1m55.45, which is not even in the top ten women's 800m times, and is in fact pretty standard for this event for the last thirty years or so (best times of the year range from 1m53.28 to 1m56.85.) Admittedly some of those times were set during the period of dubious practices in Eastern Europe, but a lot weren't, including times quite a bit faster than hers. She's very fast. She's no Usain Bolt. Her career would be over if she was forced to compete with men.

    And that's why I find the fuss weird - okay, maybe she's intersex. The record suggests she's competing in the right field; again, she's not smashing records like Bolt is. He obviously has fairly freaky genetic advantages. Maybe she does, too. Until and unless she starts running anything *close* to male times, I think it is patently unfair to say she can't compete with women.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2087 posts Report Reply

  • Tessa Houghton,

    Wow, I really do believe you may have missed the point of many feminist comments on this issue. You don't seem to have made much of an effort to unpack the kind of ideologies behind why she was targeted and how she has been treated in media coverage and by her fellow competitors.

    She doesn't fit a Western stereotype of feminine, therefore her gender is questioned - media coverage seems to have picked up on photos where she does look very masculine, but upon seeing live footage of her, she looked nowehere near as masculine as the cherry-picked images would have us all believe. Her fellow contestants have made the most offensive othering comments about her. The media coverage has been sensationalistic and full of spurious commentary from people who seem keen to make assumptions about her before test results were even available. There seems to have been little concern at all for how all this might be making an 18 year old young woman feel.

    In all the feminist commentary I have read, these have been the main concerns - not much has been claiming that she shouldn't be tested, just that the fact that she is being and the way she has been treated has revealed some ideological ugliness with regards to sex and race - a point that I totally agree with.

    New Plymouth, NZ • Since Aug 2009 • 18 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    Haydn: I'm not suggesting Bolt takes steroids, my point was about normal variability of hormones from one male to another. If, say, he naturally had more testosterone than his competitors, would that give him an unfair advantage?

    Yeah I know, that's what the T/E ratio looks at. If your ratio is higher than 6:1 then you have more testosterone than is allowed in athletics competition. If Bolt's was say 8:1 then he would undergo tests to see if he was on performance enhancing drugs and if not then he's free to run. The thing with Bolt's levels (or indeed those of any male athlete) is that if they are proved be from natural causes, then he can still compete.

    Wow, I really do believe you may have missed the point of many feminist comments on this issue. You don't seem to have made much of an effort to unpack the kind of ideologies behind why she was targeted and how she has been treated in media coverage and by her fellow competitors.

    You're right about how she has been treated in the media and by her competitors. The other runners will be especially harsh, but then again they'll be the cause of the accusation, so they can be expected to be.

    She doesn't fit a Western stereotype of feminine, therefore her gender is questioned

    And I think that's where the argument is pointing in the wrong direction. At the world athletics champs you get a lot of women who don't fit the "Western stereotype of feminine". And a lot of those women won gold medals. So if Semenya has been accused of not being completely female I would suggest it's not just on a whim because she looks a little bit like a man.

    The media coverage has been sensationalistic and full of spurious commentary from people who seem keen to make assumptions about her before test results were even available. There seems to have been little concern at all for how all this might be making an 18 year old young woman feel.

    You know it's the media right? Not to sound glib but when the story is "800m winner to undergo gender test" then you should know that the coverage from most quarters is going to be incredibly offensive. Which is why I only trusted Science of Sport on the matter (an athletics blog written by two doctors based in Cape Town).

    If there is a feminist argument here I think it's more about the thresholds for athletes competing in women's events. As long as you have separate women's and men's events then there needs to be a clear boundary between the two. Where you set that boundary seems to be the best point of argument.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2079 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Wegan,

    So if Semenya has been accused of not being completely female I would suggest it's not just on a whim because she looks a little bit like a man.

    No, but it is definitely part of it. It is a feminist issue, because a lot of people are basically saying "she's too good to be a woman. Oh, and she looks like a dude." (cue sniggering and offensive jokes.)

    I've hesitated to talk about this issue, mainly because I don't really understand a lot of the science/biology that goes into it. But also, can you imagine how humiliating it must be for this girl, who was raised as girl, to have to whole world talking about this?

    And it is worth pointing out that she's not exactly cheating. It's not like her coach is injecting her with testosterone (unless he is). Her body manufactures it naturally. In the same way that some athletes have better fast-twitch muscle fibres, or are freakishly strong, or incredible balance. In most sports, we celebrate people with genetic talents and abilities, don't we? Why should she be any different?

    Welly • Since Jul 2008 • 1268 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    It is a feminist issue, because a lot of people are basically saying "she's too good to be a woman. Oh, and she looks like a dude." (cue sniggering and offensive jokes.)

    Yeah, but that issue is nothing to do with the sport. That's about people being asshats at every possible opportunity (and I would say that it's not a solely feminist issue either).

    In most sports, we celebrate people with genetic talents and abilities, don't we? Why should she be any different?

    Yeah it's a good point, but I don't see why it's a feminist one as opposed to a biological issue. As I said above: "As long as you have separate women's and men's events then there needs to be a clear boundary between the two. Where you set that boundary seems to be the best point of argument"

    I suppose if you look at it from the other side then you have to ask, is Semenya a genetically enhanced woman or a genetically hindered man?

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2079 posts Report Reply

  • Tessa Houghton,

    You know it's the media right? Not to sound glib but when the story is "800m winner to undergo gender test" then you should know that the coverage from most quarters is going to be incredibly offensive.

    Oh, for sure - I'm a critical media and communication scholar, so I really do know, believe me. But surely we have a responsibility to call the media out on their behaviour, whenever possible? I don't think it's acceptable to just go "meh, it's the media, that's just the way they are". They shouldn't be the way they are, and nothing is going to change if they aren't constantly critiqued - and I think that is what many of the feminist arguments have been doing. And the media coverage is playing into some very ugly ideologies and prejudices, just as Megan Wegan pointed out:

    It is a feminist issue, because a lot of people are basically saying "she's too good to be a woman. Oh, and she looks like a dude." (cue sniggering and offensive jokes.)

    I agree that there does need to be some kind of biological demarcation between the men's and women's events - though it seems like a bloody hard thing to set. But I really don't get the feeling that that's where a lot of feminist anger over this issue is coming from - sure, there is some - but most of it is focused on the media coverage and how it is revealing societal ugliness that is usually more subtle. People are just going "oh yeah, OK, she must be a dude b/c she's too good and not stereotypically attractive", like many other female athletes. (You ignore the sexualisation of women's sport at your peril, I think. Female athletes are expected to be much better looking than their male counterparts - see Flo Jo et al.) And I personally think that that is where feminist arguments about this issue should be rooted.

    Sorry, I didn't mean to derail this thread - I thought your post was, on the whole, orders of magnitude better than most of the other writing I've read on the issue. I just think you missed some points in there.

    New Plymouth, NZ • Since Aug 2009 • 18 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Wegan,

    People are just going "oh yeah, OK, she must be a dude b/c she's too good and not stereotypically attractive", like many other female athletes. (You ignore the sexualisation of women's sport at your peril, I think

    Exactly. Because between issues like Semenya's, and complete asshattery like this how are women athletes meant to win? Wouldn't it be nice to just let them compete and be good? (Yes, I know I'm naive)

    But these are issues that women athletes have to deal with in a way that the men don't. No one is telling Dan Carter that he's too pretty to play rugby, or A-Rod* that he throws like a girl so they are going to have to gender test him.

    Yeah, but that issue is nothing to do with the sport. That's about people being asshats at every possible opportunity (and I would say that it's not a solely feminist issue either).

    Well, it is when it's the other athletes and officials saying it. And very few things are solely feminist issues. :)

    *Yes, I know there will be a much better, and less fraught example of a baseball player, but he was the only one I could think of.

    Welly • Since Jul 2008 • 1268 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    Sorry, I didn't mean to derail this thread

    Please, most of my posts end with a great big break in the tracks anyway (to continue the train metaphor) :)

    You ignore the sexualisation of women's sport at your peril, I think. Female athletes are expected to be much better looking than their male counterparts - see Flo Jo et al.

    I don't ignore it. Though I don't think it's a common occurrence in athletics. At least the track parts, recently pole vaulters and high jumpers have been added to the list of "hot athletes". The issue I have with it is that the best athletes may not get the most money. For example Kournikova sucked really badly, but could earn more in a tournament than the eventual winner just for drawing in crowds.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2079 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Wegan,

    For example Kournikova sucked really badly, but could earn more in a tournament than the eventual winner just for drawing in crowds.

    Not to mention endorsements.

    Welly • Since Jul 2008 • 1268 posts Report Reply

  • LegBreak,

    I’d suggest Daniel Carter’s Jockey selling career is founded on a little bit more than his ability as a rugby player.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 1162 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Wegan,

    I’d suggest Daniel Carter’s Jockey selling career is founded on a little bit more than his ability as a rugby player.

    Of course it is. My point is no one is suggesting that because he had his hair chemically straightened, he's too much of a girl to play rugby.

    Welly • Since Jul 2008 • 1268 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    My point is no one is suggesting that because he had his hair chemically straightened, he's too much of a girl to play rugby.

    But you wouldn't. You would say "Gosh Dan you're playing a little too well. You're not on steroids by any chance?" Because while there are the boundaries for women, there are also boundaries for the men, but both of them are upper bounds. Doping agencies and athletics organisations tend not to care if you have less muscle than you should have.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2079 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    "Gosh Dan you're playing a little too well. You're not on steroids by any chance?"

    And if he was then his Jockey ads wouldn't be very impressive

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2079 posts Report Reply

  • st ephen,

    "Her fellow contestants have made the most offensive othering comments about her."

    Maybe not all?
    "I just feel sorry for Caster. It's the responsibility of South Africa and the IAAF and I think it is a situation that probably could have been avoided. At the ceremony, I was happy to congratulate her and give her a hug." Jenny Meadows, UK.

    dunedin • Since Jul 2008 • 193 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Wegan,

    "Gosh Dan you're playing a little too well. You're not on steroids by any chance?"

    Yeah, but that's my point. Dan is a boy, who is a little girly, but he's fine. (And for the record, I don't think he really is a little bit girly, I just know he once straightened his hair, so he is a target for my argument.)

    Meanwhile, Semenya is more manly than most women, although certainly not most athletic women, so she is questioned. That's what makes it a feminist issue. Because for women athletes, appearance, femininity and all that stuff is wrapped up in what they do so much more.

    (Says she who is very much missing Richard Kahui, and hopes he is rapidly rehabilitating.)

    Welly • Since Jul 2008 • 1268 posts Report Reply

  • Hadyn Green,

    Meanwhile, Semenya is more manly than most women, although certainly not most athletic women, so she is questioned.

    It's the middle bit of that sentence that makes all the difference right? She's not outwardly more muscular than the more extreme female athletes, so why test her? There must be other factors at play that those closer to the sport know.

    So the argument isn't about her being singled out, it's about how most people heard about the issue, saw a picture and instantly assumed she must be a guy.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 2079 posts Report Reply

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