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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Masculine, Feminine, Or Human? (Or, Private Parts)

In a previous blog I wrote about horsey feminism and concern with a female horse winning a major horse race. (see Bully for You, Filly For Me). In that entry I discussed the disquieting effect of anthropomorphism that brings biology-as-social-destiny thinking to the animal world. Recently it all came flashing before my eyes as I watched the hullabaloo surrounding Caster Semenya, the 18 year old South African middle distance runner who won a gold medal in the 800 meter at the 2009 World Athletics Championship. Ms. Semenya is accused of not being female, and is now undergoing "gender verification" by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The IAAF has explained that they do not suspect "cheating" but wanted to determine if she has a "rare medical condition" which gives her an unfair advantage.

Well, this is a horse of a different color. Or is it? The emphasis on exacting physical standards reminds us that the world of elite athletics, like horse racing, is far more than just a game. The existence of regulatory boards at the local, national and international level, all vested with varying amounts of quasi legal authority, attests to its importance. Athletes become more than just individuals, but instead are representatives of a unique form of cultural production—Big Sports. As I have written elsewhere (see my paper A 'Ho New World ), Big Sports, in its processes and prerogatives, is uniquely masculine and racialized, and is a venue where fans can act out fantasies of domination via the subordinated bodies of the athletes, whether on an individual, regional, national or international level. In the regime of Big Sports, athletes are more akin to animals: warm, breathing, performing bodies , pawns in the game to be scrutinized ("look at those shoulders!"), worshipped, rubbed and touched like totems or talismans and finally discarded as the circumstances dictate. The focus on women in Big Sports adds an entirely other dimension. Women are sometimes seen as an affront to male notions of sports performance, especially when prevailing cultural and social norms mediate for disinterest in sports participation among women. Excellent women athletes can and do raise social ire because they inhabit a domain that is fundamentally male.

So what about if a woman is not really a woman when participating in big time women's athletics? That's cheating, right? This raises a discussion about the gender aspects of physical performance. While many physicians and scientists would agree that males often outperform females in physical tests, what is not often enough discussed is the reliability of the physical performance tests selected in such assessments and the extent to which such outcomes are more a reflection of women's relative lack of training. So, for instance, if men often outperform women on push-ups, this may be a result of the women's lack of upper-body physical training rather than an innate strength advantage in men. At the end of the day, strength, like so many other capacities, falls along a spectrum in various individuals of either gender and concentrations of strength among men may be more socially rather than biologically dictated.

Yeah, yeah, you may say. How ever it is that men happen to be, on the average, stronger than women, doesn't matter. The difference in physical performance is what causes us to divide sports activity by gender. As one of my kids says, if they didn't, women would get blown away a lot until they catch up to male standards of training. To preserve women's sports, we have to limit participation to only women. Only women. Uh-oh, it's that dreaded p-word again: time for a panty check. (see my entry on Sarah Palin, "Teacher, Teacher, I Declare" for a discussion of a whole other kind of panty check—or is it?)

Determining gender is far more complex than many people imagine. If it were as simple as a panty check, a trip to the showers would suffice. Here the public seems to reduce the human to the animal, querying gender from its apparent physical aspects instead of recognizing the biochemical, psychological and sociological processes which comprise it. What is deeply troubling in the case of Caster Semenya is that regardless of the outcome of the official "gender verification", this young woman has undoubtedly been inalterably changed by international attention not to her full human essence, or even to her full athletic essence, but rather to her private parts.