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Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Times strikes again

Caster Semenya, as you may recall, is the runner who won the 800 at the world championships in 2009, then was found to be a hermaphrodite. Her saga has involved the intersection of sport, gender identity, justice, and politics. This blog has weighed in on the subject before here and here.

I'd like to emphasize again, Semenya herself was in no way at fault. From what was made public at the time, it was apparent that her external genitalia were those of a woman, and she had no idea of her condition until she was tested. I thought it highly unfair that her condition was made public; it should have been handled with far more discretion by the governing authorities of track.

Since then, the IAAF has ruled that Semenya be allowed to compete as a woman. What I'm guessing happened is that Semenya had an operation ridding her of her internal testes, and this was enough to sway the authorities. (Doctors evidently recommend that such conditions be reversed anyway, as they can lead to long term health risks.)

The New York Times chose to weigh in on the subject with an editorial this past Sunday by Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical humanities and bioethics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

Dreger's argument is basically that the IOC's philosophy that women who naturally produce too much testosterone must do something to change that condition if they want to compete as women is unfair, since men have no similar provision. After all, if a man produces more testosterone than most, he is allowed to compete against other men, even though he has a natural advantage. Ms. Dreger feels this constitutes discrimination against women. In her words: "It is only women who are being limited in terms of natural biochemical advantage."

Ms. Dreger employs a peculiarly Timesian emphasis. She sees a difference in the way a rule is applied to women and men, and seizes upon that, while completely ignoring the fact that it is unfair for biologically normal women to have to compete against hermaphrodites who produce several times more testosterone than they do. This rule wasn't instituted as a way to discriminate against women; it was instituted as a way to ensure fairness among women. Yet Ms. Dreger disregards this, and focuses instead on the fact that there is no equivalent rule for men.

What she also ignores is a difference at the heart of sport: that men compete in the open category, whereas women compete in what is essentially a restricted category. Such restrictions permeate sport at all sorts of different levels. If a 25 year old wants to compete in a masters meet, he is not allowed to compete in the 40-44 age group; he must compete against those his own age. If a 240 pounder wants to compete as a wrestler, he is not allowed to compete in the 126 pound division. If you want to compete against restricted competition, you have to meet the requirements for that restriction yourself. It's all a matter of fairness. So people who want to compete in the women's category ought to fit some standardized definition of a woman. (I have yet to hear of athletes framing such restrictions as issues of age discrimination, or weight discrimination.)

Perhaps the fairest thing for hermaphrodites would be to have their own division. But lacking such, it seems unfair for them to compete against women. 

The issue Ms. Dreger raises, one of fairness between the genders, is a false one. The issue here is what is fair between women, and whether women should have to compete against athletes who are as much man as woman. Ms. Dreger (I looked her up) is a champion for the rights of the intersexed; I don't doubt that they need championing in various ways. But the implication that the authorities are picking on Carter Semenya as a way to discriminate against women is ludicrous. The first people to complain about Semenya were the other women in the race, several of whom were quoted as saying they shouldn't have to compete against a man.

Ms. Dreger does not suggest a solution to this issue herself. She merely expresses indignation.

Count on the Times to hoist a false flag and proudly wave it high.

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