The XX Factor

Is Anyone “100 Percent Female”?

I want to echo Hanna’s sense of ambivalence about Caster Semanya, the South African runner who may have to stop competing against those deemed unambiguously female. It does seem like gender ambiguity is among the few natural advantages that violate our sense of equity in competition. Maybe it’s not quite fair that Semanya’s opponents will be up against someone with a genetic advantage. But Lance Armstrong’s heart happens to be 1/3 bigger than the average male heart. Is this fair to the regularly-heart-sized guys up against him? Nobody suggests that he ought to be disqualified, or perhaps forced to compete only against people with freakishly sized hearts.

The difference is that gender, as opposed to heart size, is one of the ways we traditionally demarcate classes of people we want to see compete with one another. It’s pretty clearly in the interest of those of us clustered on one side of the gender continuum to support that demarcation. We don’t want Serena Williams to have to forego a tennis career because she doesn’t stack up against Roger Federer. It’s also inevitable that women who are similar to men by some physiological measures, but not on the “wrong” side of some arbitrary male/female line, are going to dominate games based on speed and strength.

These distinctions all seem somewhat random and arbitrary, but at the end of the day most sports just require submission to an arbitrary system of rules. We’re trying to create conditions of perfect competition among people with radically different bodies. Caster Semanya reminds us of just how impossible that is.

Photograph of Caster Semenya by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.