On January 17-18 The International Olympic Committee (IOC) convened a meeting of medical experts in Florida to discuss policy recommendations for the inclusion of intersex athletes in IOC-sponsored events. Though they claim otherwise, it seems likely that this meeting was called as a result of the colossal mishandling of reactions to South African runner, Caster Semenya’s victory in the World Championships last summer (See my blogs on August 21, September 8 & 10, and November 23 on for more information).
First, a lesson on language here. I am getting so tired of regular folks, let alone medical experts, who use “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. They are not the same thing and the difference is important. Sex refers to our physiological, hormonal, genetic make-up that defines us as male, female or intersex. Gender is a social construct that refers to our self-identification as men or women or something else entirely. It encompasses a whole array of social characteristics that we use to express the gender we prefer, including clothes, hairstyles, mannerisms. The IOC is talking about sex verification, not gender verification. Can we please use the correct terminology?
Also, the language of pathology used by the medical panel, though not surprising since they are, well, medical people, biases the conversation when intersex people are classified as “disordered” and in need of “treatment.” Once we pathologize a group of people we are already on the road to discrimination. In the not too distant past (and the present, in some cases) medical science pathologized women, people of color, Jews, gay people, transgender people, disobedient children and people with disabilities and the results were not pretty. I hate to see us heading down the same road with intersex people.
Ok, back to the panel –
What this panel of medical experts came up is a major disappointment for anyone who was hoping that new IOC policy recommendations on the inclusion of intersex athletes would be more enlightened than the gender inquisitions of the past. The panel recommended that these “disorders of sexual development” be treated as medical problems and that athletes who are identified as intersex should be required to undergo hormone therapy and surgery in order to compete. The panel claims they are only concerned about the health of the intersex athletes. How noble of them. However, their recommendation ignores the many intersex people who live perfectly healthy lives without hormones or surgery. SIDEBAR: Setting aside the mind boggling human rights issues for the moment, I wonder who will be paying for all of this medical treatment? What if the athlete in question is perfectly healthy and happy just as they are? What if being intersex affords them no unfair advantage in competition?
Here in lies one of the mysteries for me in the panel’s recommendations – they completely sidestep the issue of unfair competitive advantage which is what drives this whole controversy. What could have been enormously helpful would have been for these medical experts to be clear about how being intersex can or cannot not affect athletic performance and whether or not it is even reasonable to worry that intersex athletes are enjoying an unfair advantage given the wide range of competitive advantage and disadvantage that already exists among female athletes. The implication is that the panel thinks they do. Why else would they require intersex athletes to take hormones and have surgery before they can compete. But for a medical panel to fail to address this issue is baffling to me.
How, you might ask, will intersex athletes be identified? Well, on a case-by case basis. The IOC is recommending that medical centers be set up around the world solely for the purpose of “diagnosing and treating disorders of sexual development among athletes.” Now this is one scary proposal don’t you think?
The IOC learned their lesson about mandatory sex verification already, but the case-by- case process sounds to me like the same policy that caused so much trouble for Caster Semenya. The problem is that the criteria for questioning an athlete’s sex are extremely subjective and dependent on perceptions of what a woman “should” look or act like based on socially constructed gender expectations. Will any woman who is “too” tall, “too” strong, has a voice that is “too” deep, wears clothes that are “too” masculine, win races by “too” big a margin now be at risk of being challenged and sent to the nearest sex testing center for poking and prodding?
I am really curious about why the IOC chose to invite only medical experts to this panel. Perhaps if they had looked at the issue from a broader perspective by including legal experts, intersex rights advocates and – hold the phone, Martha – even intersex people themselves, maybe the panel’s recommendations wouldn’t seem so narrow, unreasonable and backward.