Is that woman really a man? Tidy categories, messy world

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Swift and powerful, the athletes burst across the finish line of the women’s 800 metre in Rio. The Olympics gave the world another moment of glorious human achievement as 25-year-old Caster Semenya took the gold medal for South Africa. In the background of her performance, however, controversy swirled around claims that Semenya had an unfair advantage in a women’s competition – that she didn’t fit into the category “woman”.

The issue contentious in the Rio competition is one we confront constantly as we construct our knowledge: how to classify things and whether we can do so in a way that delineates our world neatly into categories. Classifying is basic to observing, and to the naming that enables us to share our knowledge. But what a complex world it is, often eluding the systematizing we bring to it!


Even categories on which everyone seems to agree can grow more complex with further knowledge. Did you see that scientists discovered only a few days ago that there are actually four giraffe species, not just one?  Have a look at this short video from Science Daily: Scientists Just Realized There’s More Than One Kind Of Giraffe


Even the simplest and most familiar categories of things can erupt into debate on close examination. My favourite current examples is vegetables – a category that is not biological but culinary, with plenty of variability in what it includes. Even the law has become embroiled in knowledge claims over categorization of vegetables: “Do vegetables really exist?” 

When even giraffes and vegetables can challenge our classification systems, should we be surprised when our categorization of human beings founders on application to the real world?


And so – back to Caster Semenya, who has submitted to extensive invasion of her sexual identity in order to be permitted to perform in elite sports. Why is her situation relevant to Theory of Knowledge? What are the knowledge questions it raises?

1.Classification: To what extent do the categories with which we describe the world reflect the world as it is, and to what extent concepts we have constructed ourselves?

Among the many questions we could raise about classification, this one does at least invite some evaluation and comparison – for instance, categorization based on observation of natural phenomena such as rocks, bacteria, or stars, as opposed to categorization based on conceptual groupings such as historical periods and genres of literature. It’s a useful question, in this case, for considering the extent to which our biological classification of sexes is supplanted by the social categorization of gender.

Certainly, the sexual identity of Caster Semenya has been at the centre of controversy. “Could This Women’s World Champ Be a Man?” questioned an article in Time  in 2009 when Caster Semenya won a track and field championship in Berlin. Some of her competitors expressed strong views on her category.  Italian Elisa Piccione, who came in 6th, declared, “These kinds of people should not run with us. For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”  The International Association of Athetics Federations (IAAF) confirmed that Semenya had agreed to testing to prove herself a woman, and thereafter cleared her to continue to compete as a woman.

But how does a person prove that she is a woman? In sports, sex-testing has centred on chromosome tests, testosterone levels, and medical examination of the reproductive system – all in order to draw the line between the sexes. Cheating is not the issue: Semenya’s elevated level of testosterone is natural, not a matter of taking drugs. Nor is misrepresentation an issue here: Semenya has been raised as a woman and identifies as a woman. As she won gold in Rio, she was following all the rules! The contentious issue is neither cheating nor lying but the line itself.

The experts of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) have acknowledged, “We must find ways to take into account that sex is not neatly divided into only two categories in the real world.” (Relevant article: “Science will never settle the question of sex and gender in sport”, The Guardian)

As sporting organizations face the complexities of the real world, I can’t help adding that well into the twentieth century the category “athlete” did not include women at all! (Relevant and fascinating article: “The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes”, New York Times)

2. Ethics: What is meant by the ethical principle of “fairness” or “justice”, and in what ways might we apply it to the world?

And why is it so important to many in elite sporting competitions to “draw the line” – and then to “hold the line”? The major argument centres on fairness, on a principle of justice. This principle could generate some good discussion in a TOK class – regarding where it comes from and how “fairness” is defined.

The testosterone level of some female athletes may be an advantage to them, though apparently not consistently or extensively.  So is “advantage” unfair?  Does fairness demand equality in competitors — or at least equality in opportunity? Several difficulties arise.

If we are making an ethical argument based on removing “advantage”, for instance, don’t we have to acknowledge the many forms of “advantage” that figure in Olympic competitions? What about advantages brought by wealth, such as access to training and facilities? As Sisonke Msimang comments (“Caster Semenya is the one at a disadvantage”):

In developing countries all aspects of sports are under-resourced. School programmes barely exist. Even elite athletes struggle to find a track to practice on or a coach to work with – never mind the sophisticated nutritional, psychological and biomechanical performance enhancement available to those in the developed world. Forget marginal gains, these are massive ones.

The idea that testosterone levels could constitute an unfair advantage in this climate is laughable.

What about other physical “advantages”, such as features of body structure? As Olga Khazan comments in a relevant article (“Why Hyper-Masculine Women Are Scary, but Fish-Like Men Aren’t”, The Atlantic)

Sports must have rules, in other words, but the Olympics are already filled with social, cultural, and biological rule-breakers. The fact that people are alarmed about the masculinity of athletes like Semenya, but not the myriad other ways Olympians deviate from the norm, suggests that our anxieties about her might be rooted in something other than a love of fairness.

In trying to frame the case of Caster Semenya or any other “masculine” woman athlete with ethical argument, we again run right into the messiness and complexities of the world, in which certain “advantages” provoke protest, while others are built right into the system.

TOK and the real world

Again and again I am drawn back to comment on the topic of classification – so basic to knowledge, so significant in how we live together as human beings. If we achieve anything at all with our course, I hope at least that we encourage our students to combine two central IB characteristics: critical thinking to question the categories into which the knowledge they have received has already been slotted, and openness to consider alternative ways that recognize (or even embrace!) the complexities and nuances of the real world.  Caster Semenya is only one example among so many human beings who elude tidy categories.  But the controversy to which others have subjected her does not nullify the category that brought her so much media attention: she is one of the finest athletes in the world.

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