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Arthur or Martha?

23 August 2009

The controversy over the sex of athlete Caster Semenya has revealed that her sex is not the only thing in doubt.

Some journalists have written as though what is in doubt is her gender. But from reported accounts from her parents her gender is fairly masculine. As a child she was a tom-boy, played with boys, dressed as a boy and so on. So the gender thing is fairly clear. But, as this article points out, the question of sex is more difficult: Essay – Where’s the Rulebook for Sex Verification? – NYTimes.com:

To be fair, the biology of sex is a lot more complicated than the average fan believes. Many think you can simply look at a person’s “sex chromosomes.” If the person has XY chromosomes, you declare him a man. If XX, she’s a woman. Right?

Wrong. A little biology: On the Y chromosome, a gene called SRY usually makes a fetus grow as a male. It turns out, though, that SRY can show up on an X, turning an XX fetus essentially male. And if the SRY gene does not work on the Y, the fetus develops essentially female.

The problem is not gender, but sex. But even sex is not as simple a matter as it seems. According to the article, most female athletes are closer to the male end of the spectrum, biologically. So where does one draw the line? Or will one have to handicap athletes according to hormone tests?

And is the difference between Arthur and Martha one of sex or gender?

One Comment leave one →
  1. 26 August 2009 5:44 pm

    A hundred years ago it might have been simple. I see this as part of a wider trend of profiling. For instance, various insurances. One used to be insured, and that was about it. The profiling becomes increasingly invasive. What drives the phenomenon?

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