When is a woman a woman?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

A great article about Caster Semenya and the unfair way that the Olympics tries to narrowly define what it means to be a woman:

What is it, exactly, that makes me a woman? Is it my breasts? If so, is it because they are a certain size? Is it that I have a womb? Does it matter that I have no idea if my womb works because I’ve never tried to get pregnant? Is it my two X chromosomes or my level of testosterone? I have no idea the status of either my chromosomes or testosterone for the simple reason there’s never been a good medical reason to test them. Asked to prove that I am a woman, I’d probably come up with this—everyone says I’m one.

…But it’s harder to buy that argument—this is about fairness—when you read about what happens to a woman “flagged” and tested. Here is how Engber summarized what would happen in such a case:

If an athlete like Semenya failed the initial hormone screen, she’d be examined in more detail to see if her testosterone was “functional” enough to give her an advantage. How would the doctors figure out if her testosterone was functional? They’d check how much of it was bound to her receptors, screen her for known mutations in those same receptors, weigh the hoarseness of her voice, rate the development of her pubic hair and breasts, evaluate her muscles, size her labia, palpate her vagina, and measure her anogenital distance. In other words, they’d try to calculate the degree to which she’d been virilized—or one might say, made “manly”—by her intersex condition.

Imagine that, having a doctor measure your pubic hair and test your vagina to make sure it is vagina-like enough to be considered a woman’s. For all the scientific coldness of that paragraph, I still found myself shuddering at the thought of such a procedure, followed by a nagging feeling that the testing didn’t sound that different from the old systems, a process created by a group dominated by men defining for women what men thought was womanly enough.

…As Kate Fagan passed along on Twitter: “I know Semenya is a woman because people are trying to control her body.”

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