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12.0: Introduction to Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

Some children may learn at an early age that their gender does not correspond with their sex. (Photo courtesy of Rajesh Kumar/flickr)

In 2009, the eighteen-year old South African athlete, Caster Semenya, won the women’s 800-meter world championship in Track and Field. Her time of 1:55:45, a surprising improvement from her 2008 time of 2:08:00, caused officials from the International Association of Athletics Foundation (IAAF) to question whether her win was legitimate. If this questioning were based on suspicion of steroid use, the case would be no different from that of Roger Clemens or Mark McGuire, or even Track and Field Olympic gold medal winner Marion Jones. But the questioning and eventual testing were based on allegations that Caster Semenya, no matter what gender identity she possessed, was biologically a male.

You may be thinking that distinguishing biological maleness from biological femaleness is surely a simple matter—just conduct some DNA or hormonal testing, throw in a physical examination, and you’ll have the answer. But it is not that simple. Both biologically male and biologically female people produce a certain amount of testosterone, and different laboratories have different testing methods, which makes it difficult to set a specific threshold for the amount of male hormones produced by a female that renders her sex male. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) criteria for determining eligibility for sex-specific events are not intended to determine biological sex. “Instead these regulations are designed to identify circumstances in which a particular athlete will not be eligible (by reason of hormonal characteristics) to participate in the 2012 Olympic Games" in the female category (International Olympic Committee 2012).

To provide further context, during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, eight female athletes with XY chromosomes underwent testing and were ultimately confirmed as eligible to compete as women (Maugh 2009). To date, no males have undergone this sort of testing. Doesn’t that imply that when women perform better than expected, they are “too masculine,” but when men perform well they are simply superior athletes? Can you imagine Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, being examined by doctors to prove he was biologically male based solely on his appearance and athletic ability?

Can you explain how sex, sexuality, and gender are different from each other?

In this chapter, we will discuss the differences between sex and gender, along with issues like gender identity and sexuality. We will also explore various theoretical perspectives on the subjects of gender and sexuality, including the social construction of sexuality and queer theory.

References

International Olympic Committee, Medical and Scientific Department. 2012. “IOC Regulations on Female Hyperandrogenism.” Retrieved December 8, 2014 (http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Commissions_PDFfiles/Medical_commission/2012-06-22-IOC-Regulations-on-Female-Hyperandrogenism-eng.pdf).

Maugh, Thomas H., III. 2009. “Row Over South African Athlete Highlights Ambiguities of Gender.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved December 8, 2014 (http://articles.latimes.com/2009/aug/21/science/sci-runner-side21).