Chrissy Y., Stacey S., and a former student of mine, Kenjus Watson, have all suggested that we post about the controversy over Olympic athlete Caster Semenya’s sex.

A lot of people are talking about whether or not it’s appropriate to be asking about her sex and why we would be so obsessed with knowing the answer. Those are fine questions (and I address them secondarily).  But first I would like to suggest that, even if we were to decide that it is appropriate to want to determine her sex (that we are obsessed with it for a good reason), it would be impossible to actually determine her sex definitively. Let me explain:

If you were to try to decide what qualifies a person as male or female, what quality would you choose?

I can think of eight candidates:

1. Identity (whatever the person says they are, they are)
2. Sexual orientation (boys dig girls, vice versa)
3. Secondary sex characteristics (e.g., boobs/no boobs, pubic hair patterns, distribution of fat on the body)
4. External genitalia (e.g., clitoris, labia, vaginal opening/penis and scrotum)
5. Internal genitalia (e.g., vagina, uterus, and fallopian tubes/epididymis, vas deferens, seminal vesicles, prostate, etc)
6. Hormones (preponderance of estrogens/androgens)
7. Gonads (ovaries/testes)
8. Chromosomes (XX/XY, the SRY gene)

Most of us assume that these criteria all line up. That is, that people with XY chromosomes have testes that make androgens which creates a penis, epididymis, vas deferens etc… all the way up to a male-identified person who wants to have sex with women.  We also assume that these things are binary (e.g., boobs/no boobs), when in reality most of them are on a spectrum (e.g., hormones, also boobs, likely sexual orientation).

But these criteria don’t always line up and sex-linked charactertics aren’t binary.  Examples of “syndromes” that disrupt these trajectories abound (e.g., Klinefelter’s syndrome).  And all kinds of practices, including surgeries, are sometimes used to force a binary when there isn’t one (e.g., intersex surgery to fix the “micropenis” and “obtrustive” clitoris and breast reduction surgery for men).

If these criteria don’t always line up, then we have to pick one as THE determinant of sex.  But any choice would ultimately be arbitrary.  The truth is that none of these criteria could ever actually definitively qualify a person as male or female.

The alternative would be to require that a person qualify as male or female according to ALL of the criteria.  And you might be surprised, then, how many people are neither male or female.

I think the debate over whether we should test Semenya’s sex is getting ahead of itself, given that there is no such test.


Yet, while we won’t be learning anything definitive about Semenya’s sex, the controversy does teach us something about our obsession with sex difference.  On MSNBC, Dave Zirin explains what the controversy over is really about:


To me, one of the most interesting things that Zirin says is that sex isn’t actually a good indicator of athletic ability.  He may be a guy, he says, but having a penis doesn’t translate into outrunning anyone.

He is implying that sex segregation in athletics, as a rule, is more about an obsession with sex categories and their affirmation than it is about sports. Remember, Semenya’s sex is being questioned not just because she appears masculine to some (she always has), but because she kicked major ass on the track.

Kenjus, my former student, writes:

…why didn’t they test Usain Bolt?  He did amazingly well… Yet, his otherworldly accomplishments are considered the result of his never-before-seen body structure… Usain, however, is a big, strong, fast Black man. The fact that his times are just as mind-boggling as Caster’s gets lost in the widely accepted narrative that big, strong, fast Black men accomplish amazing athletic feats. It’s what they’re built for.

But this woman has apparently baffled the athletic and scientific experts because her body is not doing what a woman’s body is supposed to do. More specifically, her shape is too muscular, her voice is too deep, and her time is too fast. Essentially, “Semenya-the-woman” CANNOT exist in an exclusively two-gendered (i.e. men and women) society in which men are innately bigger, stronger, more deeply-voiced, and particularly FASTER than women…


Semenya is getting far more media attention than the recent cheating scandals of higher profile athletes. This is precisely because there’s something that separates Caster from an A-Rod, a Marion, a Sosa… The world is captivated by Caster because something that should be certain; unquestionable; medical; pre-ordained, is in flux.  It is regrettable that some athletes take illegal drugs to gain an edge over the competition. It’s entirely unethical, unnatural, and ungodly for an athlete to not fit into our narrow specifications of what constitutes gender or sex.

Indeed.  Our obsession with Semenya’s sex, in addition to being hurtful and invasive, says a great deal more about us, than it does about her.  And perhaps the reason we are so obsessed with proving Semenya’s sex, to bring this post back to its beginnings, is because binary sex doesn’t actually exist.  Me thinks we protest too much.

(Thanks to Mimi Schippers, via the Sociologists for Women in Society listserve, for alerting me to the video. Images found here and here.)


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Genderkid sent in a link to a story in The Morning News about the Teen and Transgender Comparative Study, an art installation by Charlie White at the Hammer Museum in L.A. A description from the story:

The series is a correlation of two stages of transformation, pairing teen girls (12-14) with like adult [transgender] male-to-female…

More from The Morning News:

In the images in White’s series, both figures are blossoming into womanhood, though each along a different path. As observers, however, we have been taught to view the subjects in much the same way: with sheer terror.

For just as the original 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers warned of Communism’s impending doom, and stories of men with hooks were concocted to frighten young girls from riding in cars with boys, so often have Hollywood summer comedies acted as cautionary tales for the male who would cast his desire toward either the pubescent or transgendered woman. Because in the right skirt or the right application of makeup, each has proved alluring to our hero…

Indeed, both sexy underage girls and transgender women who “fool” unsuspecting men are often portrayed as threats to (straight, adult) men. The “Lolita” figure is long-standing, and portrayals such as the Ally McBeal plotline in which a man falls in love with a transgender woman without knowing she is trans present the possibility of men being “fooled” into having sexual or even long-term romantic relationships with a transgender woman. Both teen girls and trans women are threatening and can get a guy in trouble.

Of course, we’re more accepting of one of these types of trouble than the other, and we shouldn’t be surprised that trans individuals who are “discovered” may face dire consequences for “fooling” men who have an intense investment in a rigid type of heterosexual identity and fear ridicule by peers, such as the three men who killed a transgender teen in California. (And I don’t mean to imply here that women don’t ever feel uncomfortable with or attack trans individuals, but the murders I’m aware of all included male perpetrators.)

Anyway, it’s a pretty fascinating set of images. Thanks, genderkid!

UPDATE: Commenter EGhead says,

This analysis also neglects that society insistently refuses to acknowledge transgendered women as women, even though they are, while insistently acknowledging girls as women, even though they aren’t.

Fair enough–I think that’s a good point.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

In agriculture, monoculture is the practice of relying extensively on one crop with little biodiversity.  In the 1840s, a famine in Ireland was caused by a disease that hit potatoes, the crop on which Irish people largely relied.  At Understanding Evolution, an article reads:

The Irish potato clones were certainly low on genetic variation, so when the environment changed and a potato disease swept through the country in the 1840s, the potatoes (and the people who depended upon them) were devastated.

The article includes this illustration of how monocultures are vulnerable:

The Irish potato famine reveals how choices about how to feed populations, combined with biological realities, can have dramatic impacts on the world.  In the three years that the famine lasted, one out of every eight Irish people died of starvation.  Nearly a million emigrated to the United States, only to face poverty and discrimination, in part because of their large numbers.

The article continues:

Despite the warnings of evolution and history, much agriculture continues to depend on genetically uniform crops. The widespread planting of a single corn variety contributed to the loss of over a billion dollars worth of corn in 1970, when the U.S. crop was overwhelmed by a fungus. And in the 1980s, dependence upon a single type of grapevine root forced California grape growers to replant approximately two million acres of vines when a new race of the pest insect, grape phylloxera (Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, shown at right) attacked in the 1980s.

Gwen adds: The Irish potato famine is also an example of a reality about famines that we rarely discuss. In most famines there is food available in the country, but the government or local elites do not believe that those who are starving have any claim to that food. In the years of the Irish potato famine, British landowners continued to export wheat out of Ireland. The wheat crop wasn’t affected by the potato blight. But wheat was a commercial crop the British grew for profit. Potatoes were for Irish peasants to eat. We might think it would be obvious that when people are starving you’d make other food sources available to them, but that’s not what happened. In the social hierarchy of the time, many British elites didn’t believe that starving Irish people had a claim to their cash crop, and so they continued to ship wheat out of the country to other nations even while millions were dying or emigrating. Similarly, in the Ethiopian famines of the 1980s, the country wasn’t devoid of food; it’s just that poor rural people weren’t seen as having a right to food, and so available food was not redistributed to them. Many people in the country ate just fine while their fellow citizens starved.

So famine is often as much about politics and social hierarchies as it is about biology.

Francisco sent in the Jan. 7th cover of The Statement, the magazine of the Daily Michigan (found here).  It features three apples: one carries male markers (giant mustache), one female markers (eyelashes, make-up, and big red lips), and the third, labeled with a question mark, carries markers for both sexes, sort of askew, and is partially missing.

Cayden writes:

[Apparently p]eople who don’t conform to the gender binary (and quite rigidly too — note the “man” apple’s huge stache and the “woman” apple’s pouty red lips) are incomplete people: monsterous and frightening.

Freud distinguished between a “mature” (vaginal) and “immature” (clitoral) orgasm, telling women that to require clitoral stimulation for orgasm was a psychological problem. Contesting this, in 1970 Anne Koedt wrote The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.  She explains:

Frigidity has generally been defined by men as the failure of women to have vaginal orgasms. Actually the vagina is not a highly sensitive area and is not constructed to achieve orgasm. It is the clitoris which is the center of sexual sensitivity and which is the female equivalent of the penis… Rather than tracing female frigidity to the false assumptions about female anatomy, our “experts” have declared frigidity a psychological problem of women.

Indeed, studies show that about 1/3rd of women regularly reach orgasm during penile-vaginal sex.  The rest (that is, the majority) require more direct clitoral stimulation.  Koedt goes on (my emphasis):

All this leads to some interesting questions about conventional sex and our role in it. Men have orgasms essentially by friction with the vagina, not the clitoral area, which is external and not able to cause friction the way penetration does. Women have thus been defined sexually in terms of what pleases men; our own biology has not been properly analyzed. Instead, we are fed the myth of the liberated woman and her vaginal orgasm – an orgasm which in fact does not exist.

Koedt’s article was highly influential and rejecting the notion of the “vaginal orgasm” (both anatomically and functionally) was part of second wave feminism. 

Still, the vaginal orgasm keeps coming back.  During the ’90s, it came back in the form of the G-spot.  You, too, can have a vaginal orgasm if you can just find that totally-orgasmic-pleasure-spot-rich-in-blood-vessels-and-nerve-endings-that-makes-for-wildly-amazing-orgasms-with-ejaculation that you, strangely, never knew was there!  (See what Betty Dodson has to say about the g-spot here.)

Most recently, the vaginal orgasm has come back in the form of orgasmic birth.  The idea is that women can, if they really want to, have an orgasm (or orgasms) during childbirth. 

Now, I don’t want to argue that women never have orgasms from penile-vaginal intercourse.  They do.  I also don’t care to debate whether a g-spot exists.  And I am certainly not going to look a mother in the face and tell her she did not have an orgasm during childbirth.  I am sure some women do.  (And, anyway, I get a kick out of thinking about such a mother telling her teenager the story of his birth, so I’m going to keep believing it is true).

Anyway, what I do want to do is discuss how the video below uses the idea of orgasmic birth to reinscribe the myth of the vaginal orgasm.  The reporter says that orgasmic birth is just “basic science” and then turns to interview an M.D.  The M.D. uses the vaginal orgasm as scientific evidence for the possibility of orgasmic birth.  She says: obviously a baby would cause an orgasm when it comes out the vagina, since a penis causes an orgasm when it goes into the vagina.  But, of course, it usually doesn’t.  That last part isn’t “basic science,” it’s ideology (as Koedt so nicely points out).

I wonder how many women now feel doubly bad.  Not only can they not have orgasms from penile-vaginal intercourse, they also experienced pain during childbirth!  Bad ladies!  Watch the whole 8-minute clip or start at 3:28 to see the interview with the M.D.:

Via Jezebel.

Michael Kimmel argues that, for contemporary Americans, science is a superstition.  Scientific explanations are comforting and often accepted without critical thought.  The word “natural” rolls off our tongue and frequently gets conflated with “good.”  We are obsessed with finding the biological origins of sexual orientation, gender difference, political proclivities, happiness… everything.  Once a biological basis is found, it is considered the whole explanation.  It is as if biology is more fundamental and more true than things like culture or society. 

Our “faith” in science, then, is useful to marketers insofar as they can claim that their product is objectively tested, engineered, or otherwise scientifically sound.  This brings me to this Marquardt Beauty Analysis website, sent in by Kiran D.  The website explains the science behind beauty.  The main page includes a woman’s face overlaid with complex geometric shapes:

Here is part of the mission statement (emphasis mine):

MBA is dedicated to proactively researching human visual aesthetics, including its biological and mathematical bases, and to utilizing the results of that research to develop and provide information and technology with which to analyze and positively modify (i.e. improve) human visual attractiveness.

MBA further is dedicated to tailoring and formatting this technology to specific uses for direct applications in the fields where human attractivenss is a factor or parameter (i.e. those fields interested in human visual attractiveness) including medicine, dentistry, psychology, anthropology, biology, anthropometry, the arts, cosmetic makeup, and fashion, as well as for direct use by the individual consumer.

Notice how they use scientific buzzwords like “bases,” “formatting,” “applications,” and “parameter.”

Here is a screenshot showing how they have tried to “scientize” beauty and make their endeavor look like legitimate science:

On the page below they claim that their formula works across history (elsewhere they also claim it works across race), so they argue that their science is objective and not culturally or historically contingent:

The website, of course, is not really about research on beauty; it’s a mechanism with which to sell make-up, cosmetic surgery, and other products.  Here is a screenshot of the first part of the links page:

The page includes links to L’Oreal, Clinique, Cover Girl, Neutrogena, and Revlon; five “aesthetic surgery” links; three “aesthetic dentistry” links; and a handful of academic-y sounding links.

Thanks Kiran!

One topic we cover in my sociology classes is the way the nature vs. nurture debate treats those two categories as though they are completely separate entities: “nature” is this fixed biological reality and “nurture” is all the social stuff we use to tinker around with nature as best we can. I point out to students that biology isn’t as fixed as we often think it is, and that seemingly “natural” processes are in fact often highly influenced by social factors.

One good example of this is the age at which girls have their first periods (menarche). In the U.S. today, the average age at menarche is a little over 12 years (see source here), and that seems normal to us. But historically, this is odd; until quite recently, girls did not begin menstruating until well into their teens. Because girls have to develop a certain amount of body fat in order to menstruate, access to food affects age at menarche. And access to food is generally an indicator of all types of social factors, including societal wealth and the distribution of wealth within groups. In general, economic development increases access to sufficient levels of food, and thus reduces average age at menarche.

This graph of average age at menarche in France from 1840-2000 (found on the French National Institute for Demographic Studies website here) shows a clear decline, starting at over 15 years and now standing at under 13:

Below is a bar graph showing average age at menarche for a number of countries (found here; age at menarche is the grey bar); we see the oldest average age is 13 and a half years, in Germany. Note that the data are not all from the same year, and while most report mean age at menarche, some report median age, so though they show a general trend, they are not stricly comparable:

However, these average ages obscure the fact that access to resources is not equal within nations, and as we would expect, though average age at menarche has fallen for most nations over the past century, we continue to see differences in average age among groups within nations that seem to mirror differences in wealth. For instance, this graph (found at the Museum of Menstruation website here) shows differences in average age at menarche between urban and rural areas in several countries:

The example of the quite dramatic fall in average age at menarche, as well as continued differences within societies, is a very helpful example for getting across the idea that biology is not fixed. I explain to my students that though we have many biological processes (i.e., the ability to menstruate), social factors such as economic development and social inequality affect how many of those processes are expressed (i.e., how early girls being to menstruate, on average). For other examples of how social factors affect biology, see this post on average lifespan and this post on increases in height over time.

I’m currently pairing these images with the chapters “The Body’s New Timetable: How the Life Course of American Girls Has Changed” and “Sanitizing Puberty: The American Way to Menstruate” from The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, by Joan Jacobs Brumberg (1997, NY: Vintage Books) in my women’s studies course. Brumberg argues that the decreasing age of menstruation has created new social pressures as there is an increasing gap between girls’ biological maturity (that is, being able to get pregnant at age 12 or so) and their mental and emotional maturity (they’re still 12 year old girls), a point activists were trying to make in these misguided PSAs about statutory rape. Brumberg argues that just as this was happening, American cultural understandings of menstruation turned it into a hygiene problem, not a maturational milestone, meaning we give girls information about tampons and sanitary pads but not much about what these changes really mean.

Just for fun, here is “The Story of Menstruation,” an animated cartoon put out by the Disney company in 1946. Millions of girls learned about menstruation from it in the ensuing decades, including that they could throwing their schedules off by getting too emotional or cold and that it’s ok to bathe as long as the water isn’t too hot or cold. It illustrates Brumberg’s point about how discusses of menstruation turned to scientific explanations of what was happening and advice about what was and wasn’t ok to do while menstruating, while mostly ignoring it’s emotional or social significance.

I also like the explanation at the beginning of why we refer to “Mother” nature–because she does all her work without anyone even noticing, just like moms. How nice.

In the U.S. today, when infants are born with ambiguous genitalia, surgeons often operate in order to bring the child’s body into accordance with our expectations for “correct” male or female genitalia, even when the actual morphology of their bodies causes no dysfunction or harm.

Some activists, such as those involved with the Intersex Society of North America, are trying to stop these surgeries.  The Phallo-O-Meter (found here) is a satirical ruler designed to draw attention to the way in which the surgeries force bodies existing in nature into social categories of our own invention (it is attributed to Kiira Triea here).  Here it is:

The ruler is satirical (as you can tell by the tongue-in-cheek “just squeeks by” etc.), but the measurements are based on the kind of decisions doctors actually make.  Indeed, if doctors decide that a penis is “too small” or a clitoris is “too big,” an infant is in danger of having corrective cosmetic surgery.  The point here is: When bodies don’t fit into our pre-existing notions of male and female, we will force them to, even if it involves a knife.  Clitorises that are longer than .9 cm and penises that are shorter than 2.5 must be fixed.  As Martha Coventry says in Making the Cut:

The strict division between female and male bodies and behavior is our most cherished and comforting truth.  Mess with that bedrock belief, and the ground beneath our feet starts to tremble.

In Creating Good-Looking Genitals in the Service of Gender, Suzanne Kessler found that clitorises that were seen as “too big” were often described by doctors in moral terms.  They were “defective,” “anatomic derangements,” “obtrusive,” “embarrassing,” “offensive,” and “troublesome.”

Surgery on intersex infants reflects a taboo on gender similarity; a moral objection to gender sameness.  We must be separated… by at least .6 cm.