Tag Archives: Castor Semenya

Castor Semenya: Shameful Context of an Athlete’s Persecution

Laurie and Debbie say:

World Athletics remains committed to a centuries-old, white supremacist notion that defines “womanhood” in terms of the white, cisgendered female body, rendering everyone else, especially women of African descent, socially unacceptable aberrations. 

We have written about Castor Semenya several times, most recently here and here.  Semenya is an Olympic-class runner who has been continually harassed and demeaned by World Athletics (formerly the International Association of Athletics Federations, or IAAF), which is committed to the proposition that she’s not a real woman. Elizabeth Adetiba, writing at SB Nation, goes deep into the repulsive historical, contemporary social, and biological background to this substance-free “controversy.”

Read the whole article, don’t rely on our selections:

Based on the tones of disgust used to discuss her physicality, one might think that Semeya is the only runner to ever possess a body that so greatly differed from everyone else’s in the field. It seems the sports world has forgotten the peculiarities of Ira Murchison’s stocky, 5’4 frame, which earned him both the nickname “Human Sputnik” and an Olympic gold medal in the 4×100. Or that world record-holder Usain Bolt was taller with longer legs than any of his competitors.

Unlike those men, Semenya’s body is often deemed unwanted and out of place, most notoriously by her sport’s governing body.

Adetiba names two other contemporary African runners who are receiving similar treatment. Annet Negesa, from Uganda, was pushed into invasive surgery by World Athletics, and is suffering both physical and mental consequences. Adetiba goes on to cite the repugnant 19rh century “scientific” theories of Sir Albert Cook, who categorized Black women’s bodies by their “ape-like” features.

Before Cook, Sarah Baartman, more commonly known by her derogatory nickname “The Hottentot Venus,” encompassed Western society’s fixation on black women’s bodies. Captured and enslaved in what is now South Africa (Semenya’s home country), Baartman was brought to Europe in 1810 and exhibited in circuses and public squares until her death, when scientists assessed and dissected her elongated labia. That work was promoted as more evidence that black women’s so-called deficiencies made them less “womanly” than their white counterparts.

The impact of such ideas can still be seen today within the medical community through widespread diagnoses of “labial hypertrophy,” a medical term for an elongated labia, despite the fact it is not a major (nor, for the most part, even minor) health concern.

She goes on to discuss J. Phillippe Rushton’s spurious 1995 claims about Black people’s levels of testosterone. “Scientists have spent the last few decades refuting Rushton’s claims, and ironically fanning the flames of racial pseudoscience.”

Stepping back 150 years, Adetiba addresses other racial stereotypes:

In 1851, physician Samuel Cartwright wrote that, “It is not only in the skin that a difference of color exists between the negro and the white man, but in the membranes, the muscles, the tendons, and in all the fluids and secretions.” Cartwright’s work, which Hoberman claims was read widely by slaveholders, gave (pseudo-) scientific, biological justification for maintaining racial hierarchy and slavery, even as moral opposition grew in other parts of the United States. Implicit in Cartwright’s work was the idea that black men’s physicality is acceptable only when it can be manipulated for profit.

Today, we see Cartwright’s legacy in sports. Exceptional male bodies, often characterized by great strength and size, often inspire awe, and not ire, because for the last century sports institutions have forged and refined mechanisms to make money off of them. Strong women’s bodies, however, haven’t yet been nearly as profitable, and thus have been much more easily derided.

And she minces no words in making her key points:

World Athletics simply sees little use in acknowledging and developing female talent, particularly black female talent in the Global South. As exemplifiers of a particular strain of racialized thinking, those women, to them, are not “real women.” And when World Athletics refuses to elevate the athletic prowess of a black woman, within a body that defies centuries of white supremacist, colonial, gender-essentialist myths, it chooses, instead, to humiliate her on every level.

It is impossible to read this article in April 2020 without also thinking of the Black women being denied hospital care for coronavirus, of whom Rana Zoe Mungin is only one example.

We can only join Adetiba in our outrage.

… these women shouldn’t need to advocate for themselves. As society continues to confront the racial legacies of social institutions in other ways, sports organizations like World Athletics have a clear opportunity to address the harm done as a result of the implementation of racist, sexist ideas. No more hiding behind biased science, doctors, and metrics. Semenya, Niyonsaba, Negesa, and other African female athletes with hyperandrogenism need not alter or manipulate themselves to fit ideals of womanhood that were constructed explicitly around their exclusion. Their bodies are simply not the problem.

They never were.

Thanks to @LisaIronTongue on Twitter for the link. Follow Debbie on Twitter.


Men Making Women’s Decisions: In Person, In Sport, In Politics


Laurie and Debbie say:

We started with a story we found on Twitter. Here’s Meg Elison, author of (among other books), the highly-recommended The Book of the Unnamed Midwife:

Motherfucker comes to my table, unbidden. I assume he’s a waiter; he’s not. I’m having a drink and a snack. I look up and he’s got Fake Concern Face on. Without preamble he says, “If you took better care of yourself, you’d find somebody to love you.”

She shows off her wedding ring, gives him the finger and tells him to Leave Her Alone. But he can’t.

“I didn’t mean anything offensive by it. I just think we have these moments of clarity–“

I tell him if he needs to make a fat girl cry so he can have something to jack off to, then he better pay by the minute for it because there are professionals who provide that service. I am not one of them, and this is not an appropriate place to solicit me.

We’ve heard, and made, some pretty tough comebacks in our time, but this is one of the truest ones ever.

He still can’t leave, but she finishes him off:

He has the NERVE to “Namaste” me as he slinks out of this place where I was having a peaceful moment by myself. Friends, I yelled GO FUCK YOURSELF at his cringing back.

She also makes it completely clear that she was shaking and rattled, because she was verbally assaulted with no provocation. And you just know that guy went home and felt sorry for … himself. The best part is that he may never do that to anyone again.

He’s a small-time, basically trivial, example of a man thinking he both knows what’s best for a woman he doesn’t know, and that he has the right to interrupt her life to give her the benefit of his wisdom.

He matters for two reasons: first, because there are millions of him all over the country and the world, trying to make fat girls cry. Second, because he’s an individual example of wielding toxic societal power.


Who do you think made the decision to turn down Castor Semenya’s appeal regarding women and testosterone in Olympic sports? The Court of Arbitration for Sport, which (if you can tell by names) is definitely majority male. They made this decision even though they know it’s difficult, if not impossible to implement. They also ruled that athletes who wish to compete in women’s events, but whose testosterone is over an arbitrary level, will have to take drugs to reduce those levels. The World Medical Association has urged its members in 114 countries not to cooperate with this:

We have strong reservations about the ethical validity of these regulations. They are based on weak evidence from a single study, which is currently being widely debated by the scientific community. They are also contrary to a number of key WMA ethical statements and declarations, and as such we are calling for their immediate withdrawal.

But again, men not only feel they can make decisions on women’s bodies, they are formally authorized to make those decisions, and they don’t have to respond to, for example, doctors who think their decisions are unsafe and unethical.

For some history on this controversy, read this post from about a year ago. We hoped things would get better after that.


Ohio state representative John Becker, however, has managed to outdo both random San Francisco harassers and Court of Arbitration biased judges with his proposed “anti-abortion” bill. Ohio already has one of the most restrictive laws in the country (miserably superseded in the last week or so by Georgia’s indefensible law), but it isn’t enough for Mr. Becker, who wants to eliminate rape and incest exceptions, and also (while claiming this isn’t what he means) ban most forms of birth control. But then he completely loses touch with any reality:

The bill excludes treatments for ectopic pregnancies from the insurance coverage ban, which seems like a good thing—we should try to treat ectopic pregnancies!—until you realize that Becker’s notion of treatment for an ectopic pregnancy is fucking nonsense: “Part of that treatment would be removing the embryo from the fallopian tube and then reinserting it in the uterus so that’s defined as not an abortion under this bill,” Becker said.

The bill says the term “nontherapeutic abortion” does not include a “procedure for an ectopic pregnancy, that is intended to re-implant the fertilized ovum into the pregnant woman’s uterus.” Presumably, Becker envisions a world where doctors are trying to “fix” ectopic pregnancies by reinserting wayward embryos into the pregnant person’s uterus.

Except that’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.

“That doesn’t exist in the realm of treatment for ectopic pregnancy. You can’t just re-implant. It’s not a medical thing,” said Miracle.

Mr. Becker doesn’t, it would seem, know what a woman’s anatomy looks like, let alone what can and can’t be done medically, surgically, or even magically. All he knows is that “he’s no expert” but he is willing to try to convince his fellow legislators (most of whom are almost certainly men) that they all know what’s “right” and what’s “wrong,” and are more than proud of themselves for exercising their power on the living bodies of the women they feel compelled to control.


Men aren’t going to stop tormenting women in restaurants, telling women whether or not we are women, or telling women what we can, or can’t, do with our own bodies, any time soon. So let’s all take up Meg Elison’s rallying cry and stand up against them.