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Classification and the Gender Binary: Understanding Intersexuality

achiles's picture

 Anna Chiles

Biology 103
Professor Grobstein
September 27, 2009
Classification and the Gender Binary: Understanding Intersexuality
            Recent claims about the sex of South African Olympic runner Caster Semenya bring to light important questions regarding modern society’s limited gender classification scheme. The 18-year-old self-identified woman was forced to undergo genetic testing due to her “masculine appearance” and her repeatedly record-breaking performance. Allegedly, gender testing has been done, but the results are to be determined. Regardless, an Australian newspaper published a story purporting that Semenya qualifies as one of the forty-six different categories of intersexuality. The claims are unsupported by any actual research, but their impact has been enormous. In a society that uses a strict gender binary to classify people, the label of male or female carries the weight of a gendered profile, regardless of its accuracy. This system leaves no room for those who are biologically neither and both. This paper will seek to scientifically explore the categories of intersexuality while exploring the social implications of gender classification.
            According to PBS’s NOVA online, one in every hundred babies is born intersexed. But, contrary to long-accepted theory, there is no single way to be intersex. In fact, abnormal fetal sexual and hormonal development can result in at least 46 separate outcomes. Below is a discussion of some of the most common categories of intersexuality: Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, Testosterone Biosynthetic Defects, Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, Gonadal Dysgenesis, 5-Alpha Reductase Deficiency, Micropenis, Klinefelter Syndrome, Turner Syndrome, and other Timing Defects. PBS article Sex: Unknown, The Intersex Spectrum explains that certain phases of fetal development are crucial for the development of genitalia, reproductive organs, and hormone secretors and receptors. Almost all intersexuality results from incorrect timing of one or both phases or a failure to complete the necessary phases altogether. In males with a “normal” set of XY chromosomes, there are two times that androgens, or male hormones, are released during normal fetal development. The first time, the androgens function to structure male anatomy (penis and scrotum) and the second, they allow the penis to grow. Failure to complete the second step results in a condition called Micropenis, in which individuals have very small but fully functioning penises. Hormone therapy is often needed so that male puberty can be simulated. In order for a full XY male to develop normal genitalia and reproductive organs, he needs to be able to both receive androgens and secrete them. Androgen secretors, located in the testes and adrenal glands, allow males to produce testosterone, a hormone that stimulates muscle and hair growth, male puberty, genital formation in utero, and bone strength. Androgen secretors are key in reproduction as well. Androgen receptors are necessary to receive and process male hormones. Many intersex conditions result from the presence of one—either androgen secretors or androgen receptors, and the absence of the other. Gonadal Dysgenesis, for example, is an intersex condition characterized by the presence of androgen receptors coupled with an absence of functioning testes. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is a condition characterized by the presence of functioning testes without the ability to react to androgens. Both conditions result in the presence of ambiguous genitals. Other forms of intersexuality, which usually result in an enlarged clitoris and a fused labia, exist because of the production of certain male, XY, hormones in a genetically female individual. Sometimes, incorrect fetal development presents in the outer presence of female or male genitalia and the internal presence of incompatible reproductive organs.
            Most intersex individuals identify as either man or woman. This brings about questions regarding gender and socialization. If gender as a social construct did not force individuals into gendered roles, would intersexuality simply be another category of sex at birth? Many individuals never know that they are intersexed. Many do not realize until mid-adulthood. If individuals identify as male or female, is it fair to question that with a look under the hood? The International Association of Athletics Federations would argue yes in the case of Caster Semenya. Semenya, who is masculine in appearance and has won medal after medal for her repeatedly record-breaking speed. Eventually, spectators and competitors began to question her genetic makeup, demanding a test of her sex which is yet to be released. For all intents and purposes, however, she has already been deemed intersexed by the global community. She is rumored to have internal testes with externally female genitals. If this is true, she will be disqualified from her future races, and stripped of her former medals and titles. It seems, then, that there is no place in athletics for intersex competitors. What, then, should be done in order to be inclusive? Athletic competitions are separated by gender for the reason of unfair hormonal advantage on the part of men. But, it is clear from research that there is no single definition of intersexuality. Individuals can look like females, act as females, and identify as females, but possess a small genetic difference which could potentially give them an athletic advantage or not. It seems necessary and fair, then, to test the sex of all athletes, not just those few who provoke suspicion. What, then, of self-identifying males with ambiguous genitalia or the inability to process testosterone? Into what category do they fall? One answer would be to create a third gender category in international athletics. But this seems invasive to those athletes who may not know of their genetic differences, or those who do not wish to make them public.
            The stigma of genetic difference has decreased somewhat in the past 50 years. However, this public conversation about intersexuality in sports may be what society needs to stimulate knowledge, understanding, and tolerance regarding the little discussed condition. Perhaps this event, while detrimental to the life and career of Caster Semenya, can bring about social change. This complex issue may shed light on the problematic gender binary and help people to see that sex, sexuality, and gender are not one in the same.
Works Cited:
“Androgen Receptors.” May 2008.
Associate Press. “South Africa blasts track official in Semenya flap.”
Gold, Carl. “Sex: Unknown.” November, 2001.
“Intersex Conditions.” 2008.


Paul Grobstein's picture

intersexuality: development and culture

Interesting issue indeed.  Maybe the problem here isn't development but the social construct?  Perhaps as we learn more about development, we actually need to change the social constructs rather than looking for ways to categorize people that they don't/won't fit into?  What changes in social construct might be helpful here?

For more discussion of these issues, see Sex/gender classification