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1 Using Sports to Teach About the Social Construction of Sex

1 Using Sports to Teach About the Social Construction of Sex

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S. McRae

gain a clear understanding of the ways in which the categories “men” and “women”

and associated notions of masculinity and femininity are socially produced, it reinforces the common perception that biological sex is binary and that the line between

male and female is clear and immutable. Instructors aiming to disrupt the notion

that masculinity and femininity are a “natural” part of being male or female may

inadvertently reify gender and sex essentialism by implying that the biological categories “male” and “female” are themselves natural and fixed, when in reality,

human bodies are not exclusively sexually dimorphic. We know that physical features vary significantly within and across sex categories and while there is some

evidence that men’s and women’s brains have limited measurable differences,

emerging research indicates that even these differences between males and females,

such as responses to emotional stimuli, are not “hardwired,” but are in fact shaped

by childhood socialization, just like many other parts of the brain (Fine 2010). Still,

even those who understand the extent to which gender is a cultural construct and

that infants and children are socialized to conform to the norms of their assigned

gender category have trouble letting go of the notion that some gender differences

are biologically ingrained.

A discussion of athletes whose bodies disrupt accepted sex categories does not

fully illuminate the ways in which many of the sex differences we perceive may in

fact be the result of our early experiences, but does allow students an opportunity to

think critically about biological “facts,” the use of science to justify gender conformity, and the ways in which the notion of a fixed sex binary limits the full range of

human physical and social expression.


Bodies Under Scrutiny

The supposed divide between male and female is especially rigidly enforced in most

competitive sports, from the youth level to international competition. In international athletics, as elsewhere in the sports world, sex boundaries are strictly enforced

in part out of fear that athletes who have physical characteristics that do not fall

within the prescribed traits of their stated sex will compete in “wrong” category.1

The strict boundary between sexes is typically justified as a means to ensure fairness

in women’s competition, based on the widely-accepted stereotype that women are

slower and weaker than men and thus would be unable to prevail in gender integrated contests.


Recently in the United States, there have been some attempts to soften such boundaries, mostly at

the high school level, the goal being to relieve stress experienced by transgender people and others

whose identities or bodies do not conform to binary gender or sex. These attempts have provoked

tremendous anxiety and fear from other community members – particularly that boys or men will

try to compete in girls’ and women’s sports in an effort to gain a physical advantage or displace

girls and women in line for college scholarships.


Sex and Gender in International Sports: Athletes and the Social Construction of Sex


Athletes competing in female sports are thus under particular pressure to conform to categorical benchmarks for female bodies set by international athletics

authorities (Karkazis et al. 2012). However, strict lines between the sexes in athletics often represents an arbitrary boundary around femaleness that overlooks the

extent to which human sex characteristics, in addition to male and female sports

performance, can overlap (Karkazis et al. 2012). This boundary is sometimes

defined by outward physical markers assumed to indicate “male” and “female,” but

the medical line between the sexes is often determined by testosterone. All human

beings produce testosterone, but science has determined a “normal” testosterone

range for males and another for females, while also acknowledging that some proportion of the population fits into neither range (the ranges do not overlap) (Karkazis

et al. 2012). Testosterone levels, particularly in people medically identified as

female, are dependent on a variety of factors, including time of the month, or even

day, and it is also not clear that testosterone produces the same effects in every person (Karkazis et al. 2012).

Over the past 100 years of Olympic track competition, for instance, both male and

female sprint times have improved, but female athletes have sped up at a faster rate

than men, leading to speculation that they may someday outpace men even in sprint

events (Tatem et al. 2004). Female runners are already beating male athletes in ultramarathons – most notably, Rory Bosio, a female ultra-marathoner who placed seventh in the 2013 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), the first woman ever to finish

in the top 10 of the event. In just 10 years, female ultra-marathoners in the UTMB

have gone from posting a collective average time of 10 h slower than the men to an

average of 4 h slower in 2013 (Brown 2013). In addition, as Bosio herself has pointed

out, women tend to place disproportionately high in such races, despite the fact that

the vast majority of their competitors are male (Brown 2013). As a result, when looking at runners as an entire group, there are many examples of women who are faster

than men both within and across events of varying distance, though the stereotype

persists that men, by nature, are stronger and faster than women.

Sweeping generalizations such as “men are faster than women” or “women are

weaker than men” become problematic when they inform sports policy. Recent

debates within the sphere of international athletics provide an opportunity to challenge students’ perceptions of sex, based on a set of mutually exclusive physical

attributes, as strictly dichotomous. The idea that females, by definition, are slower

or less muscular than males is an important piece for students to understand because

this idea is at the root of the scrutiny applied to “masculine” female athletes suspected of wrongly competing in women’s sports. Enforcement of the sex binary in

sports places a limit on how fast a woman can be before she is “too fast” or how

quickly she might improve her performance before her improvement becomes suspicious. In many cases, including those of sprinters Caster Semenya and Dutee

Chand, discussed at length below, physical appearance also plays a role. Both

Semenya and Chand were the subject of complaints lodged by their competitors that

the runners were “too muscular” and surely must not be women, further reinforcing

the stereotype that women who are not “attractive enough” or “feminine enough”

according to social norms might not really be women.



S. McRae

Caster Semenya and Dutee Chand

In August 2009, South African track athlete Caster Semenya, at the time only 18

years old, made international news after winning gold in the 800 m run in 1:55:45

at the track and field World Championships. Earlier the same month, Semenya

posted a time of 4:08:01 in the 1500 m. Semenya’s 800 m time, while extraordinarily fast – it still stands as her personal best in the event – did not break world

records and it was by no means outside of the abilities of her contemporaries. For

example, during the calendar year 2008, just 1 year prior to Semenya’s phenomenal

Worlds success, Kenyan runner Pamela Jelimo ran the 800 m faster than 1:56 no

less than eight times. What caught official attention was not Semenya’s time itself,

but how quickly she had improved over a short period of time. Less than a year prior

to the 2009 Worlds, Semenya had competed in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth

Games, where she posted an 800 m time just over 8 s slower than her 2009 gold

medal-winning run. Eight seconds is an eternity in middle distance racing, one that

athletes can rarely conquer in the 800 m within the space of a year. Normally, such

a dramatic improvement over a relatively short period of time can be an indicator for

substance abuse, but while Semenya was flagged for drug tests (which came back

negative), the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body for international track and field competition, focused their concern on

Semenya’s status as female. Semenya’s peers were similarly fixated on her sex

rather than suspicion of performance enhancing drugs. At least one of Semenya’s

competitors at the 2009 Worlds suggested that she looked male and complained that

she should have been banned from the women's competition.

In fact, the IAAF had begun an investigation into Semenya’s sex characteristics

prior to the 2009 Worlds competition. One IAAF official confirmed to a New Yorker

journalist that the initial scrutiny of Semenya was due in part to suspicion from

some South African sports media outlets that Semenya was, in their words, a “hermaphrodite” (Levy 2009). Prior to the Worlds event, South African athletic officials

were advised to withdraw Semenya from the competition. She was not withdrawn,

of course, and after her victory underwent tests to determine if she had used performance enhancing drugs and to confirm that she was female. Neither the IAAF nor

Semenya released the test results publicly, but several media outlets, whether via

leaked information, rumor, or pure speculation began reporting that the tests showed

that Semenya had “elevated” levels of testosterone in her body and both male and

female physical characteristics-specifically that she did not have a uterus or ovaries

and that she had undescended testes. Reportedly, the “elevated” testosterone was

naturally produced by her body, but was outside of the “normal” range for females.

The IAAF informed Semenya that she would need to receive treatment for her high

testosterone in order to maintain eligibility for international competition.

Although she has never spoken publicly about whether, or what, “treatment” she

underwent for her testosterone levels, the IAAF cleared her to run and Semenya

returned to international track competition in July 2010. While she has done well

since then, including winning silver in the 800 m at the 2012 Olympics in London,


Sex and Gender in International Sports: Athletes and the Social Construction of Sex


Semenya’s more recent finish times have yet to approach her incredible performances

from 2009. After the Olympics, where she looked strong and relaxed during the

800 m final and yet inexplicably could not catch the winner, Mariya Savinova of

Russia, some sports journalists questioned whether Semenya had thrown the race on

purpose to divert further scrutiny (Thomas 2012). Other commentators wondered

whether the supposed “treatment” Semenya had received had limited her athletic

abilities. In 2014, two years after the Olympics, noting that Semenya still had not

returned to her 2009 form, sportswriter Jon Gugala wrote of Semenya’s career in the

800 m, “At 18 years old, she became the 13th-fastest woman ever to run the distance, and she did it in an un-paced championship. She was well on her way to

becoming her sport’s greatest mid-distance woman ever… [Her] decline is as

important as what came before, particularly if it emerges that she’d been forced to

undergo hormone therapy as a condition of returning to her sport. Just consider that

for a second – consider the very real possibility that to make Semenya more of a

‘woman,’ the sport decided to make her less of an athlete.” (Gugala 2014).

It is difficult to imagine a male athlete achieving a dramatic improvement in

performance and then, cleared of any doping suspicion, being stripped of his right

to compete in his event as male as a result of an unfair natural “advantage” provided

him by his body relative to other competitors. For instance, swimmer Michael

Phelps has a number of physical features associated with a condition known as

Marfan Syndrome, in which patients typically have wingspans longer than their

height, long torsos, and long fingers and toes with flexible joints. While Phelps has

not been diagnosed with the disease, it is obvious that his physical features give him

an advantage in his sport such that he won an unprecedented eight gold medals and

set seven world records at the 2008 Olympics. Despite Phelps’ staggering success,

no international sports authorities have suggested that if Phelps’ physique and

advantage is due in part to a medical condition that he and all others with such a

condition should be tested and potentially banned from competing. There are certainly male athletes who are shorter, less muscular, thinner, or more graceful than

some female athletes, but even in a situation in which this might convey an advantage to a male athlete, like in wrestling, singles figure skating, certain gymnastics

events, or coxswains in men’s rowing, a male athlete with such an advantage would

not likely come under suspicion of being female, nor would the advantage necessarily be characterized as “unfair.”

Unfortunately, Semenya’s case has not led to greater acceptance of women athletes whose physical characteristics fall outside the norms of femininity. If anything, the rules governing female athletes have become even more strict. Three

years after Semenya’s struggle began, Indian sprinter Dutee Chand was also forced

into a battle to regain international eligibility after learning that her body produces

“excess” androgens. Chand’s trajectory was not unlike Semenya’s. In 2013, at the

age of 18, Chand won a bronze medal in the 200 m at the Asian Games. At the

World Youth Championships in July 2013, she became the first athlete from India

to make it to a final heat in a sprint event, where she placed sixth in the 100 m. The

following year, in June of 2014, she took two gold medals at the Asian Junior

Athletics Championships. In July, she was slated to represent India at the


S. McRae

Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, but was unexpectedly cut from the team shortly

before the competition.

Like Caster Semenya, it appears that Chand’s quick rise to success along with

complaints from her competitors about her “masculine,” muscular physique led the

Athletics Federation of India to investigate whether Chand should compete with

women. Instead of traveling to the Commonwealth Games, Chand underwent medical tests during the summer of 2014. Chand was first led to believe that doctors were

looking for signs that she had used performance enhancing drugs. The initial tests

showed high androgen levels, information that doctors did not immediately share

with Chand. She was sent for an ultrasound, most likely to verify whether she had

ovaries or detect the presence of testes, though she was still unaware of the purpose.

She was reportedly surprised by the ultrasound request. To her knowledge, an ultrasound was not typically part of a doping investigation, which she still believed was

the reason for the tests (Koshie et al. 2014). Doctors then informed Chand that she

had hyperandrogenism and was ineligible to compete in international women’s athletic events unless she agreed to treat her high testosterone either surgically or via

hormone therapy.

In a departure from Semenya’s approach before her, Chand refused to submit to

“treatment.” She argued she ought to be able to compete as a woman, as she always

had, without being forced to alter her natural body in any way. After garnering the

attention of international supporters (she has been the subject of a Change.org petition and a #letduteerun hashtag campaign on Twitter) and the aid of the Sports

Authority of India, Chand appealed her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport

(CAS), an independent body used to resolve legal disputes in international athletics.

While CAS has yet to announce its final decision in her case, as of April 2015, CAS

approved Chand’s eligibility to compete in the 2015 Asian Championships. Chand

has also continued her sprinting career at the state and national level in India where

she was the national champion in the 100 m dash in 2015.

The issue of sex and international athletics also provides students with opportunities to identify and discuss how sex, race, and class intersect on a global level. The

racial and colonial elements in the cases of Semenya, Chand, and four anonymous

women banned from the 2012 Olympics due to elevated androgen (discussed in

greater depth below) provide students further context for understanding the ways in

which scientific fact is culturally informed and produced in the same manner as

social categories such as gender. These racial and colonial elements are evident both

in the scrutiny and coerced manipulation of the bodies of female athletes of color,

who largely come from “developing” nations, and in the imposition of rigid Western

notions of sex and gender categories on athletes from around the globe. Semenya,

of course, grew up in an area of rural South Africa that lacked almost any resource

available to elite athletes from wealthy backgrounds. Chand, from India, also grew

up in poverty and as a teenager partly supported her parents with prize money she

earned winning track competitions. All four women subjected to gender testing during the 2012 Olympics were also from rural areas of developing countries (Fenichel

et al. 2013).

Though Semenya has been the subject of criticism from within her home country, a number of South African officials, including President Jacob Zuma, have pub-


Sex and Gender in International Sports: Athletes and the Social Construction of Sex


licly defended Semenya and denounced the IAAF’s approach to sex verification.

The South African minister for sports accused the IAAF of violating Semenya’s

human rights by subjecting her to invasive testing (Smith 2009a). Other South

African observers found the scrutiny of Semenya’s body uncomfortably similar to

that of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoi Khoi woman from South Africa who was taken to

Europe in the early nineteenth century and made the subject of a humiliating exhibition in which she was put on display as the “Hottentot Venus.” (Smith 2009b).

In Chand’s case, after facing international pressure to support her right to race as

a woman without undergoing any surgery, hormone therapy or other treatment, the

Sports Authority of India decided to assist Chand with her appeal to CAS. Chand

and her supporters hope CAS will overrule the IAAF’s decision and reinstate her

eligibility to compete in women’s events. Chand has continued to compete at the

state and national level as a woman. In March of 2015, a month after winning a

national title in the 100 m, Chand traveled to Switzerland to make her case before

CAS. Chand won a small victory when CAS approved her eligibility to compete at

the 2015 Asian Championships, pending further decision.

Both Chand and Semenya come from working class backgrounds in formerly

colonized nations. Both athletes came under scrutiny in part due to their quick rate

of improvement once they began participating in international competition. While

their eligibility as female athletes has hinged on their high testosterone levels and

the possible effects of “excess” androgen in their bodies, it seems that no one in the

IAAF has considered the possibility that Semenya and Chand got better simply

because as elite athletes, they had access to better facilities, food, and training than

they might have had before. Chand herself alludes to this idea in a New York Times

piece featuring her struggle. She explains, “‘If you make an elephant run, can that

elephant run fast, even though he has a lot of strength?… Not necessarily. It’s all

about training.’” (Macur 2014). It is also possible that physical sex characteristics

are medicalized to a greater degree in Western countries, such that athletes from

those countries whose bodies do not conform to the sex binary might have been

“caught” long before they began competing on an international stage.

Despite the existence of other potential factors in the performance of athletes like

Semenya and Chand, physical sex characteristics – particularly testosterone – have

remained central to the discussion. Since men are believed to be better athletes than

women, and men typically have higher levels of testosterone than women (though

this is not always the case), international sports governing bodies have largely

arrived at the conclusion that testosterone is primarily responsible for athletic performance, even though the evidence in favor of such a conclusion is mixed.


Sex Verification and Hyperandrogenism

in International Sports

Universal sex-testing of female athletes in international competition was commonplace from the 1940s into the 1990s, though over the course of its entire history in

international athletics, sex “verification” testing has only revealed two known


S. McRae

instances of men attempting to enter women’s events (Karkazis et al. 2012). As of

recently, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), which governs international track and field, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC),

which governs Olympic competition, have abandoned the language of “sex verification” in favor of guidelines regarding the participation of female athletes with

hyperandrogenism in women’s sports. Clinicians define hyperandrogenism as the

presence of “excess” androgens (such as testosterone) in individuals assigned

female at birth. Hyperandrogenism and intersex are not necessarily the same, though

the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. High levels of androgens in femalebodied people can have a variety of physical effects, including larger than average

genital features, or facial hair growth. The IAAF and IOC are primarily concerned

with the supposed effects of high testosterone in female athletes.

In 2011, in the wake of criticism of its poor handling of Caster Semenya’s situation, the IAAF released a new policy on hyperandrogenism. The IOC followed suit

in 2012, just prior to the summer Olympics. The IAAF and the IOC claim to have

developed the guidelines as a means of better protecting athletes’ privacy and health

(IAAF 2011). However, the policies primarily serve to identify female athletes with

hyperandrogenism and ensure that they do not compete unless they first undergo

treatment, though in the case of the IOC guidelines, there appears to be no option to

pursue “treatment.” Under the IOC policy, athletes who had previously competed as

females but who are then determined to have hyperandrogenism may compete in

men’s events if they can qualify. If they cannot qualify, which would likely have

been the case for sprinters Semenya and Chand (Semenya’s personal best 1:55 in

the 800 m was still roughly 10 s slower than the qualification standard met by South

African men for the 2012 Olympics), they may be effectively left without the opportunity to continue competing at an elite level. There are exceptions in both policies

for athletes whose hyperandrogenism does not bestow an “advantage,” which is not

uncommon. For example, if an athlete with hyperandrogenism also has androgen

resistance, which renders the effects of high testosterone dormant, they may continue to compete without undergoing treatment, but at least under the IAAF policy,

the burden of proving androgen resistance is on the athlete. Female athletes who

cannot prove androgen resistance are ineligible for competition as women if their

testosterone levels are above the lower limit of the male “normal range.”

The effect of the IAAF and IOC hyperandrogenism policies were immediate. At

the 2012 London Olympics, officials removed four female athletes from competition and subjected them to physical examinations. The clinicians who conducted the

exams and later produced a report on the results described the athletes as “tall slim,

muscular women.” (Fenichel et al. 2013). While the names of the four women were

kept confidential, the report reveals the excruciating degree to which the doctors

examined and documented each athlete’s genitals. The report describes in detail

their pubic hair growth patterns, labial appearance, clitoris size, and vaginal opening. The report also states that the women were amenorrheic (do not menstruate)

and “lacked breast development” as further signs of their “male” sex characteristics,

despite the fact that both amenorrhea and lack of breast development are relatively

common in young, elite female athletes (Fenichel et al. 2013). The clinicians who


Sex and Gender in International Sports: Athletes and the Social Construction of Sex


authored the report seemed surprised that the athletes wished to keep their female

identities, stating that there is generally a “tendency to request gender change.”

(Fenichel et al. 2013). The four athletes were informed that they would need to have

surgery to remove their testes in order to continue to compete as women (Macur

2014). The examiners openly state that while “male gonads” pose no health concern

in any of these cases and that gonadectomies would “likely decrease their performance level,” each of the four athletes was still told that if she did not agree to the

gonadectomy, she would not be eligible to compete in the female category. Since

none of the four identified as male, or desired to adopt a male identity, they would

effectively be banned from any international sport competition. All four agreed to

the procedure. The report also states that the four athletes underwent partial clitoridectomies and “feminizing vaginoplasties.” (Fenichel et al. 2013). The clinicians do

not provide any medical rationale for the clitoridectomy or vaginoplasty procedures.

It is not clear if the athletes were told they must also agree to these procedures in

order to compete as women, or if the athletes themselves requested the procedures,

though it is not difficult to imagine the tremendous pressure and likely isolation

these individuals must have felt, both socially and in terms of their athletic careers,

upon learning that despite living their entire lives as women, in order to continue

competing as women, they must submit to surgery. After their surgeries, all four

women also began estrogen replacement therapy and were eligible to return to competition as females 1 year later, though it is unclear whether any of them did

(Fenichel et al. 2013).

The effects of the IOC hyperandrogenism guidelines on the four women who

underwent sex testing during the 2012 Olympics bring up a number of issues for

students to unpack. At the core of the issue is that people tend to associate testosterone with men and maleness, despite the fact that the hormone is found in all human

beings. This leads to two faulty conclusions: First, there is an assumption that

because testosterone is a “male” hormone, it is possible for women to have “too

much” of it. Second, in terms of sports, since men are assumed to be athletically

superior to women and testosterone is considered a “male” characteristic, the international sports authorities, along with much of the general population, have bought

into the notion that testosterone causes improved athletic ability (Karkazis et al.

2012:8). In fact, human responses to testosterone vary “dramatically.” Research

shows that “testosterone is just one element in a complex neuroendocrine feedback

system, which is just as likely to be affected by athletic performance” as it is to

cause it (Karkazis et al. 2012: 8). Further, while elite male sprint times, for instance,

are on average faster than elite female sprint times, it is not fully clear that typically

“male” physical characteristics or higher levels of testosterone are the cause. Some

scholars have pointed out that one reason female athletes may be closing the gap

with male athletes is that historically across the globe, relatively few women have

had the opportunity to compete in official athletic events (Tatum et al. 2004). As

more women become involved in athletics, the landscape of sports and notions of

what male and female athletes are capable of may change dramatically.

Instructors can also pose the question of whether sex is the most appropriate

means of segregating people for the purpose of sports. Students can consider other


S. McRae

factors that provide athletes with “advantages” relative to their peers and question

whether the sex binary actually makes sense in the context of sports, given the wide

variation within, and overlap between, the supposedly fixed categories of “male”

and “female.” A close examination and discussion of athletes like Caster Semenya

and Dutee Chand, whose bodies do not conform to officially ordained standards of

physical femininity can help students understand that the categories “male” and

“female,” like “man” and “woman” are not only socially constructed, but problematic in their application to actual people. For instance, neither Semenya nor Chand

identifies as intersex and the IAAF and IOC guidelines focus on the perceived

effects of hyperandrogenism, but instructors may also want to explore with students

what the sex binary means for intersex athletes, both those who openly identify as

intersex or who are defined as such by clinicians in terms of opportunities to compete in elite sports.

As a final note, it can be difficult to engage in this discussion without inadvertently using language that reinforces sex stereotypes and notions of fixed gender and

sex categories. Even when instructors initiate classroom conversations about the

social and medical construction of sex, instructors and students alike may find

themselves trapped by language that forces us to describe both people and human

physical attributes as “male” or “female.” Still, acknowledging the limitations of

language in this context may open further discussion of the problems that arise

when binary sex is the basis for categorizing not just elite athletes, but people in

many other spheres of life as well. Students can extend these questions beyond athletics, drawing parallels between the challenges facing athletes in a rigid sex binary

and individuals facing similar challenges in areas of life outside of sports.


Brown, M. (2013, September 12) Beating the boys. Outside Online.

Fenichel, P., Paris, F., Philibert, P., Hieronimus, S., Gaspari, L., Kurzenne, J., et al. (2013).

Molecular diagnosis of 5a-reductase deficiency in 4 elite young female athletes through hormonal screening for hyperandrogenism. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism,

98(6), E1055. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1210/jc.2012-3893.

Fine, C. (2010). Delusions of gender: How our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference

(Vol. 208, pp. 158–167). New York: Norton.

Gugala, J. (2014, May 12). What happened to Caster Semenya? Fittish.

IAAF (2011). IAAF regulations governing eligibility of females with hyperandrogenism to compete in women’s competition. International Association of Athletics Federations. http://www.

iaaf.org/about-iaaf/documents/medical. Accessed 20 Mar 2015; IOC. (2012). IOC Regulations

on female hyperandrogenism: Games of the XXX Olympiad in London, 2012. International

Olympic Committee. http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Commissions_PDFfiles/Medical_

commission/2012-06-22-IOC-Regulations-on-Female-Hyperandrogenism-eng.pdf. Accessed

20 Mar 2015.

Karkazis, K., Jordan-Young, R., Davis, G., & Camporesi, S. (2012). Out of bounds? A critique of

the new policies on hyperandrogenism in elite female athletes. The American Journal of

Bioethics, 12(7).


Sex and Gender in International Sports: Athletes and the Social Construction of Sex


Koshie, N., Selvaraj, J., & Mohanty, D. (2014, September 29) I am who I am: Dutee Chand. Indian


Levy, A. (2009, November 30) Either/Or. The New Yorker.

Macur, J. (2014, October 6). Fighting for the body she was born with. The New York Times.

Smith, D. (2009a, September 11). South Africa’s government renews attacks on IAAF over Caster

Semenya. The Guardian.

Smith, D. (2009b, August 27). Caster Semenya is a hero – But in South Africa being different can

be deadly for a woman. The Guardian.

Tatem, A., Guerra, C., Atkinson, P., & Hay, S. (2004). Momentous sprint at the 2156 Olympics?

Nature, 431(7008), 525. doi:10.1038/431525a.

Thomas, J. (2012, August 11). Did Caster Semenya lose the women’s 800 meters on purpose?

Slate.; Ornstein, D. (2012, August 11). Caster Semenya loses out on 800m gold to Mariya

Sarinova. BBC Sport.

Chapter 2

The Mis-education of Lady Gaga: Confronting

Essentialist Claims in the Sex and Gender


Andrea D. Miller



As the “go-to” professor who teaches all things “sex, gender and sexuality” at my

small, private liberal arts institution I am often asked by students if we are born with

our sexual identity. I find this comment intriguing for a few reasons. First, my students are extremely savvy when it comes to the social construction of gender. They

know the limits of the heterosexual matrix and they realize that gender is something

that society created to enact boundaries. Second, students who were initially able to

engage in a critical analysis regarding the social construction of gender seem to lose

this insight when it comes to discussing sexuality. This point is not lost on me as the

classroom instructor, for it is a common belief among Westerners that “being gay”

is something that exists naturally in the U.S. population (Blank 2012, p. 152). The

understandings students take away regarding the social impact on gender slips away

as they attempt to confront sexual identity categories in the United States that have

long believed homosexuality to be natural or instinctual, even though most of what

our bodies actually do is social. Even when students accept that the categories themselves (e.g. “gay” or “straight”) have been socially constructed they are not willing

to extend this line of thought to what actual bodies do or desire. Indeed, many students fear that if they acknowledge their gender or sexual identity as a social construction, and not something solely rooted in biology, then their identity is simply a

matter of choice with no real social consequences.

My challenge at the start of the semester is to posit the discourse of sexuality as

social, much like I do with any explanations of sex and gender. This idea can be

off-putting because mass media content and general student education presumes a

“born this way” trope. The “born this way” trope popularized (at least in my

A.D. Miller (*)

Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Webster University, Webster Groves, MO, USA

e-mail: andreamiller31@webster.edu

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

K. Haltinner, R. Pilgeram (eds.), Teaching Gender and Sex

in Contemporary America, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30364-2_2


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