CSA&G statement on IAAF discriminatory hyperandrogenism regulations

The Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender (CSA&G), University of Pretoria, stands in support of the campaign of the Department of Sports and Recreation South Africa in relation to the International Association of Athletics Federation’s regulations governing hyperandrogenism.

As they stand the 2018 regulations set a limit on the testosterone levels of female athletes if they wish to compete in certain track events. Track athletes with Difference of Sexual Development, like Caster Semenya, are particularly targeted by the regulations.

The question of whether and how female athletes are advantaged by higher testosterone levels is a controversial one, not least because any advantages conferred by testosterone in a female athlete have to be seen against the background of other factors: the kind and extent of training they do, their diet, the nature of the coaching they have, the rest of their genetic complement (potential for height and build for example) and the environmental factors they were exposed to when growing up. In sum, there are many variables; to thus focus on hormones alone seems arbitrary, and therefore unfair. What also seems unfair is to insist that for someone like Caster to compete she, an otherwise perfectly healthy person, would be forced to take medications which may have unpredictable side effects.

Apart from the science of sex differences, which is not perfect, what these regulations do is reflect an anxiety about separating male from female in definitive ways, and they reinforce notions of binaries. The truth is possibly more complex, and policing the borders of maleness and femaleness is as much a social concern as it is a scientific one. The idea of overlaps between men and women, of significant differences within the category “male” and the category “female”, can be alarming. People who identify as non-binary (neither male nor female or both) and trans people (who do not define their gender identity in line with the sex they were assigned at birth) also challenge our accepted ideas and certainties, often leading to moral panic and a desire to control and to create “order”.

The CSA&G argues that we should resist these impulses and accept people for who and what they are. Advantage and disadvantage in sport is a complex terrain, homing in on one factor seems wrong and unjust. We thus call on the IAAF to end this unnecessary and painful exercise and stand with the DSRSA and Caster Semenya.