Do ‘intersex’ athletes compete as women or men?

The institution of sport has traditionally been organised around two genders: male and female. However, gender is not quite a fixed dichotomy between male and female. Cooky and Dworkin examine intersex individuals in their paper, “Policing the Boundaries of Sex”. They argue that intersex athletes have faced difficulties when participating in sports competitions that operate on a rigid gender binary.


Cheryl Cooky and Shari L. Dworkin’s 2013 paper, “Policing the Boundaries of Sex: A Critical Examination of Gender Verification and the Caster Semenya Controversy

Who are ‘intersex’ individuals?

…the incidence of classical congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), where individuals have variable degrees of genital ambiguity and the most common intersex diagnosis, is estimated at one in 15,000 births. For nonclassical CAH, estimates vary between 1 in 100 to 1 in 1000 births (Karkazis, 2008). Yet there are also a multitude of ‘‘disorders’’ that scientists include under the umbrella term disorders of sex development (DSDs), including androgen insensitivity syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, and Turner syndrome. Despite the lack of consensus on how intersexuality is defined and whether certain DSDs are included under the broader term (see Dreger, 1998; Fausto-Sterling, 2000), within the popular literature and much of the academic literature the estimate of approximately 1.7% (individuals who can be classified as intersex) is frequently reported (Blackless et al., 2000; Dreger, 1998; Fausto-Sterling, 2000). Regardless of the challenges of assessing incidence, it is not surprising that a certain number of individuals with DSDs, or intersex athletes, compete in sport.

However, the institution of sport is formally organized around the notion that there are only two sexes—male and female—and sport is largely segregated by binary sex category.Therefore, historically there has been no formal place within the institution of competitive organized sport for athletes who exist outside of the dichotomous categories of male and female and who subsequently ‘‘fail’’ sex testing.

Cooky, Cheryl, and Shari L. Dworkin. “Policing the boundaries of sex: A critical examination of gender verification and the Caster Semenya controversy.” Journal of Sex Research 50.2 (2013): 103-111.

Read the full paper here.

Read about ten famous intersex athletes here.

Featured Image: Slideshare

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