Why It Matters: Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

Why understand gender, sex, and sexuality?

This photo depicts a young boy looking out of a window.

Figure 1. Some children may learn at an early age that their gender does not correspond with their sex. (Photo courtesy of Rajesh Kumar/flickr)

In 2009, the eighteen-year old South African athlete, Caster Semenya, won the women’s 800-meter world championship in track and field. Her time of 1:55:45, a surprising improvement from her 2008 time of 2:08:00, caused officials from the International Association of Athletics Foundation (IAAF) to question whether her win was legitimate. If this questioning were based on suspicion of steroid use, the case would be no different from that of Roger Clemens or Mark McGuire, or even track and field Olympic gold medal winner Marion Jones, but the questioning and eventual testing were based on allegations that Caster Semenya was biologically a male.

You may be thinking that determining sex is surely a simple matter—just conduct some DNA or hormonal testing, throw in a physical examination, and you’ll have the answer; however, it is not that simple. Men and women produce a certain amount of testosterone (a hormone attributed to increased strength, speed, and aggression in men), and different laboratories have different testing methods, which makes it difficult to set a specific threshold for the amount of male hormones produced by a female that would render her sex male.

To provide further context, during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, eight female athletes with XY chromosomes underwent testing and were ultimately confirmed as eligible to compete as women (Maugh 2009). To date, no males have undergone this sort of testing. Doesn’t that imply that when women perform better than expected, they are assumed to possess an inordinate or excessive amount of testosterone, but when men perform well they are simply superior athletes and not men with more testosterone than other men? Can you imagine Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, being examined by doctors to prove he was biologically male? Conversely, if a male underperforms, can you imagine broad inferences that could be attributed to his sex?

Since November 1, 2018, there are new “Eligibility Classifications for Female Classification” determined by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), which require females who have elevated testosterone levels (this is naturally occurring in 7.10 out of 1000 elite female athletes) to reduce the testosterone to the level specified using hormone balance similar to female contraception or “the Pill.”  [1]

In this module, we will discuss the differences between sex and gender, along with issues like gender identity and sexuality. We will also explore various theoretical perspectives on the subjects of gender and sexuality, including the social construction of sexuality and queer theory. Can you explain how sex, sexuality, and gender are different from each other?

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  1. "IAFF introduces new eligibility regulations for female classification." https://www.iaaf.org/news/press-release/eligibility-regulations-for-female-classifica.