The H word

caster-semenya3_featureIt’s a story that, compared to Serena Williams and Roger Federer, hasn’t been getting much U.S. press: South African middle distance runner, Caster Semenya’s physique raised suspicions after her performance in the 800 meters at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics in Berlin. Doping wasn’t the question. International Association of Atheletes Federations (IAAF) officials wanted to know if Semenya is really a woman.

After a battery of invasive and embarrassing tests — that were revealed to the world via news reports — it was discovered that Semenya is intersex, that is she possesses both male and female reproductive organs. Only “intersex” was not the word used in many media reports. Instead, she was referred to as a “hermaphrodite,” an outdated medical term that is no longer considered appropriate by U.S. journalistic standards.

(Curiously, the NLGJA style guide does not include the word “hermaphrodite,” instead counting on users to look up “intersex.” I suggest that the guide be updated.)

The Associated Press even picked up on the Australian and African press’s use of “hermaphrodite” in its news story about Semenya. Yet, AP science reporter, Seth Borenstein dug in a little deeper — and ended up confusing the terms even more — in his piece “When someone is raised female and the genes say XY” He writes:

It’s the birth defect people don’t talk about. A baby is born not completely male or female. The old term was hermaphrodite, then intersex. Now it’s called “disorders of sexual development.”

Okay, so maybe the medical and science community says “disorders of sexual development,” but among regular folk, it’s still “intersex.” Borenstein’s story does shed light on the once dark topic, but language is again a problem. Referring to intersex as a birth defect, he, perhaps inadvertently, labels intersex people as freaks.

In an interview with the South African magazine YOU, Semenya said, “I see it all as a joke, it doesn’t upset me. God made me the way I am and I accept myself.” However, she is now reportedly in hiding and undergoing counseling. South African government officials are decrying the media’s coverage and the IAAF’s handling of this revelation, saying that the experience has left Semenya traumatized.

Meanwhile, on the Bleacher Report, a U.S. blog devoted to all things sports, Daniel Muth confuses sex with sexuality, saying:

We can estimate that roughly 115 million individuals on the planet could be classified under the same category as Caster Semenya, the embattled South African runner whose sexuality has been questioned in the wake of her impressive 800-meter win at the World Championships in Berlin in August.

Thankfully, Semenya’s sexuality has not been media fodder. That said, Muth’s post, “Blurring the Lines: The Strange Case of Caster Semenya” is largely positive, as are the comments that follow.

Ironically, as I began writing this post, NPR’s All Things Considered broadcast a story on intersex fish, getting the terminology right.

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