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[flagged] What No One Is Reporting About Caster Semenya: She Has XY Chromosomes (letsrun.com)
107 points by peter_retief 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 81 comments

Just having XY chromosomes is not enough to actually make someone a male, despite the insinuations of this (rather biased) article. Complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS), for example, results when the body's cells do not respond at all to testosterone. A person with CAIS develops as a female (albeit sterile), no matter how much testosterone they have.

The exact nature of Caster's biology have not been publicly disclosed, but it's clear that it's not enough to simply say she's an XY female. Because of this, the properly cautious approach (which most news organizations have adopted) is to avoid saying anything about her actual biological condition.

This article is unnecessarily inflammatory, and insinuates pretty strongly that the mere presence of Y chromosomes should subject Caster to scrutiny; the reality is likely a lot more nuanced.

> but it's clear that it's not enough to simply say she's an XY female.

The article explicitly states several times Caster Semenya is not male or female but intersex female with male characteristics -- no womb, ovaries but internal testes.

> insinuates pretty strongly that the mere presence of Y chromosomes should subject Caster to scrutiny

The article praises Caster and does not "insinuate" she should be subjected to elevated scrutiny, it instead singles out reporters for over-simplifying the situation and omitting important biological facts; it insinuates reporters are taking a social justice angle (woman with high levels of testosterone not allowed to compete) when Caster is more appropriately described as intersex, and unfortunately the Olympics do not have an intersex category.

It's not critical of Caster at all and struck me as a balanced, well-written take.

CAIS is not relevant in this case. XY chromosomes does not make an athlete male but having testis might well. It is a dilemma and the reality is a lot more nuanced as you say

The whole debacle is just sad. No matter what they do it's unfair to someone.

Not 'unfair' just 'unfortunate'.

Well, life is "unfair" (see the just world fallacy). Of course we can try to find the most fair solution and then call that fair.

Fairness is not absolute, the intent, effort, consideration (of past effects, and possible and likely outcomes) matters.

Sometimes making a race more interesting is more important, than allowing someone to dominate it for decades. However, that sounds like a pretty serious difference in rules. But. But we should consider that we already have a lot of complex rules (doping rules are not completely fair either, because biology is complex), and similarly the problem of how to separate males and females for competitions is not new, and never was simple.

Excluding someone is not necessarily unfair to anyone, including the person excluded.

It’s absolutely mind-boggling that virtually every major outlet in the world reporting the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling yesterday has failed to mention one of the most important facts of the entire case. Caster Semenya has XY chromosomes.

Not really.

Genetics is generally a poorly understood subject. Even in online discussion groups for people with genetic disorders, basic information about genetics is often not well understood by many of the members, even though almost all will be there because either they or an immediate family member has a genetic disorder.

I’m not sure leaving out relevant details because they are poorly understood is good journalistic practice, especially when those details are central to what’s being discussed. It would only take a paragraph to clarify what XX, XY, and intersex means. It’s exactly what the writer of the linked article did.

Ah, I see the misunderstanding. You think I meant they did it on purpose to pander to an uneducated audience.

Au contraire.

I'm saying the reporters probably didn't really get it.

Perhaps Hanlon’s Razor is the right approach to judging the way this is handled in much of the media. You might be right, in which case the responsibility is on the editors and fact checkers at those newspapers to ensure that reporters don’t make such mistakes.

That presumes they understand it.

I will make one last attempt to make my original point:

I have a homozygous recessive genetic disorder, as does my oldest son. Genetics 101 tells me that my other son and ex husband are both carriers.

People who have the same genetic disorder or who are caring for a child with the same genetic disorder have asked me how I know these immediate relatives are carriers.

So my confidence that most people know anything about basic genetics is pretty low -- even if they happen to be reporters, editors, etc.

No, I understand your point. My point is that they have a responsibility to educate themselves or talk to subject-matter experts before they publish. Ignorance isn’t a defence or mitigation. It’s literally their job to pick up the phone and talk to people who understand the issues at hand before publishing misleading articles read by millions.

Point taken.

Though writing simply doesn't pay well these days, if at all. That fact is undermining the quality of the writing we are seeing.

Newspapers and all kinds of other writing is being squeezed financially. Ad revenue is way down. Local papers are shutting down left and right.


As a poverty-stricken writer myself who gets told to quit my bitching and get a real job, I'm not super sympathetic to the world's demands for good writing that is also magically completely free.

That is the most pathetic excuse I've heard in a long time. Maybe if journalists actually did proper and thorough research, the field wouldn't be so despised and the dumpster fire it is today. The world demands good writing and the fact that it isn't happening is the reason news outlets are going under. Research is free assuming you have a computer and the internet, but if you're a writer, you already have those at your disposal; any whiny excuse thereafter is complete BS.

I’m also a writer (ghostwriting mostly) so I sympathize with that view, but not when it comes to major newspapers publishing misleading content, especially when the “mistakes” seem coordinated to support an emotive or political agenda.

It may be that the issue is complex, but the fact that she has XY chromsomes is definitely a salient fact. There are basically two defining characteristics of masculinity at a biological level: XY chromosomes and testosterone. She has XY chromosomes and elevated testosterone. It certainly may be that there is additional nuance yet to be revealed, but to not report on one of these facts is unbelievably dishonest.

I think it is worrying that some types of facts sometimes appear to be left out or be misrepresented seemingly willingly to produce a certain image. That's not what I expect from good news reporting.

As an example take the 1.7% intersex figure quoted in the article. Apparently a reporter took this to big number to inflate the importance of her message. I think that disqualifies such an author to be credible.

XX vs XY chromosomes for women vs men is broadly taught in schools. Most people (at least in developed countries) will remember it at least vaguely. I find it very unlikely that all the reporters at these mainstream news sites were just ignorant of this.

One should really dig the fact that she is legally a female, maybe to the appearances of her outer sex organs, and in sports classified as male, due to her having testicles, XY chromosomes and therefore too much testosteron.

What she choose as legal gender should not care much, as nowadays it's much easier to choose that. Good so. What is more important to her is what the sports classification panel put her in, because that's what's her income is. She can easily run in men competitions, no one forbids that. Letting her run with women was unfair to all other women. And you cannot compare that to the former hormone-doped women (e.g. the former east european runners). They had no testicles and no XY chromosomes.

>It’s absolutely mind-boggling that virtually every major outlet in the world reporting the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling yesterday has failed to mention one of the most important facts of the entire case. Caster Semenya has XY chromosomes.

This is a minefield of an offensive topic, but I will give it a shot.

Each outlet has a narrative that all stories support. "Right wing" outlets like Breitbart run the narrative that women are being pushed out of their own sports organizations by (insert polite term for all of the recent expansions to the definition of women here.) Most others run the narrative that this expanding definition has no negative consequences and we all accept it with jubilation. Reporting the XY chromosome detail could cause some readers to support the opposing narrative.

This is the obvious reality that people still have a hard time processing: "My opponents news is obviously biased, but my own is not"

There's a massive intersectional narrative at stake whereupon reality can be bent if need be in this case.

My original encounter with this story was the IOC's decision to allow Caster to compete: the NYT had a story supporting it, I thought it was enlightening. Until my bias radar went off and I did further research and found 'the most relevant facts' changed the story quite dramatically.

The NYT left out the fact she was intersex / hermaphrodite entirely!

So why would even the NYT leave out such critical information?

Google 'caster semeny new york times' for the latest headlines. Among them you'll find 'The Myth of Testosterone' - trying to convince us that we really don't have any advantage due to testosterone!

It's interesting but ultimately maligned, so one must wonder why they'd take up such a position that should undermine their credibility?

The issue is identity: reality seems to be less important than people's right to choose their own expression, which is a current 'rights' issue ... and so the truth gets utterly muddled.

It's one thing when it has no consequence, it's another thing altogether when power/rights are bestowed due to it.

We're tricked with language: 'women' to most has biological implications, though we recognized not always. But when headlines such as this appear (in Quartz):

"The demonization of Caster Semenya’s womanhood is part of a dark history in female athletics"

And this classic from Vox:

"I am a woman and I am fast: what Caster Semenya’s story says about gender and race in sports The constant scrutiny into the runner’s medical history reveals what happens to women who don’t conform to stereotypes."

I think this headline really summarized the root of misinformation:

Caster is a woman by choice. She could have ostensibly chosen the male identity. She has utterly fundamental biological differences that are material in sport. Which in her life, is her business of course; but in sport, it becomes another issue.

So when they refer to her as 'female' and then reference the antagonism to her, it's a terrible straw-man.

Caster is not just a woman who 'doesn't conform to stereotypes'. Having male sex apparatus, XY chromosomes, and the testosterone of a male athlete which endows her with considerable and obvious advantage ... is not a 'stereotype'.

Effectively, a false parallel is drawn between trans people under scrutiny for 'non conforming identity' issues, into Caster's situation, where there are material differences to be addressed.

It's an information war unfortunately.

The NYT article seems simple, what are they leaving out? It mentions that mid-distance running seems to be testosterone independent, yet the ruling mandates to lower her levels.

The article I'm referencing was from back during the Olympics, when the IOC ruled she could run, sorry I did not find the link. There was no mention of the fact she was intersex.

In terms of the article you reference, first: "mid-distance running seems to be testosterone independent" this is highly speculative, and I say bogus. Men utterly dominate women in that sport, and most of the differentiator is 'testosterone'.

Most importantly - Caster is not famale. She is a woman, yes, but her sex is not male or female, she is intersex.

We divide sports ultimately on the basis of sex, not really 'gender self identification'.

The NYT et. al. are oddly trying to conflate gender and sex due to their concern about 'rights'. They are creating a straw men situation "people attacked female athlete's in the past" as though this is 'more of same'. It's not - there's totally reasonable and fair grounds to discuss the intersex positioning in all of this.

If someone has the testosterone levels of a man (and testicles that produce it) has XY chromosomes ... well maybe they ought not to be competing with other women for whom this would be very unfair?

> Men utterly dominate women in that sport, and most of the differentiator is 'testosterone'.

Naturally, but maybe because they are bigger (and have bigger muscles, and have better VO2max?) and that's probably not due to testosterone, but due to the whole body having the male body plan set as set-point from a very young age.

> Most importantly - Caster is not famale. She is a woman, yes, but her sex is not male or female, she is intersex.

I'm simply not up to date on this topic to know. What female means? Is that a biological only term? If yes, does it mean having only female-like characteristics? Is that a genetics term?

Of course, the whole problem is that whatever dimensions we look at, in terms of athletic/sports performance, in (almost?) every sport based on some biomechanical activity the distribution of outcome has a nice bimodal shape, and it kind of makes sense to make two leagues/categories, to make races interesting.

And naturally, where these distributions intersect with the other very bimodal distribution (that is the spectrum of biological sex, or male-female-ness), we find that in almost all cases it matches the male-ness or female-ness part, so it was easy to sort athletes into their respective leagues, but the middle part was never empty. There was always females that were bigger/faster/stronger than some males, and of course their female-ness was regularly questioned on the basis of fairness. (Which is a completely valid question.)

> If someone has the testosterone levels of a man (and testicles that produce it) has XY chromosomes ... well maybe they ought not to be competing with other women for whom this would be very unfair?

Yes, and I would have no problem with saying that we don't know exactly what makes her better, maybe it's not testosterone per se, but it clearly seems to be biologically based more than based on how well she trains, what kind of shoes she wears, etc.

And I don't know how the Athletic Federation (and the Court of Arbitration) argued exactly, but it seems that the NYT op-ed claims that they cited something that does not make sense (the too high testosterone levels), and in that regard the op-ed is probably right. (Hence why I called their argument simple, not the problem.)


Is it right-wing to not accept that with jubilation? What does right-wing mean at that point other than doubleplusungood?

Thinking biology and hormones matter and saying so, no matter with how much respect and how much scientific fact, is increasingly subject to censorship.

> Reporting the XY chromosome detail could cause some readers to support the opposing narrative.

So could not flagging this story, so it must be flagged, I guess. But it's all in service of something "we" all agree to with jubilation, all enemies are a monolith, they're right-wingers, while no brainwashing can be found over here.

Isn't splitting Olympic Games by 2 (or more?) dimensions is in general a sort of propaganda of gender inequality?

It isn't propaganda to acknowledge that elite male athletes are better than elite female athletes, for any reasonable definition of better.

Therefore, if we want any women participation in the Olympics, we have to have more than one category.

The solution is to define the categories by the specific physical traits that are beneficial to the competition (sort of like the weight classes used in boxing). Gender is an indirect indicator. Instead of dividing in to [men, women, ...(other?)...], divide by e.g, size, weight, allele, etc.

It's an interesting idea, but what criteria would you use to group people for running?

Personal best time at competing distance.

How would this work? Some Olympic distances are:

-Sprints (100m, 200m, 400m),

-Middle distance (800m, 1500m)

-Long distance (3000m Steeplechase, 5000m, 10,000m)

-Hurdles (110/100m, 400m)

-Relays (4x100m, 4x400m)

Men would dominate every distance, you'd have no women competing.

More cynically I'd point out that all high-level athletics are really television shows and the audience (deservedly) wants women's sports.

To me the solution is a new intersex category.

That would be extremely easy to game. It has to be something that's near-impossible to cheat, such as height, length of leg, or a particular genetic marker.

Where this boundary where we can acknowledge that one category of people is _better_ in something and needs to participate only in _protected_ type of some events?

Or we can apply weighting factors to calibrate everyone onto a single scale. You could even weight age, tested T levels, height, weight, etc...

> So going back to the premise that women’s sport is the PROTECTED category, and that this protection must exist because of the insurmountable and powerful effects of testosterone, my opinion on this is that it is fair and correct to set an upper limit for that testosterone

They use the "protected category" expression in the article

Well, in a performance point of view it is a fact that women perform 10-12% worse then men (from the article) in certain disciplines. The genders are quite measurable not equal in this metric.

Of course, it's discrimination. That is the whole point.

That's like saying that, your child gets to go to a public school, just like a rich child. The rich child just happens to be able to afford a private school.

Rich/Poor are not genetic qualities. It's more like saying girls and boys go to different schools, because they have different abilities to learn.

Which is obviously not true in learning and, as it turns out, in sport.

They're not genetic but they still follow parental lineage. I'm making the point that advantages that people start out with are already not equal, that equality can't be simplified so much that you can just say, they have the same opportunities and that's enough.

Well it certainly does invite the question of why the olympics does not further divide the games to make it fairer for other groups, say a basketball division for shorter people...they do for boxing already re feather and heavy weights). Perhaps it is better to just let people compete all together no matter their sex, and let the best succeed. I do not doubt there are a number of sports that female athletes would dominate. ---Seems better than asking a woman to change her body because it doesnt fit a feminine archetype for testosterone levels.

Then people like you would cry about How nobody watches the Short People Basketball League or How Weightlifting league for weak people did not generated any revenue.

Sport are meant to celebrate the best of Humans in fields of physical endeavor.

Boxing has different weight classes and although the big ones seem the most popular, the lighter ones seem popular among those who enjoy boxing, right?

I am not sure why my parent comment has been judged so harshly, as my reasoning was both feminist and humanist. Sure sex has the x y genetic component, but as soon as you throw in expression and developmental processes, sex is a spectrum, ignoring even gender distinctions. Rules that restrict eligibility by the natural expression of your sex because they deviate from some prototype are deeply wrong, and also ignores/discriminates against large swaths of naturally expressed sexualities within the inter sex range.

I do not doubt there are a number of sports that female athletes would dominate.

Such as?

Ultra-distance swimming is the only one I am aware of.

Based on?

Gymnastics of the top of my head

Maybe the balance beam, but only for obvious choice reasons.



The article does make point that the biology isn't that clear. Yes, much of her physiology is more male than it would typically be, but her external characteristics aren't male. so summarising that "she" is a "he" is a gross oversimplification of exceptional circumstances.

Perhaps, but having male genetics and some characteristics of both sexes makes her intersex[1]. She was assigned the female gender, but she still has genetics and hormone levels that are not cis female. Hormones strongly affect some forms of physical performance.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersex?wprov=sfla1

> She chose the female gender,

She was assigned female at birth.

Thanks, I have corrected my comment.

Gender isn't the same as sex, and this is probably the best example of it. This person is intersex. They do not fall into the binary world that you're trying to push.

Genetically speaking it seems that it is binary world, either you're XX or you're XY. Or at least that is what I understood from the article. Is there another combination I'm not aware of?

Biology is messy, so in reality there are many more combinations.

What's one of those touchy subjects is that those other combinations are clearly outliers, and while we should obviously accept everybody as humans, it's much less clear why society as a whole should complicate the notions of sex/gender so much for the benefit of a few, especially when this complication is arguably in many cases not really necessary.

(There are obvious and indisputable things that society should do to accomodate people with outlier sex, like distinguishing bathrooms by stalls vs. urinals instead of by gender/sex, and getting rid of gender/sex questions on pretty much all forms/questionnaires ever. What distinguishes those changes from some others is that they're about making gender less significant rather than more significant, i.e. they're attempts to solve the problem by simplifying gender/sex instead of making it more complicated.)

Although many combinations may take place, it's important to note that there are only 2 biological sexes for Homo sapiens (I am not talking about gender).

1. Biological sex is defined in relation to the roles played in sexual reproduction.

2. Sexual reproduction involves only two, namely, male and female.

3. Thus, biological sex is only two, namely, male or female.

Consider the case of plants that reproduce sexually. When we discover a plant missing parts of its sexual organs, we do not thereby conclude that we have discovered a third sex. Rather biologists rightly concur that what you have found is a defective plant. Likewise, in human beings, when one has an extra chromosome, or defective genitalia, you have just that: a sexual defect at the physical level. Such people often are wonderful, loving, and morally upright persons, but physically something has gone wrong.

Hermaphrodites are individuals with both pairs of sex organs. While in very rare cases some human beings have both pairs of genitalia, in no case whatsoever has it ever been observed that both pairs are fully functioning. True human hermaphrodites with both male and female sexual organs that fully function don’t exist. Such is why no cases of self-fertilization have ever been recorded in human beings.

Even if we did discover an individual human being with both pairs of fully functioning sex organs, such a case would not disprove the binary distinction. What you would have is someone who is both male and female; one who is able to act either as male or female depending upon the other sex with which that individual desired to reproduce. Hermaphroditism, rather than disproving the traditional binary distinction, actually reinforces it. We would not even know hermaphrodites existed, let alone be able to speak of them, unless we knew of the male-female binary.

https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/8538/46-xy-disord... : it's possible to be XY without external male genitals, resulting in being assigned female at birth. It's also possible to be "47 XXY" https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/11920/47-xxy , or even chimerical (different parts of the body having different genetics)

> Is there another combination I'm not aware of?

Yes, lots.


There actually are more combinations involving three chromosomes. They make binary classification quite... impossible

Or people who have a Y chromosome yet lack the SRY gene, or lack a Y chromosome but have the SRY gene on another chromosome.

It's incredibly complicated and it's frankly amazing that sexual dimorphism and reproduction works even as well as it does.

There's also the possibility of being monosomal: X0

Klinefelter and Turner from vague memories of 25 years ago at school... So XXY and XYY or something like that

But genetically non-binary individuals make up a tiny proportion of the population. To a first approximation, there are two genetic sexes and saying so is a reasonable generalization, even though there are edge cases like Semenya that should be dealt with sensitively.

In aggregate, they make up about ~1% of the population. That’s rare, but common enough that you probably know a few. It is far more common than was once thought because of the prevalence now of genetic testing. Before XXX or XXY would have gone undiagnosed, for example.

From one of the article's sources on "1.7%":

> Specifically, Fausto-Sterling computes the incidence of intersexual births to be 1.7 per 100 live births, or 1.7%. To arrive at that figure, she defines as intersex any “individual who deviates from the Platonic ideal of physical dimorphism at the chromosomal, genital, gonadal, or hormonal levels”

So someone with elevated estrogen but normally functioning male genitalia and XY chromosomes would be part of this 1.7%, as might an effeminate looking man or a boyish female.

I rather suspect that is not what most people would assume when reading that number.

Well that's not how I arrived at the 1% number. Look at the underlying frequencies of the genetic abnormalities.

The article's author did, and came up with a number about 2 orders of magnitude lower.

thanks for the link, it's very interesting. My next question (in general, not to you) would be to know how these people with the other combinations are classified by the sports organizations. It seems like a really complex issue, and to form an opinion one needs to really get into the nuances. I think the press pushing the narrative that women are discriminated against without at least a mention of the nuances involved is a bit irresponsible. The discussion here might help some folks to form a more informed opinion.

AFAICT this ruling basically only applies to XY women with high testosterone levels. XXY men (who would have low T levels) still compete against other men, and XXX women (with less than typical T levels even for women) compete with other women. There are many other variations though, but I do’t know any other than XY(f.) which would endanger gender separation in sports.

Note that trans women (m->f) get to compete with other women. That’s part of the unfairness here. A male athlete can surgically make their body female and be allowed to compete, but Caster Semenya who was born essentially the same way is blocked from competing.

> Note that trans women (m->f) get to compete with other women. That’s part of the unfairness here. A male athlete can surgically make their body female and be allowed to compete, but Caster Semenya who was born essentially the same way is blocked from competing.

It’s not just surgically. Athletes are required to reduce their testosterone levels, which is the issue here.

It's not just genetics.

For me it's difficult to comprehend this, as my native language just does not have 2 words for it.

I think few languages have these two words. German, for example just uses "gender" as a recent loanword for the social construct and keeps using the traditional word "Geschlecht" for biological sex.

If it makes you feel any better, plenty of native English speakers find it difficult to understand or outright deny it.

No, the article very explicitly states that she is intersex. She has both female and male features.

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