Cassandra Wells’ PhD Thesis Defence

Title:On the Resiliency of Sex Testing in Sport”

Supervisory Committee: Dr. Patricia Vertinsky (Research Supervisor), Dr. Mary Bryson, Dr. Carla Nappi
University Examiners: Dr. Mona Gleason, Dr. Moss Norman
External Examiner: Dr. Ann Travers
Chair: Dr. Dianne Newell

Abstract: In 2009, a controversy at the World Championships of Athletics forced a new reckoning with the issue of sexual difference and competitive fairness in sport. The winner of the women’s 800m event, South African Caster Semenya, was subjected to so-called ‘sex testing’ procedures, the primarily physiological search for markers of maleness and femaleness in the bodies of athletes competing in the women’s category. While extant literature has focused on the representation of sex and gender differences and the repercussions of such discourses for sport policy and athletes, the current study addresses the resiliency of sex testing in sport – its ability to persist despite the ethical, scientific, and political problems that have made sex testing a controversial policy in every era. Using methods adapted from Actor-Network-Theory (Latour, 2005), this project uses archival and anthropological data to trace the persons, artifacts, elements and processes that contribute to the “settlement of controversies” (p. 64) regarding sex testing in sport at moments when its viability is in doubt. A close examination of the changes made to policy following three cases of sex testing controversies – from, respectively, the 1960s, 1990s, and the 2009 event – reveals that the viability of sex testing policy depends on a network of linkages that connect biological knowledge about sex difference with competitive fairness. The resiliency of sex testing’s network is revealed through the work of establishing, challenging, and reworking these connections in ways that either support or undermine sex testing policy in a given place and time. By comparing their rationales and methods, the current research identifies the ideological pillars that keep sex testing policies stable through changing understandings of sexual difference and fair competition, as well as the actors/aspects of the policy that give it the flexibility needed to change with the times and to therefore persist. This research contributes to a new understanding of the mechanisms by which social and biological knowledge interact to produce, reproduce, and alter sex testing policies for sport.