Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Femininity Test: Nude Olympics, Witch Trials, and Soccer Moms on Death Row

Why did the Chinese spend more than a year building a special laboratory to test the sex of “suspicious-looking” (1) female Olympic athletes (our national debt at work!), which they may well find no occasion to use? Everyone who’s read the papers recently knows that no female athlete impersonator has ever been found out this way (the one known example in history, forced by the Nazis to do the high jump in drag, won no medal and was subjected to no test). Everyone knows by the same token that the practice of Olympic sex testing over the last forty years has proved nothing except that nobody knows how to define what a female is. And yet, even if the experts who now stand ready to inspect any female suspected of being not strictly female end up twiddling nothing but their own thumbs in the coming weeks, they and our national interest payments will have done their work well.

The new lab is meant to stand for a far more sophisticated understanding of femininity than the “nude parade” that passed for a sex test for all female athletes when testing was first instituted in the mid-1960s. But let’s first go all the way back to when the separation of athletes by sex began. As many know, the original Olympic games featured nude male contestants. The reasons for the nudity are debated, but one thing is a logical certainty: such a custom would have helped enforce the ancient Olympian ban on women athletes, who had participated in earlier Greek games and festivals but who were henceforth explicitly banned from the Olympics and restricted to a minor satellite event for virgin girls, at which they competed against each other dressed Amazon style, in male garb with one new breast bared. Virgins were also the only non-males allowed even as spectators at the ancient Olympics, which mainly shows that virgins were not really considered women. They were instead a kind of third sex, as the word vir-gyn, or “man-woman,” still hints. Since they were not women, they could be tolerated within the Olympian precincts sacred to Zeus and Herakles (both characterized as divine misogynists) without polluting them. Nevertheless virgins were not men either, so they had to compete separately. Since they were non-adults as well as non-males, there may well have been a clearer distinction between their performance and that of grown men than there is today between “male” and “female” athletes.

As for the performance of grown men, let’s be fair here: the ancient nude parade also served, of course, to keep men within the strict cultural definitions of gender boundaries. Everybody then knew that the darkest day of Herakles (Hercules, or “Herc” as he has been known more recently), the legendary first Olympic champion, was that time when the gods forced him to expiate a sin by doing some time wearing women’s clothing and doing women’s work. Contestants not only had to swear an oath that they were male, Greek, and free (not slaves—all three of these categories were in the process of being defined through the very ritual of the ancient Olympic games); once sworn in, they then had to look, swagger and strut the part.

The nudity rule, whatever its now obscure ancient rationale, thus served as the first Olympic sex test, and like the one instituted in the mid-1960s, it consisted entirely of a “nude parade,” allowing for general visual inspection (2). The only article of clothing permitted the ancient Olympic athlete was the kynodesme, literally the “dog leash,” a leather strap that tied up the penis in such a way that it could neither achieve obvious erection, nor rub up accidentally against a wrestling opponent, nor flop around in a footrace. Imagine if you were that exceptional gifted male athlete whose “dog,” for one reason or another, didn’t require, or didn’t quite fit, or didn’t become, the “leash.” Even though free, Greek, and male, you probably would be no more likely to submit to such public exposure than the soccer mom we are about to discuss, and would keep yourself and your dog well under wraps.

For no self-respecting ancient Greek woman (as opposed to man or virgin) would have submitted to such humiliation as the nudity parade, and if any had, the rules provided for her to be hurled off of a cliff on nearby Mt. Typaion. Even though it seems that no one ever was, and the sole woman spectator said to have been caught in drag was excepted, spared for the sake of her menfolk—her father, husband, brother and son having all been Olympic champions, and her transgression having been committed solely for the sake of supporting her son—this exception proves that the rule existed not to be enforced, but just “in case.” It served its purpose simply by ensuring that there would never in fact be a “case,” without having to be enforced, even once.

Indeed that one legendary case that resulted in leniency perfectly demonstrates the rule’s purpose: while ensuring that neither slaves, foreigners, nor those lacking the confidence to parade their dogs on the leash would stand up to be counted as men, it equally ensured that Greek women stayed feminine and wouldn’t turn into Amazons (one of the earliest definitions of a non-Greek). The Amazon tendencies of a non-male person could be charming or at least tolerable in a virgin child baring one budding breast, but once she got bigger, married, and belonged to a man, she had better learn quickly to do the opposite of walking the dog, and make sure she looked, walked, and behaved like a Woman at all times (which was not so different from the dress and conduct required to this day in the most conservative middle eastern cultures). A woman like the legendary exception, who married and bore heroes, and indeed risked her own death only to cheer them on in their manly exploits, is no exception at all, but rather just the kind of real woman the ancient rule was meant to produce: a soccer mom on death row, humbly begging for her life.

Today’s Olympic sex testing is still the kind of gender rule that does its work without even having to be enforced. Yet some modern female Olympians have indeed been singled out for “testing,” and in this respect the modern system rather resembles the witch trials that swept Europe sometime between the abolition of the ancient Olympics under the Roman Empire and the institution of the modern games just at the moment when the world was about to enter the latest century of world war and genocide. Whereas the ancient Olympic nudity parade exposed no female or imperfectly male bodies, yet controlled them all through the mere threat of exposure (and violent death), the latest Olympic sex testing, like early modern witch trials, selects only those individuals at whom the finger of public suspicion has been pointed—quite often, just as in the witch trials, by other women, women who in their own estimation fit the mold better (3). Yet such selective testing inevitably has a profound effect even on those left untouched—though not unscathed. Both kinds of trials are said to be performed out of concern for women, to “protect” the innocent—the real females—from the otherwise irreparable harm that could be caused to their reputations by such accusation or even innuendo. It’s no coincidence that the very man responsible for putting an end to the nude parade for all female Olympians, calling it “an unethical, unscientific and discriminatory practice"--Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee’s medical commission--was also quoted in the New York Times as defending the continuance of occasional testing. “Sometimes, fingers are pointed at particular female athletes, and in order to protect them," he reasoned, "we have to be able to investigate it and clarify” (4). Thus the new Olympic sex testing, like the old-fashioned witch trial, “protects” all women from turning witch—or Amazon—by controlling their minds and behavior through fear of what they are forced to watch inflicted on those relatively few individuals who can now be perceived as having somehow done something to lay themselves open to suspicion.

The very methods used in Olympic sex testing are shockingly similar to the classic methods of early modern witch trials, to wit:

 visual and manual inspection of the genitals, just as in the search for the witch’s mark;

 the insertion of needles beneath the skin to detect signs not externally visible (whether to extract blood to analyze DNA markers or hormones—or, as in the past, to probe for those deeper, hidden witch’s marks);

 finally, should physical examinations fail to produce the needed proof, the modern athlete, like the early modern witch, can be “put to the question”: whether we call that questioning “interrogation,” “inquisition,” or “psychological testing.”

The New York Times recently published a nice op-ed piece by Jennifer Finney Boylan, who, after pointing out that gender can never be neatly contained in a binary system, makes an appeal to the heart. “The best judge of a person’s gender is what lies within her, or his, heart. How do we test for the gender of the heart, then?” Boylan says it's obvious: the gender of the heart should become clear as soon as we look at how one feels inside and how one lives one’s life (5). Ah, but the heart, the hidden, invisible, unknowable heart, is just what witch trials were designed to test. If you drowned in the dunking pool—well then everyone finally knew you had a virtuous and womanly heart, not an evil one seduced by Satan. The way one lives one’s life day to day is just what the modern trials, too, are meant to mold and control. How can one be a woman in one’s heart? When the heart quakes with fear at the public humiliation of sex testing, when the heart rehearses in sympathy the feeling of rape made public by the bravest of those athletes already subjected to it--that’s when one knows in one’s heart that one is really a woman.

So here are a few examples of what it’s like, thanks to the new Chinese laboratory and the International Olympic Committee that ordained it, to be a woman in one’s heart:

“Mary Peters, Britain’s gold medal-winning pentathlete at the 1972 Munich Olympics, described the sex tests as ‘the most crude and degrading experience I have ever known… The doctors proceeded to undertake an examination which, in modern parlance, amounted to a grope’” (6).

“What happened to me was like being raped,” revealed Maria Jose Martinez Patino, the first woman who challenged the results of a genetic sex test successfully—but only after losing three years of her competitive prime to fighting her exclusion from athletic competition, before being reinstated in 1988. “I’m sure it’s the same sense of incredible shame and violation,” she added. “The only difference is that, in my case, the whole world was watching” (7).

And of course Santhi Soundarajan, the Indian runner stripped of her Asian Games silver medal in 2006 after a sex test decreed she had “abnormal chromosomes” (8), has survived a suicide attempt only to continue fighting in the manner of Martinez Patino, while she, too, continues to watch her competitive years and her confidence wear away.

To know what it is to be a woman in one’s heart, you don’t have to be one of these world-class athletes picked out for the modern equivalent of a witch trial. All you have to do is walk down a street alone—preferably at night, but even that is not essential.

1. Times Online, photo caption:

2. The shift in focus from male to female nudity, without any corresponding shift in the binary hierarchy of gender, does correspond with an interesting shift in the cultural fascination with the naked body as emblem of mainstream beauty and desire, from primarily male to primarily female. To be a real man in ancient Greece it didn’t much matter whom you desired, so long as you dominated him and her; the modern highly ambivalent fetishization of the naked female body is about defining proper masculinity through a certain kind of (still dominating) heterosexual desire.

3. As for example, in the case of Edinanci Silva at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney: see Emine Saner, “The Gender Trap,” The Guardian, Wednesday July 30 2008.

4. Katie Thomas, New York Times, July 30, 2008.

5. Jennifer Finney Boylan, NYT Op Ed page, August 3, 2008.

6. Posted by Milly on 29 July 2008 at

7. Alison Carlson, Women’s Sports and Fitness, 1991; quoted by Laura A. Wackwitz in “Verifying The Myth: Olympic Sex Testing And the Category ‘Woman’’’; Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 26, No. 6, pp. 553 – 560, 2003 Copyright D 2003 Elsevier Ltd.

8. Boylan op ed, op. cit.