Well, we don’t know because the necessary detailed information has not been released. I do not personally know the Caster Semenya story, medically or biologically speaking, but there has been a lot of discussion and apparently wild speculation on this, and I may have a thing or two to help clarify.
If the reports we are hearing are true, Semenya is fairly likely to be an individual with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. This may be wrong. So, I’ll tell you a little about AIS and then you can disconnect your knowledge of AIS from Semenya, or connect it up, as appropriate, later on.
It has been suggested, compassionately, that this is none of anyone’s business, that she self identifies as a female, and that this should all just be dropped. I sort of agree, but this may be little more than wishful thinking and is probably inappropriate for a number of reasons. It seems that we do divide sports into male and female, and if simple self identification was the criterion for which league one plays in, then there would be numerous men trying to play in women’s leagues and not just to get access to the locker room.
Really, the statements that Semenya is “a hermaphrodyte” or that “Semenya can say she’s a girl and that makes her a girl” are both born of ignorance. First of all, almost nobody is ever a “hermaphrodyte.” That is a specific condition that is very very very unlikely to occur. A more general word that may be appropriate is “intersex.” The sports-gender of a person who is intersex is a perfectly valid question to ask given legal and other ramifications. At the same time, it would be nice to have a little more understanding of the simple fact that far more people than most realize are in some way non-normative in sex/gender, and either ignoring that or thinking it is strange or bad in any way is unacceptable.
Let me say up front that to my knowledge, most people who have “complete AIS” identify as female.
Androgen insensitivity means that the receptor sites that exist on cells to which androgen hormones bind do not hook up right with the androgens. This, then, means that the androgens do nothing at all. This is caused by a mutation in the AR gene.
There are press reports that Semenya has internal male sex organs, and that they are pumping out large amounts of testosterone. That is the ‘evidence’ I used to guess that she has complete AIS.
A person with AIS has an XY chromosomal complement. However, since there are no receptor sites for androgen, the development of secondary male sexual characteristics does not happen. The “Wolffian ducts” which otherwise would have developed, along with other tissues, to form seminal vesicles, a penis, a scrotum, and so on simply do not change from the condition in which they are initially formed in embryonic development.
(This is true in females in general. But the tissues are really really small so don’t try to find them!)
Testes exist in the AIS person because the undifferentiated gonad … that would eventually become testes or ovaries, depending on development … become testes not from the activities of androgen, but because of the activities of another hormone. Meanwhile, all the regular “female plumbing” and other female secondary sexual characteristics develops externally, because that is a sort of default developmental trajectory and this is what you get in the absence of androgen. But, internal female plumbing (fallopian tubes, the inner two thirds or so of the vagina, a uterus) is actually repressed in development because these structures arise from a set of tissues called the Müllerian ducts. These tissues are destroyed in a typical XY person by the product of one of the male sex determining genes that specifically targets them.
So, an AIS person has internal testes, no internal sexual plumbing to speak of, and an externally female body with a “blind vagina” (I think they still call it that). But why all the testosterone production?
Because, as is the case with many hormonal systems, there is a feedback system that causes hormones to be produced up to a point, then detectors in the body notice the level of the hormone go up, and a signal is sent out to stop producing the hormone. This is like a thermostat keeping the temperature in your house uniform by detecting increases or decreases in temperature and calling for the furnace or AC to turn off or on as need.
But the AIS person does not have androgen receptors. So the bits of this system that would detect the large amounts of testosterone, and send the “that’s enough already!” signal to the testes, don’t work.
Testes working overtime like this in an AIS person are a serious medical risk. As soon as it is determined that a person has AIS the testes are usually scheduled for removal.
By the same token, this testosterone is not doing anything androgen-like in an AIS person. If Semenya is a typical complete AIS person, there is no help from the testosterone. This runner is not getting any kind of natural steroid treatment from these testes.
As I said above, AIS people typically self identify as female. They can not have offspring. Sexual intercourse is limited because of the ‘blind vagina” but this is fixable with surgery. Removal of the testes and ‘fixing’ of the blind vagina are not normally considered “gender reassignment.” The testes removal is more of a life and death thing … there is a high risk of cancer without that surgery.
So, yes, if Semenya has total AIS, then she’s a girl. And a pretty fast one, it would appear, owing to her prowess as an athlete, not to any features of AIS.