UW News

August 7, 2012

South African Olympic runner’s struggle shines a spotlight on country’s ongoing sexual violence

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Caster Semenya, left, at the 2009 World Championships in Athletics.Flickr user José Goulão

South African track athlete Caster Semenya carried her country’s flag in the opening ceremony at the London Olympics. The 21-year-old former 800-meter world champion, for years the subject of speculation around her gender, was chosen over male athletes including a swimmer, a long jumper and a double-amputee runner.

The choice was of interest to a University of Washington researcher familiar with the controversies the athlete has faced as well as the ongoing sexual violence endured by women in South Africa.

“I think that South Africans are eager to claim Semenya as their own, given that challenges to Semenya’s gender originally came from white European competitors who were uncomfortable being beaten by an African woman,” said Amanda Lock Swarr, a UW professor of gender, women and sexuality studies.

Described as “breathtakingly butch” in a 2009 New Yorker article, Semenya has had to prove herself not only as an athlete but as a woman. She’s undergone gender verification tests including examinations of her genetic makeup, sex hormone levels and genitalia – all to determine if she is eligible to compete as a woman.

She was cleared for competition and will compete this week in the women’s 800-meter run at the Olympics.

“Why does all this matter, why are women’s expressions of masculinity so controversial?” asked Swarr. “You don’t see this kind of gender verification in male figures skaters being tested for estrogen levels.”

Swarr connects Semenya’s treatment, a form of “medical violence,” to violence against women in South Africa, a country that ushered in a new, progressive constitution promoting equality after apartheid ended in 1994. But it also has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, with lesbians systematically targeted for what activists are referring to as “corrective rapes.”

“The recent rise in homophobic violence targeting black lesbians in South Africa has been disturbing,” Swarr said. “Many lesbians came out when apartheid ended, because people thought that the new laws would prevent violence. But that hasn’t been the case, and some claim the new constitution and lack of attention to everyday inequalities have created the conditions for violence.”

Amanda Lock Swarr, UW professor of gender, women and sexuality studies, in Cape Town, South Africa.Amanda Lock Swarr, UW

About 1 million rapes – a statistic hard to pinpoint – occur in South Africa each year. The activists who work with Swarr say that probably only one in 20 rapes is reported, though, and the conviction rate for rapists is 7 percent. “That’s not much of an incentive to report a rape,” Swarr said.

Since 1997, Swarr has studied sexual violence in South Africa and now works with activists there to help rape survivors. Her latest work, which she discusses in a paper in the current issue of the journal Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, investigates how interpretations of masculinity may be one root cause of sexual violence against lesbians in South Africa.

Expressing masculinity is important to butch lesbians, Swarr said, but at the same time it makes them targets for violence by men who see them as competition for sexual relationships with women.

Corrective rapes reflect the belief that sexual violence can change sexual orientation. “What men say during these rapes – such as ‘I’ll teach you a lesson’ or ‘I’ll show you what it means to be a woman’ – show that they think that lesbian women can be transformed into straight women,” Swarr said.

She will go back to South Africa this fall to continue her work with activists groups working with rape survivors. The successful efforts so far are community-focused, providing HIV prevention and other services for survivors.

Swarr sees great hope in other projects aimed at men and in loosening the typically rigid views of masculinity: “Men are talking to each other about the role that violence plays in masculinity, and how manhood can be redefined as pro-feminist, rather than violent.”

She hopes that the lessons learned in South Africa will translate to other countries, including the United States, where one in eight women is raped.

Swarr also hopes to spur more discussion about the way the athletic community has treated Semenya and has published commentaries on the topic. She worries about the parameters used to decide which gender is which.

“What counts to be a woman – is it hormones, external genitalia, internal genitalia, body hair?” Swarr wonders. “A lot of it comes down to the rigidity of gender and how it’s policed.”



For more information, contact Swarr at aswarr@uw.edu.