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Laurie Penny: Caster Semenya’s pink T-shirt

The fashion statement couldn’t have been clearer.

I've never given much time to the sartorial semiotics of sporting fashion, but one tight, hot pink T-shirt has me fascinated. The T-shirt in question, emblazoned with the Nike logo, was worn by Caster Semenya on Thursday night as she ran her first race after being cleared to compete with other women by the IAAF. Semenya, 19, also wore a fetching pastel pink running sweater and had a longer, more feminine hairstyle.

The fashion statement couldn't have been clearer: I'm a proper girl, a girly girl, a girl who likes pink and labels and bunnies and butterflies. Now, please let me do what I was born to do.

With rumours rife that the teenager is biologically intersex and has had surgical intervention and her hormones adjusted to allow her to compete, Caster Semenya must now face the global gender police once more as commentators cluster like flies to give their verdict on her return to athletics. She has spent the past 11 months in limbo, after speculation over her "masculine" appearance at the World Athletics Championships in Berlin led to her being withdrawn from professional athletics while her gender was being determined and as the world watched and gossiped.

The Guardian reports that Semenya had to undergo a series of grotesque tests that sounded "more like abuse than science":

She was allegedly made to undergo a two-hour examination of her sex organs, hitched in stirrups as doctors took photographs. Afterwards she sent distraught messages to friends and family. Her coach Michael Seme later said that it had been a wonder she did not "drink poison" and end it all.

Semenya also had to endure a makeover and cover shoot for You magazine, part of South Africa's attempt to prove that speculation over the young athlete's gender were sexist and racist -- by kitting her out in western beauty drag and plastering pictures of her body all over the front cover.

Now she's been declared fit to run, it's clearly crucial that she tone down her boyish looks. So here she is, in her pretty pink get-up, hoping to placate a global media that has no time whatsoever for women who don't look how women are supposed to look.

This week, Senator David Vitter attacked the left-wing talk-show host Rachel Maddow for "not looking like a woman" on a radio station in the United States. When he was made to apologise, all Vitter could find to say was that the Maddow "did not deserve" what he clearly felt to be an atrocious insult.

More than any other cultural arena, though, the world of sports is about simple binaries, about winners and losers, about arbitrary rules on and off the pitch. That's part of its appeal, and always has been. Caster Semenya threw those arbitrary rules into disarray by being big, brown, butch and flat-chested. And, in an atmosphere of competition which demands that people fit rigidly into boxes, it was deemed necessary that she be dragged physically and psychologically back into line in the most brutal, public and humiliating way imaginable.

That Semenya is faster and stronger than nearly any other teenager on the planet, that she clocked up one of the quickest 800m times in the world in 2009, was considered less important than the central question of what in particular she had between her legs.

I do not wish to contribute in any way to further speculation over Semenya's gender. Caster Semenya is a woman; she has lived her whole life as a woman; and the insistence by the IAAF and the international community that Semenya "prove" her female identity before being allowed to compete would have been sexist on every level, even if there were any foolproof way of doing such a thing, in a world where there are more than two human genders, where there is a whole host of gender identities and physical arrangements, and where 0.2 per cent of the population is intersex.

Semenya's physicality is rather more of an issue for her career and identity than it might be for the rest of us, but I remain disgusted by the popular reasoning that any physically high-achieving woman who is not stereotypically "feminine" is an aberration, and must therefore actually be a man.

For the sake of argument, however, let's suppose just for one minute that Semenya had, in fact, been found and declared to be XXY or XXX-type intersex, or a person with androgen insensitivity syndrome.

Suppose that this wonderful athlete -- who says that she is a woman, who has spent her entire career competing against women and who expresses her triumph as a triumph in the sphere of women's sports, as a female and feminine physical feat -- happens to be among the 0.1 per cent of women without an XX genotype. Why would that be such a huge problem? And why should that have threatened to disqualify her from women's sports? What, were sports officials going to create a special intersex olympics just for her and a handful of others?

Or could they have been planning to continue to ignore and belittle any contribution to human progress and prowess not made by people who conform personally, biologically and physiotypically to western notions of the two-gender binary?

Back to that pink T-shirt, the colour of corporate femininity, of brand woman, stretched provocatively over Semenya's chest in a statement of submission and conformity -- as if anyone could blame her after what she's been through.

If, indeed, Caster Semenya had been found to have any sort of genetic "advantage" over other women, the simplest solution might have been to force her to run in a miniskirt and tottering high heels to even the odds. Her talent is such that she would probably have won anyway. And, more importantly, she'd have proved to the world that she's a proper girl -- which is what really matters.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.