The South African runner Caster Semenya recently withdrew from a competition amid speculation about her sex. The rumor is that she is intersex — or a hermaphrodite, as they used to say in the olden days. If it’s true, then it’s too bad she withdrew, as we would have loved to see the world of international athletics try to wrangle this one. After all, it’s not like they could force her into the operating room in order to compete. Plus, it’s a subject rife with misunderstanding and stubborn rumors, and the more people talk about this stuff openly, the better. For now, we’ll try to clear up a few things as best we can:
- The term “hermaphrodite” comes from Greek mythology: Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was joined with a nymph, Salmacis, and the result was one being with the physical traits of both sexes.
- That said, the word “hermaphrodite” has fallen out of fashion; these days “intersex” is the preferred term for people of ambiguous gender. Typically, this means that the person’s genitalia are either not clearly male or female, or are at odds with their chromosomal gender. ( “Hermaphrodite” is still used in botany to describe a flower that has both male (i.e. pollen-producing) and female (i.e. ovule-producing) parts. It’s seen in many common garden plants.)