From awe-inspiring gold medalist athlete on top of the world to traumatized young woman on suicide watch. That’s the journey we just sent Caster Semenya on—a whirlwind three weeks of cruelty, speculation, and outright invasions of privacy.
From the moment the questions surrounding Semenya’s sex became public, writers and pundits collectively tripped over themselves in the rush to weigh in. “Is it sexist that Semenya is being questioned?” many asked. “Would this be happening if she looked and acted more ‘girly’? What about racism? Would this be happening if she were white? Are the questioners right? Is she, or isn’t he?”
Semenya’s story was a goldmine for the 24-hour news cycle, hitting on all the hot-button issues folks love to bloviate about: racism, sexism, beauty. But in the rush to fit the story into a suitably familiar and inflammatory narrative guaranteed to maximize ratings and readership, the important questions were pushed aside. The big scandal here isn’t whether or not Semenya is intersex, or even whether or not the sex testing should have been conducted at all. It’s the fact that without her knowledge or consent, before any official confirmation of sex test results was made, before it was decided whether she would keep her medals, someone felt they had the right to tell the world her personal business, and the world felt it had the right to read, watch, and discuss. At this point, the only thing anyone actually needs to know is this: How and why were this sex inquiry and its results made public, and who is going to lose his or her job over it?
Because, while whoever leaked the elements of this story certainly did the media a huge favor by handing us what many view as a fascinating freak show to carry us through the August news doldrums, they also helped to tear Semenya down bit by bit, story by story. They ripped the clothes off of her and shoved her naked into the glare of media scrutiny, where we all proceeded to point, poke, and attempt to penetrate her with our speculations and such sensitive headlines as “Semenya Has Internal Testes.” Meanwhile, she was left to learn what should have been private details of her own body from the media, with the entire world watching.
As always with our 24-hour news cycle, though, the beat goes on: We’re off Semenya this week because we’re busy lamenting the loss of “civility” in American society, as demonstrated by the latest pair of buffoons: Kanye West and Joe Wilson. There’s no doubt that there’s something very, very wrong with the way people treat each other these days, but these latest outbursts are just the tip of the iceberg. Everything about the Caster Semenya story has been deeply indecent and uncivil, from the way she has been treated and lied to by the people in her life to the way the media and its consumers have picked over her.
I understand that this is the way the world works now—people make their way onto the national stage and we opine on and dissect the details of their lives. But even if we accept that we now live in a culture of instant celebrity and media feeding frenzies, Semenya is just a young athlete who was doing what she loves, and doing it well. She didn’t offer herself up for this particular flavor of scrutiny and shouldn’t have been subjected to it; certainly not before any official test results were released or made known to her. Unless both media and consumers become more critical about who we subject to our unrelenting gaze and what aspects of people’s lives we feel entitled to know, Semenya won’t be the last innocent person we humiliate and traumatize. Since this began, she has dropped out of a race, required psychological counseling, and is now reportedly so distraught that loved ones fear for her life. All of this because someone lacked the common decency to respect her privacy, and because we all lacked the decency to stop staring.