Ignorance and the Gender Binary: Resisting Complex Epistemologies of Sex and Testosterone

  • Madeleine PapeEmail author


A key project for feminist scholars aligned with Science and Technology Studies (STS) has been to critically examine how researchers produce knowledge about sexed bodies in ways that impose binary categories onto a far more complex and indeterminate reality. In this chapter, I ask: how is it that institutional actors are able to ignore the now large body of evidence demonstrating that sex is dynamic, non-binary, and entangled with gender? In order to answer this question, I examine the regulation of women with high levels of naturally occurring testosterone in international track-and-field. Drawing on interviews with 62 stakeholders, including athletes, coaches, managers, media personnel, and officials, I examine how this elite community protected their existing epistemic investments when a high-profile international court case called into question the exclusion of women athletes with high testosterone. Proposing a framework of ignorance as an institutional process, I identify the strategies and structural arrangements that allowed stakeholders to turn away from and ignore claims that threaten their commitment to binary sex. I suggest that attention to these dynamics can aid the feminist cause of challenging the institutional marginalization of more complex representations of sex and gender.


  1. Acker, J. (1990). Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations. Gender & Society, 4, 139–158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bermon, S., & Garnier, P. Y. (2017). Serum androgen levels and their relation to performance in track and field: Mass spectrometry results from 2127 observations in male and female athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 51, 1309–1314.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Birrell, S., & Cole, C. C. (1990). Double fault: Renee Richards and the construction and naturalization of difference. Sociology of Sport Journal, 7, 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bohuon, A. (2015). Gender verifications in sport: From an East/West antagonism to a North/South antagonism. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 32, 965–979.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cavanagh, S. L., & Sykes, H. (2006). Transsexual bodies at the Olympics: The International Olympic Committee’s policy on transsexual athletes at the 2004 Athens summer games. Body & Society, 12, 75–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Connell, R. (1987). Gender and power: Society, the person, and sexual politics. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Cooky, C., Dycus, R., & Dworkin, S. L. (2013). “What makes a woman a woman?” versus “our first lady of sport”: A comparative analysis of United States and the South African media coverage of Caster Semenya. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 37, 31–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). (2015). CAS 2014/A/3759 Dutee Chand v. In Athletics Federation of India (AFI) & The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Lausanne: Court of Arbitration for Sport.Google Scholar
  9. CAS. (2019). Semenya, ASA and IAAF: Executive summary. Lausanne: Court of Arbitration for Sport.Google Scholar
  10. Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  11. Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). The dynamic development of gender variability. Journal of Homosexuality, 59, 398–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Frickel, S., Gibbon, S., Howard, J., Kempner, J., Ottinger, G., & Hess, D. J. (2010). Undone science: Charting social movement and civil society challenges to research agenda setting. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 35, 444–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Frickel, S., & Vincent, M. B. (2007). Hurricane Katrina, contamination, and the unintended organization of ignorance. Technology in Society, 29, 181–188.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fujimura, J. (2006). Sex genes: A critical sociomaterial approach to the politics and molecular genetics of sex determination. Signs, 32, 49–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gross, M. (2007). The unknown in process: Dynamic connections of ignorance, non-knowledge and related concepts. Current Sociology, 55, 742–759.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Henne, K. (2014). The ‘science’ of fair play in sport: Gender and the politics of testing. Signs, 39, 787–812.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Henne, K. (2015). Testing for athlete citizenship: Regulating doping and sex in sport. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Henne, K., & Pape, M. (2018). Dilemmas of gender and global sports governance: An invitation to southern theory. Sociology of Sport Journal, 35, 216–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Hess, D. J. (2007). Alternative pathways in science and industry: Activism, innovation, and the environment in an era of globalization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). (2011). IAAF regulations governing eligibility of females with hyperandrogenism to compete in women’s competition. Appendices. Monaco: IAAF.Google Scholar
  21. IAAF. (2018, April 27). IAAF introduces new eligibility regulations for female classification. Retrieved from
  22. International Olympic Committee (IOC). (2012). IOC regulations on female hyperandrogenism. Retrieved from
  23. Jasanoff, S. (1990). The fifth branch: Science advisers as policymakers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Kane, M. J. (1995). Resistance/transformation of the oppositional binary: Exposing sport as a continuum. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 19, 191–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Karkazis, K., & Jordan-Young, R. (2018). The powers of testosterone: Obscuring race and regional bias in the regulation of women athletes. Feminist Formations, 30, 1–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Karkazis, K., Jordan-Young, R., Davis, G., & Camporesi, S. (2012). Out of bounds? A critique of the new policies on hyperandrogenism in elite female athletes. American Journal of Bioethics, 12, 3–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kleinman, D. L., & Suryanarayanan, S. (2012). Dying bees and the social production of ignorance. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 38, 492–517.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Lenskyj, H. (1986). Out of bounds: Women, sport, and sexuality. Toronto, ON: Women’s Press.Google Scholar
  29. Longman, J. (2016). Understanding the controversy over Caster Semenya. The New York Times. August 18. Retrieved from
  30. Lopez, J., & Scott, J. (2000). Social structure. Buckingham. Philadelphia: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Lorber, J. (1993). Believing is seeing: Biology as ideology. Gender & Society, 7, 568–581.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Magubane, Z. (2014). Spectacles and scholarship: Caster Semenya, intersex studies, and the problem of race in feminist theory. Signs, 39, 761–785.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Martin, E. (1991). The egg and the sperm. Signs, 16, 485–501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. McGoey, L. (2007). On the will to ignorance in bureaucracy. Economy and Society, 36, 212–235.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. McGoey, L. (2012). The logic of strategic ignorance. The British Journal of Sociology, 63, 553–576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Pape, M. (2017). The fairest of them all: Gender-determining institutions and the science of sex testing. In V. Demos & M. T. Segal (Eds.), Advances in Gender Research 24: Gender Panic, Gender Policy (pp. 177–202). Bingley: Emerald Books.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Parker, C., & Braithwaite, J. (2003). Regulation. In M. Tushnet & P. Cane (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of legal studies (pp. 119–145). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Pieper, L. (2016). Sex testing: Gender policing in women’s sports. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Proctor, R. N., & Schiebinger, L. (Eds.). (2008). Agnotology: The making & unmaking of ignorance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Richardson, S. (2013). Sex itself: The search or male and female in the human genome. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Ritz, S. A. (2018). Complexities of addressing sex in cell culture research. Signs, 42, 307–327.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Sanz, V. (2017). No way out of the binary: A critical history of the scientific production of sex. Signs, 43, 1–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sullivan, C. F. (2011). Gender verification and gender policies in elite sport: Eligibility and “fair play”. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 35, 400–419.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Tacke, V. (2001). BSE as an organizational construction: A case study on the globalization of risk. The British Journal of Sociology, 52, 293–312.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Tannenbaum, C., & Bekker, S. (2019). Sex, gender, and sports. British Medical Journal, 364(8192), 1120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Timmermans, S., & Tavory, I. (2012). Theory construction in qualitative research: From grounded theory to abductive analysis. Sociological Theory, 30, 167–186.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Tuana, N. (1988). The weaker seed: The sexist bias of reproductive theory. Hypatia, 3, 35–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Tuana, N. (2004). Coming to understand: Orgasm and the epistemology of ignorance. Hypatia, 19, 194–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Tuana, N. (2006). The speculum of ignorance: The women’s health movement and epistemologies of ignorance. Hypatia, 21, 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. van Anders, S. M. (2012). Testosterone and sexual desire in healthy women and men. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 1471–1484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Wackwitz, L. (2003). Verifying the myth: Olympic sex testing and the category woman. Women’s Studies International Forum, 26, 553–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Westbrook, L. (2016). Transforming the sex/gender/sexuality system: The construction of trans categories in the United States. In N. Fischer & S. Seidman (Eds.), Introducing the new sexuality studies (pp. 33–42). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  53. World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). (2018). Athlete biological passport operating guidelines. Version 6.1, July 2018. Retrieved from
  54. World Medical Association (WMA). (2019). WMA reiterates advice to physicians not to implement IAAF rules on classifying women athletes. Retrieved May 3, 2019, from

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Northwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

Personalised recommendations