Indian athlete Pinki Pramanik has been released from jail, essentially because she lacks a penis.
The story, which has unfolded over the past few months, is complicated. Pramanik's live-in lover, a woman, has accused her both of being a man and of committing rape. She was arrested and allegedly groped by policemen. She has been subjected to a number of inconclusive medical examinations -- one of which became a viral internet video. Her treatment by the authorities has become a cause celebre among both fans and advocates for human rights. Although the chromosome-test results have not yet come in, a judge has now ruled that, although Pramanik's genitalia are "abnormal," she lacks the "male organ" necessary to commit rape as it is defined under Indian law.
Superficially, of course, this may be confusing -- and it is made more so by a certain coyness in the press reports. Many readers are still accustomed to thinking of maleness and femaleness as straightforward things, easily confirmed by a quick dropping of trousers. But it seems that Pramanik is what people these days call intersex, meaning that her body doesn't conform to the simple a-or-b format.
This case opens windows onto several different areas in which the acknowledgment that intersex people exist has begun to challenge prevalent customs in society, law and, particularly, sports.
For example, is a "male organ" strictly necessary to commit rape? What about an inanimate object, of the kind employed in a decidedly loving and non-violent manner by many couples? (One doubts that Boys Don't Cry was a big hit in India, or that the judge has seen it.) What, when you come right down to it, constitutes rape? In this case, the judge ruled that, because the complainant had lived with Pramanik for three years, she had effectively consented to ... whatever happened. Such a ruling would not withstand scrutiny under most contemporary American laws.
Then there is the question of how the police treat prisoners, and especially prisoners accused of sexual crimes -- and most especially, prisoners who don't conform to the customary sex and gender roles. To begin with, where are they housed, in jails made to accommodate either men or women? But beyond that, how are they handled, physically and otherwise? Pramanik's repeated humiliation reminds us of the way the police routinely violated the rights and dignity of gay people prior to Stonewall (and in many places, long afterward).
And of course, there is the matter of sports. Most athletic competition is segregated by sex; to do otherwise would give men an enormous advantage, if only by virtue of muscle mass. Similar logic informs anti-doping rules, of course. Less well-known is that international authorities also regulate the naturally occurring hormone level of female athletes. Women who don't conform to the "standard" profile are required to undergo surgery and/or hormone treatments. Such is the case, for example, of South African runner Caster Semenya, who has female genitalia but, instead of a uterus, was born with undescended testes which, according the The New Yorker, provide her with "three times the amount of testosterone present in the average female."
The more one looks at it, the more complicated it gets. Is a person's sex determined by external genitalia, by internal organs, by chromosomes or by hormone levels? Does "sex" even exist upon close inspection, or is it really -- as transgendered writer (and ex-Scientologist) Kate Bornstein says -- all just "gender," a sort of mutually-agreed-upon convention, like grammar?
Meanwhile, Pinki Pramanik's trials have not ended. The days she was released from jail, the government also brought new accusations against her, having to do with an alleged illegal land deal. Legitimate charges or continued harassment? Like so much else, it's hard to tell at a glance.