Photo by Tim Robberts

Spaces of our own

What the backlash against women-only spaces reveals about rape, trauma and prejudice

Artillery Row

According to Lewis’s Law, the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism. In a similar vein, I’d like to argue that the responses to any request for female-only spaces justify female-only spaces. 

Take, for instance, the recent case of “Sarah” (a pseudonym), a woman currently suing the charity Survivors’ Network for its failure to provide a female-only support group for survivors of sexual abuse. Sarah does not object to the provision of resources for others, but is arguing that failing to meet the needs of women who require female-only services, constitutes indirect sex discrimination.

You might think this was perfectly reasonable. After all, if male people are referred to their own groups, and women’s groups are trans-inclusive, there is an obvious gap for female people who want a space of their own in which to heal. 

The power differential between male people and female people is significant. 98 per cent of sexual violence is committed by males. Female people experience sexual terrorism, reproductive control and physical vulnerability in sex-specific ways. They are groomed for compliance and to feel shame at their bodies in ways male people are not. All of these arguments suggest, not that no one else suffers trauma, but that female trauma merits its own accommodation. 

Or, at least, so you’d think.

Following reporting of Sarah’s case, the online backlash has been horrific. It reveals a great deal, not just about attitudes towards female boundaries, but the prejudice faced by female victims of rape and sexual abuse from many who claim to be on their side.

Dismissals of requests such as Sarah’s have tended to take four forms: the outright misogynistic (“Sarah” is a “bitch” whose case should be “thrown out” with her “made to pay all court and legal fees”); the dishonest (how can anyone possibly tell who is male, anyway?); the inane (hey, why don’t women set up their own rape crisis centres?); and the faux compassionate (aversion to male people is a facet of rape trauma, and hence must be worked on in order to help recovery). 

It’s the last of these that has appalled me the most, a superficially benevolent repackaging of the message that female rape victims are broken and damaged. Survivors who want female-only spaces don’t know what’s good for them; their attitudes are bigoted, yes, but it’s bigotry that has only taken root due to their trauma.

Squint a bit, and you might miss the profoundly misogynistic undertones here. What we are essentially seeing is the secular version of “rape victims are sinful”, the sin in question being transphobia. In mitigation, we’re assured this taint is not the victim’s fault. We should pity the defiled, but they are dirty and in need of moral cleansing all the same.

It is not irrational for women and girls to fear male bodies

We’ve heard this argument several times recently. Last year Mridul Wadhwa, chief executive of Edinburgh Rape Crisis, argued that “bigoted people” — that is, female people who want female-only spaces — should be expected to “reframe their trauma”. 

The New Statesman published a “journey of redemption” piece in which an abuse victim confessed that she “once agreed with JK Rowling” before realising the author was just “an abused woman holding on tight to the space that she knew to be hers because she was afraid. Then I saw how misdirected her fear was”.

Then this week I read a piece entitled “Why Trans Women Belong in Women’s Spaces”. There are very few articles that I have found more patronising, stigmatising and dishonest. 

“Prolonged exposure to violence and trauma affects the way you navigate the world,” it announces:

If you’ve experienced enough abusive men coercing, hurting and killing women, your brain’s survival response is to shortcut into categorising people as “safe” or “unsafe”. Very quickly, the unfamiliar or uncomfortable becomes “unsafe”.

I do not know how to state the bleeding obvious in any other way, so here goes: male people in female-only spaces are not being responded to as “unfamiliar”. They are being responded to as male. Miscategorising a rational fear of male people as an irrational fear of “the unfamiliar” is gaslighting. 

The author goes on to describe “traumatised women who are seeking belonging” being drawn “into a political home of anti-trans activism, euphemistically known as ‘gender critical feminism’”. It is somewhat ironic to see someone who miscasts “female-only” as “anti-trans”, taking others to task for resorting to euphemism. She writes as though traumatised women are empty vessels who cannot possibly form their own political response to what has been done to them. It’s as though their abusers were right: they’re just voids, waiting to be filled by others.

The old-school misogyny in play here is bad enough. What is worse is the pretence that this approach is in the best interests of a woman or girl whose trauma has left her terrified of male people. Shaming and coercion — which is what are on offer here — are counter-productive. Anyone who actually cared about how trauma obliterates trust, would know this. 

A few years ago I started therapy to deal with my own experiences of male violence. These are some of the things I’ve learned: it is not irrational for women and girls to fear male bodies. It is not irrational for us to develop coping mechanisms which involve appeasement or retreat. It is not irrational to feel, particularly if one has been disbelieved, that it is not worth trusting anyone ever again. 

What I’ve also learned is this: we cannot abandon trust completely, but it must be rebuilt on our terms. We must find ways to reconnect with others, not because our mistrust is misplaced, but in spite of it being justified. Mistrust of males is not a sickness, but it can place undue limitations on what we want to achieve for ourselves. 

Building the level of trust that helps us to function in the way that best meets our needs is not the same as giving up our boundaries to accommodate others. It is misogynistic nonsense to tell traumatised women and girls that it is good for them to drop their guard, or that wanting sex-segregated spaces is a flaw to be worked on and overcome. 

I cannot think of anything more likely to destroy a female rape victim’s ability to trust others, than to be told — by women claiming to be feminists, and by practitioners claiming to offer support — that she is not permitted to set her own boundaries. It is only possible to learn to say “yes”, truly, freely, if you have been nurtured by people who allow you to say “no”, and would allow you to do so indefinitely, no questions asked.

Contemporary liberal feminism has a genuine problem with female rape victims

For part of the nineties I lived in a woman-only hostel. I am now the only female member of a household of five. Both of these are “normal” ways of living. The idea that spaces or relationships which exclude males are abnormal or unhealthy is deeply patriarchal. “The deliberate withdrawal of women from men,” wrote Adrienne Rich, “has almost always been seen as a potentially dangerous or hostile act, a conspiracy, a subversion, a needless and grotesque thing.” Fear of exclusion is a male hang-up projected onto women who might well be traumatised, but they are not the paranoid ones here.

I’ve often wondered how people I’ve thought of as political allies could be so cruel and misguided. I end up concluding that for all the lip-service it pays to #MeToo, contemporary liberal feminism has a genuine problem with female rape victims and victims of child sexual abuse. 

The demands victims make and the stories they tell are deeply inconvenient, straying from the agreed “sex positive” script. They ask others to make concessions, such as acknowledging the relationship between biological sex and power. They suggest such passé concepts as “bodies”, “maleness” and “safeguarding” actually matter. 

This is the same as it ever was, and responses from “liberal” quarters end up mirroring responses from the traditionally misogynistic right: if a woman hasn’t been abused, then she is too privileged to be permitted an opinion. If she has been abused, she is too messed up to have opinions that count. “Recovery” from abuse is thereby equated with demonstrating one is not an inconvenience to others, neither physically, in terms of requesting actual resources; nor politically, whether this involves the politics of the family or that of an entire movement. The ruined woman has the chance to be rehabilitated, providing she makes no demands whatsoever. It’s a hair’s breadth away from “it wouldn’t even have been rape if she’d said yes”.

Female rape and abuse survivors are not broken or damaged. They have experiences that demand recognition, and needs which other people ought to be sufficiently humane to accommodate. 

If one thing does strike me as broken, maladaptive, a response desperately in need of external correction, it’s the behaviour of those currently attacking a woman who is making one small, simple request for a space in which to heal. These people’s attitudes are obscene.

One woman’s trauma should not make so many people so angry and heartless. If you’re one of them, then I’ll tell you this: this woman deserves love and support. You, on the other hand, need fixing.

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