Survivors of male violence need single-sex spaces

Single-sex spaces and services are essential to the dignity and safety of female victims of male violence

Artillery Row

What does a typical survivor of rape look like? You might have a picture in your head — perhaps a university student who has been unlucky walking home from the library through a dark park, or a teenager assaulted outside a club. These women may well be survivors of rape. But we know many are those for whom it is chronic, ongoing, systematic abuse. Perhaps it started in childhood, perpetrated by a father, an uncle, a brother or a family friend. It continued into adulthood when, perhaps, she was groomed into prostitution.

Funders often require services to be “inclusive”, which means including males who identify as women at women’s expense

This is what a leader with expert knowledge about violence against women and girls told me when I interviewed her for a piece of research, published today by the human-rights organisation Sex Matters, looking at the impact of tensions over sex and gender on the women’s sector. She was clear that these women need support that is truly single sex. “They are vulnerable, abused, learning disabled, maybe autistic, with a chaotic lifestyle and poor health outcomes. These are women who very clearly need to go into a safe space that doesn’t have male people in it.”

Interviewees told me that women who’ve experienced violence and other forms of abuse are affected by the presence of males — whether or not these males identify as women — in their support services. Female survivors can be retraumatised. They may feel unsafe (they may even be unsafe). Many women feel less comfortable to speak openly about their experiences, meaning they get poorer quality support. Some women will even self-exclude from support services to avoid being with men. In women’s prisons that house trans-identifying male inmates — a situation that the Scottish Prisons Service seems to be encouraging, based on its latest policy statement — it’s arguably even worse, as the women affected have nowhere to go.

The bleak situation faced by some of the most vulnerable women in the country is brought into sharp relief when considered against a Guardian article from last week. In this, a columnist argued that trans inclusion was more important than female-only spaces because she hadn’t enjoyed going to an all-girls’ private school as a teenager. “I hated it so much, and came out of it so completely horrible, and it took so many years to rewire some basic trust in humanity, that I just cannot conceive of it as a privilege,” she said. Perhaps it was a privilege; perhaps it wasn’t. But it certainly wasn’t what women in prison experience. “You are not going to go to the gym if in your shower, which is communal, you are frightened of there being a man there,” one leader told me. “What the woman cannot do is run away. You cannot get away. Your only choice is to stay in your cell. You have no choices. No autonomy. You cannot run, you cannot choose.”

In their desire to lift up one group, funders and commissioners have inadvertently laid waste to key planks of the women’s sector

While many sector leaders recognise the need to provide single-sex support services and accommodation, the commissioning and funding environment can make it impossible to do so. Funders often require services to be “inclusive”, which means including males who identify as women at women’s expense. Of course, trans survivors of abuse also need support – but this can be (and was previously) managed through a combination of specialist provision and one-to-one support that recognises their needs, instead of through services designed for women. Now, provision for everyone is worse — but most especially for those female survivors and prisoners who need women-only spaces. 

In their desire to lift up one group, funders and commissioners have inadvertently laid waste to key planks of the women’s sector. Vulnerable women can’t access the services they need. Trans-identifying survivors can’t access tailored support. Women’s sector leaders who speak out have been the subject of vexatious complaints. They have been ostracised, lost work and seen huge damage to their mental health. Organisations have been tangled up in legalities, HR and bureaucracy trying to manage issues relating to sex and gender, whether or not their leaders have chosen to speak out. 

Most egregiously, leaders face an intolerable choice — do they stick to their guns on single-sex service provision, losing funding and contracts in the process; or do they ensure their organisations’ sustainability and even survival, while not being able to offer women the services they need? And they’re having to navigate these issues while not being able to name the problem. As one interviewee told me, “If you think about domestic violence services, and the number of women subject to abuse, homicide, trafficking – they can end in death… It’s men’s violence against women and girls. The ability to name men is crucial.”

The women’s sector was built by women, for women. It deserves better.

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