Photo by Valentin Russanov
Artillery Row

We are failing rape victims

The vulnerable are sacrificed to indulge the entitled

Rape victims deserve sympathy. Feminists don’t agree on everything, but we ought to expect consensus on that. It is a remarkable achievement of the feminist movement that the public has almost universally come around to this view, after centuries of sexual violence being seen largely as a property crime against women’s husbands or fathers. 

The shelter was vandalised with graffiti saying KILL TERFS

In recent years, though, a new constituency has emerged whose claims to victimhood seem to take priority. That group is males who wish to be seen as female.

When this group was first formally recognised in Britain’s 2004 Gender Recognition Act, legislators took it as read that these males were not literally female. Transgender people were to be treated as their chosen sex, except in the case of sports and, tellingly, peerages a male is still eligible for male primogeniture after achieving “recognition” as a woman, while a female can never be. 

Further exceptions can be found in the 2010 Equality Act, which states that “a counsellor working with victims of rape might have to be a woman and not a transsexual person [ … ] to avoid causing further distress”. In other words, we can broadly accommodate a desire to be treated as the opposite sex, but we do all know that it’s not really, literally true, and there are some circumstances where we’ll have to acknowledge that.

Since then, many feminists have watched with dismay as these well-intentioned caveats have been sent flying merrily out of the window. It was never enough for this group of males to be treated as if they were female in most contexts. Now, no matter the circumstance, any mention of the fact that some males are not female is unconscionably cruel and hurtful. (Well, except when it comes to hereditary titles Matilda, Baron Simon of Wythenshawe looks set to soon become the first trans woman to take advantage of this particular exception, skipping over an older sister who, being female, is ineligible.)

It is now bigoted to argue that males should not compete in the Olympics as if they were female. To even use the word “male” when discussing such a scenario is, according to the judge in one US court case, contrary to “human decency”. And it is downright evil to suggest that female victims of abuse might want to discuss their experiences only in the presence of other women. 

Services aimed at women who have experienced violence or abuse are under increasing pressure not just to accommodate males, but not to provide any facilities at all which do not include males. To do so would imply that these males are not female, and that would be unacceptable.

An early flare-up of this conflict came way back in 1995, when a male who wished to be seen as female filed a discrimination complaint after being politely turned down as a volunteer at Vancouver Women’s Rape Relief, the city’s oldest women’s shelter, due to its single-sex policy. The case dragged on for years, and at one point the charity had to pay the complainant $7,500 in compensation. 

The Vancouver shelter lost its municipal funding in 2019 as a consequence of not admitting males who wish to be seen as women. One of the organisers has said that anyone is welcome to phone their helpline, and that male victims can be directed to one of the many services available to them, but that “within our building, it’s women-only and it’s women-only for a reason”. Shortly after the decision was made to withdraw funding, the shelter was vandalised with graffiti saying “KILL TERFS” and a dead rat nailed to the doorframe.

In the UK, Mridul Wadhwa, the new CEO of Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre, said last summer on The Guilty Feminist podcast that female service users uncomfortable with the presence of males were “bigoted” and should “be challenged” on their “unacceptable beliefs”. Wadhwa, who is both legally and biologically male, applied to and won the role at ERCC despite the post having been advertised as for women only as was Wadhwa’s previous job as manager of Forth Valley Rape Crisis Centre.

This is a disturbing lack of empathy displayed by self-styled feminists

Hearteningly, there is some pushback against these changes. Last week it was reported that a woman has brought a crowd-funded court case against Survivor’s Network, a charity in Brighton. “Sarah” has said that she began attending group support sessions billed as “female only” by Survivor’s Network. However, after somebody who appeared to be male joined the group, Sarah felt she could no longer attend: “I felt somewhat pressured to talk [ … ] just so that the space felt inclusive for the new addition. Putting aside my own feelings to please a male felt familiar to me.” As a result, she says she asked Survivor’s Network if one of the additional sessions the charity was planning to run could be female-exclusive and in response it removed her from its mailing list and blocked her on social media.

This ought to be an open and shut case. Anyone with a shred of empathy must see that a counselling service which insists women must agree to describe sexual trauma with or in front of males is not only unfit for purpose, but perhaps also even worse than useless. Counselling for rape victims is one of the examples explicitly given in the Equality Act as a situation where it is appropriate to exclude all members of the opposite sex, even those with a Gender Recognition Certificate.

Survivor’s Network is the only such organisation serving the area. Since it is in receipt of public funds earmarked for this purpose, it surely has a duty to provide single-sex counselling. That’s not to say it should provide only single-sex spaces, just that the option should be available — or at the very least (a bar so low it’s buried within the Earth’s mantle), the request for single-sex provision should be treated as a reasonable one that doesn’t get a service user banned from the premises.

But when the BBC reported on the case this week, it was met with a furious response. Feminist writer Lauren Ingram wrote on Twitter: “I have no words for how angry this makes me. The woman was made aware that the support group she was attending was trans-inclusive”. In other words, women have been given fair warning that the only available support in the country where they live, work and pay taxes is mixed sex, and they should like it or lump it.

This concern was shared by Fern Riddell, a feminist historian, who also tweeted to ask “why haven’t they [women who believe in female-only rape counselling] set up their own services?” Of course, this betrays rather an ironic lack of knowledge of Riddell’s own subject, feminist history: women did set up women-only services, decades ago which have now either gone mixed sex or been vandalised and defunded. The level of vitriol in some cases stretches credibility. A female board member of the Melbourne-based Victorian Women’s Trust tweeted that the woman bringing the claim was a “shitheel” who “should be spat on at every opportunity”, adding: “I hope she falls into a well”. 

This is a disturbing lack of empathy displayed by self-styled feminists towards a woman who has been a victim of rape and wishes to recover in a female-only environment, as she is legally entitled to. For all their talk of compassion, it seems there’s none left over for someone who has already suffered the worst boundary violation it’s possible to suffer. By default, the needs of trans-identifying males trump those of women: you might have believed compromise was possible, or that a little private space was not too much to ask, but it hurts them deeply if you have anything of your own that is not theirs. They need it, you see, so you will have to hand it over. Be kind!

This whole unpleasant saga only makes sense, I would argue, if we understand it as an extreme form of male entitlement, propelled by a belief system which holds that the desire to be seen as the opposite sex should be elevated above all other considerations. In order not to burst their bubble, no consequence to third parties not retraumatising rape survivors, nor sexually neutering children is too high a price to pay. This is a movement willing to let male entitlement bulldoze everything and everyone in its path.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover