A girl sits among the candles lighted for domestic violence victims during the traditional commemorative ceremony held to draw attention to domestic violence at North Avenue Beach, in Chicago, United States on 2 October 2017. (Photo by Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Women’s lives are not up for debate

Single sex spaces can be a matter of life or death for female victims

Artillery Row

Having worked in the feminist led anti-male violence movement for nearly three decades, I have a deep understanding of the need for women to heal in a space that is retained only for them. Single sex spaces for female victims ensure that women do not need to be concerned about a male presence; they are spaces that offer safety, but more than that they offer a privacy and dignity where together women can be free to reveal the painful and degradingly traumatic ways in which men have hurt them. 

Single sex spaces for women are either up for debate or they aren’t

Since 2017 the debate regarding proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 has raged in the UK. Services for domestic abuse and rape victims are frequently used as an example of the importance of maintaining single-sex spaces by those seeking to defend them, whilst those in favour of self-identification of sex and of gender reform often insist that opening these spaces to men who identify as women will have no impact on female victims of male violence. 

To be clear when I talk about women and single sex spaces, I am applying the logical and well-known definition of biology, which also happens to be the given definition by the Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance for the use of single sex exceptions within the protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act 2010. For example, “Sex is a protected characteristic and refers to a male or female of any age”.

Some advocates for gender reform declare that if a man says he is a woman, then he is entitled to enter a woman-only space, because “trans women are women”. But that isn’t how the Equality Act works, and the guidance specifically states, “sex does not include gender reassignment”.

I watch arguments go back and forth on twitter in this debate, with male violence against women spaces used as the battle ground for opponents to assert their respective arguments. To be fair, on twitter the positions are somewhat clearer than when some politicians get going on this topic. Let’s take the week commencing 28 March, when we kicked off nice and early on Monday with the leader of the Labour party Sir Keir Starmer being interviewed on LBC by Nick Ferrari

Starmer waxed lyrical about his support for gender reform, whilst in the next breath jumping his leg over to the other side of the rickety fence and attempting to appease those pesky dinosaur women voters, by quickly stating that he defends the retention of single sex spaces for women. He adds for reassurance and good measure his understanding of the need for women to have “safe spaces” by mentioning his extensive CV as a barrister where he worked on cases that dealt with violence against women. 

Fortunately, these days media commentators have wised up to the rickety fence tactic, and they no longer allow politicians the luxury to provide the broken platitudes to women they once enjoyed without challenge. The reprieve Starmer thought he’d bought himself only lasted until the next question when Ferrari went on to ask him if “women can have penises?” What followed from the leader of the opposition, a QC no less, was a cringeworthy, blustering nonspecific response about how the debate shouldn’t be conducted in this way.

The thing about single sex spaces for women is that they are either up for debate or they aren’t. If a politician uses female victims’ experiences and their spaces as a battle ground, as leverage for the female vote, he or she should reasonably be expected to define what a woman is. If in his or her worldview women do indeed have, or have had, a penis, then said politician is not defending single sex spaces enshrined within the Equality Act but is advocating for mixed sex spaces. This is the exact opposite of what female victims want and need after being subjected to male violence.

The majority of male victims prefer a female member of staff

As a professional who has defended this position, I am often asked to justify and provide evidence for why women-only spaces are important for female victims. If you have worked with women who are broken by men and just need a space to breath, you will know how precious these spaces are, but by far the best people to ask are the experts, and that is victims themselves. I recently compiled a report utilising the feedback of just under 700 victims for the charity I work for, Aurora New Dawn

Unsurprisingly the results were concurrent not only with what feminists have been saying for decades, but with what victims have been shouting on social media for the last five years at politicians, and organisations like mine, during the debate around gender reform: 

  • 100 per cent of women using our female only groups wanted them to remain single sex
  • 95 per cent of all female victims prefer a female member of staff

Like a lot of organisations in my movement, we employ females only because we know that the vast majority of our beneficiaries are women, and they want “by and for women” support at point of entry. Unsurprisingly many women said they would have put the phone down if a man answered on first contact through our helpline provision, and others stated they would completely self-select out of our service if they were expected to work with a male member of staff in the long term. 

At Aurora male victims make up a minority of our overall service provision, but their responses are just as important to us. Similarly to women, the majority of male victims prefer a female member of staff, with 64 per cent stating this was important to them. 

Although some victims said they had no preference or were unsure, a great deal within these cohorts said they were still more comfortable with women, and many said they could understand why a lot of victims would prefer to work with women. No victims said they would prefer a male staff member to support them. 

I’ve worked with victims and survivors long enough to know what they want, but it isn’t a surprise for the layperson. The reality is we all already know this; politicians know it, and victims have been saying it over and over for years.

If people in positions of power really mean what they say when they lay claims to finally taking male violence against women and girls seriously, they’d do better to stop hobby horsing the rickety fence and start with the basics: publicly and proudly defend single sex spaces for women — the women without penises.

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