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Artillery Row

Women’s refuges should be exactly that

Biological males do not have a right to them

On the 4th November 2022 it was reported that male sex offender Katie Dolatowski had stayed for 71 days at a refuge run by Leeds Women’s Aid. Dolatowski was housed in a space reserved for victims who identify as transgender, which has a shared garden with the refuge space reserved for women and children who have fled male violence. 

One woman, a survivor of sexual violence with three children, reported her distress at discovering they had been living next to a registered paedophile, and explained how she witnessed Dolatowski hanging around the pram area. Given Dolatowski’s offending history and an order by the court banning him from having any contact with children, the whole situation is more than chilling and it should serve as a wake-up call to all providers in the sector who operate mixed sex spaces. 

But will it? 

This is not about one organisation that made a mistake, it is about the structural policy frameworks that substitute gender identity for sex, and the only losers are women and children. 

Nobody working in the male violence against women sector can claim ignorance, or the fact they weren’t warned, about the potential for this happening, because it isn’t the first time. Dolatowski himself was previously placed in a woman’s hostel in Scotland

Unsurprisingly sex offenders have taken full advantage of the loopholes afforded to them by legislation and policies that enable them to identify as women to access female only spaces. We know from the stories of women and children already harmed by these policies – the only safe response is to keep men out of women’s spaces, altogether. 

My professional career started on the national 24/7 domestic abuse helpline, I know how many women are not able to get into refuge in the first place, and having subsequently worked in and managed refuges, when women and their children do get to a space of safety, it is an incredibly traumatising time. My fear is that the response from my sector to this incident will be to obfuscate around the use of risk assessments and DBS checks, or justify their solutions by suggesting that women are just as violent, abusive and sexually predatory as men, which is simply not the truth

Organisations should not be creating barriers for women just because they aren’t willing to admit that their policies have the potential to enable predatory men to share their spaces with them. 

Professor of Criminology Jo Phoenix explains:

Any system that relies on checking through paperwork like DBS checks or assessing the risk will fail at some point. People can evade or avoid DBS checks if only because they rely on someone *already* having a conviction … And as for risk assessments? Please! There has been no risk assessment tool devised to assess the riskiness to women of males who identify as women. Within criminology we know that risk assessment tools are flawed in the extreme for theoretical and methodological reasons.

Let’s be very clear, local authority commissioners hold a lot of power in these enforced mixed sex policies, which are either ideologically driven or aimed at providing services on the cheap. Nonetheless organisations contracted to operate services for victims and survivors have a responsibility, too, and single sex policies must be a blanket promise — no ifs, buts or maybes. 

As I recommended in my thesis, services offering any mixed sex spaces should say so publicly, and it’s just as important for single sex providers to do the same. Victims and survivors deserve the utmost transparency. Unfortunately, the combination of powerful commissioning frameworks and a gullible and passive women’s movement has left victims and survivors with disastrous consequences. 

Providers should no longer be able to hide behind statements that profess they provide women only spaces, with policies in the background that state “transwomen are women”, because that is a gaslighting lie to victims. It is a policy that states men are women if they say so, and if women question or express their trauma at having to share their space with a man, they will be either “educated” to agree with the lie or refused a service. 

Our promise is to keep those women safe and offer them sanctuary

The first-time women were harmed by these policies should have been the pivotal moment for my movement. Are we to start trotting out the mantras we detest the most after serious incidents, that “lessons will be learned”? How many lessons do we need? How many women need to be harmed? 

The solution is simple: the Equality Act 2010 single sex exceptions mean we don’t need to concern ourselves with long, convoluted risk assessments. Lawmakers designed it that way, so we didn’t have to jump through hoops to prevent men from accessing spaces reserved for traumatised women. Single sex spaces are a safeguarding measure, their purpose being to keep all men out, regardless of their gender identity — not because they are all sex offenders, but because safeguarding is about reducing risk factors.

That doesn’t mean that organisations can’t and shouldn’t provide spaces to men, however they identify, and I have long advocated for third space specialist options for the trans community. 

But services and spaces for women should be separated from any provision that includes men. There are so many reasons why women only spaces are important and thankfully, my friend and colleague Karen Ingala Smith’s upcoming book catalogues the reasons why Defending Women’s Spaces is an essential requirement. 

I can only imagine how women outside our movement are feeling right now. Watching us tie ourselves up in knots, and sticking foxes in hen houses, when we should just be getting on with the job. There is so much to do, so many women are dying, so many women are not afforded basic rights because of their immigration status – and we are spending inordinate amounts of time talking about this issue – when legislation and decades of research affords us the opportunity to keep women’s spaces single sex. 

The decision to leave a violent partner is an incredibly risky and traumatising time for women. Our job and our promise to those women is to keep them safe and offer them sanctuary. The point at which policies enable sex offenders to access those spaces means we have failed in our basic safeguarding duties and our trauma informed models. That evidence alone should be more than enough to give us confidence that single sex policies are proportionate and legitimate. 

It is time for some politicians, providers and commissioners to admit they were wrong and face up to the obvious: predatory men will always circumnavigate systems to get to their victims. The response should be swift and simple — keep single sex spaces limited to the biological sex of the user. 

Anything less means they are more interested in proving their ideological policy positions are right, than they are about protecting women and children. 

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