1. Introduction

1. Introduction

Chapter Contents

‘Feminazi’, ‘TERF’, ‘Bitch’, ‘Witch’. Times change. Woman-hate is eternal’. JK Rowling – 06/06/2020

This thesis examines the unfolding discourse surrounding the UK government’s proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act (2004), and the evolving landscape of transgender inclusive policies in organisations. By critically assessing tensions between some transgender rights campaigners and grassroots feminists, I aim to understand whether gender reform, either in legislation or policy, has impacts on or consequences for the male violence against women (MVAW) sector. Voices expressing opposition to gender reform in law and policy have remained unheard, ignored and suppressed by larger institutions and umbrella bodies; alongside this, feminist theories and positions have been pitted against each other, with clashes occurring between the positions of second, third and fourth waves of feminist activism. As such, it is vitally important to research this topic and to raise much needed questions and discussions in a less toxic and more rational framework. The safety of academic enquiry enables people on opposing sides to have honest, robust discussions, without fear of shaming or silencing tactics being mobilised against them. This research provides an original contribution to a polarised and sensitive topic, which thus far has not been situated within the framework of the MVAW sector. I therefore aim to illuminate a plethora of unanswered research questions, namely: who has felt silenced during discussions around gender reform and policy change? What is the potential impact on single sex services for females who have experienced male violence? What are the views of those in support of gender reform about transwomen accessing single sex services for victims of male violence and is there any solution or middle ground for service provision in the MVAW sector?

Reflexive Preamble

“Systems of power are capable of reorganizing themselves, and the fact that things look different does not mean the hierarchy has changed. It’s the hierarchy we have to look at, not the fact that some social patterns of behavior are different. We have to look at who is on top and who is on the bottom, and then, if we have heart enough to do it, we have to look at what he is doing to her when he is on top and she is on the bottom.” (Andrea Dworkin, 1997)

My position, although contested, is based on the notion that sex is defined in purely biological terms and does not include gender or gender identity (Price, 2020, p. 1512). This thesis is not an attack against the rights of an oppressed minority of transgender people; as with all human rights, I wholeheartedly support the campaigns that end discrimination and harm to anyone who is subjected to them. My thesis is a critique of transgender ideology, which at its core erases the sex-based rights of women and girls. I see the two issues quite separately; and the ideological stances of transgenderism directly impact on my work in the MVAW sector. The threat of male predators accessing women’s spaces and boundaries is a threat we consistently deal with in the MVAW sector – it is why refuges are kept secret; if male predators can access these spaces by self-declaring as women, the risk is too great to deny a debate. Aside from safety, I believe women have the right to organise and meet separately to men as a sex class, and women’s right to heal from trauma in a space that is based on their sex, is imperative. Like many feminist women, I do not believe that supporting the campaign to end harms and discrimination against an oppressed minority equates to trans-identified males having access to the spaces that women and girls need when escaping male violence (Bindel, 2021).

A note about language
This thesis is not about women who transition to identify as men. My focus is solely on the MVAW sector and therefore is about men who transition to identify as women, and for the purposes of this research I will be referring to them as transwomen. My preferred language, which is politically and personally important to me, is trans identified males, but I recognise the need for ease for the reader, and transwoman is the most common language used to refer to trans identified males. I also hope to foster conversation with those who disagree with me and am prepared to use the terminology transwoman in order to ensure people can access this research without being put off or offended by language. I am aware that some prefer the prefix ‘trans’ to be separated prior to ‘woman’, to reaffirm their view that trans is an adjective describing a woman, e.g. ‘Irish woman’, ‘Black woman’, ‘Trans woman’, but to concede this point would be to agree that transwomen are women and I will not succumb to this level of language orthodoxy.

In turn, I will never refer to a man convicted of male violence as either ‘she’ or ‘transwoman’. It is not a compromise I will make because, in my view, it offers no justice and dignity to the women who experienced abuse at his hands. Female victims are, and will always remain, my central priority in my professional and personal life and thus throughout this research.

This chapter describes the history of the MVAW movement and provides a picture of the current statistical data relating to both women and transgender victims. I then move onto a brief analysis of the rights enshrined within the UK’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA) (2004), and the proposed legislative changes. Next, I set out the potential impact on female-only spaces and the clash between the progression of transgender ideology on the MVAW movement. By situating the notion of cancel culture in this debate and deconstructing what it is to be offended and silenced (Bindel, 2020c; Price, 2020, p. 1558-1562), I lead on to the foundation of the crux of the research in regard to the silencing of feminist discourse on this topic, and its consequences for the MVAW sector. Finally, I describe the theoretical framework, terms, scope, and design of the research, the ethical considerations undertaken, and conclude with a layout of the thesis, within which I describe the overarching themes.

The Campaign to End Male Violence Against Women

The campaign to end MVAW is widely attributed to the grassroots feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, named the second wave: “making violence against women socially unacceptable is one of the movement’s greatest successes, internationally as well as in Britain” (“Women’s liberation: a national movement”, 2014). Prior to the 1970s, the issue of ‘violence against wives’ came to public fora twice, once in the nineteenth century and again at the start of the twentieth century, but the explosion of services was created by second wave feminists (Dobash & Dobash, 1983, p. 3). Through women-only consciousness raising groups, feminists discussed what it meant to be a woman, what they were doing with their lives, and why, with the intention to politicise the personal rather than personalise the political (Hanisch, 1969). In 1971, a women’s liberation group formed in Chiswick, called Women’s Aid, which aimed to utilise the work of consciousness raising groups to offer active help to women in need (Charlton, 1972). After campaigning for access to free school milk, the group were offered a house at peppercorn rent by the local authority, where they talked through the issues they were facing (Charlton, 1972). The women shared experiences of violence from men and began to provide support, offering refuge away from the male violence that permeated their existence (Dobash & Dobash, 1983, p. 2). Other women set up similar groups around the country and in 1974 the National Women’s Aid Federation was founded, bringing together nearly forty independent refuges across the UK (“History – Women’s Aid”, 2020). These groups were run by women for women, often without state funding or support, and they exist as a result of direct feminist action (Dobash & Dobash 1983, pp. 3, 228; Hague & Sardinha, 2010, p. 511; Marwood, 2015). The same model was mirrored in the sexual violence sector, and the first Rape Crisis centre opened in 1973 (“Timeline of the Women’s Liberation Movement”, 2014). Rape Crisis England and Wales continues to proudly declare their feminist legacy, highlighting an essential need for women-only spaces as most statutory services are ‘gender-neutral’ (“Why women & girls? | Rape Crisis England & Wales”, 2020).

Refuges exist worldwide because of the British Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM), which provided the catalyst for action across the globe, feminists worked tirelessly against a backdrop of resistant, indifferent and hostile local and central government departments who, in a “nexus of traditional tolerance” (Dobash & Dobash, 1992, p. 1) and indifference to victims, refused to take the issue seriously (Dobash & Dobash, 1983, pp. 3, 227; Hague & Sardinha, 2010, p. 511). Due to MVAW being a new political issue, with no funding attached to preventing it, it took between one to three years to open a refuge. Many feminist groups squatted in empty houses to highlight the need for women to have a safe space to flee violent men (Dobash & Dobash, 1983, p. 228). In so doing, they changed the landscape of accessible services and legislation (“Violence against women”, 2014; “Timeline of the Women’s Liberation Movement”, 2014). While the fight to keep services open continues (Women’s Budget Group, 2019), resources for female victims of MVAW are vastly different today, and the direct link from second wave feminist actions to the landscape of current services is a fact sometimes forgotten by contemporary professionals (Hague & Sardinha, 2010, p. 510).

Statistical analysis for victims
Transgender people make up a small percentage of the UK population; estimates range between 0.5% and 1% (Fairbairn, Gheera, Pyper & Loft, 2020, p. 8; Williams, 2020, p.17). The statistics relating to transgender victims of intimate partner violence remain insufficiently documented globally, but it is noted that homicides perpetrated against victim’s gender identity are done so in the context of controlling behaviours that reflect heterosexual norms (UNODC, 2018, p. 34). The differing types of abuse meted out against transgender people is beginning to be reported: national UK LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop reported hate crime against transgender victims has significantly increased over the last few years, and 7% of respondents reported they had experienced sexual assault (Bradley, 2020, p. 8). Participants disclosed endemic levels of transphobic abuse against them online, with the main perpetrators reported as ‘anti-trans hate groups’ (Bradley, 2020, p. 12). In relation to domestic abuse, Galop do note that transgender domestic abuse survivors are more likely to access LGBT+ specialist services over generic provision, as they may fear anti-trans prejudice or being turned away because of their gender history (Magić & Kelley, 2019, p.8). Stonewall reports that one in five trans people experienced domestic abuse in 2018 , (Bachmann & Gooch, 2018, p. 9), and further research posits the differing means by which perpetrators seek to control transgender victims, including “deliberately using the wrong pronouns” or “preventing them from medically transitioning” (SafeLives, 2018 p. 32). It should be noted that hate crime is not the same as intimate partner violence and the lack of statistics, and valuable data on transgender victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence, including the demographics of the perpetrators abusing them, needs to be explored in much more detail, but although the research is scant, the call for specialist provision for transgender victims is consistent throughout (Field & Rowlands, 2020, p. 9; Magić & Kelley, 2019. pp. 26, 39, 50-52, 54; SafeLives, 2018, p. 13).

In the UK between April 2009 and March 2018, 1,425 women and girls between the ages of 14 to 100 years were murdered by men (Long et al., 2020). Globally 137 women are killed by an intimate partner or family member every day and women bear the greatest burden statistically at 82% of intimate partner homicide compared to men worldwide (UNODC, 2018, p. 13). In addition, 95% of perpetrators of intentional homicide are male (Walby et al., 2017, p.18). Sexual violence follows this trend: 88% of rape victims and 80% of victims of other sexual offences are female; 99% of offenders are male (Office of National Statistics, 2018, pp. 12, 21). Similar, to research relating to specialist support for transgender victims, women report their desire for women-only spaces and professionals. No matter the presenting problem, 87% of women show a same sex preference for therapists, increasing to 94% of women preferring a female therapist if the presenting issue was a sex-specific problem (Landes, Burton, King & Sullivan, 2013). Women who experience male violence state single sex refuge spaces are essential for their recovery and mixed sex spaces are not perceived as safe options (Women and Girls in Scotland, 2019, pp. 8 -12; FOVAS, 2018). Women report sharing a space with men impinges on their ability to speak confidently, with some saying they would simply self-exclude from mixed sex spaces, potentially risking their lives in an MVAW context (FOVAS, 2018; Women and Girls in Scotland, 2019, p. 12; Corry, 2018, p. 5-6; Women’s National Commission, 2009, p. 50). Despite this clear desire for female-only spaces, the rise of anti-feminist Men’s Rights activists in the 1970s saw campaigning for the disestablishment of domestic violence services and polices that protect women, on the basis that this is discriminatory against male victims and provides women with an unfair social advantage. This rhetoric continues today with The National Coalition of Men forcing women’s shelters to accommodate men too (“National Coalition for Men Successes”, 2019). Although a breakdown of this issue is outside of the research focus and limited word count, it is worth noting that men have consistently tried to encroach on women’s safe spaces through heteronormative ideology, but transgender ideology in this context is unrecognised and thus far unchallenged. 

In recent years, there has been a looming threat to specialist single sex MVAW provision under the guise of transgender ideology, arising from the UK government’s (2016) Transgender Equality report (House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, 2016), which launched proposals to change the legislative framework of the Gender Recognition Act (2004). The consequence is a conflict between the concept of ‘gender self-identification’ and the reality of the need for female-only spaces based on sex, which has played out in an intensive and hostile debate in public and online discourse. The targeted campaigns of transgender ideologists proclaim that men’s self-declared status as women validates their access to female spaces, including those that are held for victims of male violence (Afoko, 2018; Starling & Cowen, 2020; Stonewall & NfpSynergy, 2018), given the already financially fragile refuge provision in the UK for women (Women’s Budget Group, 2019), it is noteworthy that access to women’s safe spaces in an MVAW context are being demanded by lobbyists, prior to any robust data being acquired on the size and context of the issue for transwomen as victims. But self-declaration is the goal of lobbyists and the legislative framework through which gender status is sought is met through the Gender Recognition Act (2004).

The Gender Recognition Act 2004

The UK’s Gender Recognition Act (GRA) is an exemplary and progressive piece of legislation (House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, 2016, p. 79; Jeffreys, 2008, p. 328). It states:

The purpose of the Gender Recognition Act is to provide transsexual people with legal recognition in their acquired gender. Legal recognition will follow from the issue of a full gender recognition certificate (GRC) by a Gender Recognition Panel. Before issuing a certificate, the Panel must be satisfied that the applicant:

  • has, or has had, gender dysphoria,
  • has lived in the acquired gender throughout the preceding two years, and
  • intends to continue to live in the acquired gender until death.

Where applicants have been recognised under the law of another country or territory as having changed gender, the Panel need only be satisfied that the country or territory in question has been approved by the Secretary of State. (Gender Recognition Act, 2004, [explanatory notes p.1]).

Once applicants are awarded a GRC they can change their birth certificate in legal acknowledgement of his/her acquired gender status (Gender Recognition Act, 2004 chapter 7). The panel assessing the application is made up of medical and legal experts (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 331; The Minister for Women and Equalities, 2018, p. 8; “Women’s Rights and the Proposed Changes to the Gender Recognition Act”, 2017; Woman’s Place UK Guidance on GRA Consultation, 2018a).

Language matters greatly when talking about discrimination, and it is important that the word ‘gender’ was used in the GRA (2004). As will be discussed in greater detail in chapter three, the words ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ do not mean the same thing; for radical feminists they are often used interchangeably and incorrectly (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 333). For transgender ideologists, this conflation is necessary; the terms gender and sex merge and this provides a catalyst for addressing the gender dissonance trans people experience (Serano, 2016, pp. 27, 29). The terminology ‘gender’ in the GRA legislation suggests a person cannot change biological sex, while legally accepting the lifestyle choices of performative gender stereotypes (HM Courts and Tribunals, 2019). A clearer distinction of these terms could have been achieved if the government at the time had invited women or feminist groups to have an input (Jeffrey’s 2008, p. 328). However, due to the lack of transparent consultation, the current GRA term’s ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mire the Act in profound confusion (Jeffreys, 2008, p. 333), which, in turn, creates a type of legal fiction. The government incumbent in 2004 may not have predicted the clashes that would occur in future years regarding GRA legislation and women’s sex-based rights, but the proposed changes brought these issues to the fore.

Proposed Changes to the GRA

Changes to the existing UK GRA legislation, advanced by transgender lobbyists, focus on moving away from the medicalisation of gender status towards a system of self-declaration or ‘self-ID’; arguing for a process where gender status is based on individual determination. It is stated that the current process is ‘outdated’, ‘stressful’ and ‘dehumanising’ (Stonewall, 2017). Thus, the governments of England and Wales, and of Scotland, set out separate consultations in 2018 on easing the process of gender recognition (Scottish Government, 2018; Women and Equalities Committee, 2018). These proposals were claimed to be straightforward by the transgender lobbyists who initiated them and the governments that proposed them (House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, 2016; Stonewall, 2017), but this was arguably due to the lack of broader consultation with women’s groups and the wider public.

From 2017, activist feminist groups began expressing concern and opposition to gender reform and were quickly faced with hostility and resistance, including physical violence in attempts to silence them (“Our history • Fair Play for Women”, 2017; Woman’s Place UK, 2017). Feminists aimed to highlight the threat to the single sex spaces enshrined in the Equality Act 2010, which will be discussed in detail in chapter two, and were labelled ‘transphobic bigots’ in a growing environment of smear campaigns and threats (Kirkup, 2018a; Kirkup, 2018b; Kirkup, 2018c).

Potential Impact on Female-Only Spaces

Sexual violence and harassment of women date back to time immemorial with rape against women even being recorded in ancient scriptures (Burlette Carter, 2018, p. 251). For women’s safety and privacy, single sex spaces also date back as far as written history takes us (Burlette Carter, 2018, p. 288). However, proponents of self-determined gender, in policy and law, claim other countries have accepted the change with no apparent problems (O’Hagan, 2018; Unison Equality 2020).

Since the GRA was introduced in 2004, the definition of who the act applies to has become significantly broader, if not entirely amorphous. The Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES) estimates only 20% of the trans population will seek surgery, so we can assume around 80% of transwomen retain their male body (Reed, 2015; Women and Girls in Scotland, 2019, p.6). Under the more recently developed ‘trans umbrella’ (see Figure 1), a trans person self-determines their status as the opposite sex and that is final.

Figure 1 Transgender Umbrella, Transgender Trend, 2016

Self-ID creates serious risks of male sexual predators abusing the system, evidenced below and in chapter three (Trans Crime UK, 2019), but beyond this, women’s ability to self-organise and retain their own spaces is a long-held historical right (Burlette Carter, 2018). Under the ‘umbrella’ of definitions shown in Figure 1, any man could demand access to women’s services by claiming ‘womanhood’. Some refuges and therapeutic groups already practice trans inclusion in the UK (Scottish Women’s Aid, 2017; Welsh Women’s Aid, 2018; Women’s Aid England, 2018), however, it is not clear what the inclusion criteria of transgender women is for those services or whether there is any ‘policing’ of the situation; for example, some may operate on fully self-declared transgender status and others may have criteria that only includes transgender women with a GRC.

Looking to other countries provides a view of the United Kingdom’s future if the rapid trajectory of transgender-inclusive policies continues (Taylor, Lewis & Haider-Markel, 2018; Williams, 2020, pp. 64,75). In 2012, Ontario became the first province in Canada to agree Bill 33 or the Gender Identity Bill in its human rights legislation (Sikkema, 2017). Feminist activist groups questioned whether the Bill would threaten female-only MVAW spaces, raising concerns the legislation may be used by sexual predators who would access these spaces to offend (Moreau, 2017), with no effect. In 2014, two years after the bill was enshrined, Christopher Hambrook, a convicted sex offender, self-identified as a woman and accessed two separate shelters in Montreal and Toronto, where he perpetrated, and was subsequently convicted of, sexual violence against several women (Balinksi, 2014; Shaw, 2019). In 2018, a female victim of sexual violence in Ontario filed a human rights complaint after the shelter she fled to forced her to share a room with a man who identified as a woman (Brean, 2018). When filing the complaint with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, she was accused of discrimination and bigotry for describing her roommate (a male with a beard) as a man and not a woman (Brean, 2018). Some states in America have also adopted self-ID policies, and the predictions of feminist women came true again, when nine women filed a lawsuit suing a women’s homeless shelter in California that required them to share an open shower facility with a male who identified as transgender (Hoggard, 2018). The female residents reported he made lewd and sexually inappropriate comments, leered at them whilst they were naked and showed them sexually explicit videos of himself (Appleton, 2018; Hoggard, 2018; McGee V Poverello House: Case 1:18-cv-00768-NONE-SAB, 2019 p. 2). The women’s testimonies stated they were chastised when they brought the issue to staff and were told they had to respect the alleged perpetrator’s “right to identify as female” (Appleton, 2018). The case held in favour of the women, in part, with an interesting discussion in the sentencing regarding the shelter’s definition of ‘female’ including the reference to the offending male’s penis as “female genitalia” (McGee V Poverello House: Case 1:18-cv-00768-NONE-SAB, 2019 p. 9).

The UK already evidences policy creep towards self-ID ahead of any legal reforms (Bindel, 2019a; Williams, 2020, p. 40), and like other countries, has not been incident-free regarding predators accessing female spaces (Trans Crime UK, 2019). One reported case occurred in London (Bindel, Manning & Powell, 2019), where although refuge staff were fully aware of Mark Addis’ convictions relating to domestic abuse against his previous female partner, they gave him access to the refuge, because he identified as a woman (Bindel, Manning & Powell, 2019). A staff whistle-blower reported Addis had repeatedly caused alarm and distress to the female residents (Bindel, Manning & Powell, 2019). In Scotland, convicted male sex offender, Katie Dalowotski, was housed in a female-only hostel after his conviction, despite being subject to a risk assessment via a Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangement (MAPPA) (Peebles, 2019; Trans Crime UK, 2019). The website Trans Crime UK catalogues many more examples of females being sexually violated by men who identify as women (Trans Crime UK, 2019). One could argue that in order to ensure that women are kept safe, these services only need to use the legislation that affords them the opportunity to provide single sex spaces and female staff under the Equality Act 2010 (Equality Act, 2020, pp. 150, 170-171). However, this may not be possible following proposed GRA reforms, as will be discussed in chapter two.

In Canada, the case of Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon, 2005 BCCA 601, 2005, a human rights complaint filed by Kimberley Nixon, a transgender woman whose application to volunteer was rejected by Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) on the basis that Nixon was born male and socialised as male (“Chronology of Events in Kimberly Nixon vs Vancouver Rape Relief Society”, 2009). VRR’s reasoning rested on the reality that Nixon did not have the lived experience of women born as girls (“Chronology of Events in Kimberly Nixon vs Vancouver Rape Relief Society”, 2009). The Human Rights tribunal in 2002 held in Nixon’s favour and awarded damages, but VRR appealed the decision and at Judicial Review in 2003 it was upheld; the Supreme Court stated that VRR does have the right to organise and associate as women-only (“Chronology of Events in Kimberly Nixon vs Vancouver Rape Relief Society”, 2009). Nixon appealed again, and in 2005 the British Colombia Court of Appeal unanimously agreed that VRR had the right to train women who had only ever been female (Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon, 2005 BCCA 601, 2005, p.29 [59]). It took over a decade of court cases for VRR to assert their right to provide female-only MVAW spaces and services, but this was not the end of their fight. Over two decades later VRR are still battling to keep their services female-only, having been the recipient of repeated harassment from trans activists, including: attempts to obstruct fundraisers (The Homomilitia, 2012), the nailing of a dead rat to their door, and having their property graffitied and vandalised with the common misogynistic slur “Kill TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists)” (Little, 2019). But, in spite of the courts upholding the right of VRR to apply single sex spaces (Vancouver Rape Relief Society v. Nixon, 2005, BCCA 601, 2005 p.29 [59]), perhaps the most sinister obstruction was the city of Vancouver’s decision to cut all funding to VRR for refusing to accept transwomen (Bindel, 2019a). Canada’s oldest rape crisis centre no longer receives any funding from the city it serves, as city officials state their single sex provision is in opposition to the city’s policy on trans equality and inclusion (Little, 2019). Vancouver City concede their policy is in direct contradiction to the British Colombia Human Rights Code and Canada’s equality legislation (Vancouver City Council, 2020, 6:11:52 – 6:17:45), and the city council’s policy also removes the protected characteristic of sex and replaces it with gender; but undeterred by the potential illegality of their policy, the councillors unanimously voted to remove VRR’s funding, stating they will only fund trans-inclusive services (Allison, 2020; Vancouver City Council, 2020 6:11:52 – 6:17:45). This presents a clear example to MVAW services in the UK who want to retain or speak up in defence of single sex space; despite legislation protecting female-only spaces, policy and funding changes occur in direct contradiction of the law, putting female lives at risk (Bindel, 2019a). If organisations do not toe the line on trans inclusion, they will no longer be funded (Allison, 2020; Women and Girls Scotland, 2019, p. 12; Vancouver City Council, 2020, 6:11:52 – 6:17:45). The VRR case also serves as a sinister example of the transgender ideologists’ ability to limit the parameters of debate by suppressing free speech and defunding feminist service provision (Kirkup, 2019d; Williams, 2020, p. 65). The UK’s transgender lobby group, Stonewall, claim there is no debate to be had: everyone must submit to self-declaration of gender – “acceptance without exception” – or they are transphobic (Hunt, 2018).

Silencing of Feminist Discourse and the Consequences for the MVAW Sector

“Nobody has the right not to be offended.” Salman Rushdie, 2012

Chapter three provides greater detail regarding the silencing of feminist discourse, but it is useful to summarise the current landscape. The advent of ‘cancel culture’ was keenly observed in this debate, with opposing viewpoints on its use against people (mainly women) who question the validity of claims made in the advancement of transgender ideology. Feminists who oppose the notions of self-ID roundly argue that ‘cancel culture’ is just another form of silencing women (Bindel, 2020c; Price, 2020, p. 1558 – 1562). Conversely, people who oppose the former position state that ‘cancel culture’ does not stifle debate and feminists who are claiming subjection to it are paradoxically the ones with the biggest platforms, gaining the most media attention (Hines, 2019, pp. 153, 155). For many ‘cancel culture’ is merely a tool to ensure offensive statements are not made against a minority group, moreover, accountability is core to the idea that the ‘cancelled’ can re-enter society if they “do better” (Bragg, 2020; Young, 2020). In deconstructing the notion of what makes something offensive in this debate, in its simplest form transgender ideologists within social and public media platforms purport it is offensive not to agree that transwomen are women in every sense, and that doing so poses no threat to women (Price, 2020 p.1558–1562; Solnit, 2020; Stonewall, 2017). On the opposing side many feminist women find it offensive to expand the boundaries, spaces and language reserved for natal women, with the platform Twitter frequently banning these women for stating that males are not women (Dalgety, 2020; Price, 2020, p.1558 – 1562).

One clear example of transgender activists’ campaigning to silence women is found in Maya Forstater (2019), a tax expert working for the think tank, Centre for Global Development, who was fired for tweeting her objection to the proposed changes to the GRA (2004). One of her tweets stated “men cannot change their biological sex” (Drake, 2019) and Forstater lost her case at an employment tribunal with the judge claiming that her view of sex was “not worthy of respect in a democratic society” (Forstater V CGD Judgement, 2019, p. 24 [84]). The Forstater case is a perfect example of why so many women are frightened to speak out; the threat of losing one’s job is not a fallacy. Of particular interest to this research, the judge in the Forstater case concedes women are entitled to single sex exemptions under the Equality Act (2010), including spaces reserved for women who have experienced male violence (Forstater V CGD Judgement, 2019, p. 23 [79,80]). Yet, if the precedent of his case law endures, he has simultaneously made it impossible for women to name the male sex they wish to exclude from their spaces.

For the UK’s MVAW sector, the current position remains relatively unclear. The only research claiming to speak for the sector does not come from within the movement, but from the trans lobby charity Stonewall (Stonewall & NfpSynergy, 2018), which supports its own position that domestic abuse and sexual violence services should be trans-inclusive. The research ‘Supporting Transwomen in Domestic and Sexual Violence Services’ (2018) was released just prior to the GRA consultation for England and Wales and aimed to address concerns about male sexual predators by asking MVAW sector organisations for their views on supporting transwomen in their services. Fourteen out of the fifteen participants interviewed reported there would be no impact on their services under the GRA reforms, and some participants stated their advice would be to educate female residents on transphobia if they showed an objection to having a transwoman in their space (Stonewall & NfpSynergy, 2018, pp. 8-9). Stonewall concluded the claims from feminists – that gender reform would result in predators accessing single sex services – were baseless (Stonewall & NfpSynergy, 2018, p. 8).  Although an ontological objective position may point to the risk of sexual predators offending in female-only spaces as low, the interpretive and ideological position of fear is high: the fact remains, as has been evidenced, there are clear cases where sexual offenders have accessed female-only MVAW spaces to offend. As female victims are at a heightened state of fear and trauma, with many experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to male violence, the fear of a mixed sex space cannot, and should not, be underestimated (Ingala Smith, 2020c).

Generally, the MVAW movement, a notoriously loud group of women, have stayed deafeningly silent on the transgender debate, perhaps in fear of funding cuts. Like Vancouver city, the Scottish Government changed its funding policy in 2012, and without any consultation, attached a condition that all women’s services be trans-inclusive, or risk not being funded (Women and Girls in Scotland, 2019, p. 16). In the absence and refusal of funded MVAW sector umbrella bodies to oppose trans-inclusive policies and gender reform, grassroots feminist group, Women and Girls Scotland, undertook research in 2019 (Women and Girls Scotland, 2019). A survey of over two thousand women found 80% of participants stated single sex services should be available for female victims (Women and girls Scotland, 2019, p. 12). Scottish Rape Crisis and Women’s Aid Scotland confirm they had done no research to assess whether trans-inclusive policies across all their services are having any impact on women and girls (Women and girls Scotland, 2019, p. 12). Professionals in the MVAW sector reported their frustration with the second-tier federation bodies, the latter of which repeatedly state publicly that there are no issues with trans-inclusive policies (Scottish Women’s Sector, 2018). According to frontline professionals the reality is to the contrary: many were opposed to allowing transwomen into female-only spaces, moreover they felt their concerns had not been heard (Women and Girls Scotland, 2019, p. 15).

Some clarity comes from the Parliamentary Select Committee in 2019 discussing the position of charities working in the domestic abuse sector, and the use of trans-inclusive or single sex exemptions in their services (Women and Equalities Committee, 2019). Two frontline professionals from MVAW services represented their organisations as members of the Women’s Aid Federation for England and Wales: Chief Executive of nia, Karen Ingala Smith, and Diana James, a volunteer from Cornwall Refuge Trust, highlighted opposing sides of the debate. Ingala Smith spoke of how nia prioritises women in their service provision and James, a transwoman, supported the Cornwall Refuge Trust position of trans inclusion in their refuges. The third member of the panel was Head of Membership for Women’s Aid, Janet McDermott. Ingala Smith directly addressed the threat of funding cuts as the reason why MVAW services are silenced, and MP Sarah Champion evidenced the same concerns from women’s services across the country (Women and Equalities Committee TV, 2019, 10:06:05-11:15:15). The panel highlighted the crux of the debate rests on the definition of a ‘woman’. Ingala Smith highlighted the term ‘women-only space’ is meaningless unless a woman is defined as an adult human female (Women and Equalities Committee, 2019, 10:03:48). James questioned what ‘single sex’ means, asserting “sex is clearly much more than biology” (Women and Equalities Committee, 2019, 11:23:01 – 11:24:10). Women’s Aid claimed to be pulled by the two sides, agreeing they had backed themselves into a corner because as a federation the challenge for them was how to define what a woman was (Women and Equalities Committee, 2019, 10:50:34 – 10:51;10). McDermott stated Women’s Aid policy was based on the way patriarchy operates; and she felt the issue too complicated to agree that single sex means basing services on the biology of victims (Women and Equalities Committee, 2019, 11:29:24 – 11:30:59). Ingala Smith pointed out to the panel that the contemporary social mantra that ‘transwomen are women’ is used as a literal truth when it is not (Women and Equalities Committee, 2019, 11:26:37). While Women’s Aid refused to do so, (Women and Equalities Committee TV, 2019, 11:03:56, 11:13:55), Ingala Smith explained her charity explicitly defines a woman as ‘an adult human female’ (Women and Equalities Committee TV, 2019, 11:03:56, 11:13:55).

More recently in Scotland an amendment was requested to The Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) Bill, which sets out what victims can expect after they have been raped (Scottish Government, 2020). The policy was written using the word ‘gender’ instead of ‘sex’ and many female victims of rape contested the wording, asserting their right to request a female examiner (HEAL, 2020). The Labour MSP Johann Lamont lodged amendment 28 at the Scottish parliamentary debate, asking for a six-word amendment: “for the word ‘gender’ substitute ‘sex’” (Lamont, 2020a; Scottish Parliament, 2020, pp. 82-84), and the bill passed (Scottish Parliament, 2020, p. 94). However, Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS) opposed the amendment, one of their stated reasons was a lack of female forensic examiners (HEAL, 2020; Rhodes, 2020), but as Lamont (2020) stated in the debate, the wording of the bill is a different argument (Lamont, 2020b; Scottish Parliament, 2020, p. 84). The reasoning of RCS in opposing the amendment was made clearer when informing a group of rape survivors that they apply gender across all their services “in principle and in practice — in relation to any male who makes a verbal declaration of identifying as a woman, requiring no transition of any kind, whether medical or social” (HEAL, 2020). 

From these two examples, it appears the umbrella bodies in the MVAW sector have either fully embraced transgender ideological stances or are sitting on the fence, unable to fully represent their members or female victims (Rhodes, 2020; Women and Girls Scotland, 2019 p. 12). The threat of funding cuts for MVAW services is a powerful stick to beat feminist women into silence (Women and Equalities Committee TV, 2019, 10:05:52) and as a result, the very nature of MVAW services designed for women by women is under grave threat. Prior to this research, there was no representation of views on the impact of this debate from within the MVAW sector itself.

Terms and Scope of Research

This study utilises a contextual constructionist framework, which will be discussed in detail in chapter four. By framing the research within a radical feminist analysis, I critique the application of queer theory and its clash with services and spaces reserved for female victims of MVAW.

Research Questions:

  • Who has felt silenced during discussions around gender reform and policy change?
  • What is the potential impact on single-sex services for females who have experienced male violence?
  • What are the views of those in support of gender reform about transwomen accessing single sex services for victims of male violence?
  • Is there a solution or middle ground for service provision in the MVAW sector?

Research Aim

The aim was to understand whether the silencing of feminist discourse regarding transgender ideologists proposed gender reform in legislation and policy capture, could or has impacted female only services of male violence.

Research Objectives

The objectives of this research were:

  • To provide a critical analysis of the silencing of feminist discourse on the proposed changes to the GRA 2004 focusing on MVAW sector services and spaces.
  • To explore/investigate the policy capture of transgender ideology, with a focus on the potential impacts on and consequences for female-only services for victims of male violence.

Research Design

The methodology, which will be explored in detail in chapter four, consisted of addressing the research questions via:

  • (Semi- structured Interviews) – Analysing, via interviews, who has felt silenced during discussions around gender reform and policy change? What is the potential impact on single-sex services for females who have experienced male violence? What are the views of those in support of gender reform about transwomen accessing single sex services for victims of male violence?
  • (Online ethnography/ netnography – nonparticipant observation of social media discussions – via Twitter) Analysing, via social media, the discourses around gender reform and the inclusion of transwomen in female-only spaces, from both sides of the debate.

The analysis consisted of Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six phase framework for thematic analysis and processed through NVivo software (Braun & Clark, 2006). The studies from the participant interviews and the online ethnographic research were conducted in tandem and the process of triangulating the data is referenced in the methodology chapter.

Ethical Considerations

Initial submission to the University of Portsmouth Faculty of Humanities and Social Science Ethics Committee resulted in several considerations by the committee (See Appendix A – for journey of ethical approval). These included my positionality as a radical feminist researcher and the need to ensure this was transparent across all participant information sent out. In addition to these, considerations were given to the participants to be interviewed, which resulted in my decision to ensure a fair split from both sides of the debate. Role conflict was also raised in relation to my practitioner experience and I did not include anyone related to the charity I work for. After all guidance was considered, I resubmitted my application and approval was granted.

The rest of the thesis is broken down into the following chapters, which explore and draw together the literature with the voices of participants who took part in the interviews as well as the data gathered through online ethnographic research.

Layout of Thesis

Chapter one – Introduction

Chapter twoThe Legislative and Policy Framework
This chapter reviews the literature regarding the policy and legislative framework relating to transgender rights and women’s rights. Beginning with an exploration of the question: What is a woman? The chapter examines the legislation framework for both the current GRA 2004, the proposed changes and the subsequent impact of policy capture for institutions.

Chapter three Academic Analysis and the Silencing of Feminist Discourse
This provides a conceptual framework underpinning this research relating to radical feminist theory in the MVAW movement and a critique of queer theory. Additionally, the sex and gender debate are positioned, along with the literature on the silencing of feminist discourse.

Chapter fourMethodology
The methodology discusses the ontological approach to the research as a practitioner researcher with a feminist positionality, including a detailed reflexive account. It outlines the epistemological methods of qualitative research used in the data collection, both through semi-structured interviews with 31 participants and online ethnographic data from the social media platform, Twitter. The chapter explores the ethical issues relating to the research including a reflection on the limitations and advantages of the research methods.

Chapter Five – The Debate
The thematic chapters (Five and Six) include a discussion in relation to the literature. The first of the results chapters discusses the topics relating to the overarching debate regarding the proposed changes to the GRA (2004). The overarching themes explore the data regarding: ‘the proposed changes to the GRA (2004)’, ‘why campaign’, and ‘what is a woman’?

Chapter Six – The Impact
Offers a representation of the silencing of feminist discourse and the impact on the MVAW sector, both as a movement and in terms of service provision. The themes discussed in this chapter relate to ‘silencing’, ‘the motivation for the access to single sex spaces’, the ‘male violence against women sector’, then an exploration of the ‘middle ground and third space option’.

Chapter sevenConclusions, and recommendations
The final chapter provides conclusions on where the debate rests and recommendations for both future legislative, policy and commissioning frameworks, and further research. 

The following chapter explores the literature relating to the legislative and policy framework for the research topic.