Single Sex Services on a spectrum…

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(Photo credit Marco Melgrati Online Ethnography, Screenshot July 2020)

If I had a pound for every time I had read a call for clearer guidance on the Equality Act 2010 and the use of single sex exemptions I would be able to fund my own service! I know we are in a mess on this topic within the male violence against women (MVAW) movement. For those of us that believe in the immutable definition of biological sex the active use of single sex exemptions and the provision of services for women who flee male violence is simple, but there are those who see the definition of a woman as moveable and self-defined. This creates an inevitable clash, and that clash begins with the definition of the word ‘sex’.

As I will evidence in this blog there are some services in the MVAW movement that state a woman is self-defined, they also claim their definition still means they are women only, this is the basic tenet of queer theory and for more on this topic you can read my lit review chapters (chapters 2 and 3). Conversely those of us who base our women only provision on the definition of biological sex would argue that the former position, whether labelled gender neutral or trans inclusive, is mixed sex.

To view the opposing positions we can look to various bits of evidence. For example in this section from my thesis, I provide some recent history (Chapter 1, p.31 – 33):

“The Parliamentary Select Committee in 2019 discussed 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 at the time, Janet McDermott. The panel highlighted that 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).”

Now let’s skip forward to 2021 – the MVAW movement as a whole is still relatively silent on the issue of women’s sex based rights in relation to the retention of single sex spaces, but there are further rumblings and the recent written submissions to the Women and Equality Select Committee on gender reform in February 2021, evidence of the polarity within the MVAW movement.  

Out of 837 submissions there are only six (that I can find and I did trawl through all of them but could well have missed one), from organisations that work within the male violence against women movement. There should have been seven because I should have submitted one for the organisation I head up, and I can’t excuse myself other than to say I did submit my own evidence here. At the time I was at the end of completing my thesis so I was a bit busy (and a bit stressed), so I never got round to writing one for Aurora – needless to say it would have been in line with the organisations who advocate the by women for women, single sex approach within the evidence I set out below:

By Women For Women – Single sex spaces

  1. Women’s Aid Federation England:

Pertinent quotes:

“Women-only spaces provide a physically and emotionally safe environment that is vital to survivors’ recovery and empowerment after experiencing domestic and sexual violence and other forms of violence against women and Girls (VAWG).”

“…some member services noted that a lack of understanding from commissioners around the expertise and specialism of women-only services led to unhelpful responses. This included accusations of transphobia, dismissal of concerns around how women-only services meet the complex support needs of traumatised women and children, and commissioners expecting them to commit disproportionate amounts of time and resources (given the low proportion of trans people using their service) on adapting their services to meet the needs of trans women in a context of an ongoing funding crisis.”

Notes on Equality Act 2010 (EA2010)*:

  • Welcomed the government’s commitment to retain Single Sex Exemptions (SSE) in the EA2010 on the launch of the consultation
  • Service providers require much clearer guidance on the EA2010 and the lawful use of SSE.
  • In some cases Equality Act SSE is being undermined by commissioners and funders

My analysis:

I was delighted to see this input from WAFE, especially as a large part of my participant data evidenced participants felt really let down by umbrella bodies in the MVAW movement. I noted their submission in my conclusion:

“Encouragingly, just prior to thesis submission, Women’s Aid Federation for England and Wales submitted written evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee for the ongoing inquiry into gender reform (Women’s Aid Federation, 2021). Their submission is in line with my own findings and supports the retention of female-only MVAW spaces; alongside demanding a need for commissioners to resist placing pressure on MVAW services to be “gender-neutral”, they call for further clarity on the Equality Act 2010 and appear to have firmly reasserted their roots of “for and by” women support for female victims (Women’s Aid Federation, 2021), in light of this they may now reasonably be expected to answer how they define a woman.” (Chapter 7, p. 224).

Moving forward Women’s Aid (in my view) will need to be crystal clear about their definition of sex as biological and immutable.

2. nia

Pertinent Quotes:

“We know that some of our sister organisations are fearful of expressing the view that they think single-sex services for women are important. We are unusual in having a clear policy that sets out our position with regards to applying the exemptions and prioritising the well-being of women and girls subjected to men’s violence. We are frequently requested to share this policy.”

“A trauma-informed safe space creates space for action and recovery from violence and abuse and places the woman victim-survivor in control and in the centre. The trauma response described earlier is the antithesis of a space for action and recovery, so a trauma informed approach is based on understanding the physical, social, and emotional impact of trauma caused by experiencing violence and abuse. For many women this means excluding men from their recovery space, it does not matter whether or not these males identify as transgender, nor does it matter whether they themselves are or have been abusive. Women experiencing trauma after violence and abuse will, like most of us – almost always instantly read someone who might be the most kind and gentle trans identified male in the world – as male; and they may experience a debilitating trauma response as a result. This neither hate, bigotry or transphobia, but a biological impact of abuse. Specialist women led women-only organisations supporting victim-survivors of men’s violence are rarely funded to the extent that we can meet the levels of need that exist.”

Notes on EA2010*:

  • Lack of clarity between the terminology sex and gender in the GRA means that interpretation of the EA2010 is confused.
  • Clearer guidance needed for service providers.

My analysis:

As with everything nia do, this is excellent. During the last four years, they have stood right out front prioritising women and we should all be grateful in the MVAW movement for their bravery. I know at Aurora we are very impressed with their work and we are proud to stand alongside them on this issue and on our collective goal of ending male violence against women.

Interestingly nia make reference to the issue of other organisations not feeling able to speak up in defence of single sex spaces, and this was a significant research finding of mine too, you can read more in Chapter 6 p.207 under commissioning and policy capture.

3. The Pankhurst Trust

Pertinent Quotes:

“Our experience in the sector, provides substantial evidence of the extreme methods some perpetrators are willing to use to access women’s spaces in order to continue to perpetrate their abusive behaviour, posing a very real risk to vulnerable women. We have had staff followed to identify refuge locations, tracker devices placed on phones, we often have to move families overnight across the refuge network to protect then once found. This is not to imply that this behaviour is connected in any way with trans people, but to underline that we believe there is a pressing need for further impact assessment to understand these risks across all sectors, both to assess whether this change would cause disproportionate harm to other protected individuals/groups and to consider what if any mitigation would be required to prevent the risk.”

“It is vital that women’s organisations and services have the legal tools to differentiate between people born male and people born female. To enforce their rights under the Equality Act Organisations offering single-sex services to women need an objective way of being able to exclude all natal born males, including those biological males with paperwork to say they are female: if not, women’s legal rights will be affected.”

Notes on EA2010*:

  • Clearer guidance needed
  • Further research, impact assessments and consultation needed

My analysis:

The Pankhurst Trust have eloquently and very importantly raised the issue of male predators accessing single sex provision under the guise of self-ID. Evidence of these cases is referenced throughout my thesis, as well as being raised as a significant concern from participants (see Chapter 6, p.190).

Before moving on to the ‘other sides’ position it should be noted that in the WAFE and nia submissions both organisations supported the notion of specialist provision, including the by and for model for LGBT+ services and the provision of specialist services for transgender victims. This is in line with my own research findings (Chapter 7, pp. 221 – 222).

Trans Inclusive organisations – Mixed sex provision

4. Rape Crisis Scotland

Pertinent quotes:

“We have 40 years of experience in delivering specialist support for survivors that is often described as lifesaving and have been delivering services on a trans-inclusive basis for over a decade. The very top priority within centres is creating a space that is safe, welcoming and supportive for survivors and are experienced and adept at taking a trauma-informed approach to ensure this. Feedback consistently shows that the specialism and support of Rape Crisis is paramount.”

“There are no Rape Crisis services in Scotland which require sight of someone’s birth certificate prior to accessing their services, so proposed simplification of the process of applying for gender recognition certificates would have no impact on the delivery of Rape Crisis services across Scotland. We believe that anyone who has experienced sexual violence should be able to access support, and that services such as ours have a responsibility to be proactive in ensuring that communities across Scotland, including the trans community, know that they are safely able to access our services.”

Notes on EA2010*:


My analysis:

This submission isn’t a surprise given the issue raised on the Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) Bill, and RCS rejection of the six word amendment in 2020. What I would question is whether all frontline services agree with RCS on their submission, especially in light of the excellent research by Women and Girls Scotland. I have also been lucky enough to catch up with a few Scottish sisters working in the MVAW movement and their views are different to that of their umbrella bodies, speaking of which, an interview with a Scottish sister will follow soon…

5. Suffolk Rape Crisis

Pertinent Quotes:

“Any changes to the GRA would have no impact on how we run our service or who is able to access it as the provision relating to single sex services fall within the Equality Act 2010. We know that trans women are subject to high levels of violence and abuse, including sexual and domestic violence and that there are many barriers that prevent them from accessing specialist support. While we are loudly and proudly trans inclusive, we know that many trans women are reluctant to access services such as ours due to fear of receiving a transphobic response. SRC would be very concerned about any measures that increased the barriers for trans women accessing single-sex services.”

Notes on EA2010*:

“Suffolk Rape Crisis is a feminist organisation and is one of the few remaining completely women only centres in England and Wales. Our service works on the basis of self-identification and within the principles of the Equality Act 2010.”

My Analysis:

The first thing to say is that I am not a lawyer, but Suffolk Rape Crisis have misread the EA2010 in my view (see my research Chapter 2, p.50). They state they are women only but by definition of inclusion of trans identified males, they are not. They also indicate that they “would be very concerned about any measures that increased the barriers for trans women accessing single-sex services” this is particularly confusing, single sex exemptions are exactly that – exemptions that exclude the opposite sex, in this case men (whether they have a GRC or not), from accessing women’s services.

I suspect the argument for this organisation is that they believe ‘trans women are women’, therefore the services they provide are, in their view, ‘women only’ – to me this is a perfect example of single sex services on a spectrum…

The second point I would like to make is about claimsmaking – there is a lot of claimsmaking in Suffolk rape Crisis submission and in the submission below from the Survivors Network, every social movement makes claims, and I am a bit obsessed about contextual constructionism after doing my research. I will write a blog on this topic separately for those that are interested – but in the meantime you can view the sections on claimsmaking in my thesis (see chapter 4 p. 102).

6. Survivors Network

Pertinent Quotes:

“We have been supporting trans women in our women-only services for over 10 years, and we advertise all of our services to self-identified women in order to send a strong message to trans women that they are explicitly welcome.”

Notes on EA2010*:

“We are deeply concerned about the possibility of tightening of access to single-sex spaces and we strongly feel that the use of women only spaces by trans women should be actively encouraged and we would urge reviewing the law around single-sex space exemptions. There is no safe or survivor-centred way to police the anatomy of someone accessing a service or using a bathroom/changing room [emphasis their own]. Any tightening of access to single gender space will impact on gender non-conforming cisgender people, particularly cisgender women, as well as transgender people. Policing gender expression and defining someone’s womanhood by her conformity to state-sponsored specifications is an archaic practice that should not be considered in 2020 and is certainly not a feminist principle or one that will protect vulnerable women.”

My analysis:

Similarly to Suffolk Rape Crisis above, Survivors network state they are women only but then refer to trans women accessing their single sex spaces – which makes them mixed sex. They do refer to “single gender space” in their submission, so there is some indication they understand the difference between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’.

The way I read Survivors network submission, particularly the sentence “we would urge reviewing the law around single-sex space exemptions” is as an objection to the current single sex exemptions laid out in the EA2010, and that exclusion of men who identify as transgender is discriminatory, this was indicated in the Transgender Equality Report, 2016 – see more on this in my thesis (Chapter 2, pp, 56 – 57). They may then support the transgender rights lobbyist’s attempts to remove these exemptions, as detailed here in the excellent blog post by Woman’s Place UK.


So there you have it. Six submissions from the MVAW sector (that number is a blog in itself), and they are entirely split. We have three organisations that are advocating the by and for women model and the protection of single sex spaces. Subsequently we have three organisations advocating mixed sex provision with two of them calling this provision ‘women only’, presumably because for them as advocates of queer theory and transgender ideology – trans women are women.

It is clear that I disagree with the submissions that advocate for mixed sex provision, and I recognise that other professionals, people and organisations will disagree with me. I do not advocate for any direct harassment or targeting of any of the organisations I have presented in this blog post whether we agree or not, it isn’t my style. However, I do think asking legitimate respectful questions of any organisation can be done publicly and I witnessed many feminist women doing exactly this during my online ethnographic data collection for my research. I believe that as charities we are subject to scrutiny and we should be expected to answer difficult questions. As these submissions are public I felt it important to dissect them in their totality, especially in relation to my own research. I also think it is essential to present the discrepancies in the approach within the movement on what single sex provision means. I fundamentally believe that victims and survivors deserve a clear definition of what services are offering, hence the below being one of my five recommendations:

  •  Equality Act 2010 – Single Sex Exemptions (SSE) in the EA2010 to be an ‘opt out’ option for services providing female-only spaces for victims of male violence. Should MVAW services choose to opt out of the SSE, they must be clear that they become ‘mixed sex provision’ and publicly, legally sound, accessibility statements should be given to all victims on what constitutes ‘trans-inclusion’ (Chapter 7, p.227)

There is a clear split in these submissions, maybe this means there is a split in the movement on this issue, I honestly don’t know the answer to that. What I do think is that it is time this topic was acknowledged more publicly from within the MVAW movement and we should be confident to state our positions on this issue, whatever they may be.  Victims and survivors deserve honesty and transparency.

Of course the government and the EHRC need to move forward, and with some urgency, on providing clarity on the guidance of single sex exemptions in the Equality Act 2010, but that does not let the MVAW movement off the hook. If more of women spoke up, especially women in privileged positions of power, maybe we would be able to offer some clarity ourselves. I suspect if victims and survivors turn to this blog they would be entirely justified in feeling exasperated and frustrated with the lack of clarity from the movement, I know I am.

Dr. Shonagh Dillon

*(See my thesis section on EA2010 – chapter 6 p. 204)

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