Survivors Network letter to the EHRC

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In response to the long-awaited Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) guidance on single sex spaces, a rape crisis service, Survivors Network Brighton, published an open letter.

The letter is very damning of the guidance, and of male violence against women organisations who apply single sex exceptions enshrined within the Equality Act 2010 (EA2010). It is made up of 72 signatories from nine frontline organisations and 11 academics, and it defends the position of providing trans inclusive spaces when it comes to services for victims of male violence.

To be clear – trans inclusive means mixed sex. It means after being subjected to male violence when a female victim accesses these organisations, she is expected to use the same accommodation, therapeutic groups and support groups as men, and she will never be guaranteed a female staff member either.

For many reasons, this is wholly inappropriate, the most obvious of which is the trauma women carry because of what men have done to them. Thankfully the EHRC agree with this, as does the law of the land, hence the guidance and the legalities of applying single sex exceptions, so long as they are proportionate and legitimate. 

In this blog I seek to offer a different opinion and position from my colleagues in the male violence against women sector who signed this letter. The strength of feeling from the signatories is prevalent throughout the letter, and I have only picked out a few salient points for analysis.

Firstly, the signatories state the EHCR guidance:

Makes unfounded generalisations about what survivors are likely to think, and encourages services to assume what survivors are likely to feel rather than asking them…

The signatories appear to be relying on the data from a Newcastle study of trans inclusive women’s services, which concludes there are no issues with men in male violence against women and girls (MVAWG) spaces. The research methodology is based on 23 victims from six organisations. Violet Greenwhite analyses those responses really well , she pointed out that no specialist services for black and minority ethnic women were asked and a further 13% (n.3) of those 23 women, objected to men in their spaces.

The research also relies heavily on the narrative of professionals in the sector – the doctoral research, I undertook which asked people from both sides of the gender reform debate their views on single sex spaces for female victims, evidenced a different result:

  • 87% felt it important to provide and retain female-only MVAW spaces.
  • 93% of participants felt that transgender victims should be afforded their own specialist safe spaces to support their needs when they have experienced domestic abuse or sexual violence. 
  • 99% of participants who worked on the frontline in the MVAW sector were fearful to speak out in defence of single sex spaces for women. They expressed feeling silenced in the past or still being silenced due to fears relating to the commissioning landscape and loss of funding for their already cash stripped services

My research became particularly interesting when drilling down the narrative of transgender lobby groups making claims on behalf of MVAWG sector charities.

But different research provides different results, that is the beauty of academic freedom…

Nonetheless when it comes to victim data, 23 is a very small cohort, especially across six organisations. You don’t have to work in the sector to know that demand far outstrips resources, there would be thousands of victims across six organisations, so the data should have been much richer in my view.

The signatories suggest that survivors should be asked what they want, I agree. At Aurora, the survivor focused domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking charity I head up, we do exactly that – we ask victims. From our data of just under 700 service users  (male and female), they all said that women only spaces and staff are vital.

In fact, unlike the signatories of this letter, the very small minority of victims, who did not feel the need to have the application of single sex exceptions in order to access our services, were very clear that those women who did want female only provision should be able to access it on entry to the organisation. We are confident at Aurora – having asked victims themselves – that our application of single sex exceptions is proportionate and legitimate.

The letter goes on:

Women-only spaces are uplifting and empowering. They offer a place for women to come together to create a shared journey of recovery and healing, to lean on each other in times of difficulty, and celebrate together in times of joy.

No arguments there…

But then this:

To suggest that the value in women-only spaces lies solely or primarily in the exclusion of men significantly undervalues the inception, the purpose and the continuation of women-only spaces. Trans women are welcome in these spaces, they add amazing value to these spaces and we need them in these spaces.

I’m sorry what now?

It is the specific exclusion of men that makes a space ‘women only’…the key is in the name. I have said it before and I will say it again – as soon as a man, any man, enters a woman only space, it becomes mixed sex, and therefore it fails in its primary objective of being women only.

Further I am not sure whose ‘inception’, ‘continuation’ or ‘purpose’ they are talking about? Maybe their own? It is definitely not the feminist movements, the very sector they are paid to work in, which was specifically founded and fought for by women for women, all of whom understood that female only spaces are an essential component of service provision. It’s important not re-write that part of our heritage. Especially as we are the ones who are now happily taking a salary because of the women who worked tirelessly and paved the way for us. There were no CEO salaries for our fore sisters, they started this movement voluntarily, and undoubtedly at great financial and personal cost. With many if them being victims themselves, they were the original survivors network, courageously and resolutely building spaces for female victims of male violence.

I’ve broken this down before but obviously fitting into the queer theory narrative; the signatories are claiming that ‘transwomen are women’ and so fitting with their ideology they have decided, and are claiming to female victims, that they provide women only spaces.

They aren’t – we all know that – and so do they, because in their attempt to challenge the EHRC guidance and the legislation in the EA2010 they have laid claim that men are welcome in women only spaces – since inception apparently – but in the same breath they then they talk about transwomen.

Language is important here, what they are saying is that men are essential, welcome contributors in female’s spaces, irrespective of the law that enables them to provide a space only to the female sex. In writing the letter the signatories are legitimising their ideological policies.

If I re-write the paragraph in language that is sex specific it would look like this:

To suggest that the value in women-only spaces lies solely or primarily in the exclusion of men significantly undervalues the inception, the purpose and the continuation of women-only spaces. (Trans women ) Men (who identify as trans) are welcome in these spaces, they add amazing value to these spaces and we need them in these spaces.

At this stage I’d like to reiterate the point I made in my thesis, one that is backed up by legal minds much better than my own. No matter the insistence of an organisations ideology that they are ‘women only’ as soon as they open their services to men who identify as transgender “they cease to be services segregated or exclusive on the basis of sex, and thus lose their exception from the obligations not to discriminate because of sex”[1].

In layman’s terms (and I could be wrong, I am not a lawyer), surely this means any man could expect to enter that service? If one male is allowed in, an organisation cannot deny entry of any other male. This may then lay claim to discrimination for any male victim who wants to use these services and is rejected. It doesn’t matter that one identifies as trans, and one does not. The service is by definition, open to all males.

For more on how this specific position could affect male violence against women organisations I will point you to the recent victory of our sisters north of the boarder, For Women Scotland, and the subsequent analysis of lawyer Gordon Dangerfield – he succinctly states “to be exempt from discriminating against those with a protected characteristic under the Act [EA2010] – in this case, discriminating by excluding the protected characteristic of biological men from your services – you have to show good reasons for what would otherwise be unlawful discrimination against those who belong to that characteristic, and then you have to exclude them all.”

The letter ends with:

Whilst it is very helpful to have guidance to navigate the legal complexities of equalities legislation, please have a balanced range of examples which do not hint at underlying prejudice.

Ok, let’s talk about balance and underlying prejudice…

My work with women over the last few decades has meant I have borne witness to the many reasons why women need a space away from men. In addition, because I have entered this debate and publicly defended women only spaces over the last few years, I have been privileged enough to speak to many more women who have used services across the country. These are women I wouldn’t have previously come across in my work as a practitioner, but like all women I have worked with, they share a universal experience. All these women have been subjected to the most treacherous acts men can think of to destroy them. They categorically state that they want, or needed, a female only space to recover. Some of those women are from the areas these organisations operate in and they feel let down and frozen out from the services they should be able to access.

So, I will ask specifically on their behalf. How will the organisations and the signatories of this letter ensure the balance of underlying prejudices they have against victims who believe that sex is immutable? That trans identified men are still men? By not providing a single sex space can they be certain they are not guilty of indirect discrimination of women and their protected characteristic of sex? Or of their gender critical beliefs?

More recently I ran a focus group with Muslim women (soon to be published), they were clear that for most of them the feminist movement I am part of, the one that is in the thick of activism, was not of interest to them, they certainly didn’t want to enter the debate around single sex spaces. But in order for them to participate in their simple daily life, from their women only swimming classes to their single sex changing rooms or gym sessions they have to be guaranteed those spaces are unequivocally single sex.

Moreover, the women in that focus group were clear with me, as was the interview I did here, without single sex provision women of South Asian heritage are very unlikely to access the rape crisis service or the domestic abuse group in their area if it includes men.

In the spirit of the letter signed by the signatories, I pose another question. By not providing single sex space are these organisations certain they are not discriminating against women of faith and their protected characteristic of religion and belief?

When intersectional feminism morphs into the ideology of queer theory these spaces usually, if not always, include men. The policies inevitably exclude not only women of colour and women of faith, but many other women to. How do the signatories of this letter counterbalance those women’s needs with their organisational polices? How do they know about the women who are self-excluding from their services because of their position? They can’t ask them…(but I intend to…more on that when time permits).

To be clear if trans identified men have been subjected to rape I think they deserve spaces and services too. No doubt in my mind, everyone does. But equality and diversity doesn’t mean treating everyone the same, that is the very antitheses of policies that cater for everyone. Sometimes we must exclude some to achieve the legitimate aim of including the vast majority. For organisations to respond to the diversity of their beneficiaries, we must bend and shape our responses to their different needs.

It is simply my view, and thankfully many other professionals in my sector, that no matter whether both survivors have the same presenting needs as a rape victims, the validation of a man’s trans status should never take precedence over a woman’s trauma.

I appreciate organisations have spent the last few years lobbying for a reduction of the rights of women to their own spaces, and this letter is another contributor to that. The organisations signing this letter clearly have a cohort of trans identified men that need services, and they have the capability to cater for them. So why not do that? Trans inclusive doesn’t have to mean females are never offered their own spaces and services.

We women are complex and different, the needs and the desires for our own spaces may be driven by different factors, but for time immemorial we have needed and created sex specific spaces to commune and heal in.

Currently the UK statistics estimate “25% of women aged 18 to 74 years, around 5.1 million women, had experienced some form of abuse before the age of 16 years.”

Charities are largely publicly funded by the taxpayer. Those 25% of female victims are taxpayers, they are the charity beneficiaries. They are the majority. They should be able to have some say in how charities apply policies in their area.

For those of us that work in this movement, for the signatories of this letter, let me be clear, no matter the ideological position, we all do a hard job. But we also all know that outside of the political posturing, away from the signed letters and the twitter spats, the raw data tells us that it is women who are subjected to the majority of male violence. Those women are also telling us they want spaces away from men to heal. Why would we as charities working at the sharp end of the anti-male violence movement deny women of that basic need in their darkest hour?

Dr Shonagh Dillon

If you like what you have read and you are in a position to donate to women only services you can do so here


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