In search of evidence-based policymaking

The UK Parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into reform of the Gender Recognition Act, following the outcome of the government’s 2018 consultation on proposed changes which in turn followed the Select Committee’s 2015 inquiry into trans equality. The committee put out a call for written evidence and have also held, so far, one oral evidence session.

Looking through the written evidence that has been published, I found this submission from my local rape crisis service, Survivors’ Network.

I was already aware that Survivors’ Network, despite its origins as a grassroots feminist organisation, run by and for female survivors of sexual abuse, has in recent years adopted a policy of (to coin a phrase) ‘acceptance without exception’, under which all its women-only services are open to ‘self-identifying women’ and therefore may include male people who identify as women, as service users, staff or volunteers.

Nevertheless, I was still shocked to see an organisation which exists to respond to the devastating effects of (overwhelmingly) male violence now arguing for a review of the law which permits women to exclude male people from some services and spaces, when they have a good reason to do so.

This is a long post, in two parts, in which I try to discover what has caused this about-face.

Part 1: which came first, the policy or the evidence?

In both the evidence submission and this 2019 statement on their website, Survivors’ Network make the claim that “We know, through ground-breaking research, that trans people are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence”.

But when you click through to the research itself, it doesn’t answer (or even ask) any questions about the rates of sexual violence experienced by trans people. The high rates of sexual violence experienced by trans people are taken as adequately evidenced by other studies, and mentioned only in this scene-setting paragraph:

“Trans* individuals are often marginalised and face significant levels of abuse, harassment and violence, including sexual violence (Hill and Willoughby, 2005). More specifically, research in the United States has shown that approximately 50% of trans people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime (Stotzer, 2009), compared with 20% of cisgender individuals (Black et al, 2011). Moreover, the ‘Trans Mental Health Survey’ (McNeil et al, 2012), the largest survey of the trans population in the United Kingdom (UK) to date, shows that between 40 and 60% of trans people know someone in their trans community who has experienced sexual violence.”

Now, I have done a lot of detailed work, which you can read below if you feel like it, to show that this is extremely flimsy evidence for a disproportionate impact of sexual violence on trans people. But I didn’t need to go to such lengths to see that there is something very wrong with this statement.

Just read it through again and think about it. Approximately 50% of trans people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime. This is a distressingly high figure, I agree. Is it out of proportion with the level of sexual violence experienced by women? No.

Between 40 and 60% of trans people know someone in their trans community who has experienced sexual violence. Ask any woman if she knows a woman who has been raped or sexually assaulted. I can guarantee you the rate of positive responses will be a damn sight higher than 60%.

Compared with 20% of cisgender individuals. What? I beg your pardon? Is this piece of research, commissioned by the rape crisis service for Sussex, seriously suggesting that “cisgender individuals” is a meaningful category to use when discussing sexual violence?

Feel free to read to the end of my analysis to find out how they reached that figure of 20%, but before you do, just think about it. Sexual violence is the quintessential expression of patriarchal power. It is what holds up the whole edifice of male domination. It is a constant presence in the background of every woman’s life, from infancy. There is nothing about being “cis” that acts as a protective factor against sexual violence if you are female.

And a so-called feminist organisation is asking us to believe that it makes some kind of sense to measure sexual violence experienced by 99% of male and female people as a combined group? No.

I am, frankly, horrified that Survivors’ Network are prepared to sponsor this profoundly anti-feminist approach.

When I did the work of looking into these sources in more detail, I found that, in addition, the figures presented are far from robust. Always check the original source, kids.

So what does the Survivors’ Network research show?

In fact, the Survivors’ Network research is really about barriers for trans people accessing services. They interviewed 42 trans people who were survivors of sexual violence. These testimonies are valuable, interesting and moving, showing that trans people face a range of specific issues when accessing this kind of support.

Some findings include:

“The vast majority (83%) of respondents reported that they would feel uncomfortable accessing a service that advertises itself simply as ‘for men’ or ‘for women’”

“Over half (56%) of survivors said that it was also important or very important that the staff/volunteers at the service are also trans or non-binary, while 64% said that it would be important or very important that they were not the only trans or non-binary person using the service.”

“While it is important that existing services become more inclusive of trans people, the research also demonstrated a clear need for specialist services for trans survivors of sexual violence. Since their experience of sexual violence and their support needs are often affected by their gender identity, specialist services could offer more supportive and clearly targeted services.”

The study’s conclusion reveals the inherent tension between maintaining the feminist approach which has always underpinned sexual violence services and complying with the new ideology of infinite gender possibility:

“Service providers and policy makers need to continue highlighting the gendered nature of sexual violence (Reed et al, 2010), but they must do so in ways that do not exclude those who do not conform to the male/female gender binary. In particular, while research (Women’s Resource Centre, 2007; Sullivan, 2011) clearly demonstrates the importance of single-gender spaces in the healing process of many survivors, it is difficult to determine which individuals should have access to such spaces, given the variety of gender identities and presentations among survivors, and to what extent such spaces match the needs of an increasingly gender-diverse population (Gottschalk, 2009).”

How does the policy relate to the evidence?

In my view, there is no inherent contradiction between meeting the expressed needs of trans survivors and those of female users of single-sex support services, if providers and funders are willing to put in enough resources to do both.

This research could have been used to support the provision of sensitive specialist services to meet the specific needs of a community that is undoubtedly marginalised and in need of support. Survivors’ Network – in response to the needs identified in this research – currently offers an online support group that is specifically aimed at trans, non-binary and intersex survivors of sexual violence, for example. I’m glad this group exists.

But the much more wide-reaching impact of the policy justified by this research has been to dismantle specialist service provision for another (much larger) community – female survivors of sexual violence.

None of the services offered by Survivors’ Network now meets the needs of women who need – or would simply prefer – support in a female-only environment.

Every ‘women-only’ group or service offered by Survivors’ Network is described as open to ‘self-identifying women’. Moreover, the weekly two-hour helpline is no longer a women-only service. It’s not even a service for self-identified women, but is now for “people of any gender”.

The personal stories gathered in this research mirror those frequently told by women asking for specialist services that respect their specific experience of the trauma arising from sexual violence. Survivors’ Network used to be a place where women who needed female-only space to recover from that trauma could find the support and solidarity they needed. That option is no longer available to them.

In summary, the “groundbreaking” research commissioned and frequently cited by Survivors’ Network:

  • Does not contain any new information about the rate of sexual violence experienced by trans people
  • Presents research carried out into this question by other people in a misleading way to create a predetermined impression
  • Contains evidence which supports specialist service provision but has been used to justify replacing specialist women-only services with services open to both sexes.

Organisations like Survivors’ Network exist because violence against women and girls is endemic in our society. They grew out of the collective determination of women to speak up for each other, to create spaces in which that violence may be reckoned with, understood, grieved over and survived, in whatever way helps each woman to find her own strength. That task is in no way complete. The need for women’s support organisations is all too persistent. Given this, I want to know why services run by and for women are seen as expendable by the trustees, managers and funders of Survivors’ Network.

Male violence damages everyone, in millions of different ways. I am not interested in excluding trans people from services they need. Not at all.

But my investigation has led me to conclude that the rape crisis service for Sussex has made an ideological commitment to meeting the needs of this community at the expense of the equally compelling needs of female survivors. When presented with a conflict between the feminism which birthed the organisation and the gender identity theory which is now dominant in the UK’s statutory and voluntary sectors, they chose to surrender their principles, along with yet another of the small, safe places created by and for women.

Part 2: Showing my workings

Is this evidence that “trans people are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence”?

“Trans* individuals are often marginalised and face significant levels of abuse, harassment and violence, including sexual violence (Hill and Willoughby, 2005). More specifically, research in the United States has shown that approximately 50% of trans people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime (Stotzer, 2009), compared with 20% of cisgender individuals (Black et al, 2011). Moreover, the ‘Trans Mental Health Survey’ (McNeil et al, 2012), the largest survey of the trans population in the United Kingdom (UK) to date, shows that between 40 and 60% of trans people know someone in their trans community who has experienced sexual violence.”

Supporting transgender survivors of sexual
violence: learning from users’ experiences; Sally Rymer and Valentina Cartei, on behalf of Survivors Network; Critical and Radical Social Work • vol 3 • no 1 • 155–64, 2015

Of the four studies referenced here, three use data primarily from North America. Hill and Willoughby’s work was aimed at developing a quantifiable scale and questionnaire to measure prejudice against trans and gender non-conforming people. The authors undertook three small-scale studies in order to test and calibrate their scale, concluding that “Although previous research has shown acceptance of transsexuals, these studies demonstrated that anti-trans views were neither rare nor difficult to elicit. There was a wide range of responses to the GTS scale, but some scores indicated extremely intolerant attitudes toward gender variance.”

The study was not aiming to quantify the level of abuse, harassment and violence experienced by trans people, but to develop a tool future researchers could use to understand the underlying beliefs motivating such behaviour.

Stotzer’s research was a review of other studies into violence experienced by trans people. The author presents data from a range of self-reporting surveys, stating that “the most common finding across surveys and needs assessments is that about 50% of transgendered persons report unwanted sexual activity.”

I am not a professional researcher, and I hope readers with more relevant skills will let me know if this is an unacceptable method, but it seems to me that an alternative way to assess a range of studies like this would be to use the reported percentage from each study to calculate what percentage of all the study participants reported having experienced sexual violence. Applying that method to Stotzer’s figures, I calculated that 42% of participants in the ten studies mentioned had experienced rape or sexual violence.

Of course, whether this figure is 50% or 42%, it is undoubtedly a distressingly high proportion. But is it reasonable, as Survivors’ Network do, to compare this with a figure of 20% for “cisgender individuals”?

Comparing apples with oranges

As noted in Stotzer’s article, there are significant methodological issues relating to the use of this data: “self-report surveys often use samples that are easiest to access and the most visible, such as transgender people accessing drug rehabilitation centers, HIV/AIDS services, or who are engaged in sex work. This clearly does not reflect a representative sample of the wide variety of transgender people in the United States and around the world.”

The only UK-based research cited by Survivors’ Network is affected to some extent by the same limitations as those used in Stotzer’s study. The Trans Mental Health Survey was completed by a reasonably large but self-selecting sample of 889 people living in the UK and Ireland, recruited from “Trans support groups, online forums and mailing lists with UK members” and publicised “primarily through word-of-mouth”. The authors note that due to the impossibility of identifying the entire population of trans people, their “research relies on participants self-selecting”, and that “the sample may not be demographically representative of the trans population as a whole. In particular, the sample primarily comprised white trans people and a good proportion of those had undertaken post-Secondary education. There is no way of knowing for sure how representative this sample is.” Overall, however, they state: “While our sample is essentially one of convenience, we believe that we have fairly robust findings given the sheer size of the sample.”

This survey did not ask a question about all experiences of sexual violence, but did ask participants whether they had been sexually assaulted or raped “because you are trans”. 14% of respondents reported having been sexually assaulted and 6% having been raped because of being trans. The percentages experiencing fear of sexual assault or rape were much higher, at 42% and 38% respectively. When asked about the experiences of other trans people, 28% said they personally knew of someone who had been raped because of being trans, and 44% said they knew someone who had been sexually assaulted because of being trans. (percentages estimated from Figure 10, reproduced below)

This appears to be the source of the Survivors Network researchers’ claim that “between 40 and 60% of trans people know someone in their trans community who has experienced sexual violence”. Presumably the range of between 40 and 60% reflects the unknown degree of overlap between these two sets of respondents.

However, especially given the recruitment methodology of this survey, these figures tell us very little about the number of trans people who have actually experienced sexual violence. We have no way of knowing how many of these respondents are thinking of the same incidents of rape and sexual assault. Given that respondents to the survey were recruited from trans community support groups and networks, it seems very likely that several participants would be aware of each incident of rape or sexual violence within this small and connected community.

This statistic has multiple issues which make it unreliable as an indicator of the prevalence of sexual violence experienced by trans people in the UK. Someone using the same method for other crimes listed here could end up suggesting that 14% of trans people have been killed because of their trans status. Fortunately, murder of trans people in the UK is in fact extremely rare. The context in which this extrapolated statistic is used in the Survivors’ Network research suggests that this is as reliable a source as their fourth study, but this is far from the case.

What about the fourth study?

The final study cited in the Survivors’ Network report is the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010, carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA. From the report’s introduction, we learn that:

“The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey is an ongoing, nationally representative random digit dial (RDD) telephone survey that collects information about experiences of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence among non-institutionalized English and/ or Spanish-speaking women and men aged 18 or older in the United States. NISVS provides detailed information on the magnitude and characteristics of these forms of violence for the nation and for individual states.”

This is a much more robust study than the others mentioned, and should give us a reliable baseline from which to assess whether the data reported so far does describe a community that is disproportionately impacted by sexual violence.

The study found that nearly 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the United States have been raped at some time in their lives; an estimated 13% of women and 6% of men have experienced sexual coercion in their lifetime; and 27.2% of women and 11.7% of men have experienced unwanted sexual contact.

Using the same method employed by the Survivors’ Network researchers to deal with the unknown degree of overlap between these figures, we could therefore say that between 27 and 59% of US women have experienced some form of sexual violence. For men, this range is between 12 and 19%.

The Survivors’ Network report gives this study as the source for their figure of 20% of “cisgender individuals” having experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes. It appears that what they have done is to assume a complete overlap between the reported categories (ie that all of the people who reported rape and sexual coercion were included within the group who reported unwanted sexual contact), and then average the male and female percentages to reach a combined figure of 19.5%. Given the very large disparities between the rates reported by men and women in each category (over twice as many women as men have experienced each type of crime – in the case of rape, it is 13 times as many), this method serves to obscure the clearly disproportionate impact of sexual violence on women.

2 Comments on “In search of evidence-based policymaking”

  1. E R Kendrich says:

    Very sad and worrying. I can’t understand why separate provision is never an option for refuges and prisons. I suppose it is about money. These things are underfunded so women are expected to give up their single-sex spaces, even if they have experienced trauma.

  2. […] In search of evidence-based policymaking → […]

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