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.
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.
Here is the text of a letter I’ve sent to my MP, Caroline Lucas, following the government’s leaked announcement that they do not intend to amend the Gender Recognition Act.
I was pleased to see reports in last weekend’s Sunday Times that the government is intending to abandon its proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act.
The proposals arising from the 2015 Women and Equalities Select Committee Transgender Equality Inquiry were ill-considered and developed following a flawed process in which women’s organisations were not invited to participate as witnesses.
After the government indicated its intention to implement these proposals, including changes that would have made single-sex services illegal, several grassroots womens campaigns were launched, to defend the existing provisions in the Equality Act. As a result of this campaigning, the government was forced to back down on this intention in 2018, when the consultation on GRA reforms was finally announced.
Nevertheless, many statutory institutions, companies and voluntary sector organisations had meanwhile adopted policies which made it extremely difficult for women to access single-sex provision of services. This is a real setback for women and girls who need female-only space in which to recover from, reflect on and resist the impact of living in a sexist society. As a result of organisations adopting self-id policies:
- Women in Brighton have no access to female-only support and counselling when they have been subjected to sexual assault and rape
- Girls in Brighton schools are routinely expected to share changing rooms with male pupils, and official guidance suggests that any objection to this is contrary to human rights practice
- When a woman in Brighton requested that her preference for female clinicians (resulting from her experience of being raped) be recorded in her medical notes, her request was presented as an example of transphobia in staff training materials
- Anti-feminist and unscientific concepts such as innate gender identity and sex as a spectrum are being presented as settled fact in official local authority guidance for schools
Liz Truss’s statement to the Women and Equalities Select Committee in April included a welcome commitment to protecting single-sex spaces. This echoes a similar commitment in the 2019 Labour Party manifesto, and I am pleased to see this cross-party support for the existing legal framework set out in the Equality Act. I hope you will issue a statement adding your voice to this consensus.
Sex is a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, because discrimination, harassment and abuse on the basis of sex continue to blight the lives of women and girls in the UK and around the world. It is horrifying that women who have stated this fact, such as Maya Forstater, Kathleen Stock and most recently JK Rowling, are denounced and slandered by people presenting themselves as progressive.
The government’s decision to focus on a symbolic legislative change – introducing a self-declaration basis to the GRC process – rather than any of the material issues raised during the inquiry, was unwise and divisive. Taking a step back in order to proceed in a way that upholds the rights and freedoms of women and trans people is the right thing to do.
Please convey my views to Liz Truss. I would – as ever – be pleased to discuss these issues with you in person, and look forward to receiving your response.
This is the text of the speech I gave at the Woman’s Place UK fringe meeting at Labour Party conference in Brighton on 23rd September 2019. I have added links and images, but not altered the words.
I’m 50 years old. I’ve been a left wing political activist since I was 12. When I was 15 I spoke in Trafalgar Square for Youth CND, alongside a young MP called Jeremy Corbyn. I campaigned against Section 28 and helped set up Brighton Pride. I made the front pages by invading the stage at the Brighton Centre when Princess Di was welcoming a homophobic conference. I’ve had eggs thrown at me in Churchill Square and glass bottles thrown at me in London for being an out lesbian.
But I’ve never been as worried about the consequences of speaking in public about my beliefs as I am here today.
I want to talk about the division that has opened up between many feminist activists of my generation and the current queer activist movement. We should be each other’s allies, but the atmosphere is so toxic that we are hardly able to speak to each other at all.
I am worried that trans people I know and like will feel hurt and will think I am their enemy. I am not. I am worried that I will lose the friendship of people I respect in Brighton & Hove. I am worried that I will be treated as an outcast in some political circles, and that this will make it difficult for me to continue my voluntary activity in solidarity with migrants and with benefit claimants in the city.
I hope people will be prepared to hear what I have to say in good faith. I think it is possible to disagree politically while remaining courteous and respectful. I think learning from each other is more important than winning.
I am worried, but I am doing this anyway, because something has gone very wrong, and I want to be part of helping to put it right.
I’m doing this because I can’t accept that women like Helen Steel deserve to be vilified and ostracised.
Helen Steel is a woman who has spent her life standing up against the destructive power of capitalism and the state. When McDonalds tried to shut her up by suing her for libel, she took them on in an epic court case – and won – earning the lifelong admiration of many in my generation. The state tried to shut her up by sending undercover police officers into her small activist group. Helen has survived being deceived into a relationship by one of these spy cops and is still fighting for justice for herself and other women affected.
But earlier this year, because Helen has spoken out about her feminist views, she was told that her presence made people feel unsafe, and asked to leave a climate protest camp, organised by a group she helped to found. Many other excellent feminist activists have been cast out in the same way.
If you are on the left and you think women like Helen Steel are suddenly the enemy, then something has gone very wrong.
My mum was a feminist of the second wave. She went to women’s liberation movement meetings in London in the early 70s and was part of the campaign to get the law changed to make sex discrimination illegal. Her generation of feminists, along with the organised labour movement, won some hugely important victories. As well as the Sex Discrimination and Equal Pay Acts, they won the right for women in most of the UK to access safe abortions, they established women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, and they paved the way for better representation of women in parliament, the media and the workforce.
When I came out at 18, it was into an activist movement that took feminist ideas seriously, and incorporated them into our practice. Brighton Area Action Against Section 28 listened to the experiences of lesbians who had broken away from the Gay Liberation Movement a decade earlier and we recognised that the way men and women are socialised means that men tend to dominate the space in mixed organisations. Therefore we made sure that our meetings were chaired by women and our campaign was represented by women in the media and on public platforms.
We rejected the Stonewall model of a paid CEO and professional lobbying, because we knew that real change comes only from below. We were one of the most active and longest-lasting local campaign groups in the movement against Section 28, and Brighton Pride emerged directly from our very political, grassroots, volunteer-run and female-led campaign.
My overwhelming memory of that time is of a feeling of freedom. Being involved in the campaign was an intensely creative and empowering experience of working collectively with other people to make new things happen and demand change. As well as discovering and establishing myself, I learned a lot about how grassroots activism can weave together the diverse experiences and skills of a community to create a sense of solidarity that is more powerful than repressive laws.
I am worried that the experience of being involved in queer activism now is not a liberating one, particularly for young women, female non-binary people and trans men. I hope I am mistaken about this.
But I have been listening to young women who have detransitioned, desisted or reidentified as women in the last few years, and one of the repeated themes of their stories is that within the trans community they felt that only only one path was available to them as they sought to understand themselves. Here are a few examples of statements I have seen from young detransitioned women, in the UK, in the last year:
“I knew I was a boy because I meet the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria – a strong rejection of typically feminine toys and typically feminine clothes, mostly male friends, a sense that my feelings and reactions were typical of boys, the desire to be treated as a boy. When I spoke about these experiences to older friends, or in online chat rooms, the message was affirming. Nobody encouraged the idea that it’s okay to be gender non conforming, Instead, friends and healthcare practitioners alike ‘affirmed’ my gender. Yes, you are a boy” (https://firstname.lastname@example.org/the-medicalization-of-gender-non-conforming-children-and-the-vulnerability-of-lesbian-youth-10d4ac517e8e)
“Internalised homophobia and misogyny can play havoc on your mental state. I was a vulnerable person and I saw this one option that fit, no one talked about how dysphoria can have other causes.” (https://twitter.com/tjdetrans/status/1139505371972886530)
“I wanted to find ways of dealing with my gender issues that aren’t medically transitioning, and those ways weren’t presented to me. The only solution that was presented was chopping your breasts off, injecting yourself with hormones and becoming a man.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CjeGgSRBcI&t=7s)
“It’s like my entire life for seven years has been dominated by my gender dysphoria and wanting to avoid it as much as possible by Passing, so much that I stopped being myself. Now I’m realising that my life doesn’t have to be constrained by having to pass. It’s so liberating.” (https://twitter.com/detransing/status/1127265875382419456)
If you are a movement for liberation, and your female activists feel that their involvement is constraining their possibilities, then something has gone very wrong.
During the New Labour years, while I was busy with young children, Brighton Pride became more and more commercialised and less and less political. When we organised a weekend of activities around a protest march in 1991, none of us could have predicted that it would become the massive corporate spectacle it is today.
Under Stonewall’s leadership, the LGBT movement has abandoned the feminist analysis of marriage as a key site of women’s oppression, and embraced large corporations and celebrity endorsements, until our community, with its radical, creative, subversive culture has become nothing more challenging than a market segment.
Slowly, I picked up a habit of holding my tongue. Nobody wanted to hear about how marriage is bad for women when there was a gay wedding fair to go to. What was the point of reminiscing about grassroots alternatives when we seemed to have achieved mainstream acceptance?
But it seems clear to me now that because we let that silence fall, young lesbians coming out into today’s queer activist movement are cut off from the experiences of lesbian feminists who came before them. In fact, older lesbian feminists are explicitly positioned as their enemies, while massive corporations are presented as their friends.
If you are a liberation movement and you think that Barclays, Aviva, Tesco, and Proctor & Gamble are on your side, then something has gone very wrong.
When my youngest child was 11, I started writing and thinking about politics again, as the impact of the Coalition government’s austerity programme began to hit.
I was inspired by the working class women leading campaigns against the Bedroom Tax in the north of England and the young single mums of Focus E15 in London. Since 2010, at every level, austerity has hit women harder, and women have been – as usual – expected to patch up the gaps in our shredded safety net.
Some of the most important gains made by feminists of my mother’s generation are under threat. Funding cuts are leaving refuges vulnerable, while at the same time women’s options are being severely restricted by benefit cuts and caps. Women are terrified that their children will be taken into care if they stay in an abusive relationship, but denied the financial means to leave. So far in 2019, at least 72 women in the UK have been killed by men.
We still need places of safety for women. But Stonewall, in 2015, recommended to the Women and Equalities Select Committee “A review of the Equality Act 2010 to include ‘gender identity’ rather than ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic and to remove exemptions, such as access to single-sex spaces”.
Just to be crystal clear, the exemptions they are referring to are the ones which allow service providers to exclude male people from some facilities and services, even if those male people have changed their legal sex by acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate. The example given in the Act’s explanatory notes is this:
“A group counselling session is provided for female victims of sexual assault. The organisers do not allow transsexual people to attend as they judge that the clients who attend the group session are unlikely to do so if a male-to-female transsexual person was also there. This would be lawful.”
Feminists of my mum’s generation created safe spaces for female people to escape male violence. Spaces where women could have some respite, could share their trauma with other women who would understand, could begin to heal and make their way back into the world stronger. From nothing, women built up these services and kept them going over decades.
But Stonewall would like the law changed, so that these small, safe spaces, made by women for women, are no longer permitted to exist.
Here in Brighton, even without a change in the law, our local Rape Crisis service offers no female only support groups. All their services are open to trans women, on the basis of self-identification.
I am not in any way suggesting that trans women should be denied access to support if they have been assaulted, nor that it is unreasonable for rape crisis services and women’s refuges to provide services for trans women. But I do think it is unreasonable to campaign for the removal of female only spaces, which enable traumatised women to recover from male violence.
If you are a liberation movement and you want to make it illegal for members of an oppressed group to organise independently, then something has gone very wrong.
I am not an enemy of trans people. Nothing I have said this evening is an attack on trans people or a call for rights to be denied to any trans person.
All of us, in fact, have a much more dangerous enemy than each other and that is the growing threat of fascism, fuelled by catastrophic climate change.
At a moment when the human race is finally realising that we are not separate from the earth’s ecosystem, and our poisoning of the air, land and oceans is destroying our own habitat, we are already seeing how that plays out: more wars over resources, more movements of refugees across the world, and – as always in situations of conflict – more rape and trafficking of women, and intensified attempts to control our fertility.
Whatever is in store for us, as we head into the next stage of this national and global crisis, I think solidarity in diversity is going to be worth much more to all of us than the support of multinational corporations. We don’t need to flatten all distinctions between us, we don’t need to deny material reality, and we don’t need to set our minds against our bodies. Instead, we need to learn how to listen to each other and learn from each other.
That means, first of all, that everyone must acknowledge that there is a discussion to be had. We are well past the point where women will accept that our concerns are unspeakable.
The Labour Party should be facilitating this discussion. Let’s identify the common problems we are dealing with, and respectfully discuss how to tackle them. There will be areas where we disagree. It’s OK – in fact it is necessary – for people to disagree with each other. That is how we learn.
Let’s talk together about male violence. Three quarters of violent crimes and 94% of homicides are committed by male people. Feminism has many theories about why that is. I want to hear what young people think about it. I stand in solidarity with everyone who is victimised by the longstanding connection between masculinity and violence.
Let’s talk together about stereotypes and socialisation. How do children learn what it means to be a boy or a girl? What would society look like if we let go of gendered rules, roles and expectations? Does individual self-identification on a spectrum actually make a difference to the way society works?
Let’s talk together about self-organisation. I hope everyone would agree that groups of people who face oppression sometimes need exclusive spaces in which to relax, recover from, and collectively resist their oppression. I think it’s pretty clear that female people are an oppressed group, and need to be able to organise autonomously. If you disagree, let’s talk about it. Bring your argument and make your case. That’s what we do in the labour movement and in the feminist movement.
I regret that I held my tongue for such a long time. I am angry that I was intimidated into hiding my name for a year, when engaging with these issues. Women like me – like Helen Steel, like Linda Bellos, like Bea Campbell, like Julie Bindel – have every right to participate in discussion in the movements we have helped to create. We are not the enemy. Let’s talk.
Both panel and audience were impressively focused and knowledgeable. Some particularly enlightening moments for me were:
Hearing from a woman in the audience about her unbelievably bad (but apparently unsurprising) experience with the courts. After excellent support from both Rise and the police, she ended up having to attend court in another town 9 times (6 of which were adjourned), only to see her abuser convicted and sentenced to a laughable 100 hours community service. He walked away smiling, while she had lost her home and custody of her child. As Purna Sen commented, it is difficult to recommend that women pursue court cases, if this is what they can expect.
Reminders from all the panellists of the shocking statistics regarding the extent of violence against women and girls. In Brighton & Hove, we were told, 11,000 women each year experience some form of violence or coercive control within their relationships. According to the local strategy document (PDF) on violence against women and girls, “nearly 55,000 women locally will suffer one of these forms of violence (domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, forced marriage, stalking, sexual harassment, female genital mutilation, trafficking, sexual exploitation) in their lifetime.” (page 13)
Several mentions by Caroline Lucas of the impact of the coalition government’s cuts on people trying to escape violent situations or get justice from the legal system. Cuts to benefits, to funding for vital services and to legal aid are combining to trap women and children in abusive circumstances.
Welcome discussion of the need to see violence against women as part of a wider structure of oppression and inequality, which also includes things like the commonplace objectification of women in newspapers, advertising and magazines; street harassment and sexist bullying in schools and workplaces; gender stereotyping of children from a very young age; and the social construction of both femininity and (crucially) masculinity in a way which leads people to expect, tolerate and accept violence against women and girls.
The frustration of the panellists was plain to see, after so many years between them working on these issues. How can it be that more than two women a week are still being killed by men in the UK?
There was an aspect of the issue that I felt was missing from the discussion, however. The structures which oppress women are economic and financial, as well as cultural and physical. More fundamental than cuts to legal aid and benefits, the whole way relationships and households are organised works to render women financially dependent on men.
If two people are in a relationship and they decide to live together, all the legal and financial systems of the state assume – and indeed require – that they pool their income and arrange their finances as a joint household. Regardless of the individuals’ wishes, this is how they will be considered by the tax and benefits systems and by the courts if there is some kind of dispute between them. It doesn’t matter hugely whether people are married or not – the benefits system at least treats people “living together as if they are married” in exactly the same way as married people.
If a couple has children, it will usually be only the woman who takes time off work or reduces her working hours to care for them when they are little. The reasons for this are complex, and involve cultural expectations as well as factors such as pay inequality between men and women and legal inequality in the length of maternity and paternity leave. For most families, who need to maximise their combined earning potential in order to get by, there is little real choice about it.
However, as with many things in life, once that die is cast it is very difficult to change direction. Women become dependent on their partners for the basic necessities of life – food, shelter and clothing. This inbuilt imbalance of power can be very dangerous if the relationship becomes coercive or violent.
As James Rowlands pointed out at the debate, behind the most extreme cases there lies an epidemic of ‘low level’ abuse. Thousands of women are putting up with situations that should be seen by everyone as intolerable – often because they are calculating that it’s better to live with a controlling partner than to be without a home for themselves and their children.
Alongside the vital political educational and cultural work being done by groups like the End Violence against Women coalition and the Miss Represented project locally, I think it’s also important to talk about ideas like equal pay, shared parenting and citizens’ income as part of a process of breaking down the gendered building blocks of our whole economic system.
Watching Purna Sen and Caroline Lucas side by side, sharing their knowledge and passion with the audience last night, I felt frustrated and angry about a party political system that has pitted these two impressive and inspiring feminists against each other in the 2015 general election. What a waste of talent and energy!
Meanwhile, in Hove, we have an all-male contest, featuring the vile Mike Weatherley, whose law against squatting has led directly to at least one death and the highly dubious Peter Kyle, who participated in a joint complaint against a labour Secretary of State for Health in 2010, in support of the right of private companies to bid for NHS contracts.
In both contests, since we are stuck with the worst possible voting system, large numbers of voters will end up voting for someone they don’t like, or against someone they do like, and will make their choices based on who they think will win, rather than which policies they support. Imagine how different things could be if we had a reasonable system like STV!
No wonder people are turning away from party politics in their droves!