GUEST ESSAY

Single Sex Spaces For Survivors are Under Attack

Like all too many women, I am a survivor of sexual violence.

As a child, I was tricked by a family friend into performing sex acts on him. I was trusting and naïve. At the time, I didn’t even know what sex was let alone sexual abuse. It was only when I reached adulthood that I realized I’d been taken advantage of.

Then, in my early twenties, I was persuaded to take drugs by a man I considered a friend, Joe. I lost consciousness that night, and I woke up the following day, naked and plagued with patchy recollections of Joe having sex with me while hitting me in the face. Since that night, seeing him or even hearing his name triggers a panic attack in me. It took me years to admit to myself that I hadn’t consented to Joe’s assault. That what I’d experienced was rape.

Having been badly let down by men in my life, I am wary of them. I know men have the capacity to lie and manipulate, particularly if they have a sexual agenda.

Due to my negative experiences, I live with chronic anxiety. I often have stress-related migraines and suffer with digestive issues. I am often fraught with nightmares and flashbacks.

Last year, I learned that Joe was moving to live in my home town. It shook me up so badly I didn’t sleep for weeks and felt constantly nauseous. My anxiety was so bad I could barely eat, it was difficult to leave the house and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. At the time of the assault, I’d tried to tell friends what Joe had done but they either didn’t believe me or didn’t think it was a big deal as they were happy to continue socializing with him despite my experiences. It had reached a point where I knew I had to seek help to try and come to terms with my past.

After a brief Google search I discovered Survivors’ Network, the only rape crisis service in my area of Sussex, United Kingdom. The support groups were advertised as being for “self-identified women,” which I initially assumed meant just for trans women. Thus, I called the Network directly to inquire about getting help. While I was immediately asked for my pronouns and gender identity during the call, the welcome assessor told me that Survivors’ Network runs a dedicated support group for transgender survivors.

I asked the welcome assessor if the women’s group was female only and she hesitated before telling me that yes, it was. I made the assumption that transgender survivors were directed to the dedicated transgender, non-binary and intersex (TNBI) support group and the women’s group was for woman born female.

I was apprehensive before attending the group, but as soon as I met the other survivors my fears were alleviated. I felt like I finally had a space with people who understood me and my experiences.

I attended the group every week and developed a strong bond with the other women. The space was kind and supportive, we had all been through similar experiences and it felt like a safe space to share our thoughts. We often talked about male sexual entitlement and how much we appreciated having a space free from men where we could speak freely. I found the group very beneficial for my mental health, and began to feel better within myself.

After a couple of months, I arrived at the group as usual and was surprised to see someone who appeared to be male but identified as a woman. The facilitator started the session by saying pointedly “everyone is welcome here.”

That day, no one volunteered to speak, so the facilitator asked me directly how I had been feeling about things. I felt somewhat pressured to talk about my trauma and keep the therapy session going just so that the space felt inclusive for the new addition. Putting aside my own feelings to please a male felt familiar to me, it was something I’d done since being sexually abused as a child. I left the group feeling upset and shaken.

I knew Survivors’ Network was planning to run some closed peer support groups, so I approached the Head of Operations and asked if one of these groups could be for women born female. As the centre has a dedicated group for transgender and non-binary clients as well as welcoming trans identified males into any women’s groups they chose, the transgender population seemed to be well-catered to. I felt that having one additional group for women born female would not affect the service offered to transgender clients.

My request for an additional group was refused, despite being legal under UK Equality Laws. Rape crisis counselling is even cited as an example of when transgender women can be excluded from some women’s services, even if they have had full gender reassignment and possess a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC).

Not only was my request refused, but Survivors’ Network blocked me on social media, removed me from their mailing lists and told I would need to have an assessment if I wanted to attend any of their groups in future. I was no longer able to see the women I’d formed such a close bond with. All the feelings that had been brought up from speaking about my sexual violence were there, but I had no outlet. There was nowhere I could turn for help.

As a result of my experiences, I have made the difficult decision to launch a legal challenge against Survivors’ Network.

If it can provide tailored support to members of the transgender community, then surely it can do so female survivors of sexual violence who require an exclusive, healing space.

The very nature of many cases of sexual abuse is often women being conditioned to set aside their own feelings and boundaries in order to centre the feelings of a man. This should not happen anywhere, but let alone in a rape crisis shelter.

I have a great, all-female law firm on board and feel cautiously optimistic. If it is ruled that a single-sex group must be provided, then it could help open up a space for thousands of female survivors of sexual violence who are currently coping alone and without support.

Follow “Sarah Surviving” on Twitter and CrowdJustice.


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