"I think it’s quite a healthy response to be wary of men." Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

July 14, 2022   8 mins

The first time Sarah — a pseudonym — was sexually assaulted, she was eight years old and an adult family friend paid her to do things to him she was too young to understand. Her mum later asked what had happened, but Sarah knew her mother was too emotionally fragile to cope with the truth, so she said, “Nothing”, and the abuse continued for years.

When she was in her twenties, a man in her friendship group hit her and raped her when she was barely conscious. But when Sarah told her female friends, they insisted that he was a nice guy who wouldn’t do that. She told herself her friends couldn’t cope with the truth, and she learned to hide the panic attacks she has suffered ever since.

Last year, when Sarah walked into her weekly rape crisis support group in Brighton and saw a male sitting there, she felt anxious — but she had long perfected the art of suppressing her feelings to accommodate others.

“I thought, ‘It’s fine, I just won’t speak this week,’ because I didn’t want to talk about my rape in front of a male. But the group’s facilitator asked me to speak, so I did, because I felt under real pressure to make this person feel included. It’s so ingrained in women to do what’s expected of you,” she tells me from her home in Brighton.

But this time, Sarah’s body rebelled. She suffered a panic attack in the group, although she stayed until the end of the session, because she didn’t want to cause awkwardness.

“When you experience sexual violence, you often set aside your own needs and don’t set boundaries, and I couldn’t understand why I was being asked to do that in therapy,” she says. Having to describe the repercussions of her rape in front of a male, Sarah says, “felt like a third attack, and it was the final straw”. Previously in the group, she and the other women had talked freely about men’s feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies and spaces and found comfort in their shared experiences. No longer. Afterwards, she asked Survivors’ Network, the Brighton-based government-funded charity for victims of sexual violence that ran the group, if there could be a female-only group.

“It seemed like a reasonable thing to ask, because they had a group for trans women, and a trans-inclusive group for women, so two groups for people born male, but none just for females,” she says.

According to the Equality Act, sex is a protected characteristic, meaning that the provision of single-sex spaces is lawful where it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. But in correspondence seen by UnHerd, Survivors’ Network told Sarah that a single-sex group would be “problematic as we do not police gender”. Sarah had to leave the group where she had found, for the first time in her life, support, help and understanding. Survivors’ Network suggested that she get individual therapy, and was advised there was a two-year waiting list, then heard nothing further about that. They also suggested she seek help from “other services in the city”, but Survivors’ Network is the only service of its kind in the whole of Sussex, and she couldn’t find any group just for women. Sarah is now taking them to court for sex discrimination.

The backlash against her has been immense. Aside from the usual misogyny that happens every time a woman stands up for her rights (“The bitch suing [should be] made to pay all court and legal costs,” wrote one delightful gentleman), high-profile women on Twitter have pilloried her, with one saying: “If she really cares this much about women’s rights she wouldn’t be suing a rape crisis centre.” “If the anti-trans agenda has SO much money and SO much support and is SO right, why haven’t they set up their own services?” another tweeted, apparently unaware that in 2019 Canada’s oldest rape crisis centre, Vancouver Rape Relief, tried to stay female-only, only to then be stripped of its funding for refusing to accept trans women.

To a degree, Sarah agrees with her critics. “It sounds absolutely awful to sue a rape crisis centre, and a part of me asks, ‘What am I doing?’ Especially because I’m the most anxious person in the world and the anxiety has been awful since this whole thing started. I worry about how this will affect my job prospects, my partner’s job, everything,” she says.

For that reason, her name and any details that might reveal her true identity have been disguised. So why has she pursued this case, given the stakes against her? “Because this whole situation is so wrong and Survivors’ Network is not fit for purpose. It’s telling women to put aside their feelings in order to access help. Of course I’m not saying trans women shouldn’t be helped by rape services, and it’s great there are mixed-sex groups for people who feel comfortable with that. I don’t want to stop that at all. But there should also be single-sex ones. This is a government-funded service. We deserve to have the support we need.”

Survivors’ Network declined to give a comment for this article but instead directed me to a statement affirming their commitment to trans-inclusive feminism: “Trans women are women and as such they are welcome in women-only spaces.”

Until that day in her rape support group, Sarah had little interest in arguments about gender ideology. “You’d have to be living under a rock to not know discussions were happening online and in the media, but I wasn’t that involved. If pushed, I’d have described myself as an ally. I marched at Trans Pride and thought of trans women as my sisters. But I assumed there was respect for rape crisis groups and no one would try to cross that boundary. It seems quite naïve now,” she says.

When Sarah researched Survivors’ Network’s peer support group she discovered it was trans inclusive. She asked an assessor whether the group she would be attending was female-only and the assessor hesitated before saying yes, it was, so she was left unsure what to expect. “When I started at the group, it was all-female, so I then assumed that Survivors’ Network had a group for women and a group for trans women, and that’s how they were able to be inclusive but also treat women. That’s partly why I was so taken aback to see a man in the group two months later,” she says. The “man” was a self-identified trans woman, but, Sarah says, there was no indication that they were socially or medically transitioning — they looked simply like a man.

The reaction to Sarah’s case has been “enormously eye-opening”, she says: “The levels of anger and vitriol against me, all because I asked for a single-sex rape support group. I just don’t understand it.” To see so many women online empathise more with the trans person’s possible sense of exclusion than with her trauma felt, Sarah says, like when her female friends refused to believe that their male friend had raped her because they liked him. So many women care more about the feelings of men than the needs of other women.

Arguments over single-sex spaces have raged over the past decade as gender ideology —which argues that a person’s gender identity, which is how they feel inside, is at least as significant as their biological sex — has taken hold. Over the past few months, sports organisations, including World Rugby and FINA, the International Swimming Federation, have banned trans women from competing against female athletes, after years of protests from feminist campaigners and multiple women athletes. But sport takes place in public, meaning outsiders can see that women are at an obvious physical disadvantage against people who have gone through male puberty. The issue is easier to ignore when it comes to prisons (where trans women can be incarcerated with female prisoners) and rape services, as they aren’t under any kind of public spotlight, and people tend to have less interest in female prisoners and rape victims than in elite athletes.

Since Sarah launched her case, Survivors’ Network have doubled down on their stance and in April they co-wrote an open letter to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission criticising them for saying that single-sex spaces are lawful. Survivors’ Network wrote that it is “very unusual for cis service users to object to trans women joining a support group”; the EHRC, they say, “frames the needs of cis women as more important than the support needs of trans people”.

Gender activists claim that trans people are the most oppressed minority in the world, therefore women’s spaces need to include them, and any woman who objects is putting trans people at risk. It is true there are high rates of violence against trans women in Central, South America and North America, especially among trans sex workers. In the UK, it’s a very different story. The ONS says the sample size of people who identified as transgender and were victims of sexual offences is too “insufficient” to record; Channel 4 News has said that, on average, one trans person was murdered a year in the UK between 2008 and 2017. By contrast, a woman in this country is murdered by a man every two days and one in four women is sexually assaulted as an adult. The perpetrator is invariably male, because 98% of sex offenders are male. Multiple studies have shown that patterns of offending do not change just because the male person has transitioned their gender. So while certainly not all trans women are predators, just as not all men are predators, they are far more likely to commit a violent crime than women, just as men are.

Last August, Mridul Wadhwa, the head of one of Scotland’s biggest rape crisis centres who is herself transgender, said that any victims of rape who were fearful of transgender women in women’s organisations needed to “reframe your trauma”: “If you bring unacceptable beliefs that are discriminatory in nature, we will begin to work with you on your journey of recovery from trauma, but please expect to be challenged on your prejudices,” she said.

I ask what Sarah thinks of Wadhwa’s argument. “I was abused by a man, I was raped by a man. I think it’s quite a healthy response to be wary of men, and to not assume they always have the best of intentions, because I made that mistake. I think that should be encouraged by rape crisis centres, rather than them telling us to take down our boundaries and ignore our instincts. It feels like an inconvenience to Survivors’ Network that lots of women have PTSD caused by men, so therefore don’t want to talk about it with men.”

In an article last month, a woman called Janey Starling, who says she “supports survivors of domestic abuse”, wrote a piece titled “Why Trans Women Belong in Women’s Spaces”, in which she compared abused women’s fear of males to anti-black racism. I ask Sarah about this commonly cited argument. “Black people don’t commit over 90% of sex crimes. No race does. But males do,” she says.

But gender activists would say that trans people are so marginalised that it doesn’t matter that they’re male: women should accommodate them. “I’m sure they are marginalised in some places, but where I live there are ten organisations with dedicated groups for the wellbeing of trans women, and none just for women. So I wouldn’t say they’re marginalised here,” she says.

It took a long time for Sarah to stop denying to herself that she had been raped, and even longer to understand what had happened to her as a child. “But when I understood that, I started to think, oh, maybe I can trust my instincts, maybe I do know when something isn’t right, because I’d suppressed that for so long.”

She has also started to understand how her experiences have affected her psychologically in the long term. “I didn’t know that, as a woman, I could say no, which sounds really stupid, but I didn’t know I had options. I thought sex was something that was done to you and that part of life as a woman was to make males feel included, because they’re the priority,” she says.

That day in her rape support group — her last day, it turned out — she realised none of this was true: she could say no. “This isn’t about money for me — I don’t care about the money. I just want a change of policy and for there to be female-only services, without taking away the mixed-sex services. Since I launched my case I’ve heard from so many women who say they stopped going to their groups for the same reason, but they didn’t want to say anything, and I thought about doing that — just going away and staying quiet. But I couldn’t do that anymore. It’s enough.”

Hadley Freeman is a staff writer at The Guardian. She was recently named Columnist of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. Her last book, House of Glass, was published by 4th Estate in 2020. Her next will be published by 4th Estate in 2023.