The launch of a sexual assault support centre for women is always good news but, when it is the brainchild of J.K. Rowling, it is very big news. Especially given the feminist philanthropist and world famous author has smartly taken pre-emptive steps to outwit her detractors.
Rowling has funded and designed a new, women-only sexual violence support service, Beira’s Place, which opens today. “I founded Beira’s Place to provide what I believe is currently an unmet need for women in the Lothians area,” the author said this weekend. “As a survivor of sexual assault myself, I know how important it is that survivors have the option of women-centred and women-delivered care at such a vulnerable time. Beira’s Place will offer an increase in capacity for services in the area and will, I hope, enable more women to process and recover from their trauma.”
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Situated in the heart of Edinburgh, it is a service for women who have been subjected to men’s violence. It is named after the Scottish goddess of Winter, as Rowling explained: “Beira rules over the dark part of the year, handing over to her sister, Bride, when summer comes again. Beira represents female wisdom, power, and regeneration. Hers is a strength that endures during the difficult times, but her myth contains the promise that they will not last for ever.”
It has taken a year of hard work by Rowling and her team to get it off the ground, and I was delighted to be invited to the top-secret launch on Saturday alongside the crème de la crème of Scottish feminists and many other supporters. Today is the first that anyone, aside from those who have had some kind of involvement in the project, will hear about Beira’s Place.
The board, which includes Rowling, is comprised of experts with a lifelong commitment to ending men’s violence towards women and girls. They include former prison governor and LGB rights campaigner Rhona Hotchkiss, previous Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, GP Margaret McCartney, and Susan Smith who is director of For Women Scotland. Its CEO is Isabelle Kerr, a veteran of the Rape Crisis movement.
Beira’s Place is strictly female-only, as defined by section 212 of the Equality Act which states that a woman is a “female of any age”. If you are a natal women aged 16 and over, reside in the Lothians and have experienced sexual violence or abuse at any time in your life, a free and confidential service is now there for you.
The service is funded solely by Rowling and is not set up as a charity, which means trans activists won’t be able to petition the Charities Commission to close it down.
Rowling understands why women need single-sex services following rape and sexual assault. As she wrote on her blog in June 2020: “I refuse to bow down to a movement that I believe is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class and offering cover to predators like few before it.”
Shockingly, until now there were none left in Edinburgh that still operated on a single-sex basis. And Rowling knows how important they are.
Edinburgh’s Rape Crisis Centre (ERCC) advocates on behalf of men who identify as women as well as actual women. And in May 2021, trans-identified Mridul Wadhwa was appointed chief executive of ERCC despite this being a job that was advertised as only for a woman. Three months after being appointed, Wadhwa referred in a podcast to female rape victims who did not want to deal with men in a support service as “bigoted people”. Wadhwa had the audacity to suggest that these women should “reframe their trauma”.
The “bigots” Wadhwa speaks of are women who want female-only counselling and female-only spaces in rape or domestic violence facilities because they feel unsafe and even traumatised around men following such an horrific experience.
But women are fighting back. Brighton’s rape crisis service Survivors Network is facing a legal challenge by a female rape victim who was told she was transphobic for asking if she could be in a group therapy for females only. Sarah Summers*, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse as well as rape as an adult, was refused access to a women-only support group. Like ERRC, Brighton welcomes transwomen at any stage of their transition to use the service.
“I have spent a lot of my life having my boundaries violated by men. I have been manipulated, coerced and forced into having sex with men,” says Summers. “It is impossible for women like me to recover from the trauma of male sexual violence in the same space as men, even if those men identify as women.
“Women’s rape crisis groups are the one place women should be able to feel safe. Forcing us to deny reality confirms that our feelings don’t matter and our boundaries are irrelevant.”
The vast majority of women feel the same as Summers. The grassroots feminist group Women and Girls in Scotland produced a report last year entitled Which Rights are Facing Challenge in the Sex and Gender Debate? It was based on research which found that the majority of women (80.1%) said that female victims of male violence should be able to access female-only survivor support services and refuges. A majority (71%) said they would not be comfortable if the service was inclusive of trans-identified males.
This June, it was reported that there have been vast increases in rape and sexual assaults against women in Scotland. Police figures show that between 2018/19 and 2021/22, instances of rape against women have increased by 25%.
What has happened to Edinburgh since the trans train rolled into town? It used to be an epicentre of radical feminist campaigning. I was at the launch of Zero Tolerance in Edinburgh in 1992. This was an innovative campaign that used images of strong women on posters and billboards around the city, stating no level of men’s violence towards women and girls should be tolerated. At its 30th anniversary event last month, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, who is currently pushing through legislation to allow men to be placed in women’s prisons, hospital wards and refuges, was the keynote speaker. Prior to the event, attendees were requested to not mention self-ID or question the definition of “woman”.
All but one attendee complied, leaving one courageous and angry woman to berate Sturgeon for “[telling women of Scotland] they are bigoted for standing up for women’s rights,” while others sat there looking embarrassed.
But Sturgeon won’t listen to anyone, including Reem Alsalem, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and girls. Alsalem told Sturgeon that the reforms presented “potential risks to the safety of women in all their diversity”, and that “empirical evidence” suggested predatory men might seek to abuse the system.
Transwomen in Edinburgh are very well catered for when it comes to sexual assault services, but natal women are not. Sturgeon has heard from countless Scottish women about their fears regarding self-ID; Rowling herself has sarcastically referred to her as the First Feminist for imposing such dangerous legislation on the women and girls of Scotland.
But Rowling does not only speak out — she also puts her money where her mouth is. As Rowling told Suzanne Moore: “It’s important that women like us stand up – people who can afford to take the hit…”
If someone had told me five years ago that the launch of a service for female-only sexual assault survivors would be inevitably contentious, I would have laughed. But here we are now. Sexual assault survivors, such as Sarah Summers and all of the other women who have stayed away from services because of the inclusion of transwomen, deserve better.
I have spoken to many women who were instantly aware of the presence of a male in sexual assault centres, however well those men think they pass as women. Natal women have been traumatised and men are responsible for that trauma.
The launch of Beira’s Place at the weekend was inspiring. There was no mention of transactivism, just praise for the amazing team behind the initiative. There was no word of the hell that women working in rape crisis centres and domestic violence refuges have been through to attempt to maintain single-sex services, just excitement about embarking on this new venture.
Beira’s Place will be an oasis, and hopefully signal the beginning of a new feminist revolution. Once again, Rowling has worked her magic.
*Not her real name
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