July 19, 2022 - 7:00am

“What is a woman?” is not just a gotcha for politicians but a practical question for those providing services to the public. Increasingly venues, schools and offices are switching to “gender neutral” (mixed sex) facilities, or to “gender inclusive” rules (go where you like), either out of a fashionable conviction that this is the way of the future, or to avoid rows between those who insist gender is fluid and those who say sex is what matters.

Sex Matters undertook a survey to find out how people feel. The response was astonishing. In a little over a week we received over 7,000 replies, 9 out of 10 of them from women. Many included details about how the loss of everyday single-sex spaces was affecting their life.

It includes the voices of hundreds of people spelling out what ought to be obvious: “changing, showering and using the toilet are things that happen in private. Most people don’t want to do any of those things in front of anyone, even people we know, let alone an unknown member of the opposite sex.” 98% of respondents agreed with this statement while 97% agreed that single-sex spaces are important.

Most of all the report sets out the impacts on women. As one of many said: “I recently went to a gig. No female toilets – only male and gender neutral. I am not someone who usually gets scared, I walk home at night by myself comfortably. But this was actually a scary experience, alone in the toilets with a drunk man. I was scared and did not use the toilets for the remainder of the gig.”

A surprising number of respondents to our survey wrote of unisex washrooms with urinals. Many women wrote about awkward, unpleasant, embarrassing and frightening experiences. But most of all they wrote about being excluded. A phrase that came up time and time again was “I didn’t go back”. Women wrote about stopping swimming or the gym, avoiding certain pubs, cafes and venues as well as changing their running routes. Parents wrote about their daughters avoiding drinking water at school. Office workers wrote about having to traipse to a different floor to find privacy from cross-dressing “non-binary” colleagues.

Many politicians say they support single-sex services but they quickly jump to the specialist and controlled domains of women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, as if women who have been raped are not sitting beside you at work and in the pub. The loss of everyday single sex spaces and erosion of clear rules makes every part of public life feel like a dark alley. It is the opposite of inclusion.

Sex Matters’ report calls for the human rights watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission to produce clear, simple, statutory guidance for all kinds of services. The rules about who can enter a female or male only space need to be simple enough to communicate to drunk people under strobe lighting and loud music. The question about whether businesses should provide single-sex facilities in the first place should be simple enough to explain to management who are terrified of conflict with young staff, but want to appear fashionable. Yes, it’s obvious and basic. Ask your mum.

Maya Forstater is an international development researcher and Director of Sex Matters.