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When I was raped, it was female-only spaces that helped me recover

February 24, 2015
While studying at Oxford University, I woke up to find myself being sexually assaulted. That’s why I want an honest and open debate about women’s services, without being accused of rhetorical “violence”.

When I was in the first year of my doctorate, I was living in London but regularly commuting to Oxford for supervisions and research. On the day of the Madrid train bombings, in March 2004, I was there for an evening class. It was my birthday, but, having no heart for a celebration, I and two friends popped to the Randolph Hotel for a quiet drink. One friend offered me floor space for the night, and after a couple of hours in the bar, we called a taxi. On my way to the door, a hand reached out, encircling my wrist.

“Are you leaving?” demanded a man on the next sofa. He was stocky, in his mid 60s. Surrounding him were five or six preppy young men, chattering excitedly in American accents. “Are you leaving?” he repeated. “I was going to buy you a drink.” Hesitating, I sat down on the arm of the couch.

“Are you coming?” my friend demanded; exasperated, amused.

“I’ll just stay for one more drink. Let’s ask the cab to come back in fifteen minutes.”

I don’t remember what we talked about. After a lengthy crash diet, I was thinner than usual, and got drunk quickly. When the taxi reappeared, he sent it away, filling the empty space on the table before me with a glass of rich, maroon wine. My friend – tired, losing patience, needing to finish an essay – left with assurances that I’d be fine, I’d be back soon, I’d let myself into her flat, I’d see her tomorrow.

Early the next morning, I swam up into consciousness with effort. I was naked, face down in a pillow, and gradually became aware of the fact that, deep inside my own body, somebody’s fingers were moving about. I racked my brain. Who was this? An American voice I didn’t recognise whispered, “We didn’t have sex.” With a start, I span over, twisting myself off his hand. I caught a glimpse of a bald, boxy head, and passed out.

When I next awoke, I was alone. The room – a small suite – looked as if it had been taken apart in a fight. Moving slowly, deliberately, I dressed myself, lifting a fallen armchair to retrieve my handbag, and made my way down the stairs, past the concierge, and out onto the street. I knew we had had sex.

On Oxford’s silvery pavements under the steel winter sky, I felt I was walking through the barrel of a gun. At the other end, my friend answered the door of her flat with a concerned look. “I don’t know what happened,” I mumbled. “I think I had sex with a man older than my father. I feel awful.”

She ushered me into her bedroom where I slept, fully clothed, until she gently shook me awake. “I think you should go to the doctor,” she said quietly. “What happened to you last night? Did he rape you?”

I started crying. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t remember anything.”

She led me into her kitchen, where her flatmate was sitting, smoking. Manicured, cat-like; he ran his eyes over me. “You’re a mess,” he enunciated. “This was going to happen to you sooner or later. Pull yourself together. This is your fault.”

I cried silently through the appointment with the college’s doctor. He said, he was sorry, but, you see, he couldn’t examine me as there wasn’t a female nurse in the building, and without an examination, he said, there wasn’t really any point in going to the police or doing a blood test, but here’s a pill to stop you getting Aids and pregnant, but don’t drink on them, ha ha!, and oh look, I’ve just noticed it was your birthday yesterday, HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

I had never before felt my body, so directly, to be the recipient of male violence; a battlefield for a struggle between autonomy and patriarchal oppression. And I had never before felt so directly betrayed by male authority figures charged with my care, and male friends. I had also never before felt the worth of, the visceral need for, female company: for women whose bodies had, like mine, made them vulnerable to particular types of male encroachment, confinement and intimidation, from the moment of birth onwards. A female therapist, female friends, feminism: these things made all the difference.

My story was not unique. Which ones are? An anonymous female student wrote a harrowing account of being raped while unconscious as a second-year undergraduate at Oxford, followed by dismissal (rape is “just something that happens”) and woefully wrongful advice from the police. A recent survey by the NUS showed by 37 per cent of female students, and 12 per cent of male, claim to have faced some form of sexual harassment while at university. The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) launched a campaign in 2013, “It Happens Here”, to raise awareness of sexual abuse and violence in Oxford, through education and advocacy: “encourag[ing] structures to be implemented that support survivors of abuse and violence”. A key component of that campaign is to assist facilities that exist for the support of such survivors: helplines, groups, therapy.

A question that troubles me is this: should female-only rape support groups be inclusive of trans (male-to-female) women? Is it relevant whether such individuals have undergone reassignment surgery, whether they retain intact male genitalia, whether they live part-time as women and part-time as men, or whether they present full-time as men but identify as women? If a line is to be drawn, where? It is undeniable that trans people have great need for such services: the US transgender support and campaign organisation FORGE cites claims that over 50 per cent of trans people face sexual violence. What proportion of sexual violence towards trans people is motivated by misogyny and what proportion by transphobia? Would trans people be potentially better served by exclusively trans support groups that tackle both systems of hate, or by groups that exclusively deal with misogyny? (As in many issues, the experience and oppression of women and trans women does intersect to a certain degree, but differs too.) What effect would the inclusion of trans women in support groups have on female clients? The 2010 Equality Act protects transgender people from discrimination or exclusion from single-sex facilities, but contains one exception: in a group counselling session provided for female victims of sexual assault, exclusion of a “male-to-female trans person” is lawful if that person’s presence would make it unlikely for other clients to continue attending the session. There are calls from trans activists for this exception to be revoked.

It was my experience that led me to sign the open letter published by the Observer on 14 February, which pointed to “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic’”. It called on universities to “resist this kind of bullying”, and “affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange”. I was one of more than 130 signatories.

I signed the letter, partly because, as an academic, I am committed to what John Henry Newman considered the defining feature of “the idea of a university”: a broad, liberal education that teaches students “to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyse” a broad range of arguments. “Not to know the relative disposition of things,” wrote Newman, “is the state of slaves or children”. This type of education necessarily involves introducing students to arguments and writers that they might find unsatisfactory, illogical, plain wrong, and even offensive or upsetting; and it will provide them with the skills to rebut such arguments and, in doing so, forge their own thought.

Speakers who directly incite to violence, or utter libellous claims, do not fall within this remit, because the threat they pose outweighs the benefits of diverse opinion. I understand very well the concern that any argument that, however tangentially, contributes to a culture of inequality or discrimination, may ultimately contribute to the physical violence that is the origin and conclusion of such inequality. I understand this because I’m a woman, and every catcall, every dismissive remark or treatment from a man, is part of a culture of misogyny that begins and ends with rape and violence against women and girls. But I also recognise the crucial differences between actual and metaphorical violence; and the impossibility and subjectivity of prosecuting or censoring any remark potentially construed as offensive. 

Personally, I don’t pretend to know the answer to the problem I outlined above, about access to women-only spaces. I know how therapeutically constructive I found the company of women, who had experienced, from birth, the same oppressive, stunting weight with which patriarchal gender expectations and direct male violence stifle the flourishing of little girls and women. Incidentally, I felt the same stunting weight, the same need for female company, in pregnancy and motherhood: the uninvited gropes from men (“awright preggers?”), the unequal legislation that sent my male partner to work while keeping me alone at home, on the basis of a mysterious quality called “maternal instinct” that I apparently had and he apparently lacked. I was lucky enough to not be subject to the 30 per cent of domestic violence that begins during a woman’s pregnancy, and affects between 4 and 9 per cent of pregnant women. Much of women’s oppression is directly related to various elements of the female body – our vaginas, breasts, reproductive systems, lesser physical strength, the way in which our body fat is proportioned and distributed – some of which may also be possessed by trans women, some which are exclusive to women. It is not essentialist to point out this relationship between biology and oppression, nor to claim its importance.

As I said, I don’t know the answer. It is a case of competing rights and claims, and a solution will only be found by listening to, and negotiating between, representatives from all sides: the full diversity of opinions of female and trans survivors of sexual assault, therapists and counsellors, trans support groups, representatives of women’s charities and campaigns. Many trans people want this too: Professor Stephen Whittle of Press For Change writes of the need for “a trans community and movement based upon the principles of tolerance”.

I signed the Observer letter because I believe that it is not “transphobic” to assert the need for such a debate, nor to defend the validity of arguments on both sides. My insistence that such a debate exists is not born of hatred or “phobia” for anybody. I do not accept the logic of certain trans activists that there is no debate – the argument made by the influential Liberal Democrat, and member of the Lib Dem LGBT+ equalities group Sarah Brown, who argues that trans women have more right to define the category “woman” than “cis women”, because women who are born women are necessarily “in a position of privilege over trans women”. It is not privilege to be born with a body that is, from the moment of birth, vulnerable to the constriction, damage and violence that men enact upon women, either through gender norms (the praise given to little girls for being quiet, still, delicate, dainty poppets) or through physical assault. The 51 per cent of the global population who are born with such a body are not necessarily more privileged than the estimated 0.01 per cent of the population who are transgender.

I am concerned that a number of politicians, particularly among the liberal left, who have been elected or proposed to represent a diversity of opinions within a certain demographic, are failing to acknowledge the validity of views held by a significant proportion of that community. Views such as mine, which display no hatred or phobia whatsoever; just a recognition of the existence of competing claims, and the need for considered debate. This is a worrying adjunct to the type of silencing of debate within universities that the Observer letter described. Accusations of “transphobia”, extremism and hate speech are levelled at those who express the type of scepticism that I have articulated in this article.

Surely the Green Party’s sole equalities spokesperson should faithfully represent the views of all demographics who experience inequality, including women who have valid concerns about provision of rape support? The role’s current occupant, Benali Hamdache, openly dismisses women who hold views like my own with the misogynistic slur “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), a term which is only ever used pejoratively. The Green Party’s candidate for Bexleyheath and Crayford, Stella Gardiner, tweets that women who share my views are “extremists and enemies of all women!” On 15 February, Sarah Brown sent an hours-long barrage of tweets to Professor Mary Beard, berating her for signing the same Observer letter that I did. Six student politicians at Oxford University – including four who are directly responsible for “women’s campaigns” in the university – published an open letter in response, accusing me and the three other Oxford signatories of sending “a clear message to trans students and students who are in the sex industry that they are unwelcome at Oxford University”, questioning our ability to provide adequate pastoral care to vulnerable students and calling for an apology. 

Although these are relatively minor politicians, they are in positions in which they represent the views of a diversity of communities. Many transgender people dissent from transgender politics’ prevailing orthodoxy that there are no differences between trans women and “cis women” (other than the latter demographic’s apparently greater privilege): they are not being represented by the LGBT+ spokespeople above. Many lesbians are unhappy about some trans activists’ claims that not wanting to have sex with pre-operative trans women is blatant “transphobia”: they too are losing a political voice. Many women – like myself – for whom the preservation of all-female spaces has an importance, for whom there is a debate about who such spaces are for, are dismissed as transphobic and not represented by politicians, like Benali Hamdache, who purport to speak in our name.

What is happening in universities is microcosmic of the larger political arena, in terms of attitudes towards sex and gender. The voices of oppressed groups are being drowned out by a single orthodoxy, with a false rhetoric of metaphorical violence, extremism, hatred and “phobia” hurled at such voices in order to discredit them. In many cases, the people who do this have the best of intentions: to protect a group that undoubtedly faces appalling discrimination and abuse. But it concerns me greatly the extent to which they, these voices of the liberal left, consider women’s serious, reasonable, moderate concerns to be utterly disposable.

Dr Rachel Hewitt is the Weinrebe Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford

This article was published in the UK New Statesman magazine

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