Open Letter to Edinburgh Rape Crisis Staff and Trustees
With thanks to Jean Hatchet for her feminist documentation and transcription work. This one is for Sally, and all the other women in too vulnerable a position to publicly advocate for single-sex services.
Dear Edinburgh Rape Crisis,
My name is Claire Heuchan. I’m a survivor of men’s sexual violence. And I’m writing this letter to express concerns about the troubling implications of comments made by your CEO, Mridul Wadhwa, at a recent event with SayiT Sheffield. This letter is in no way intended as an attack on Edinburgh Rape Crisis; I have the greatest respect for your organisation, and believe you do lifesaving work. The recorded incidences of rape and attempted rape in Scotland continue to skyrocket, yet the conviction rate is among the lowest for any type of crime – which means that you are, unfortunately, more necessary than ever before. But women who have survived horrific acts of male violence are going without support, self-excluding from your service and others, because these spaces are now mixed-sex.
That’s not an untruth, exaggeration, or story made up to fit a particular agenda. It’s the reality here in Scotland; a reality acknowledged directly by your CEO. Wadhwa admitted that “in Scotland, where you have large groups of survivors, some are not using our services because they see us as trans inclusive and feeling that they may be exposed to an issue that they are not prepared to deal with.” But women aren’t self-excluding because “they may be exposed to an issue.” They’re self-excluding because they may be exposed to males in the aftermath of surviving male violence. Any trauma-informed service – as ERC claims to be – must have the capacity to acknowledge why that is problematic.
Wadhwa recognises that survivors are self-excluding from mixed-sex services. But frames the attitudes of women who have survived male violence, as opposed to the mixed-sex spaces, as the problem. These comments were made by the CEO of ERC – someone with the power to shape the ethos of your organisation and survivors’ experiences within it. Wadhwa’s words have consequences, as does the attitude they embody.
The feminist policy analysists Murray Blackburn MacKenzie “wrote to Scottish Women’s Aid to ask whether they were aware of any work undertaken by any of the violence against women and girls organisations in Scotland that sought to quantify the scale of potential self-exclusion by women from both specialist and mainstream services should they admit transwomen.” They received no response. Transparency and public accountability would both go a long way towards resolving the conflict of interests where self-ID is concerned.
Therefore, I would like to know: has Edinburgh Rape Crisis undertaken a change impact analysis or any other study into the consequences of making your services mixed-sex spaces? And, if so, will the findings be made public? In the absence of data from Rape Crisis or Women’s Aid, Women and Girls Scotland undertook their own research. And this is what they found:
“A majority of women (80.1%) said that female victims of male violence should be able to access female-only survivor support services and refuges, and a majority (71%) said that if they had reason to use survivor support services or a refuge, they would not be comfortable if the service was inclusive of trans-identified males.“
Since 2018, Women and Girls Scotland have pointed out to both Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid “that failures to be clear regarding whether or not their network of providers will offer their services on a female-only basis for those who need it, has led to women self-excluding from their services.” I don’t know how many women have self-excluded from Rape Crisis or Women’s Aid services because they are mixed-sex. Apparently, nobody outside of these organisations does. But I would argue that if even one woman self-excludes from these services, that is one woman too many.
No woman is disposable. And it is nothing short of Orwellian that women are now self-excluding from services because of policies made in the name of ‘inclusivity.’ It’s not inclusive if it doesn’t work for women. And ‘women supporting women’ was a banner founding members of Edinburgh Rape Crisis marched under. It was a founding principle of your organisation. Nobody says it better than Caroline Burrell, who led ERC before Wadhwa:
“Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre was founded by a group of women who wanted to create a safe and confidential space for women who had experienced sexual violence.”
Burrell’s successor has deviated from these principles, arguing that “being really radical in our inclusion of those who are marginalised does not discriminate against those who have relative privilege in our society.” But what “privilege” does this mean, when at least 1 in 4 British women will experience male violence? Two women a week are killed by a current or former (male) partner in England and Wales alone; and approx. 85,000 women experience men’s sexual violence every year. Male violence against women and girls happens at a similar rate in Scotland – and, indeed, around the world. No other demographic is assaulted and killed on this scale; not in Scotland. Therefore, I’m concerned that ERC’s CEO seeks to create a hierarchy of survivors by positioning women and girls as an advantaged party.
When it comes to male violence, women as a sex class are the least ‘privileged’ demographic on the planet. Yes, the vulnerability of some women is heightened by race, class, migration status, disability, faith, or sexuality. And specialised services do vital work, with significantly less funding than mainstream organisations. But sex is the commonality between women’s experiences of male violence, and feminist analysis must reflect that.
Wadhwa also suggests that “organisations might… have open conversations with survivors if they wish and are willing to engage around what equality and diversity means.” But the women’s sector exists to support women through the aftermath of male violence, not do EDI training with survivors.
The SayiT Sheffield event is not the first time Wadhwa has advocated services carry out a form of EDI training with survivors. Speaking on the Guilty Feminist podcast, Wadhwa stated that “sexual violence happens to bigoted people as well. And so, you know, it is not a discerning crime. But these spaces are also for you. But 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 also expect to be challenged on your prejudices.”
As Raquel Rosario Sánchez points out, this directly contradicts ERC’s claim that your services are “trauma-informed” and “non-judgemental” through “judging victims by informing them that they had to ‘reframe’ their trauma so they could overcome the entirely natural fear and distrust that male violence induces on victims and survivors.” Somehow, it’s never men that are asked to do the heavy lifting in terms of trans inclusion – even though they perpetrate the violence that put women and trans people both at risk. But, in this case, that work is put upon women who are trying to make sense of perhaps the worst trauma they will ever experience.
I am far from the first feminist to highlight this issue. For Women Scotland described Wadhwa’s Guilty Feminist appearance as “a masterclass of gaslighting”; and they’re not wrong. FWS have also been consistent in championing survivors’ right to access single-sex services in the aftermath of male violence, and – if the content of this letter has not already made it abundantly clear – that’s a cause I will support until my dying breath. Without a trace of shame or regret. But Wadhwa accuses women who want single-sex services of “associating with fascists and those who would want to eliminate anybody who is not cisgendered and white in our society.”
To whom is Wadhwa referring? Such unsubstantiated claims and veiled comments only add to the toxicity of gender discourse in Scotland. Lorde knows I have little time for the single-issue Gender Critical crowd. But, to the best of my knowledge, not a single woman among them has given even tangential support for the genocide of people of colour and/or LGBT people. And Wadhwa’s claim pours gasoline on a public discussion that was already explosive.
I advocate women-only space as a Black lesbian feminist. And in so doing I would much sooner stand beside Women and Girls Scotland (spearheaded by working-class feminists) or For Women Scotland than a Rape Crisis CEO who prioritises their own interests above the needs of survivors. Some may point out that these WGS and FWS are new and relatively untested, to which I would say that grassroots feminist groups emerge from need – in this instance, a need that is not being met by established and government-funded feminist organisations.
In her book Feminism for Women: The Real Route to Liberation, campaigner Julie Bindel warns against the dangers of “femocracy”; the corporatisation of the sort of feminist activism that built the women’s sector from nothing. When feminist organisations “became fearful of offending their stakeholders”, Bindel argues, “the form of feminism they espoused became tamer and less threatening to the establishment.” And as I read these words for the first time, I thought of Edinburgh’s feminist organisations – was this why you stayed unanimously silent when Julie was attacked in your city after giving a talk about male violence against women?
More to the point, I wonder: is it fear of public retribution that led to Edinburgh Rape Crisis shifting towards a mixed-sex team and spaces? Is it fear that you will lose your funding? Or a combination of the two? I am not without sympathy. The cost attached to advocating women-only space is now disproportionate as it is vicious. And generations of feminists fought tooth and nail to build the women’s sector into what it now is – if defunded, that infrastructure is not easily replaced. Especially not while the politics of austerity govern Britain.
That being said, what about the women self-excluding from your service and others? When are we going to have an open discussion about the consequences of making services mixed-sex? Where is the research into the efficacy of mixed-sex services? These are all questions in desperate need of an answer.
Edinburgh’s feminist organisations have demonstrated an unwillingness to engage with women’s concerns about self-ID or the Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act. In this, Edinburgh Rape Crisis is certainly not alone. Engender were scheduled to hold a meeting about the GRA and women’s rights. It was postponed… indefinitely. And I still wonder, if they’d held that meeting, how might gender discourse be different in this country? Let’s face it, this conversation can’t get much uglier.
I think that if Scotland’s feminist organisations had facilitated open and mutually respectful public discussion around this subject – instead of leaving two marginalised groups of people to get locked into a cycle of conflict over social media – we might have reached something close to consensus by now.
But instead we are here: where women self-exclude from a Rape Crisis service, and the problem goes unaddressed. Something has clearly gone wrong in the Scottish women’s sector, when the CEO of a Rape Crisis Centre can repeatedly make comments such as Wadhwa’s without reprisal; especially when, as Wadhwa recognises, some women choose to carry trauma alone rather than accessing support via that service. But it is fixable. If I didn’t think this problem could be resolved, I would have spent my Saturday swimming and reading lesbian books instead of wading further into a public discussion that is utterly thankless and, frankly, excruciating.
I’m writing this letter because I believe it is possible for there to be a range of services that meet the specific needs of women and the specific needs transgender people both; and that, one day, we can build a world where neither set of services is needed because patriarchy has been dismantled. And in the short term it is my hope that these words will open up the space for discussion; between Edinburgh Rape Crisis staff and trustees; between Edinburgh Rape Crisis and the women alienated by the actions of their CEO; perhaps even between Rape Crisis centres across Scotland. The herstory of Scotland’s Rape Crisis movement is one that we can all be proud of; that herstory does not need a “wash and clean”, as Wadhwa suggests, but rather a radical reclaiming as women build this movement’s future.
One last point. Several feminist organisations seem to have taken the ostrich approach to public discussions around sex, gender, and women’s spaces. But this approach relies on the assumption that it will all blow over sooner or later; that we women who want single-sex spaces and services will simply give up and decide not to make a fuss. But that’s not going to happen. Too much is at stake. #WomenWontWheesht. And we’re ready to talk when you are.
Yours in sisterhood,
Shonagh Dillon (2021). A Scottish Sister Speaks.
Karen Ingala Smith (2021). Counting Dead Trans People.
Karen Ingala Smith (2019). Counting Dead Women – and counting people who identify as transgender
Eileen Maitland (2009). Woman to Woman, An Oral History of Rape Crisis in Scotland 1976-1991. Hampden Advertising Limited
Women and Girls Scotland (2019). Female Only Provision: A Women and Girls in Scotland Report