As an agender person, this is what going to a women’s university taught me about all-women’s spaces

By Duchess Magazine

As much as fear of men is legitimate, if the burden is constantly placed on women’s shoulders to protect themselves from rape using segregation, it is nothing more than victim blaming disguised as progress

My earliest memory involves two things: the colour blue and a very specific type of pain. I learnt early and against my will to associate masculinity and all things “boy” with pain, humiliation and confusion.

There were few positive male role models in my life and most of the men I knew were dangerous. If it wasn’t the family members and babysitter who sexually assaulted me, it was the distant family members, who I knew were also rapists. Very few teenagers had to worry about the potential of their grandfather kidnapping them at gunpoint.

Needless to say, by the time I was nearing 18, I was terrified of men.

I’m non-binary or agender, which means I don’t identify with any gender. When it came time for me to pick a university I didn’t really understand my identity, and I chose an all-women’s university, in all honesty, because of that fear.

Date rape statistics floated over my head like a cloud. I wasn’t concerned with a feminist education – in fact, I believed I might be outcast in my “feminist” school for having bare legs and armpits because my hormone disorder causes me to have little body hair. I assumed that I would be mocked for wanting to have children – but that was better to me than potentially being raped.

I understand why so many women and non-binary people are scared of men. But, what bothers me about this discussion between trans communities and those who campaign against trans rights is that, no matter who “wins”, it’s patriarchy that benefits in the end.

Author Juno Roche debunks common misconception about transgender people

If trans people are not safe in public spaces, patriarchy wins. Violence against trans people can be difficult to monitor and track due to reporting or misgendering, but Stonewall’s LGBT in Britain report on hate crime confirms that 41 per cent of trans people versus 16 per cent of LGB people have experienced hate crime. In gender segregated spaces where individuals have to “pass”, this can be even riskier.

If feminists who say women have a genuine fear of men in public spaces are discounted and ignored, patriarchy also wins. According to the Ministry of Justice report in 2013, approximately 85,000 women are raped and 400,000 women are sexually assaulted in England and Wales every year and, according to the Map of Gaps report in 2007, most women in the UK do not have access to a rape crisis centre.

Patriarchy wins because the burden is placed on women to protect themselves and no one is asking the real question: why do women have so many good reasons to be afraid of men?

In the Channel 4 documentary, What Makes a Woman?, I was struck by the conversations presenter Munroe Bergdorf had with those who called themselves “feminists”. There was fear expressed that men might take advantage of the changes to the Gender Recognition Act to sneak into places like bathrooms and changing rooms to assault people or make them feel uncomfortable.

Understandably, many people have responded by claiming this scenario very unlikely – and for the most part I agree. After all, if men want to sneak into women’s bathrooms, they already can – providing trans people with a less inaccessible way to have their identity recognised doesn’t change this.

A simple Google search of “sexual assault bathroom” reveals a multitude of cases of men entering female toilets without a need for disguise.

One jogger in Seattle fought back against a man who followed her into a toilet and later dismissed people trying to use her story to argue for laws discriminating against trans people. It’s very clear that gender segregation doesn’t stop or prevent assault.

If going to a women’s university taught me anything it’s that there is a difference between what I call a “female space” and a “women’s space”.

A “female space” is a space in society that is segregated by gender which has nothing to do with empowerment and, if anything, is about keeping women in their place.

Much of public life prior to the Victorian era was male-only. When women were allowed to venture outside of the home, the concept of “separate spheres” which dominated the Victorian era was erected and everything from salons to libraries to even lines at the bank were segregated by gender.

This died out but, in a paper on sex segregation, Terry Kogan clarifies that there was a last ditch effort in the 19th century to legislate requirements for segregated bathrooms in workplaces for women, not as an attempt to protect women from rape, but to “force women back into the home” away from the “dangerous public realm”.

Segregating bathrooms was never about the threat men represented to women, and more about maintaining the “purity” and “virtue” of “true womanhood”.

After graduating from my all-women’s university, I went into a workplace in the US South where I only worked around women and yet, with the Jesus statue in the lobby, it felt nothing like my all-women’s university. A “female space” is not a women’s space.

A “women’s space” is a space devoted to empowering women. My university wasn’t perfect, but without it, I think it would have taken me much longer to understand myself as an agender person.

I went to an all-women’s university because I was scared of rape, but while I was there I gained an insight that was inherently more valuable. Our campus still had men on it – professors and visitors. It made me realise very quickly that my idea of segregating myself in society wasn’t going to prevent me from rape and that, ultimately, avoiding rape should not be mine nor anyone else’s responsibility. The only person responsible for changing their actions is the would-be rapist.

Having a feminist education made me understand that not only was I wrong to assume I’d be instantly derided for having bare armpits, but that there was no one universal concept of womanhood that applied to everyone. That’s why I believe in the importance of women’s spaces – and that trans women should be a part of them. That’s why I also believe that all spaces should promote empowerment for women.

The feminism I had been first exposed to emphasised the physicality of womanhood – and my not producing oestrogen (or testosterone) meant that my journey was very different. I assumed I didn’t feel any connection to the identity of “woman” because I wasn’t a “real” one. I needed hormone therapy to start my puberty and breast growth. I had no first time period story. My disability already made me feel inhuman and these feminist theories made me feel inadequate.

My all-women’s university helped me come to an understanding that, if everyone assigned as female at birth lived the same womanhood, there would not be women who were anti-feminist. Without that, I would have never dug deeper and found an identity that actually fit me.

Women have a legitimate reason to be afraid of men – and transgender women know and understand this too.

But just because a society separates bathrooms doesn’t mean it cares about protecting women. If this society wanted to protect women, it would actually convict rapists and figures released in 2015 showed the UK has the lowest conviction rate for rapes in Europe.

Although segregated bathrooms were never designed to protect anything other than a traditional, sexist view of “womanhood”, they can offer what looks like a small respite.

If everything came to pass as some of the people in Bergdorf’s documentary would like it and no man could enter a women’s toilet (legally anyway), all they would have to do is just wait outside. As much as their fear is legitimate, if the burden is constantly placed on women’s shoulders to protect themselves from rape using segregation, it is nothing more than victim blaming disguised as progress.

If we lived in a society where sexual assault was taken seriously, if we lived in a society where domestic violence was taken seriously, if we lived in a society where femmephobic violence was taken seriously and if we lived in a society where misogyny was not rampant, then no one would have to hide in a bathroom.

No one should settle for historically sexist practices that only provide the illusion of safety. Trans people and their rights to self-identification should not be held hostage by people who commit sexual assault – those people should actually be held accountable for what they have done.

If you have been affected by sexual violence, the NHS Rape Crisis offers specialist support for women and girls; and the TheSurvivors’ Trust supports people of any gender. If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this article, you can contact the following organisations for support:

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