The Real Crisis at Rape Crisis Scotland

But I think the other thing is that sexual violence happens to bigoted people as well. And so, you know, it is not 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, because how can you heal from trauma and build a new relationship with your trauma, because you can’t forget, and you can’t go back to life before traumatic incident or traumatic incidents. And some of us never, ever had a life before traumatic incidents. But if you have to reframe your trauma, I think it is important as part of that reframing, having a more positive relationship with it, where it becomes a story that empowers you and allows you to go and do other more beautiful things with your life, you also have to rethink your relationship with prejudice. Otherwise, you can’t really, in my view, recover from trauma and I think that’s a very important message that I am often discussing with my colleagues that in various places. Because you know, to me, therapy is political, and it isn’t always seen as that.

Mridul Wadhwa, CEO Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre on the ‘Guilty Feminist’ podcast
Audio I Transcript

The passage above is from a podcast featuring Mridul Wadhwa, the Chief Executive Officer of Edinburgh Rape Crisis. The podcast as a whole is a masterclass of gaslighting and features an extraordinary performance by the host Deborah Frances-White, who downplays the harassment women “might” get on a night bus at 1am when compared to the “very structurally violent constant flicks of eyes, and I don’t know, oh, God, and aggressive glares” that she says transwomen are exposed to. Other “anecdotal” assumptions by Frances-White include that of a transwoman’s reception at a shelter: “if they turn up they’re more likely to be vulnerable and fearful of their response. Because if I turned up to a refuge, a women’s refuge, in the middle of the night going, I’ve just had this terrible experience, my expectation would be you would say, Oh, please come in, we’ll take care of you. But I can imagine being trans and thinking I’ve, you know, I know what people say and I know that, you know, maybe this will be an inclusive space for me and maybe it won’t. Maybe they’ll say get out of here. And so this violence will be compounded by more structural violence.” 

Frances-White’s naive, factually incorrect analysis of violence against women and how women feel in accessing services and support is never challenged by the supposed expert Wadhwa who is happy to allow Frances-White and co-host Kemah Bob to talk about abused women being obliged to “check your privilege”. A podcast interviewing the CEO of a rape centre becomes an exercise in proving that the person in charge of the centre is a more vulnerable person than the women accessing the service.

Anyone who cares about the reality of how a shelter, operating on a shoestring, might assess risk and yet also extend empathy should read the text of a speech Karen Ingala Smith gave to the Scottish Parliament in January 2020: “Where contracts require us to support men and some do, we do so; and male victims are treated with the same levels of skill, respect and dignity as women and girls. We do not support men in venues that we use to support women and we do not support men at all in our refuges or our therapeutic groups. We do not employ males.” She further says, “Risk assessment is about identifying risks posed by violent men and mitigating against them, not chucking in a few extra because you can.

Wadhwa’s statement quoted in the opening paragraph has distressed many women who are survivors of violence. The “bigots” Wadhwa identifies are women who want female only spaces in rape or domestic violence shelter and female only counselling. In a series of bizarre and insulting arguments, Wadhwa claims that women shouldn’t be concerned about male people in supposedly female spaces because we already operate in “a man’s world” and, outlandishly seems to suggest that because a planning officer or a finance minister might be male, women have no excuse to resist the presence of men in spaces specifically designed to protect women at an extreme moment: “my argument is that men are already in these women’s spaces, like, for example, a Rape Crisis Centre or a Women’s Aid, because who is making the decisions about how much money we get. About who you know, who gives us planning permission, it is not women alone.”

It also concerned those with a background in counselling and mental health who wondered about the professional qualifications of one who apparently failed to understand that therapy must be non-judgemental. They also worried Wadhwa had reinvented or misunderstood the concept of “reframing trauma” which is supposed to enable a survivor to understand their natural response to attack and “reframe” any residual guilt they might feel in not having fought off the attacker or for having frozen. It is not supposed to be a vehicle for re-education or for making victims think they carry “prejudice” as suggested in the opening extract.

Wadhwa’s comment that women will be “challenged on your prejudices” and that “therapy is political” may come as news to the head honchos at Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS) who issued their own statement on Monday.

According to RCS:

  • The core value that underpins all Rape Crisis support is of being non-judgemental. We meet every survivor who engages with us, whether through a one-off helpline call or continued local support, as an individual and work with them to establish their needs, and how best to work with them to come to terms with what has happened and move forward after sexual violence.
  • Our services are trauma informed. This means that we work collaboratively and are non-directive – we won’t ever tell someone what to do, or what not to do – to restore a survivor’s sense of control over their own journey. Rape Crisis workers across Scotland understand trauma, the many ways in which it can manifest, and work with compassion and dedication to meet the needs of survivors. This is vital, life-saving work.

“Non judgemental” does not seem consistent with calling survivors “bigots” nor does their assertion that they will never “tell someone what to do” fit with Wadhwa’s determination to “challenge” women on their “prejudice”.

The statement from RCS was prompted by a thread from Women and Girls in Scotland (WGiS) who have been trying to nail down whether women can request female only spaces and counselling. Such a request should, surely, be the least abused women can expect. RCS assessment of this fundamental question is that it was part of “coordinated and harmful claims circulating about Rape Crisis services in Scotland, stemming from a twitter thread that questioned the provision of women-only spaces in Rape Crisis Centres.” A simple reply, which would assuage survivor concerns and kill criticism stone-dead would, of course, be a declaration that women can rely on female only spaces if this is what they need. RCS, however, chose to reassure women about the female only spaces thus: “Women only spaces are a core principle of the Rape Crisis movement and upheld through our National Service Standards. These spaces include women with a diverse range of lived experience and views, including trans women and girls.” So the “diverse range of lived experience” includes those people who are biological males, who may or may not have gone through any process of transition, and whose motivations from accessing a space for abused women cannot be assessed properly (as Ingala Smith also explored).

Scotland’s “feminist” organisation Engender were swift to defend RCS from the “misinformation about what support looks like”. Yet it is not misinformation to highlight that, in RCS’s own words, they include male people in female only spaces based on their declared identity and have for some time. In the past, they even went so far as to include on their website a document examined here by MurrayBlackburnMacKenzie and which echoes many of the comments and sentiments expressed by Wadhwa in the podcast. The guidance, in fact, advised that if other service users are uncomfortable sharing a space with a male “this is rightly seen as no reason for the trans woman to be moved”, and “we would work to educate other service users – much in the same way that we would if we received comments regarding other service user’s ethnicity, religious affiliation or sexual orientation”. In other words, you’ll be challenged on your prejudice.

WGiS, in a blistering thread, explained the background to the requests which RCS had misrepresented. They also, shockingly, revealed that local services were frightened to state publicly that they could guarantee female only services because of the reaction from those who want to prevent women accessing such a service. We are sure that such people include those in the sector, like Wadhwa, as well as in Government.   

A core principle of the Equality Act is that exceptions are provided for single sex services and spaces. This has, of course, been misrepresented by Scottish Government and the groups they fund who claim the “case by case” exception relates to individuals rather than services. The MSP Angela Constance who presided over funding requirements for Equally Safe that asked for a trans inclusive policy in women’s services has claimed that refusing funding to groups who seek to exercise these exceptions would be illegal. Yet, in evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee at Westminster, Mridul Wadhwa not only claimed that the women’s sector were constrained to offer services on the basis of self-ID but wanted to see this extended and urged the removal of the genuine occupational requirement which is supposed to limit recruitment to members of one protected characteristic (eg. sex) on the basis that it could be used to “discriminate” against biological trans identified males who wanted to take a woman-only role.

The push back to criticism from the podcast hosts has been to emphasise Wadhwa’s commitment to, and work in, the women’s sector. But they miss the crucial issue: whatever Wadhwa’s motivation (including a genuine desire to help women), the extension of women’s services to accommodate and employ people based on self-identification has been detrimental to the principle of providing single sex spaces and will ultimately traumatise women or put them at risk. No one genuinely concerned about vulnerable women would be looking to erode or weaken protection: however honourable they might be, they cannot guarantee that others will not exploit the loopholes they have teased and widened. Another transwoman, Debbie Hayton, has said of hospital wards “I don’t think exceptions should be made. Not for me; not for anyone. It’s because we have made exceptions that we have got into this mess.” Hayton admits that “I have not always thought this way” but now acknowledges that weakening provisions for one person, however well-intentioned or unthreatening they may be, will mean that boundaries cannot be applied to anyone else.

This then, is the mess in which the women’s sector in Scotland now finds itself. RCS argues that they provide services for “anyone – including women, trans and non-binary people, men and boys – affected by sexual violence.” We firmly believe that all victims of sexual violence need and deserve appropriate services. One conversation over the past few years has centred around how to accommodate men and boys who are victims of sexual violence. There is no doubt that these survivors need and deserve services and empathy and that they often struggle to find specialist services and support. There are those who disagree profoundly with us who may be astonished to learn that we back their campaign for services for abused men. We do believe, however, that the response and needs of male and female survivors is very different. Trans identity further confuses this picture. What is needed, above all, are tailored services to best help all victims of abuse. But there has been a drive – born of a need to validate individual identity – to wash out this difference: a drive that puts the identity of the counsellor ahead of the trauma of the victim.

This is not to say that men – or biological males – cannot and should not be involved in working with victims of male violence – there are those who may benefit from their involvement. But, as counsellor and advocate Sebastian Potter sets out, this must be person centred care where the victim, not the counsellor, is the priority.

The paradox of inclusion caught Scottish Women’s Aid unawares when centres lost public funding to more “inclusive” services. CEO Marsha Scott decided to attack women who had pointed out that downplaying the role of specialist services for women in favour of a service for all would, ultimately, rebound on these services, saying “We do not accept the narrative being put forward by those people”. Yet, the “gender neutral” tender process is a natural outcome of policy and process designed to downplay the requirement for female only services (see also The Times article “Women’s abuse charity ‘lost council contracts for excluding men’“).

Wadhwa claimed in the podcast that those worried about policy at local centres should “reach out to them and ask those questions”. Yet, what happens when the women are told that they cannot be guaranteed female support? In advance of the Forensic Medical Services (FMS) Bill debate and Johann Lamont’s amendment to ensure that survivors could request the sex of the examiner, Mandy Rhodes of Holyrood Magazine wroteLast night I spent an hour on the phone with a heartbroken mother of a girl who was raped by a number of teenage boys and who did not get the support she needed because she was told that a woman counsellor could not be guaranteed. She developed PTSD.”  As one woman who attended a meeting with the CEO of RCS wrote: “We reached out to be told that TW are not only women, but female too. The damage that meeting caused us. For so very long. The woman who should have helped us rode all over us. For men. And a fucked up belief in queer theory. What utter bastards. The lot of them.” Why is it so difficult in services that, according to Wadhwa, were “set up with the blood, sweat, and tears of women” and whose “workforce is reserved for women only” to guarantee that a female will be a counsellor if needed?

The reaction of the service to the FMS Bill amendment explained much. The amendment was so small, yet so significant. It was born from the single most important request of the survivors, that they be allowed to request (in the understanding that it might not be guaranteed) the sex of a medical examiner. Surely, we thought, this was such an easy but important way to grant survivors a measure of autonomy and a reassertion of control over their bodies? The reaction of RCS was to fight it. They claimed it was irrelevant, that no examiners were trans so it was immaterial, that it would never be an issue, that more important things were at stake. Perhaps. But if so irrelevant, why not concede a small but vital piece of reassurance? Because, of course, it wasn’t. Because to campaigners like Wadhwa this was, again, a denial of womanhood of those who chose to self-identify into it. Wadhwa’s reaction to the passing of the amendment was to leave the SNP and join Patrick Harvie’s Scottish Greens, a party who – with the honourable exception of Andy Wighman – had refused to sign motions condemning violence against women.

Meanwhile, women who work, or have left, the sector in Scotland have spoken to us in whispers about a culture that brooks no criticism. Some are starting to find a voice, including Jessie (not her real name) who gave this interview to Shonagh Dillon, a leading campaigner in the sector.

The full transcript of the Guilty Feminist podcast is well worth a read and further exploration. It is odd, for example, that when asked to talk about funds, needs and priorities, the CEO of a centre does not talk about the devastating impact of lockdown and the heightened violence women faced, but focused on trans people “just leave us alone and give us the few things that we’re asking for: better healthcare, the ability to change our birth certificate without a bunch of probably men deciding on a panel whether I’m a woman or a man enough to get a different birth certificate…Don’t make me wait for two or three years for my first appointment at a gender identity clinic. abolish gender identity clinics, why can we not access healthcare in primary health care settings as trans people”. It also needs to be examined why Wadhwa claimed that if Kemah Bob (a Black American woman) turned up at a shelter, they wouldn’t let her in “That same refuge would probably want to see her passport and immigration status”. Is Wadhwa really claiming that refuges are screening for potentially illegal immigrants amongst abused women? The same refuges who are not allowed to question an obvious male are turning away on the door distressed women because of accents or skin colour? If this is true, it surely should be a scandal. If untrue, statements like this will undoubtedly cause heightened fear.

RCS and other groups like Scottish Women’s Aid and Engender feel under attack. They, and their supporters are angered that they are being criticised (or, as they have claimed, abused). We understand this. Yet, what they fail to acknowledge is that the most angry, devastated voices are from the women they were set up to help and, in some cases, the women who did build the shelters and centres, who counselled, or sat on the board. These women, along with ourselves, take no pleasure in criticising these services. We want services that centre victims and support women. But these survivors know – none better – that erasing the relevance of sex in conversations about male violence or the trauma reaction of victims is counter-productive, dishonest and harmful to women.

We know they can, and perhaps should, support other groups – although perhaps these would work better as stand alone services. We know that one doesn’t have to be female to understand male violence and respond sensitively or help victims. All we ask is that a woman who only wants to speak to other females, be they counsellors or other members of a group session, can be guaranteed this. Surely that isn’t too much to promise women who have suffered so much?