For many women and girls, the boundaries between domestic and sexual violence and abuse, are very much blurred. For some this abuse includes prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation too.
It’s not unusual for women who’ve been subjected to men’s violence to develop a trauma response. These sometimes develop after a single incident of violence, particularly with regards to sexual violence, though sometimes it can develop after years or months of living in fear, walking on egg-shells, recognising that tone of voice, that look in the eyes, that sigh, that pause, that silence, that change in his breathing. Some women have lived this, with a succession of perpetrators starting from their dad – who may have been physically, sexually or emotionally violent, abusive and controlling or a mixture of them all – all their lives.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can develop in response to trauma that may have occurred recently or in the distant past. Those who have experienced sexual trauma, especially whilst young are at greater risk, with victims of multiple forms of childhood abuse and neglect most at risk of lifetime trauma[i] Women victim-survivors of child sexual abuse are at least twice as likely to experience adult sexual victimisation[ii]. 51% of adults who were abused as children experienced domestic abuse in later life and approximately one in six adults who were abused as a child had been subjected to domestic violence and abuse in the previous year[iii].
Studies of women involved in prostitution found that between 63-80% reported being subjected violence in the course of being prostituted[iv]. One study found that women in prostitution were murdered at a rate 12 times above that of non-prostituted women[v]. Many women in prostitution describe sexual encounters as non-consensual, coerced or economically coerced rape. Two-Thirds of women in prostitution suffer PTSD.[vi]
After trauma, the brain can be triggered by something that would barely register for someone else, interpreting something that for many people would be unthreatening as a serious threat or danger, for example the presence of a man, particularly where not expected.
PTSD/trauma responses happen in a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala detects a threat or perceived threat and can activate a “fight or flight” response. This releases adrenaline, norepinephrine, and glucose into the body, and if the threat continues, cortisol. A part of the prefrontal cortex (an area in the front of the brain that processes emotions and behavioural reactions) assesses the threat and can either calm or reinforce the fight or flight response. People suffering trauma/PTSD have a hyper reactive amygdala and a less effective calming prefrontal cortex reaction. The brain becomes overwhelmed by the trauma (pre-frontal cortex shutdown) leading to disorientation and confusion as the higher brain functions of reasoning and language are disrupted. Thinking and reasoning can be drowned out by feeling and being. Prolonged stress can lead to permanent change in the prefrontal cortex.
A trauma-informed safe space creates space for action and recovery from violence and abuse and places the woman victim-survivor in control and in the centre. The trauma response described earlier is the antithesis of a space for action and recovery, so a trauma informed approach is based on understanding the physical, social, and emotional impact of trauma caused by experiencing violence and abuse. A trauma-informed service for women understands the importance of creating an environment – physical and relational – that feels safe to victims-survivors in all the ways I’ve just mentioned. For many women this means excluding men from their recovery space, and yes, this includes those who don’t identify as men. Their behaviour, the likelihood that they themselves may be abusive, is not relevant. If it is not women-only, it is not trauma informed for women who have been subjected to men’s violence.
We know that at least 80% of males who hold a gender recognition certificate retain their penis, but anyway, in almost every case, we don’t need to know what’s in their pants to know they are a man. Women experiencing trauma after violence and abuse will, like most of us – almost always instantly read someone who might be the most kind and gentle trans identified male in the world – as male; and they may experience a debilitating trauma response as a result. It’s not their fault, it’s not a choice and it’s not something they can be educated out of. It’s not hate. It’s not bigotry. It’s not transphobia. It is an impact of abuse and they need space, support and sometimes therapy – not increased confrontation with a trauma inducing trigger; not nowhere to go that offers a woman-only space.
To properly heal from trauma, in particular that caused by sexual violence, a course of counselling/therapy from a counsellor/therapist specially trained to deal with trauma/PTSD from sexual or domestic violence and abuse is often needed. Unfortunately, far too few women are offered this opportunity. Specialist women-led women-only organisations supporting victim-survivors of men’s violence are rarely funded to the extent that we can meet the levels of need that exist. All too often we’re contracted to do what commissioners value, this isn’t always what women want and need.
Women should not need to justify our desire for or the benefits of women-only space on the basis of violence perpetrated upon us or our sisters but we should recognise that some women need or benefit from it more than others. Not all women who are subjected to men’s violence and abuse will develop a trauma response. Not all women will be subjected to men’s violence and abuse, though globally one in three are at some point during our lifetime. Not all women who have been abused by men want women-only spaces but should they then take away the right of that space from those who do?
Of course, women who experience trauma/PTSD as a result of men’s violence are required to function in a world where men are present and for the most part, do. But women-only spaces in Rape Crisis Centres, refuges, women’s centres or women-only buildings or events, etc are spaces where women are not required to make all the mental self-adjustments to function in the presence of men. Women survivors and feminists (many of us both) created these spaces because we know how important this is. Somewhere we can function and feel OK, safe, maybe even relaxed and with our defences down and our vigilance switch turned low. Women who have been subjected to men’s violence deserve this down time, this head space. Women-only space for women who have been subjected to men’s violence and abuse is something that must be protected by those of us who don’t need it, for those of us who do.
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