Women-Only Spaces Aren’t Necessarily Safe Spaces

Women are not always safe or nonviolent partners.

Photo by Stefano Tinti/Shutterstock

Now that same-sex couples can legally marry in every state of the union, bathroom access for trans people is shaping up to be the next wedge issue. In Houston, a broadly inclusive nondiscrimination bill was defeated because of a fear-mongering opposition campaign that focused on trans bathroom access, and in Florida, an attempt was made to criminalize the act of peeing while transgender.  Anyone who remembers the early fights over “don’t ask, don’t tell”; the signing of DOMA by President Bill Clinton; and the use of marriage-restricting constitutional amendments to turn out the GOP base in 2004 should recognize the direction this could be heading—toward the repurposing of a small, marginalized minority group as a political football.

I’ve never read an argument about trans bathroom access that focused primarily on a desire to keep trans men out of men’s bathrooms—opponents seem to focus almost exclusively on trans women using women’s facilities.  The commonly used justification for excluding trans women from certain spaces is that it is necessary in order to keep cisgender women safe from men. It’s not always clear if the “men” in these situations are supposed to be cisgender men cynically posing as trans women to gain access to women’s only spaces or if it’s an attempt to deny that trans women really are women; the line between the two tends to be blurred in anti-trans language. Either way, this argument is based on the idea, unstated but assumed, that women are safe with other women. This is an utterly false premise, as any victim of female-on-female rape or domestic violence could tell you.

When “Helen” (not her real name) was 19, she woke from a deep sleep to find her friend “Jane” (who was staying in a second bed in Helen’s bedroom) on top of her, saying that she wanted to “experiment.” Helen tried to push Jane away, clearly told her “no” and “get off”—but after it became clear the other girl wouldn’t take no for an answer, Helen gradually stopped resisting and waited for it to be over. “If a guy had done that to me, I probably would have screamed. I would have got my parents, who were in the next room. I don’t know why I didn’t call my parents,” Helen told me.

“I think she felt entitled to [rape] me because I was interested in women, and because she thought that because she was a woman, she was incapable of hurting me. I guess I would just want other women or girls in my situation to know that that was rape and that it was wrong,” she added. Back when the assault happened, Helen didn’t tell anyone about it. Only many years later did she begin to ask close friends to help her find the right language to describe it.

Helen is far from alone. I’ve heard other stories like it, directly from friends and second-hand from acquaintances. I’ve also been raped, by a much older woman, during a mercifully short-lived relationship that was characterized by abuse, manipulation, and intimidation. Perhaps I’ll write the long version of that story some time—for the present, I’m not as brave as Helen. One thing I can say with absolute certainty, however, is that women are not always safe, harmless, or nonviolent partners. While women almost never commit stranger rape, that’s also by far the least common form of rape in the broader culture. When it comes to intimate partner abuse, the level in female-female relationships is roughly equal to that in heterosexual relationships.

“Abuse occurs in anywhere between 23 and 33 percent of relationships between women—so something between a quarter and a third. Everything that straight men do to their women partners, women do to their women partners, from manipulation to murder,” said Beth Leventhal, the founder and executive director of The Network/La Red, a Boston-based organization that works to combat domestic partner abuse in the LGBTQ community.

Leventhal, herself a survivor, explained that the isolation experienced by queer women (many of whom lack role models or any connection to the larger LGBTQ community), can make it easy for abusive women to manipulate, intimidate, and normalize abusive behavior toward their partners. Survivors may fear not being believed because the issue is so rarely spoken of, or they may fear coming out as gay more than continuing on in an abusive environment. For those who are connected to the larger queer community, there may also be some fear of making the community look bad or, as Leventhal put it, “airing dirty laundry.”

Currently, no national organizations are focused on rape or domestic violence perpetrated by women against women, although local and regional organizations like Leventhal’s do their best to bridge the gap by advising groups that are aimed mainly at women who have been abused by men. Despite the scope of the problem, mainstream LGBTQ activism has largely ignored the issue, which does not fit well with the respectability politics of the marriage era.

Another unique characteristic of female-on-female partner abuse is that if a victim wants help from traditional domestic violence services, her female partner may be able to follow her there, either by pretending to be a family member or by pretending to be an abuse victim. In practice, the assumption that female-only spaces must be safe allows abusers to make these environments unsafe for their victims. Female abusers can gain access to shelters intended for female victims in a way that male abusers never could. They can also use threats of such access to prevent their victims from gaining needed services or to muddy the waters, making it difficult for others to tell who is the victim and who is the perpetrator. (This was something my ex tried on me.) The idea that women-only spaces are safe spaces thus becomes a weapon in the hands of female abusers—a cruel irony for those affected by female-perpetrated abuse or violence.

The first step to addressing the issue of female-on-female violence is to acknowledge that women are not inherently harmless and incapable of harming other women. When people seek to bar trans women from female-only spaces, they are perpetuating the myth of a safe, nonviolent sisterhood. Victims of female-on-female rape and abuse are not the only ones to have pointed out the problems with this assumption—women of color and poor women have challenged the belief that “women only” is synonymous with safety for years. For the sake of trans rights, and for the sake of all women who have felt unsafe in the company of other women, it’s time to finally stop pretending that only men perpetuate violence and women are only ever victims of it.