Six little words: for the word ‘gender’ substitute ‘sex’
How have we got to a place where female victims of sexual violence have to go public on their suffering and plead with MSPs to pass a legislative amendment that would mean they get to choose the sex of the person that examines them following rape?
How have we got to a place where women who have been sexually brutalised have to run the gauntlet of gender ideology just so they can specify they want a biological woman to examine them rather than a man?
How have we got to a place where women who have been raped get called transphobes, bigots and TERFs for insisting a woman carries out what must be the most hellish of procedures after their body has been so violated by a man?
And how have we got to a place where the national support service, set up by women for women to support women through the trauma of rape, tells victims that they have got it wrong?
Last week an important piece of policy reached its final stages in the Scottish Parliament: The Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill. It is a well overdue piece of legislation designed to improve access to healthcare services for victims of rape and sexual assault.
It follows on from the haunting revelations, back in 2017, of rape victims having to wait for up to three days without washing while a female forensic examiner could be sourced.
Imagine, three days after a sexual assault without a wash. And then think, we had then, as we still do, a woman first minister and a woman in charge of health.
The SNP had been in power for over a decade when it emerged that Scottish Government guidelines to radically improve forensic services, agreed by both the cabinet secretaries for health and justice at the time, had been sitting on a shelf since 2013. Four years when rapes didn’t stop but the government failed to implement change.
And here we are now, three years on from then, arguing about the linguistics in a bill designed to heal.
The Forensic Services Bill secured early cross-party support and at committee stage, and having heard from survivors, there was a recommendation that the use of the word ‘gender’ in relation to the criteria victims could apply pertaining to a request for who examines them was too ambiguous and that this should be changed to ‘sex’.
The Scottish Government rejected the argument for reasons that still make no sense. And, inexplicably, Rape Crisis Scotland agreed.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Labour MSP Johann Lamont, who carries with her gilt-edged credentials in feminism rooted in real women’s experiences of oppression, heroically tabled an amendment.
It was just six little words – “for the word ‘gender’ substitute ‘sex’”.
And for that, Lamont was vilified.
For those trying to keep up with why something so fundamental as a victim’s right to choose the sex of who examines them after a rape is in any way contentious, you need only refer back to the debate surrounding proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act to understand why everything is now seen through that lens.
It is bruising. I carry the scars.
The proposals to reform the GRA were yet another well-intentioned but entirely nebulous manifesto aspiration of the SNP in 2016.
Who, after all, couldn’t agree with a policy that was about human rights, equality and people being afforded dignity for whatever they wanted to be?
But what it didn’t offer was clarity.
What it said was: “We will review and reform gender recognition law, so it’s in line with international best practice for people who are Transgender or Intersex.”
It was such an all-encompassing, saying nothing commitment that the broad church that is the SNP was able to accommodate it among those on the left, the right, the religious, the non-believers and the all-embracing.
But it became unstuck as people awoke to the implications inherent in the proposals. And with no detail, leadership, nor understanding of what the unintended consequences might be of change, the rows, accusations and divisions began.
There have now been two public consultations, no resolution, and a divisive debate that has pitched liberal allies at each other’s throats in ways that go far beyond the parameters of the SNP.
It’s a horror story.
And yet almost everyone I speak to agrees that the suffering experienced by trans people on the journey to being recognised as their self needs changed.
Waiting times for psychological services are horrendous, costs prohibitive and faceless assessment boards can feel cruel and oppressive.
All of these require reform. But in the absence of real political leadership, ‘self ID’ became the proxy for what the policy should be and that created a fault line about single-sex spaces and services, and who could access them.
So, yes, the debate about the GRA leached into much wider discussions about the conflation of sex and gender, of women’s rights, of what defines a woman and ultimately, whether you believe in science.
But victims of rape should not be the collateral damage for the SNP’s inability to define what it meant by reform or to shepherd its troops around the GRA.
Last week, as MSPs were preparing to vote on Lamont’s amendment, I spent an hour on the phone with a heartbroken mother of a girl who had been gang raped.
The attack had left her daughter broken. But it was made worse when she didn’t get the support she needed when she needed it because she was told that a woman could not be guaranteed.
She developed PTSD and while she is now back on track, her mum is enraged. She has been made to feel like a bigot for opening up about her daughter’s trauma and for calling for the right of rape victims to choose the sex of who supports them to be law.
‘Replace gender with sex’ – six little words that encapsulate so much of what has passed for debate on what it means to be a woman over the last painful two years.
With the passing of the Lamont amendment, it is perhaps now time to listen properly.
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