The Kyle Payne story has resulted in a lot of people questioning whether men can/should ever be in a position to counsel rape survivors, and several people outright saying no way, no how. I’ve already said my piece on why I find it problematic at best to go anywhere near the idea that Kyle Payne is equivalent to all male feminists, but this seems a reasonable opportunity to open up some thoughts on women-only space in general, specifically for sexual assault centres (partially as a result of the conversation on this thread b/w hysperia, myself and later, GallingGalla).
I’ll come right out and admit that I’ve never been entirely comfortable with women only designations in sexual assault centres. The argument in favour of this limitation is usually that women who have been assaulted sometimes (or even often) find it triggering, intimidating or uncomfortable to be around men when they are in a vulnerable position (admitting to and talking about having been assaulted/abused). I’m sympathetic to that argument, but still disagree with it for a couple of reasons. The main one is that it involves completely preventing men who need the help of sexual assault centres (men who have been assaulted themselves, or even partners and supporters of women who’ve been assaulted, but who aren’t ready/able to come to talk to someone themselves) from accessing the services because we’ve placed such a high priority on what I perceive to be a relatively small proportion of female victims getting exactly the kind of service that they want. I realize this comes off as a kind of dispassionate cost-benefit analysis, and I hope I don’t sound heartless in saying this, because it does, overall, come from caring. Maybe I’m wrong about the proportion, because all there is on that front is anecdotal evidence, but my main point is – allowing men into the space doesn’t hinder the centre from counseling these women at all, whereas the reverse is true.
Now, disclaimers on that point – I am not making a “reverse discrimination” argument. What I’m looking at is how best to get counseling services to those affected by rape and sexual violence. Period, full stop. The second disclaimer, as I said to hysperia on matttbastard’s thread, is that I think she is right that there are plenty of ways for men to access services in the mainstream medical establishment, and there are an abundance of male professionals outside of feminist sexual assault centres. True. Whether there are people who are prepared to provide the highest calibre of service to an individual dealing with sexual violence is an entirely separate question. And, again, while I’m well aware of the financial limitations faced by SACs, I think there are compromises that may be possible – could the space be women only on certain days of the week, for example, while allowing men to access it on one or two days? Female survivors who really do feel that they need to know that no men are going to be around while they start to discuss this issue can be informed of these arrangements, and schedule appointments or groups accordingly.
The issue of male counselors is perhaps more challenging, but my primary point is essentially the same as the above – our concern should be in listening to individual survivors and providing the options that they need in order to heal. And here, I’m going to switch over to talking mainly about women survivors, because I think I’ve amply covered male survivors, and yet I think that the wishes of some women are not necessarily given the same weight in these conversations about the issue (and I don’t even mean trans women and the whole horror show that is the reality that it’s okay to exclude them entirely from rape crisis centres in this country, as “men”). I’ve heard women mention that the way they’ve been treated by certain women has been worse than the way they’ve been treated by men in any context, or that women have presented more challenges in their rape recovery than men have.
I’m a very extroverted person, which means, among other things, that I talk through my shit with a number of people as part of coping and dealing. I’ve seen a number of professionals – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, rape crisis counselors, etc – and I’ve talked to a lot of my peers or mentors about the sexual violence in my past. I’ve heard minimizing from both men and women, victim-blaming from both men and women (possibly more from women) and gotten wonderful, kind, loving support from both men and women. There were times in my life when I honestly preferred to talk to men about these issues. I never heard anyone say that though – sometimes a woman who’s been assaulted really needs a trusted male she can turn to to talk about how she feels. I heard, over and over, that many survivors find it difficult to be around men at all. I heard that women often think that only women can understand, but that we live in a society that discourages women from finding that space in which they can talk to another women about experiences like that. I’m not saying these messages had a hugely detrimental impact on me, personally (though they may have on others), because the women professionals I’ve spoken to at two different SACs have been phenomenal, but there was a sense that I felt like I should only want to talk to a woman about what I was feeling. And you know, when fragile like that, I’ll pretty much reach out for any script that someone hands me that I think might help – if I have some trust for you/your philosophy/your organization, and you tell me this is how I’m going to feel better, I’ll go that way.
Why did I feel more comfortable around certain men at times? I’m not entirely sure. It could be grounded in a lot of internalized patriarchal, male-approval-seeking bullshit, or equally bullshit granting of added authority to male voices, or a genuine need to overcome the sense that men are not trustworthy and prove that not all of my trust in men has been misplaced, or it could just have been the specific individuals that were around me at these times and the nature of our relationships. Fuck if I know. And fuck if it should matter. Plenty of people, anti-feminists among them, will point out that women’s desire to not be around any men at all following an assault is not a rational decision (the anti-feminist point being that she should therefore stop feeling that way), and…well, of course it’s not. But that’s okay, because see, listening to the woman tell you what she needs in order to get past the feelings that she finds intolerable is kinda that point. So I don’t really feel like it’s important to find a rational reason why I might feel the way I have about what I need, and I don’t really feel like it’s okay for people to tell me that why I feel that way is just wrong.
Which again comes back to the compromise point – is it possible for all of us, who have experienced sexual violence, to be getting what we need? To be listened to? To find our own way through recovery, which is going to be affected by all of our other baggage, by the specifics of the assault that happened to us, by our personalities, by whatever? I think I’ll finally be introducing a new category with this post, which is “Not Rocket Science”, because this shouldn’t feel as complicated as it does. Men can betray women, and if they’re seriously fucked up, they’ll use positions of trust among vulnerable people to do it. Women can betray women, and if they’re seriously fucked up, they’ll do the same. On whole, statistically, men do more damage to women in more significant ways. No, this is not an equal situation, and honestly, if that’s a point you want to argue, then I don’t think this is the place for you.
This lengthy argument is entirely from what I consider a pragmatic, practical perspective, without even touching the philosophical stuff (because there is an essentialism to saying that men are inherently, naturally, biologically, more capable of this kind of manipulation than women are, or that women are automatically safer, more understanding, more comforting…almost like they’re naturally…nurturing and empathetic or whatever). The point is to help people recover from sexual violence. Universalizing a certain kind of reaction is not okay, has never been okay, and continues in feminist and non-feminist or anti-feminist circles alike. Categorically deciding that certain people – men – can’t help another category – women, or female victims – isn’t going to help, either.