The Dangerous Exclusivity Of Spaces For ‘Women’ Sexual Assault Survivors
By Kim Kaletsky
Conversations about sexual assault will only benefit from trans and nonbinary perspectives.
I was 17 when it happened. A couple dozen young writers’ program participants and I were on the train leaving NYC’s Battery Park after an afternoon on Ellis Island. I don’t remember which station we paused at, but I remember how packed the car was, how the train rolled forward, how the cis man in the white T-shirt lurched as if thrown off-balance, then caught my hips between his hands and grabbed my butt. He let go as soon as the train was still, smiled at me, then made a quick exit, laughing and looking back at me with a couple of other men.
My fellow workshop participants looked at me wide-eyed, asking if I was okay. I shrugged it off. “It’s the subway,” I said. “This stuff happens all the time.” As if that excused the man’s behavior.
It was my first assault. So when author Kelly Oxford encouraged “women” to “tweet their first assaults” in reaction to Trump’s recently released remarks about his right to grab women, the subway encounter immediately popped into my head. Yet I hesitated to join the millions of people responding and sharing their stories.
My mind kept getting stuck on one word: “women.”
At 17, I was still calling myself a “girl.” My hair was still long, and I hadn’t yet grown into gender-neutral pronouns and the “nonbinary” label. That would take three years during and after college of having honest conversations with myself and others about how mysterious the concept of having a stable gender identity was beginning to feel to me, and about how little sense it made to me that things like men’s shirts and barbershops were supposedly inaccessible to me just because of how my body looked. The process involved making peace with how uncomfortable it made me that everyone pushed the “woman” label and all the expectations that come with it on me without my permission, and it involved embracing my overwhelming desire to free myself from gendered expectations that were turning me into someone who didn’t feel like me.
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I’ve since experienced a very particular kind of nonbinary identity, the sort that doesn’t come with body dysphoria. I often pass as a cis woman, whether I want to or not, because I have breasts and don’t wear a chest binder. Sometimes I benefit from that — when I’m able to use women’s restrooms without putting myself in danger, for instance — but mostly it feels like having a sign with false information about me tattooed on my back, one I didn’t ask for and can’t easily remove. At no time does the dissonance between who I know I am and who others tell me I am feel more apparent, however, than when public conversations about gender-based sexual assault arise.
Reading through the first few hundred responses to Oxford’s tweet, I felt proud of the women speaking up, and was delighted to see women supporting other women who’d shared stories. But it was simultaneously horrifying to wade through what felt like an endless thread of others’ intimately painful experiences, and to realize how hungry people are for opportunities to share their hurt without worrying a listener will shame or blame them.
The more I read others’ stories, the more I wanted to share my own subway story, in solidarity with others. But the stronger my desire to speak up, the more hesitant I became. What would it mean for me to take up space in a conversation explicitly designated for “women”? Would my voice be welcome as a nonbinary voice, or would I have to forfeit that aspect of my identity in order to earn the right to share my experiences?
I chose not to share my story. It’s a decision I’ve made numerous times — when considering submitting essays to magazines dedicated to sexual assault survivors, and when looking into support groups and listening in on social media conversations. I respect that spaces designated for women are for women, and will never deny their importance. Women need that space, and they need to feel safe there. And if my presence as someone who doesn’t wear the “woman” label is going to make anyone feel less comfortable sharing their experiences, then I fully relinquish my right to be there.
But if most spaces for survivors of gender-based sexual violence are for cis women, where does that leave the trans or nonbinary people who may or may not identify with femininity or womanhood, but whose bodies cis men have felt entitled to because they “looked like a woman”? Welcome or not, I often avoid spaces designated for “women” for the sake of my own mental health. Because participating means agreeing you wear the “women” label, entering “women’s” spaces, to me, feels like misgendering myself. And though many “women’s” spaces are unlikely to turn me down even if I do speak up about being nonbinary, I don’t want to subject myself to a space that’s so ambivalently supportive of nonbinary identity that its organizers can’t even commit to using nonbinary-friendly language. I’m already feeling vulnerable whenever I talk about sexual assault and rape culture — I can’t feel liberated from the weight of misogyny if I’m simultaneously dealing with language that invalidates my gender identity.
While I have enormous respect and appreciation for “women-only” spaces, their existence feels counterproductive. Many of them strive to combat or heal the damage from patriarchal norms. But I don’t think it’s possible to deconstruct misogyny or promote bodily autonomy without also deconstructing binary gender and the complicated binary gender divisions and expectations that keep patriarchal culture in place and deny trans and nonbinary folks their own bodily autonomy.
I and many other nonbinary and trans folks who are or have been labeled “women” by strangers are also subject to sexual violence because of our gender identities. Like many cis women, I walk home late at night with keys in hand, worriedly glancing over my shoulder every couple minutes. Like many cis women, I deal with catcalling, and inch away from cis men who stand too close on public transportation. Like many cis women, my past is full of moments when I said yes to things I didn’t want because I didn’t feel entitled to say no to the cis man asking, or because he wouldn’t listen to my initial no. Like many cis women, I know what it’s like to feel like my body is not my own to make decisions about. And I know what it’s like to feel like I’m not allowed to talk about it, not just in public spaces or with the people in my life, but in places designated for people to talk about it.
Conversations about sexual assault — particularly the public ones that highlight rape culture’s pervasiveness, like the Twitter conversation Oxford sparked — will only benefit from trans and nonbinary perspectives. Sure, nonbinary-inclusive language is difficult to fit into a 140-character tweet, but without it, trans and nonbinary folks are subtly receiving the message that their voice might not be welcome. And it’s not helping anyone if, in an effort to deconstruct the patriarchal norms that marginalize and silence women, you’re simultaneously turning your back on someone else and silencing them.
So please, for the sake of all that is feminist and inclusive: If you’re creating a space to talk about gender-based sexual violence that welcomes trans and nonbinary folks, don’t designate the space as one for “women.” Call it one for “women, trans, and nonbinary survivors.” Add a note stating trans and nonbinary folks are welcome. Use language that matches the space you’re trying to create. And if you are creating a space that’s only for cis women, be prepared to show a trans or nonbinary person to another resource or safe space, an alternative door to the one you’re closing on them.
Because we’re here, we understand your hurt, and sometimes we need to talk about it, too.