The Blog

Creating Safe Spaces For Women Is Not 'Sexism'

In some ways, it's crazy that I have to expand on this post past the title. I will expand, but first let me repeat that - creating safe spaces for women is not sexism. In fact, denying women safe spaces is far more sexist and discriminatory.
KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images

In some ways, it's crazy that I have to expand on this post past the title. I will expand, but first let me repeat that - creating safe spaces for women is not sexism. In fact, denying women safe spaces is far more sexist and discriminatory.

It all started with an argument over women's swimming sessions. A new local pool had published its timetable and notable by their absence were women-only swim sessions and exercise classes. Someone posted about it on a local Facebook group, not realising the torrent of fury that would be unleashed. And it didn't take long. The very suggestion that some women may benefit from a swim session that all women could attend provoked outrage from the men's rights contingent. Apparently, women-only swim sessions are discriminatory and sexist.

Shall we get some perspective here? How many men are actually going to be hugely inconvenienced by a couple of sessions a week that they're not allowed to attend? Enough to be up in arms about it. It's segregation. It's divisive. It's catering for a minority of people who won't even appreciate it. It's anti-equality. It harks back to the days of apartheid.

Calm down, men. It is none of these things. It is sad that we still need safe spaces for women to exercise and swim, but fact is - we do. End Violence Against Women say a massive 64% of all women have experienced sexual harrassment in public and 35% of women have experienced "unwanted sexual touching". So even the "minority" of women who are victims of sexual assault is barely a minority at all.

Plus, women make up half of the population. A swim session that caters to the needs of vulnerable women is open to all women, not just the ones who need it. So that's not especially discrimatory, is it? True discrimination would be excluding a specific group from swimming - like orthodox Muslim women who need women-only sessions to be able to swim and exercise. Again, the men cry that this is a minority we're catering to, and compare it wildly to the transgender community (which is oh so relevant, obviously. Now, transgender orthodox Muslim women - that would be a true minority). But we live in East London, in a borough that counts 22% of its population as Muslim. So let's halve that and it brings us to 11% of the population being Muslim women - approximately 27,000 people. I think we can put the minority argument to bed.

The more worrying factor is how the men repeatedly denied that women could feel afraid or intimidated by men in their spaces. One man summed it up with the old, "But I'm not a rapist" argument:

"Why is a gym with men in not a safe space? To imply I'm some kind of monster/pervert/rapist because I'm a man is highly offensive. I sincerely hope people can overcome their own private issues and not demand the world fits in around them."

Where to start with this? There's the telling people what to think. There's the hoping that women can just "overcome their own private issues" and move on. Yes, because telling all the victims of sexual violence in our borough (1 in 5 women, lest we forget) to just get over their issues and move on is the easy option. Way easier than maybe scheduling a women-only zumba class.

We know that not every man is a rapist. We know that it's a relatively small percentage of men who will actually commit a rape. We also know that women who have been raped will forever feel vulnerable and that they feel safer in the company of other women. We know that there are relatively quick fixes to these problems - that blocking out an hour in the pool for women to swim is a good temporary solution to a much bigger problem. Dismantling the patriarchy that accommodates male sexual dominance and a violence-embedded culture appears to be taking longer than we anticipated. It is not yet done. There is still sexual violence against women and so there are still victims of sexual abuse that need a safe place to do their exercising and swimming. We live in an era where a proven rapist (a swimmer, coincidentally enough) walks free after three months because of his white, male privilege - and while there is still violence about women, there will never be equality. One commenter said it was a backward step in forging equal rights for women - I replied that until women have nothing to fear from men, we we never have equal rights.

So, is it sexist to allow women to have their own swimming sessions? No, and the men are welcome to have their own too. Is it sexist to tell women what to think and feel and tell them that their fears around sexual violence are unfounded and irrational? Is that sexist? Is it?

I'll let you decide...