A government-funded rape crisis centre is being sued by a sexual assault survivor for allowing a transgender woman to access its female-only support group.
The rape victim, who has been granted court anonymity but goes by the name Sarah, sought counselling from the Survivors’ Network in Brighton last year after she was sexually abused as a child and later raped in her twenties.
Sarah joined the organisation’s female-only peer support group in 2021, and said she initially felt “relieved” to be able to share her story among women with similar experiences.
But in September last year, she claims to have left one of her sessions feeling “shaken and upset” after noticing “someone who appeared to be a man” attending the therapy group.
The Survivors’ Network’s trans-inclusive policy states its women-only services are available to any “self-identifying woman”, which is defined as “an individual that feels their gender identity is a woman, irrespective of the gender they were assigned at birth”.
This also applies to its counsellors and volunteers.
The organisation ruled out any change to its policy when Sarah requested a separate support group solely for people who were born women. “They made it really clear they can’t offer me any help,” she said.
The Survivors’ Network is the only registered rape crisis centre in Sussex, and last year received over £100,000 in funding from government bodies including the NHS, the Ministry of Justice and the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner.
After filing her legal claim to Brighton County Court last Friday, Sarah told The Telegraph: “It was really reluctantly that I brought this case. On the surface, it appears anti-feminist to challenge a rape crisis centre.”
However, she said that “hundreds” of survivors have since reached out to her saying they have had similar experiences when requesting female-only rape counselling.
“I want to stress that we’re not looking for this instead of the mixed-sex women’s groups,” Sarah explained. “It’s in addition. It seems like a really small ask for a supposedly trauma-informed rape crisis centre.”
Survivor told to ‘reframe her boundaries’
Another sexual abuse survivor in the area has claimed she was told by Jay Breslaw, the organisation’s chief executive, to “reframe her boundaries” after she explained why access to a women-only service was important to her.
Ali, 41, said she was “furious” when she applied for one-to-one counselling at the service and was told that the centre could not guarantee her counsellor would be a biological woman.
“A massive issue for people who have been sexually abused or raped is your boundaries and your ability to consent,” she said, “and women can get triggered, distressed or can freeze in the space of a man in these situations.”
“It takes a woman a lot to contact a rape crisis centre in the first place. To be told you might turn up and there could be a male counsellor is appalling,” she added.
Last month, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) published guidance permitting the exclusion of trans women from single-sex services, including rape counselling, where it is judged victims are “likely to be traumatised by the presence of a person who is biologically male”.
In response, the Survivors’ Network penned an open letter to the EHRC, criticising the guidance for “framing the support needs of cis women as more important than the support needs of trans people”.
The letter was signed by over 70 women who run rape crisis and other specialist services for women, along with academics who specialise in gender-based violence.
Ms Breslaw was one of the signatories, along with Sophie Gibson, the Survivors’ Network chair of trustees, and 12 other staff and volunteers at the Brighton service.
The Survivors’ Network and Ms Breslaw have been contacted for comment.