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Mandy Rhodes: Six small words should not carry such weight in rancorous debate about sex and gender

© Louis Flood / STUCFormer Scotish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont MSP.
Former Scotish Labour Party leader Johann Lamont MSP.

How have we got to a place where victims of sexual violence have to plead with MSPs to amend the law to allow them to choose the sex of the person that examines them?

How have we got to a place where women who have been brutalised have to run the gauntlet of gender ideology to specify they want a biological woman to examine them?

And how have we got to a place where the national support service, Rape Crisis Scotland, tells those victims they are wrong?

Last week an important piece of policy, championed by RCS, reached its final stages in the Scottish Parliament: The Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Bill. It is an overdue piece of legislation designed to improve access to healthcare for victims of rape and sexual assault.

It secured early cross-party support and, having heard from survivors, there was a recommendation that the use of the word “gender”, in relation to the criteria to be applied to those examining victims was too ambiguous and that it should be changed to “sex”. The Scottish Government rejected the argument for reasons that still make no sense. And Rape Crisis Scotland inexplicably supported that stance.

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’”.

That was what victims of rape wanted. 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 have to refer back to the proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act. Everything that has happened since is now seen through that lens.

The proposals to reform the GRA were yet another well-intentioned but entirely nebulous manifesto aspiration of the SNP in 2016.

It was all-encompassing while saying nothing so the broad church that is the SNP membership was able to accommodate it.

Who, after all, couldn’t agree with a policy that was about human rights, equality and people being afforded dignity for whoever they want to be?

But what it didn’t offer was clarity. And, 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 collateral damage for the SNP’s inability or unwillingness to define exactly what it meant by reform.

“Replace gender with sex” – four 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 when so many women have been silenced in a debate that has been full of rancour and accusation but empty of patience and empathy.

With the passing of the Lamont amendment, it is perhaps now time to let those women speak and to, finally, listen properly.