Protecting men at the women’s shelter

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I have worked part-time at a shelter for homeless women in Maine since 2016. The shelter was originally conceived as an alternative to the city’s larger, mixed-sex shelter, where many women were too afraid to stay. Afraid of the rapes and assaults that took place at that shelter, and of the ease with which the abusive husbands/boyfriends/pimps they had become homeless fleeing could track them down there, women were opting to sleep on the streets instead. And so a separate women-only shelter was established, to offer vulnerable women a safer refuge from men’s violence.

In the time that I have worked at the shelter, men have always been welcome to stay alongside the women, on one condition: the men must tell us they are women. They may refer to themselves by “feminine” names or dress in “feminine” attire, but we do not require they do these things — who are we, after all, to police anyone’s gender expression? As long as a man claims that he is a woman, our doors are open to him.

Some of the men who stay at the shelter seem harmless enough. They get along with the women; they’re good-natured, respectful, they cause no major problems and the women, for the most part, have no problem sharing space with them.

Other men I would not call harmless.

One man leered at women and trailed them through the shelter, his shorts manifesting the tangible proof of his interest, such that women stopped wearing pajamas outside the bed area in order to avoid attracting his roving eye. Another man would wait in the bathroom to be alone with a woman and then proposition her, on the off chance that she might be raring to give him a blowjob. We hosted a man who would stare and wink at younger female caseworkers; he would summon his target away from the desk on the pretense of helping him with some invented task, and then, when he had her cornered in a more private alcove, invite her to meet him outside the shelter for dates.

In another case, women complained that a man was watching pornography on his cellphone and visibly masturbating in the bed area at night.

On at least three occasions, men staying at the women’s shelter threatened to kill women with guns. Once, a man, enraged at female staff for insisting that he adhere to shelter rules, stormed into the kitchen during dinner, grabbed a tray of food, and began hurling handfuls of scalloped potatoes around the room while yelling that we were all “bitches” and “cunts.”

I should make clear that women in the shelter are not uniformly delightful, agreeable, or even sympathetic individuals. Some are nasty and mean-spirited, hostile, hard to talk to, or hard to like. There have been many women I have actively avoided interacting with because they were so obnoxious. Women, being humans, hence susceptible to the full range of human imperfections, can be unpleasant. Being humans, women can become particularly unpleasant when struggling through hardships, like homelessness. However, women — as wretched as they sometimes are — do not cause the same kind of problems that arise as a result of men’s presence in the space. Women do not treat other women the way men treat women. Women do not do to other women what men do to women.

In the years that I have been working at the shelter, no woman has ever lurked in the bathroom petitioning other women for oral sex. Women have not been made so uneasy by the gaze of another woman that they felt the need to change their clothes, or found themselves too anxious to sleep. It has been men who have done these things. It is men’s behaviour that has made women feel unsafe.

When women report harassment by men in the shelter space, or approach staff to voice their discomfort, my coworkers’ customary response is to ignore the women’s reports completely. They do not record the reports in our daily logs, nor do they mention the incident to a supervisor. They do not confront the man to speak to him about his behaviour. If, while describing the harassment she is experiencing, a woman calls the man a man, or “he” rather than “she,” my coworkers take the time to correct her by pointing out that she is mistaken: this man is a woman. My coworkers are less apt to take the time to investigate the woman’s claims. A woman is more likely to be scolded for “transphobia,” should she commit the savagery that is “misgendering,” by forgetting to be blind to a man’s maleness, than a man is to be held accountable for predatory behaviour towards women. My coworkers, eager to show off their impeccable gender politics, rush to validate men’s declarations of womanhood. A dense smother of self-congratulatory smarm hovers around their attention to pronouns and the related linguistic gymnastics of queerness. Within this fog, it is apparently impossible to see the women in front of them, seeking their support.

When women objected to the man masturbating in a nearby bed at night, a coworker mocked the women’s prudery to me, expecting I would find it equally absurd. How puritanical and square to be upset by some guy jerking off to pornography three feet away! My coworker did not write a report about the complaint. I did, but nothing came of it. Several weeks later, the man was restricted from the shelter, after threatening to shoot everyone, but his public masturbation and the distress it caused women trying to sleep in neighbouring beds was never addressed.

More recently, a woman told me she knew that staff would never do anything about the man who follows her around the shelter, watching her; who stands by her bed, watching her. Sometimes this man wears a wig. He asks that we call him by a feminine name. The woman he is harassing is an incest victim with severe PTSD from years of abuse. This woman told me that because of our prioritization of what she termed “the gender thing,” staff refuse to intervene in the situation. The man could therefore torment her with impunity.

This woman told me it was unfair, and I agreed. It is unfair. I told her that if the man began bothering her on a day I was working, she could come find me, and I would confront him. I made a note of her allegations in the daily log. With the scant authority afforded to me as part-time support staff, there was little else I could do. But nothing has happened, in terms of repercussions for this man, and nothing will happen. He will remain in the shelter, and a woman victimized by men since her childhood will continue to endure male harassment in a space expressly created to provide women with some modicum of sanctuary from men’s violence. My coworkers will continue to remind her to use the man’s preferred pronouns when she tells them yet again what he is doing to her, in hopes that this time, someone might take her seriously, might make it stop.

The men also complain about how they are treated by the women, by staff, and by the world. The men tell us that they do not feel accepted or understood by the women at the shelter, or by anyone at all, anywhere. The fact that not every single living human takes these men at their word that they are women is an injustice cruel beyond bearing, and the men suffer. The men are hurt. They feel sad. Invariably, my coworkers console the men, reassuring them that they have every right to be at the shelter, that they are no different than any other woman there. My coworkers stick up for the men — the real victims, subject to the brutality of bad, mean women so backwards as to confuse the erection in the bed next to them for anything other than a female penis. My coworkers ask the men what staff can do to help them feel safe, comfortable, accepted, and supported. Staff meetings are held to discuss how we ought to update the shelter to make it a friendlier place for men.

At the women’s shelter where I work, a policy decision has been made, though the policy is unspoken, and I doubt that my supervisors or coworkers would admit to its existence if pressed. Nevertheless, in order to conform to the caprices of the trending ideology, to be squeaky-clean on-message good progressives, to be caring and sensitive politically savvy good feminists, it is now shelter policy that we prioritize protecting men’s delusions, even if that means we can no longer protect women. Women are well accustomed to making sacrifices for the sake of men’s comfort and feelings. Everywhere, all the time, men come first. How foolish we would have to be, then, to expect it might be any different at a women’s shelter. As women in a men’s world, we should know this much, if nothing else: there is safety nowhere. Not for us.

A. is a writer, rape crisis advocate, and women’s shelter worker living in Maine. She has remained anonymous to avoid compromising confidentiality for the women in the shelter space.

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