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6 November 2014updated 26 Sep 2015 7:31am

The Orchard psychiatric ward closure: women bear the cost of unchecked male dominance

An important psychiatric unit in Lancaster has been closed to female patients – a move that is especially galling because we are so used to being told that segregation by sex is obsolete in these brave new postmodern times.

By glosswitch Glosswitch

Last month The Orchard Psychiatric Unit in Lancaster was closed to female patients. From now on, mentally ill women requiring inpatient treatment will be forced to stay at least 50 minutes’ drive away from their homes, families and immediate support networks, at a time when they need them most. The 18 beds – of which six were originally set aside for female patients – will remain available, but this time only for men.

As Philippa Molloy of the Beds in the Orchard campaign has pointed out, this is discrimination. An essential resource has been withdrawn from one vulnerable group but not from another. The Lancaster NHS Care Trust argues that this is not an issue of finances but of “balancing” resources across the county. But what kind of balance does this offer to a women whose need for local care is just as great as a man’s, or to her family and friends, who may be unable to bear the upfront cost of travel for visits? Beds should be allocated on the basis of fluctuating needs, not sex. If this is impossible – and clearly the Trust thinks it is – we need to be asking why.

The Trust states that there is “a peak demand for male beds”. But what is a “male bed” anyway? A bed is a bed and a desperately ill woman can need it just as much as a desperately ill man. What we are really dealing with is a perceived need for sex segregation. If female inpatients need to be separated from male ones, this is not simply because that’s how mental illness works. It is situated within a broader pattern of men posing a physical threat to women in enclosed spaces, whatever their diagnosed mental state. Even if we have reached a point where such a pattern is, for adult males at least, irreversible, it does not follow from this that women should be the ones who pay the price.

The Orchard decision is especially galling to feminists because we are so used to being told that segregation by sex is obsolete in these brave new postmodern times. “Why would you want female-only spaces?” you will be asked. “Are you obsessed with other people’s genitals?” The answer, of course, is no, you’re not. You’re just aware that the vast majority of violent crime is committed by people who were born with penises.  Deep down, everybody knows this. Awareness of this risk is one of the main reasons why we segregate in the first place. Male violence does not appear to have been a recurrent problem on the Orchard ward (male and female spaces were closed off via a key card system) yet a wholly non-segregated ward has not been considered a viable option, and it is not especially difficult to see why.

Under patriarchy sex segregation functions to preserve male privilege (men-only clubs) or to mitigate the effects of male violence / sexual entitlement (separate changing rooms, refuges, wards etc). Feminists have fought long and hard to remove both of these factors (and hence the need for sex segregation in the first place). Unfortunately, men have fought long and hard to retain them (how can we not be dominant? how can we not be violent/sexually entitled? it’s just how things are!). We have ended up with the worst of both worlds – one in which segregation is seen as necessary but only on male terms. When women close the doors they are bigots, seeing danger where there is none; when men do the same they are protecting “vulnerable” women from a real, palpable threat that no one bothers to name, let alone challenge. The message is “you can have your female-only space, but only if it’s out in the cold.”

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The cost of masculinity, in purely economic terms, is enormous. In 2009 the academic Sylvia Walby estimated the total cost of domestic violence in the UK to be £15.7bn per year. Fellow academics Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley argue that if men committed as little violent crime as women, it would help pay for the deficit. It is impossible to separate this financial cost from the human one given that male violence consumes resources that could be used elsewhere. It’s not just that when refuges or hospital wards close, women, especially those who are poor and/or lack other support networks, are being placed at greater immediate risk. The cost of male violence drains resources across the board at a time when women have already been worst hit by austerity measures. They deserve better than this.

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Female-only space is increasingly treated as an indulgence when it should be the very least a subjugated class can expect from those who continue to dominate. Right now local authorities are forcing some specialist refuges to close because they do not take in male victims. Most feminists refuse to believe male violence is inevitable but as long as those perpetuating it refuse to listen, we have every right to take whatever resources we need to keep women safe. If those in power want a patriarchy – and there’s every indication that they do – they should damn well pay for it. If they cannot raise their boys to shun masculinity, then they owe their daughters spaces into which to escape from it, whatever the broader function of such spaces may be.

Women in general, and poor women in particular, are not being sold out because of some unidentifiable evil that lurks in dark corners. They’re being sold out because male human beings are a threat to female human beings, and because no one will admit this or do anything about it until resources are scarce and – whoops! – there goes your refuge, hospital bed, or safe space. Wherever possible, it is expected that women will bear the cost of unchecked male dominance. This cannot continue. We need to count the true cost of what men do, not just in pounds and pence, but in crumbling social structures, empty beds and ruined lives.