All you have to do to know that there are varying opinions about safe spaces is be acquainted with more than one human being that's heard the term. There's a wide range of feelings on it, ranging from the frightening idea that such spaces are not necessary for whatever outdated, uninformed, or bigoted reason; to the people who actually take a really great thing too far and go on to think that a truly safe space is one in which our ideals are never challenged and we are never asked safely to reconsider or to grow, but live "blissfully" unaware that there is more to be learned or known.
There are many personal, firsthand experiences in my life that give me an excellent background to speak on the idea of safe spaces, there are also experiences in my life that severely limited the openness of my mind - I was raised homeschooled in a highly controlled and restricted conservative environment - and it is because of these latter experiences that I ask that anything I say here that strikes you as backwards causes you to start a loving dialogue with me and not a fight.
The experiences that empower me to speak strongly on things like safe spaces are rape, sexual assault, sexual manipulation, and other things that come with the daily life of being a human - especially a female human - in a rape culture; things like being catcalled, being followed, being harassed for dates, on dates, and having nearly every romantic or sexual encounter that I've been in and found myself saying "no" turning into a negotiation at best, and rape at the worst. Not only do I speak about the importance of things like safe spaces and feminism because of my own experiences, but because I have friends - male and female- who have been gaslighted, manipulated, raped, assaulted, etc. as well, in addition to suffering from bizarre and terrible injustices due to their sexuality, their race, etc. , and if there's anything an INFJ is good at, it's tearing viciously into danger and injustice on behalf of those they love.
To me, what a safe space means is that there is a person or a group of people who do everything in their power to ensure that the people present in a space are not only not going to harass or harm someone, but that said present people are going to listen to another person when they come to them with a concern, a question, or a cry for help. It's a place (or a group of people that makes every place they go a place) where people look out for one another, give the befit of the doubt to potential and known victims, and deal as immediately, kindly, and firmly as possible with perpetrators in whatever way is necessary.
I know that a truly safe space is impossible. We all know that. We've all been, or know someone who has been, hurt by family members, friends, co-workers, lovers, strangers, criminals - everywhere from in a dangerous neighborhood to our own homes and beds. Bad things ARE going to happen to us, and we can't stop it. The first part of a safe space - the part where no one gets hurt - is impossible to ensure, but that doesn't mean it's not worth giving our all to try and create such a space anyway, because we can make everywhere a little better, and spare some of our fellow humans some damage on a bumpy, bumpy ride called life. And that's worth it, even if it can never be perfect. Samwise put it really well - there's some good left in this world and it's worth fighting for.
But what about the second bit of a safe space? What about the part where people are looking out for one another, and are a safe and listening ear to victims and frightened people who have been hurt by the bad guys? Since we can't stop everyone from getting hurt, is there a way to make places that are a safer place to get hurt - places where help is closer, and healing is faster? Can we create a place where as many bad people as possible are identified, dealt with, and not allowed to hurt anyone else? That is possible, my friends. It is possible and we need to be taking steps to create those places wherever we can.
I believe very strongly that the first step toward making a space in which it is better to be hurt is making sure that we're not only not invalidating victims, but that we're encouraging them to step forward and share their stories - that they know they'll be heard, helped, and loved, not shamed or passed over.
Allow me to share just one story to show why this is important.
There was a man I knew - we'll call him Bubba - who, at first, seemed like a great guy but as I worked to get to know him I realised that he engaged in illegal actives with minors, that he was highly narcissistic, sexist, and just generally exactly the type of person I didn't want to be around, so I took steps to distance myself from Bubba. He comes to local dances, so I stopped accepting his requests to dance. I tried to stop hugging him hello, and goodbye, and overall tried to reduce contact and communication. That fact that I'm using the word "tried" here is deeply troubling - he refused to accept any of this. Bubba consistently tried to force me to dance, insisted on touching me when I told him not to, and eventually, after weeks of trying to get him to leave me alone, he ran after me in a bar as I was leaving a dance, screaming my name and saying that everyone else got a hug and he wanted one, too - ultimately jumping and flinging himself on me, at which point I had to use my heavy leather wristlet to swing at his head and shout at him to get off. He ran away laughing and giggling "good enough for me!"
When I got home and said someone had assaulted me in a bar, my roommates said that it wasn't assault because Bubba had been a friend and I had used to allow him conversation, dances, and hugs, and so he couldn't really be blamed - besides, friends can't be the perpetrators of assault. They then proceeded to tell me rape culture wasn't real and tried to talk me out of feminism. When I retreated to my room they were still talking about why feminism was unnecessary. I turned on Supernatural to drown them out.
I told the organiser of a different local dance scene - one Bubba hadn't yet infiltrated - and a close personal friend, about Bubba's behavior toward me, and how I knew people to whom such behaviors were still actively directed, and about other things like forced trust falls and dips on the social dance floor, and yet somehow, a few months later, this organizer friend messaged me saying he had finally gotten Bubba to show up at one of their events. I was horrified. Bubba doesn't take no for an answer, pressures women into accepting him, and puts his follows at risk of bodily harm, and I told someone and they didn't listen.
I told another organiser friend from a different local scene (one where some of Bubba's negative interactions with me had taken place) and they said I was being too hard on Bubba, and later went on to say that we can't respond to or take seriously every incidence of something with a vagina crying for help.
I told many of Bubba and I's mutual friends - and none of them distanced themselves from him when he refused their confrontation and correction - on the contrary, many of them said "Oh, he means well," and continued to treat him as they always had, and to talk to me about him as though nothing was wrong - like he wasn't taking 17-year-olds to house parties and getting them drunk, or assaulting people in bars. They even continued to invite him to the same events they invited me to.This past weekend some very dear friends of mine heard this story for the first time and asked why I hadn't told the organiers of the event where many of the first, and ultimately the final event between Bubba and I transpired. I was dumbfounded. I couldn't believe I hadn't. It's taken me a few days of thinking about it to realize why I didn't and haven't:
I told two organizers and they didn't hear me. I told my two roommates and they didn't hear me. I told over half a dozen friends that I had trusted and they didn't hear me. Once you've told more people than you have fingers to count - where is your motivation to tell others?
Not only do I know other people with similar stories - some are far worse, because the offending incidents are not "just" assault in a bar - they're sexual assault, or rape, and the shame, misplaced guilt, and anxiety that can come with sharing such a personally devastating incident can be crushing. It seems easier to deal with it silently than to risk being belittled or ignored by people you dare to trust. I see Bubba on the dance floor almost every week, and I can't help but watch him out of the corner of my eye, trying to see if there's anyone I need to run and protect. Even worse I see my friends' "Bubbas" - may who are guilty of more serious things than mine - and I wonder if, when I'm not watching them, they're endangering someone else who doesn't know the kind of things they think are okay.
But my friends were right. I should have told someone else. I should have kept going until someone listened.
Bad people cannot and will not be stopped when their victims sit silenced, defeated, and frightened on the side lines.
We do not owe anything to those who have harmed us. There's a violently beautiful quote from Anne Lamott that applies here:
"You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better."We do not owe them our loyalty, we do not owe them any kindnesses, - it is not our responsibility to muzzle ourselves to save their social lives. If they don't want people knowing the things that they do, they shouldn't be doing those things.
Let me clarify who is responsible for the damage that is done when a victim cannot make their story heard - it is NOT the victim. It is not the victim screaming into deaf ears, and it is not the victim too afraid to speak at all. The people responsible for known bad guys running amok are the people whose ears are deaf. It is the people who would say "stereotypes exist for a reason" and that "the solution to fixing this problem is not just to fall all over ourselves to protect people with vaginas every time they cry." It is those who shame and vilify the wounded who are responsible for creating a culture that aids those who would hurt others.
The people who hold the power to create safe spaces are the people who have ears ready listen, arms willing hold, and a voice to cry out relentlessly with the survivors until their attackers are dealt with.
To be the light in a dark place where so many other lights seem to have gone out is a daunting and terrifying task - but I guarantee you know someone personally whose suffering could have been eased if more people were willing to fight against the seemingly insurmountable tidal wave of the ugly side of our culture.
So, when you hear conversations about "should we have a safe space clause?" please say "yes."
When you hear someone say that safe spaces are impossible, go ahead and tell them that they're right, but that they will be a hero to millions if they stand up for them anyway.
When someone comes to you with a story like mine, or like those of my friends, please listen to them, and help them be brave.
Even the smallest person (or effort) can change the course of the future. Help create and foster safe spaces. It's important and it's worth it.