[Content Note: Critical examination of the flaws of safe spaces]
My feminism has evolved a lot since the days I was able to first name it, and most of it came from others around me. I picked up one book on feminist theology once, got an essay in and put it down before I dropped it into the tub from laughing too hard. The lessons, while as varied as the women who taught them to me, were simple: talk less and listen more, the value of the lived experience, how to struggle against a world that hates you, the importance of connection to one another. Feminism is not a solo struggle. This last one, more than anything.
I did my stint on the big internet forums of the world with Scarleteen, first as a dumb scared teenager and later, I was lucky enough to serve on their volunteer moderator squad for four years. I learned a lot from the website, both in the fields of sex ed, and also the kind of delicate abrasiveness that you get when dealing with teens. The rules at ST were pretty simple: as long as you weren’t using slurs, or abusing the users or mod team, we were willing to tackle – and be challenged by – almost any topic in the realm of relationships and sex.
When I ended up on Livejournal, I spent maybe one day in the community vaginapagina, hoping to learn some things and give useful information if I could. This, the rules proclaimed, is a safe(r) space. The problem: in cultivating this safe space, the moderators of VP were often cracking down on nearly all criticisms of dangerous activity or incorrect information. Commenters were able to support posters but not critique them. I didn’t last long there, but leaving the community doesn’t fix the general problem, hey?
I struggle a lot with the idea of trying to make feminism accessible and fun. Pat Robertson did a pretty good job when he pitched us as single lesbian women determined to break down the nuclear family unit and practice witchcraft, but that doesn’t pull in the numbers you’d think it would anymore. But the message that fun feminism sends is that feminism is a big sleepover party, where you do each other’s nails, try out different makeup and wax your legs – because EVERY choice is feminist, didn’t you know? When it comes to organizing or protesting or donating, you start seeing the same faces over and over again on the ground, with new recruits nowhere to be seen. And yeah, those old guard are hard working and do great things – but we need fresh blood and new experiences, not an echo chamber. It’s a very weird to walk out of a talk on feminism with the unsettling feeling you’re too radical for university feminists.
Another recent victim of the safe space ideology is Shakesville (nee Shakespeare’s Sister), with whom I’ve had a few run-ins over the past weeks, beginning with a post entreating the community for advice on a user having problems with a child racking up serious dollars on their phone streaming porn. I was banned from that post for a series of four comments, most of which was suggesting that other commenters were out of line in telling the mother watch a porn video with her child and explain why it is pornography is harmful. Not only was I banned, but the assumption was that I couldn’t possible be someone new who was disconcerted by the suggestions a mother sexually abuse her son but a sockpuppet of a former Shakesville troll.
So: issue #1 with this safe space: It’s only for people who advocate absolutely terrible, scarring and illegal actions in childrearing. For what it’s worth, I know mothers can’t win with most shit – every kind of parenting they do is wrong. But there’s paternalistic sexism couched in the guise of wanting what’s best for the child, and there’s straight up WRONG. Guess which one this fell under? And yet, guess which comments were not deleted?
If you’re still not convinced, how about yesterday’s post re: Bill Clinton’s speech at the DNC. There is a lot of what the kids today are calling squeeing, until someone brings up that as a survivor they’re uncomfortable with the glorification of a man who was under pretty heavy fire in the 90s for being a serial sexual harasser.
Okay, look, there are a lot of problems with feminism. Buckets. Truckloads. You would need the Curiosity and ten years to scan all the issues within feminism. One thing that should be a given is sensitivity to the needs of women survivors. it’s something we share with 1/3rd of the world’s population of women, and at the very least, we can get that right, and have frank and honest discussions about the glorification of the sexual abuses by men in power, right? It’s not like this presidential election race hasn’t been under heavy scrutiny for the “legitimate rape” debacle, the “life begins two weeks before conception” thing, pretty much every law passed in Arizona about women in the past four years. It’s not like Kristen Stewart isn’t getting the coal-raking of her life for entering a consensual (if adulterous) relationship in the media right now, a double standard that positively saturates the messages women absorb.
If you guessed Have a Frank and Earnest Discussion about Clinton’s Sexual Misconduct, sorry! The right answer is “tell the survivor she’s deliberately ruining the carefully cultivated safe space of Shakesville.” How dare you call them sycophants! That word should be reserved for people who constantly jump to defend the indefensible. Wait a second…
Look, this sounds a lot like the Grudge 2: the Grudgening and in a way it is. Because this continued broken ideal of safe spaces continues the old saying “so open-minded their brain fell out”. It’s not working! It’s driving away the very people feminism should be seeking to reach? Is it any wonder that many WoC feel uncomfortable with feminism when its advocates do ridiculous things like write about Scottish persecution in a Pixar film? Or that survivors don’t want to be part of a community where rigid rules don’t allow for their experiences to be heard? This is not a small problem; this is a symptom of a huge problem, and it’s front and centre because this site is often one of the first recommended to young feminists interested in reading and participating more. Not only does it do a disservice in teaching young women about feminism, there is often the sense of the same kind of gently done guilt-tripping associated with the best of manipulators.
Revolution isn’t safe. The only safety women, POC, people with disabilities, LGBT people have had is in the strength of numbers, solidarity and speaking truth loudly. Driving people away with a false ideal of safety only serves to hollow us out until the privileged smash us to pieces. Come on. Let’s make a real safe space out of the world.