Why I Need Safe Spaces

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Over the last few days, I’ve had several conversations with male friends about the need for safe spaces. I’m combining elements from different ones to illustrate a point. The men I was talking to are all resonably progressive and college educated.

Friend--It’s just like all this stuff about safe spaces on campus, where students are getting so offended about everything all the time. Kids think everything they want is society’s responsibility to hand them.”

Me–Okay, I do see a lot of people who get offended awfully easily over things that don’t matter, but that’s not what safe spaces are about. Safe spaces are about wanting a place to go from time to time where you don’t have to have your guard up or feel threatened and connect with people who’ve had similar experiences.

Friend–If people can’t learn to function in society without needing that kind of validation…

Me–It’s not about validation or knowing how to function without a safe space. I’m a fat, bisexual woman who uses a wheelchair. I know how to function in society without a safe space. That’s my reality. Sometimes I’m fine with it, other times I want to go somewhere where I just don’t have to deal with misogyny, heterosexism, ablism or whatever other -isms I happen to encounter.

Friend–I tend to think that “safe spaces” are things you erect in your mind and no one can make them for you.

Me–You tend to think that as a powerfully built white male who probably never experienced discrimination in his life. Your experience isn’t the same as mine.”

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The context was college campuses, where the subject comes up quite often lately, but the discussion has broader implications. No amount of erecting mental spaces and having a positive self-esteem is going to impact that man making obscene gestures as I go by on the street, especially if he means me harm. No amount of self-reliance is going to help me when I lose a job because I date women, if someone comes after me with a baseball bat, or if someone tries to rape me. ALL of those experiences are part of my day to day. I cannot escape them. They are part of what it means to be a bi woman in America.

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There are also plenty of more subtle problems, like conversation paraphrased below, with one of the men who criticized the concept of safe spaces.

Me–I’ve been creating stories for 25 years and I find that I’m never really done.  I just decide to let the story go.

Friend–Well, lots of writers disagree with that. It works this way.

Me–I don’t want to debate.  My experience isn’t up for debate. My way works for me.

Friend–Why do you say things like that? I never said anything to indicate your experience was at issue.

Me–I say things like that because I feel like you are challenging my lived experience and then deflecting when I tell you to stop.

Friend–Well, that’s not what I’m doing. It’s so frustrating to talk to you because you get upset whenever I disagree with you or suggest that you try something that makes you uncomfortable.

Me–That’s not why I’m upset. I think you are the only friend I have who perceives me as someone who gets upset when others disagree with my opinions. If you disagree with me, fine. That’s a totally different thing from telling me that my experience doesn’t matter or is invalid because you read something else in a book.”
We never resolved this. It devolved into a more and more convoluted seesaw battle over whether or not I’m okay when people disagree with me and how much time and energy I should be willing to spend on what he perceives as a problem with communication. I perceive it as a problem with behavior. Finally, I disengaged, but I was angry, frustrated and questioning my own personality traits. Was I really that person who gets upset whenever somebody disagrees with me? The first place I thought to go was a private community that some blogging friends built for the purpose of having a safe space. This is why they matter. I was just going to vent there for a while and then move on, but then I realized that I needed to make this a blog post.

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Am I that person who can’t handle disagreements? Of course not. If you read the comments on this blog for more than five minutes, you’ll see quite clearly that we have healthy debates here all the time. Almost all of my friends have political and social views that I don’t agree with.
My friend seems to perceive his role in my life as that of a person whose responsibility is to challenge me to try new things when I don’t want to or point out alternate viewpoints. So that’s probably what he was trying to do, but I have told him I don’t need or want him to be THAT friend.

He says, “That’s because what I say makes you uncomfortable.”

No, what he says is rude and unnecessary. He doesn’t know when to stop or let things go.  He may mean well, but it becomes exhausting.

We don’t communicate well enough for him to be my self-appointed motivational goad. Maybe I don’t trust him enough for it. Whatever the case, he’s not the friend who knows me better than I know myself. I’ve asked him to stop trying to be that person. He continues. I doubt he would act like that if a man asked him to stop.

For the record, I’m fine with being challenged to push myself when the person doing it is someone I trust, who demonstrates respect and takes my lived experiences into consideration. I’m a published author working on my fifth novel. TENTH book, if you include nonfiction. Granted, only a small number have been published, but I know enough to say whether or not a writing method will work for me. I view every story is a learning experience. I just spent two months experimenting with my writing process to streamline and improve my weak spots. I read craft books, take classes. I try new things ALL the time in every area of my life. If I say, “this doesn’t work” it’s because I tried it before and I know what I’m talking about. I shouldn’t have to explain that.

If you’re going to try to challenge me, you first have to gain my complete trust. Then you have to understand what I’ve already tried, and if I tell you that your suggestion will not work for me, you need to accept that, not continue pushing because you think I need that kind of motivation.

If you consistently act in ways that hurt me when I ask you not to, there is a PROBLEM. If you presume you can tell me why I am upset because you’ve known me a long time, you’re not being a “true friend.” You’re being a presumptous asshole.

There’s always a possibility that miscommunication is part of the issue, but that doesn’t negate the fact that I have asked for the behavior to stop.

It doesn’t matter if you say that you respect me or that you love me or that you want the best for me. It doesn’t matter if you helped me out in an emergency once, either. How you behave in day to day exchanges trumps what you say or what you did when it was an emergency. The problem is not my over-sensitivity or the fact that my feminist friends have made me see everything as a gender issue or that my bad childhood makes me jumpy. The problem is that you keep acting like my experiences are secondary to yours.

(Edit: I didn’t hear all of those criticisms in this conversation, but I hear them all the time.  Every one of them.  I know other women hear them all the time as well.  Not only do we fight to be heard, we have our lives and experiences interpreted for us when we tell our stories.)

So back to my friend.  Does he mean well? Probably. Intention counts to a point. But–and this is a big but–it doesn’t matter what someone intends if they continue the behavior after I have asked them to stop. The fact that I need to explain this to people is also the problem. This is why safe spaces matter. Because I am fucking tired of living in a world where I have to have dialogues like this and then being told I’m overly sensitive.