The Trouble With “Safe Spaces”

Most of the people who have stumbled their way to my blog have probably heard the term “safe space” before. The concept is relatively simple — a safe, inclusive space without discrimination that provides support to those who need it most. But while it sounds great in theory, it is endlessly problematic in practise.

I have never seen a safe space work as intended. My experience has been with safe spaces for LGBTQ people, and those who struggle with disability, mental illness, and/or trauma. In many cases, there has been overlap between these categories.

Safe spaces are riddled with logistical problems, starting with the fact that everyone’s idea of what constitutes a “safe space” will be different. The way the space is moderated or run is another issue, and one that frequently sounds the death knell for the effort, as hosts lean more towards a model that establishes them as authority figures rather than leaders, and creates an uneven power differential among a group of people who, often, have suffered poor treatment or even abuse at the hands of those in power. For a safe space to function properly, everyone must be treated as an equal, and conflicts need to be managed and resolved from a place of mutual respect — otherwise, one or more members walk away feeling like a scolded child, which leads to resentment and distrust.

The other major issue safe spaces face is trying to balance the individual needs of members with the safety of the group as a whole. This gets harder to do the larger a group grows — but no one wants to turn away someone seeking a safe space. As a result, they often buckle under their own weight as interpersonal conflicts simmer, and those who feel wronged have to be civil and make nice with people they want nothing to do with.

Individuals seeking safe spaces walk in with a number of needs, behavioural quirks, and issues unique to them. This can make them tricky to accommodate, and even downright frustrating at times. No one wants to violate the premise of a safe space by asking them to stop doing that thing that’s annoying everyone, but at the same time, truly disruptive or distressing behaviour has to be addressed. The fact that someone is working at a disadvantage does not give them the right to upset or harm others without second thought. Managing those kinds of situations is difficult, and is when respect and a lack of judgement become invaluable.

No talk of safe spaces would be complete without mentioning triggers. Triggers are topics, experiences, memories, and/or words/phrases that cause deep distress to the person encountering them. Distress severe enough that it impacts their ability to function. Those of us who have them have to deal with accusations of “oversensitivity” often, which is profoundly unfair. No one wants to live their worst memories over and over again, and wishing to avoid being forced to do so is understandable, not oversensitive.

The trouble with triggers comes in when you have a moderate to large group of people who have a various assortment of them. Trying to keep everyone safe becomes a priority, but is one I have never seen achieved. One of three things tends to happen:

  1. Someone is told that they cannot speak about their experiences/ seek support or must leave the safe space because they are triggering others. While avoiding hurting others is important, there is an undertone of shame to this approach that defeats the purpose of a safe space, because it requires censorship. It also sends the message that your emotions and experiences are so ugly that they should not be spoken of, which is not only problematic, but deeply painful, possibly even (re-)traumatizing
  2. Someone has to leave to protect themselves, because they are constantly being exposed to triggering material/talk
  3. Infighting over the validity of triggers and individuals’ right to speak about their experiences and seek support cause the group to fracture into smaller subgroups, or for the safe space to cease existing altogether

I don’t have any neat, tidy solutions to this problem, probably because any effective solution will need to be multifaceted. What I do know is that identifying the issues with safe spaces is the first step towards working out how to solve them. And, really, it’s important that we do. People need to be able to share what their lives are and have been, and seek needed support in a way that isn’t strictly clinical (counselling, therapy). A support network made up of friends and/or family is absolutely vital when dealing with any number of issues that might drive someone to seek a safe space, because the goal is not to stay in counselling/therapy forever. Ideally, there are people in our lives who can and will help us if we tell them how.

~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

 

Commentary on “Writing Advice”

Most of the writing advice I see coming from the so-called experts or prolific writers makes me so mad I could breathe fire. It’s things like, “a writer writes”, “you have to write every day”, “there’s no such thing as writer’s block”, “it’s all about butt-in-chair dedication”, “don’t ever look back on the earlier stages of what you’ve written, just keep moving forward” etc. And what all of these pieces of advice have in common is that they are trying to tell other people what their creative process should look like.

Newsflash: it doesn’t work that way.

I’ve talked to a lot of writers about their processes. And what I have found is that no two of them are alike, because no two people are exactly alike. One writer I know is able to produce two thousand words per day, every day, which is tremendously productive and also highly intimidating. Another writer I know writes long-hand, in a notebook, and types her stories out afterward. Another writer I know is able to write in coffee shops, secluded corners, libraries, you name it. One writer lets the story run away with them, while another has to plot everything out carefully, in another document. The method and process that produces a particular writer’s best work will vary by the person, which makes trying to give generalized advice to aspiring authors useless. More than that, it can be incredibly discouraging.

Because you know what else a lot of this advice doesn’t take into account? That not everyone is perfectly healthy in mind and body. One writer I know has bouts of crippling anxiety over words—and not just in fiction, but in emails and informal communication. Another writer lives in chronic pain, and sometimes that pain is so bad that they cannot write, or go to work, or even get out of bed. And then there’s me. If I have a PTSD event, it can take a couple of days for my brain to settle and go back to functioning as close to normal as it’s capable of, and I don’t have the focus or emotional resources to write during that time.

And that isn’t my fault, or something I should be shamed for. Writing is individual, like every other art. Sure, you can go to school for it—but that doesn’t automatically make you good. Just like practising and self-teaching doesn’t automatically make you bad or inferior to someone who got the formal education. Every writer will have a unique method or combination of them for getting their best stories out—because it’s not really about how fast you write or how many words you get out in a day. It’s about the quality of the story you’re telling.
~
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

Hello, September

This is the first August I can remember where I haven’t spent the last half of the month gearing up for a new school year.

No restocking pens, paperclips, highlighters and sticky notes. No scrambling to buy textbooks. No having to reorganize my desk, taking it from Creative Mode to Academic Mode. No recalibrating my sleep schedule. No class conflicts and grad requirements to work with and around. No bad-professor-dodging. No cancelling my birthday because of exams. No pre-emptive stress over reading lists and assignment deadlines.

It feels strange. Good, in a way. Light. But hollow, too. Because this was my life’s primary structure and mode of organization for years and years. It was never easy, but there was something reassuring in having a definite measuring stick for success, in being able to know exactly what was required of me. It didn’t make it any easier to do what was required, didn’t lessen the toll on my mind or body, but at least I didn’t have the stress/fear of the unknown to deal with, too.

I’m trying to find a new way to structure my life. I know that, for a lot of people, that’s work. I’ve gotten news that I’m being published (OMG!!!) so my writing career is taking off, but I know that won’t pay the bills right now (and might not ever). I have some other opportunities that I’m looking into, and have gotten stuck playing the waiting game on, but there are things to consider on the work front that scare me.

Things like: How will I be able to hold a job when my health, physical and mental, is still unstable? How will I find a job that I can do with my limitations, and how do I hold onto it? What if I can’t work full-time? How will I support myself? What if I can’t ever work full-time?

And, because our culture is so, so bad about tying your identity to your work, your ability to be productive, I have to battle self-doubt on top of all those other things. Even knowing logically that I have worth as a person whether I can work or not doesn’t stop the emotional part of me from whispering that no one will want to be with, love, or be friends with a useless, disabled lesbian. It doesn’t stop the nagging questions of “How dependent will I have to be on others? How dependent am I allowed to be before I’m a burden? Who would be willing to shoulder that burden? How could I possibly be okay with being a burden on my loved ones?” from creeping up on me.

That kind of thought process is toxic, and I know it. It is also, unfortunately, incredibly difficult to root out. Knowing that it’s utter bullshit, that it’s capitalism telling me I have to be a successful, economically-productive individual to have worth; that it’s the decades of abuse undercutting my sense of self; that it’s my anxiety and mental illness trying to tear me down doesn’t make it go away or hurt any less.

All I can do in those moments is remind myself that:
1) I have people who love me so, so much, and in a variety of ways;
2) I have been working towards better health and stability for about 2 years now, and my efforts have started to pay off;
3) I am trying to pursue work, but have to wait and see if things fall into place—and it’s not my fault if they don’t;
4) My limits are not my fault;
5) Human beings are inherently social creatures, and we all need to be taken care of sometimes, no matter our age or level of ability;
6) I am trying, and that counts;
7) My limits are still not my fault.
~
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

“Victim” vs. “Survivor”

I don’t like the word “victim”. Mostly because I don’t like the connotations—the dictionary definition is “a person harmed, injured, or killed as the result of a crime, accident, or other event or action.” But when people talk about victims, they aren’t just talking about a person who was hurt or killed. They’re talking about the hurt, the death, the tragedy that made the victim. The word conjures a certain image of frailty, of brokenness.

And that’s not fair.

The word “victim” is appropriate in some cases and some contexts. The justice system and academia uses it in a precise way. In the dictionary-definition way. But all of that gets twisted round by how the media and people on the street use it. Social workers, support groups, and counsellors of all stripes encourage people who have been victimized not to adopt the label of “victim” because of the connotations attached. Because of the way it can warp your perceptions and expectations of yourself.

The word most commonly used to replace “victim” is “survivor”—if, of course, the person did live through the incident in question. But I don’t think “survivor” is a great word, either. It’s definitely better, because it emphasizes the fact that it was an incident you lived through, and is a positive trait when turned into an “I am” statement. But it still focusses on the wrong thing, in my opinion, because it puts the emphasis on the incident, on the trauma, and less about moving on from it. Because, yes, it is undeniably powerful to say “I’m a survivor, I lived through this”, but we deserve more than just survival. We deserve to heal. To live. To have our lives defined by more than just our trauma.

When I talk about what happened to me, I don’t use those words. I talk about things that happened to me. Or things that someone did. I don’t dance around words like “abuse”, “assault”, or “afraid”. I use them if and when they are appropriate to describe my experience. But “victim” isn’t appropriate. Not for me. And neither, really, is “survivor”. Depending on what I’m describing, I might use “target”. As in, “I was the target of a hate crime”. Which I was. But my word choice there makes what happened about the person who did it, rather than about me, and my trauma, and whatever I “must’ve done” to bring it on myself. It argues that the important part of that sentence, the takeaway point, is not that I was confronted with unnecessary violence and hatred, but that someone felt the need to subject a complete stranger to violent hatred for no good reason. It makes it about the person who did something wrong, and the fact that it was wrong, rather than glorifying my pain.

Because I’m not interested in living in the past, inside all the hurt that others have heaped on my head. It was bad enough to experience the first time. I don’t want to give the people who hurt me the satisfaction of crippling me forever. I want to find a way to be happy. To do things that are meaningful. To grow and learn and love and live as fully as I can.

I’m not a victim. I’m not a survivor. I’m a person.

~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

 

This Is My Rebellion

In the wake of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, a lot of the way I live — things I do and say and take for granted — feel like acts of rebellion. And maybe they are, which is a massive shift in perspective. But if tragedy does anything, it makes you re-evaluate.

My heart goes out to everyone affected by this. To those who are grieving a loved one. Those who have a loved one in the hospital. To the queer community, who is feeling this reverberate as far away as Canada, and likely further than that. To the Muslim community, that is currently under unearned fire for what happened. To those in Orlando, who are living in the aftermath of violence. I send all of you my love, and I will keep all of you in my prayers.

There’s not a lot I can do from Canada to try and help these people. I wish there was. What I can do, though, is keep on with what I have been doing. I’m going to go to the Pride events in my town this week. I’m going to take my babygays with me, however many want to go. I’m going to keep reaching out to queer youth in my town. I’m going to keep speaking out, educating my friends and family and total strangers about queer history and heteronormativity and why so many casual comments and assumptions are not okay. I’m going to keep writing stories for and about queer people, where we get to have happy endings. I’m going to keep living out and proud, fighting against femme invisibility, homophobia, and transphobia.

I refuse let fear stop me. Because no one can truly predict how or when or where hatred will erupt into violence. All we can do is try to put love into the world — by refusing to hurt each other further with ignorance, intolerance, and laying blame; by giving hope to those who need it; by choosing to be a voice for those who are too afraid or in too much danger to speak. By opening our arms and our hearts to those who are hurting. But most importantly, by opening our mouths to create change so that this doesn’t keep happening.

Queer people are, first and foremost, people. We have walked among and beside you for as long as culture has existed. Our love and identities are not new — we are just trying to break free of the darkness and silence that was imposed on us. And, whatever you might think of us, we have the right to exist. Someone tried to take that from us.

And please, notice that I said someone — not “some culture” or “some group” or “some religion”. This was the act of a person filled with hate. Flinging around more hate and intolerance is not the answer.

~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

 

The Thing About Anxiety

The thing about anxiety is that it lies to us. Sometimes those lies are rooted in truth, and sometimes they are blatant fabrications, but when you have anxiety, you can’t tell which is which. When it comes after you, it all feels real. Undeniable.

A short example of the pretzel logic anxiety uses to attack its victims: So, that job interview you have coming up. It’s a big deal. Have you figured out what you’re going to wear? You know how important a first impression is, and you only get one chance to do this right. You have to be professional, but you — only, no. Don’t be you. If you decide to be “you”, you’ll fuck it up for sure. But, then again, it’s a long shot you’ll get this job anyway. It was only luck they’re asking for an interview. It’s ridiculous, thinking that you’re capable enough to do this job, and the interviewer is gonna pick up on that right away. Why even do this to yourself? Why set yourself up to fail? You know this isn’t gonna work out. You might as well quit while you’re ahead.

There are certain times when it’s normal to experience anxiety — a new job, graduating, having to move. Big changes and periods of transition, where there is a lack of certainty, those are common times to be a little anxious.

But anxiety about smaller things like government paperwork, and needing to set foot outside the house today, those are above and beyond normal levels. And it’s really hard to try and talk about that kind of anxiety. Because, sometimes, anxiety is rooted in specific events — a hate crime, bad experience, trauma — or tied to specific triggers. But other times, there is no reason — there’s no cause you can point to, there’s just the anxiety trying to cripple you for no reason at all.

But how do you explain that? Worse, how can you expect other people to understand, to help you, if you can’t explain?

~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.

 

Sex Is Not The Enemy

Chastity pledges, purity rings, abstinence-only education — those are things more common in the US, sure, but a watered-down version does exist here in Canada. And I see a number of very big problems with these things, and the attitudes they spring from, especially since I’m in close contact with the people most affected by them — youth.

Problem 1: It’s Impractical

The first problem with chastity pledges is that they are massively impractical. It’s easy to promise you’ll never do something when you have no concept of what it is you’re giving up. Also? Sex is a biological drive, and in evolutionary terms, we’ve been having sex in our teen years since forever. In the Victorian era, marriageable age was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. Societal standards have only changed in the last hundred years or so, which means that we’ve only recently become prudes. When you consider how hard it is to stay a virgin until you’re married at 15 versus getting married at 25 or 30, well. The problem there is that one societal standard shifted (age at which it is considered normal to marry), but the corresponding expectation (staying virginal until marriage) didn’t.

Problem 2: The Prohibition Principle

By making sex “forbidden”, you’re actually increasing it’s appeal, and thereby the temptation to say “screw it” and break your promise. And those kinds of decisions?  Tend to be made in the heat of the moment and result in unsafe sex.

Problem 3: It’s a Lose-Lose System

By setting up sex as something sacred within marriage and forbidden outside of it, those who break their promise get saddled with huge amounts of guilt and shame, which they then feel compelled to deal with on their own rather than risk further stigma by talking to someone who can guide them. This becomes a rather nasty catch-22 when the sex in question results in STIs or unwanted pregnancy. Of course, even on the opposite side of things — when the young person really does wait until marriage before engaging in sex — you still have to deal with internalized shame around sex, the head-spinney rules about what kind of sex is “acceptable” and what isn’t, and the fact that you’re no longer “pure” even if you played by the rules. No matter what happens, people end up feeling like shit for a biological imperative.

Problem 4: It’s Archaic and Patriarchal

See, most of the time, expectations and social condemnation about adolescent sex is directed at women and girls. The peeps who own a Y-chromosome basically get off with a slap on the wrist, if that, while young women who are discovered having premarital sex suffer a disproportionate array of consequences. These can include, but are not limited to: slut-shaming and bullying; social ostracism; being disowned; sexually transmitted infections, both relatively harmless if caught and treated (ex: syphilis, chlamydia) and those that are much, much more serious (hepatitis, HIV); unwanted pregnancy, which can result in further distress from the inability to access safe abortion, forced adoption of the baby, or raising the child alone.

See, women are the ones who are most likely to contract an infection from unprotected sex with a partner. It’s much harder for a woman to pass along an STI to her partners than it is for a man to pass along STIs to his. Women are also the ones who end up with unwanted pregnancies from unprotected (and even protected) sex. But women don’t have sex by themselves. It is impossible for a woman to get an infection or knocked up without help from a (usually male) partner — but we stick her with the burden of responsibility, and all of the judgement when one of those things happen to her. Society tells her that she is a slut, that she’s dirty, that she deserved it because she should have known better. Why don’t men get just as much blame, just as many fingers pointed at them? Why isn’t male sexuality policed as thoroughly as female sexuality is?

Oh, right. Because it’s not fair to tell people what they can and can’t do with their own bodies. Especially when we’re talking about something that is normal, natural, and healthy.

Sex is not the enemy. It is not evil, come to tempt you. It is not good and precious only when had between spouses. Sex is messy, fun, awkward, even beautiful, but it’s definitely not something anyone should be made to feel ashamed of having. Without sex, none of us would be here.

~

I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.