Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings

Earlier this week, I was asked to put a trigger warning on an article I published on A Room of Our Own. The request wasn’t to include a trigger warning about domestic violence or self-harm or rape or the consequences of limited options of women living in a patriarchy. It wasn’t about the reality of male violence. I was asked to include a trigger warning on a post written by a woman who regrets having an abortion. Apparently, a feminist space which includes a very personal post by a woman who regrets her abortion – an abortion she was effectively forced into – isn’t a ‘safe space’. The violence this women experienced did not require a trigger warning, but regretting an abortion does.

A Room of Our Own started in December 2013. Since then, I have published articles on rape, domestic violence, murder, infant loss, post-partum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, racism, homophobia and all forms of violence against women and girls. The very first request for a trigger warning was on an article where a woman expressed regret about an abortion – an abortion that was a direct consequence of male violence. Seemingly, this one article where a feminist spoke of her regret was enough to invalidate the entirety of the blogging network.

AROOO was never intended to be a ‘safe space’. It was created to combat cultural femicide by building a space where a full gamut of feminist and womanist thoughts, musings, anger and reality was explored. It was never intended to be a space where everyone agrees with everyone else. And, this is the problem with the current rhetoric around ‘safe space’. It isn’t about ensuring that women have a place to discuss without experiencing male violence or silencing.

Currently, ‘safe space’ means a space in which no one disagrees with one another ever. There is no room for discussion or questioning. We see campaigns to have women no-platformed for daring to criticise the sex industry as criticism might hurt the feelings of women who work in it. The feelings of the many women who have survived prostitution don’t count in the rhetoric. Instead, we see sex workers referring to abolitionists with abusive names – a member of the sex-worker open university used the name ‘Rachel Whoran’ on their twitter account for ages. Former prostituted women who talk openly about their experiences of rape and abuse are mocked, insulted and harassed by supporters of the sex industry (including members of the Sex Worker Open University). Where is the safe space for women to talk about their negative experiences? Why aren’t they entitled to the same right to a safe space?

There are attempts to prevent university student unions from saying anything critical about the sex industry because it makes it an “unsafe space” for students working in it without giving a thought to the fact that many of their students working in it are actually unsafe. The motions put forward by some students unions would effectively bar their officers from supporting a woman leaving prostitution if she so chose because it wouldn’t be a ‘safe space’ for women who want to remain in it. How does this make universities safe for female students?

The answer is pretty clear: it doesn’t and it isn’t intended to make them safe. Young women on campus experience high levels of sexual harassment and violence and it is now individuals which criticise the sex industry that are blamed for making them ‘unsafe’. It isn’t the fault of the rapists on campus or the university management who collude with rapists, but feminists criticising pole dancing as ’empowerment’ for women (and until I see someone suggest that members of the UN take up pole dancing to empower themselves, I’m going to keep believing it is nothing more than a misogynistic attempt to limit women’s choices through perforative constructions of their sexuality).

This idea that universities must become ‘safe spaces’ free of dissent or discussion is infantilising an entire generation of students. Staff put content notes on lectures which some students might find difficult, but you cannot study history without learning about genocide, mass rape and religious wars. There is no literature, in any language, which is free from racism, homophobia, classism, and misogyny. Science is not free from these structures. You can put a content note on a lecture which discusses Sapphire’s Push, but that note isn’t about supporting the students who are living with child sexual abuse. It’s a clause that allows students to refuse to engage with material that they might find challenging. How many times have I heard students refuse to read about the Holocaust because the thought of it upsets them? And, those who want learn about the V2 rockets because machines are cool and not the thousands of slave-labourers who died building them because it made them sad.

We absolutely do need to make universities safer for female students – not by preventing discussions on difficult topics but by actually tackling rape culture on campus appropriately. Today’s tweet from the National Union Students Women’s Group asking the audience at their event to stop clapping as it “triggers anxiety” demonstrates the failure of universities and students unions to understand the difference between a space free from male violence and a space free from anxiety.

I suffer anxiety in these kinds of situations. I can fake it now but social situations make me incredibly anxious and I do not like loud noises, like prolonged clapping. My daughter still hates the sounds of hand dryers in public toilets and the flushing mechanism on trains and planes. The noise makes her visibly upset. Equally, the use of ‘jazz hands’ isn’t new. It’s common in BSL and is used with children who have auditory sensitivities. It is a way of managing specific situations where clapping would not be appropriate.

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Women who have survived sexual and domestic violence and abuse can be triggered by a million sounds: police sirens, stomping, whistling, a name. We cannot stop every single thing that might potentially trigger a student – we can help them access appropriate support and help them find ways to manage their anxiety, but we can’t pretend away the very things which caused their anxiety or PTSD in the first place.

NUS Women’s Group tweet requesting delegates not clap demonstrates the fundamental need for immediate, specialist training of all students unions officers and all staff on campuses in trauma awareness, as well as male violence. This type of suggestion doesn’t read as though it comes from someone with an in depth understanding of trauma, but rather from someone performing what they assume is social justice – as was the request for me to put a trigger warning on an article about women’s abortion regret.

This is the reality of discussions around safe spaces and triggers warnings now – its all about the performance and not actually making spaces free from rape and other forms of male violence.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings”

  1. Thank you thank you thank you. As a survivor, feminism and feminist analysis didn’t “trigger” me, it validated me, it empowered me to act. The new concept of “triggering” is a way of silencing feminists and survivors. It is censorship plain and simple. The world is not a safe space for women. The only way we will make it safe is by organizing to end the violence including and especially commercial sexual exploitation in prostitution and pornography.

  2. The concept of triggers is actually very helpful to survivors because it provides vocabulary for explaining rapidly why some situations, sounds, etc, are upsetting to them without the need for a lengthy explanation. So I disagree that the concept itself is at fault. However there seems to be a protectively minded movement to create safe spaces by rendering them void of triggers, which is misled – treating the symptoms rather than the cause. The way to help survivors deal with triggers is to offer them support, empathy and understanding. If we do nothing but run from triggering situations the world becomes smaller and smaller with no hope for progress. But without support, it is difficult, draining, sometimes impossible to find enough strength to face and get past the fear. It’s a matter of balance!

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