There are no safe spaces

Since I started writing in the Feministing Community I have seen the idea of a safe space come up when comment threads take offensive turns. I find the notion of creating a safe space on a highly trafficked website dubious. Hate speech should never be tolerated but, though we can edit comments and ban users, it cannot be completely prevented.
I think there is a bigger problem with the idea of safe spaces that goes beyond the internet, though. I have come to believe that creating safe spaces is an unrealistic goal and that labeling a space as safe is highly problematic.
The goal of creating a space free of violence, including verbal violence, is a lofty one. But we all have our own personal histories and it is impossible to know what might trigger any one person. I am consistently surprised by what words and actions trigger me the most and gain new insight into my own experience of trauma as a result. How can I expect anyone else to anticipate all my triggers?
Members of marginalized groups all have our own triggers. There are certainly shared histories that give us insight into what might negatively impact the psyche of members of a group as a whole. This is where we get an understanding of hate speech from. But identity is nuanced and complex, and each person’s feelings and experiences are their own. A space that includes members of multiple groups can easily give rise to triggering moments from well meaning people who do not understand member’s of another group’s identity based trauma. But even closed identity based spaces can feel incredibly unsafe and be home to deeply hurtful words and actions because of intersecting identities and individual experiences not accounted for by broad social categories. Identity based spaces are important, but we need to recognize we cannot promise safety even in these spaces.


The most comfortable, intimate space can turn violent with shocking speed. This experience can make someone incredibly distrusting of claims of safety. It is these feelings that should be centered when choosing how to frame social justice spaces.
It is inappropriate to claim a space will be safe as it’s something that can simply never be guaranteed. And, for spaces based around learning, I’m not sure safety is even the best goal. We should certainly work to prevent attacks and avoid triggering others, but the process of learning about identity and privilege is not a safe one. It requires a willingness to step outside one’s own comfort zone, to be challenged, to change the way we see the world. For all these reasons myself and others in the social justice community believe it’s time to move on to a new way of understanding the spaces we create.
When framing social justice spaces, especially those centered around learning, I have come more and more to embrace the idea of accountable space. Accountability means being responsible to oneself and each other for our own words. It means entering a space with good intentions but understanding that we all screw up and need to accept responsibility for our mistakes. It means being OK with and open to being called out. It means acknowledging when others are triggered and when we feel pain and working to learn and grow from this experience. And it requires something incredibly difficult, a trust in those we share a space with that their intentions are good, that they mean well just like we do, that we are all in a process of learning and growing and that making mistakes is part of how this happens.
Accountable space is still incredibly difficult to create online, where people who disagree with us intensely and mean us ill can enter spaces with a degree of anonymity that does not exist in face to face interactions. But it is something those of us who are here with good intentions can strive for individually and collectively.

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19 Comments

  1. Jessica
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    It is posts like these that make me want to cry with joy that you’re writing for us, Jos. Seriously.

  2. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    “accountable space” is a good choice of words. Much more realistic than “safe space.”
    I realized that I have made a few comments on Feministing that might have been offensive to other people (with a different perspective on issues), but I didn’t see it as that way, regardless, it is a learning experience.
    So, yeah…

  3. margosita
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I think some of this may be a language and wording issue, but I disagree with the idea that we shouldn’t strive toward a safe place.
    “It is inappropriate to claim a space will be safe as it’s something that can simply never be guaranteed. And, for spaces based around learning, I’m not sure safety is even the best goal.”
    I don’t think goals are unworthy to hold just because they seem impossible. I think aiming higher than we “realistically” know we can climb is NOT a bad thing. I think you working under the assumption that a goal is some kind of promise. That if a blog (or forum or environment) puts it out there that it is a “safe place” that when something unsafe or triggering or hateful intrudes that means the promise of the place is somehow broken. I disagree with that. I think calling a place a safe place and working towards that means simply holding ourselves to the highest standard possible, regardless of if we can meet it 100% of the time.
    “We should certainly work to prevent attacks and avoid triggering others, but the process of learning about identity and privilege is not a safe one. It requires a willingness to step outside one’s own comfort zone, to be challenged, to change the way we see the world.”
    A safe place doesn’t mean a comfortable place. Or an easy place. Or a place where everyone gets a free pass from confronting hard issues. A safe place means that all of that happens in a space where everyone also strives to respect each other and be aware that each person in the space needs respect, care and the right to speak without being shut down or dehumanized or triggered.
    “Accountability means being responsible to oneself and each other for our own words. It means entering a space with good intentions but understanding that we all screw up and need to accept responsibility for our mistakes. It means being OK with and open to being called out. It means acknowledging when others are triggered and when we feel pain and working to learn and grow from this experience.”
    I like this, but I think ultimately, what you are advocating is that each person’s fist obligation (in a discussion, on a blog, or in an learning environment) is to think about themselves. But I think when we work towards a safe space, the first obligation is to the community.
    “And it requires something incredibly difficult, a trust in those we share a space with that their intentions are good, that they mean well just like we do, that we are all in a process of learning and growing and that making mistakes is part of how this happens.”
    I agree with this, totally. But I don’t agree that it translates into giving up the idea of a safe place. Accountability should be a part of all spaces. It is a part of safe spaces. But moreso, safe space means that along with being accountable, you are working towards the impossible. I’m not ready to let that go, yet.

  4. dormouse
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    I, too, have often wondered about the use of the word “safe space,” especially when in regards to this blog. So many posts here end asking for the readers’ thoughts, but in other posts, it is very clear that dissenting or critical thoughts are not welcome. We should all obviously be respectful, polite, and sensitive of others’ feelings, and of course, keep out the trolls. Beyond that, how much more “safe” should we strive to be? I’m just not sure one website can pull double-duty as a discussion (and even debate) community and a support group at the same time.

  5. xocoatl
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    This post is fantastic and the reason I come to feministing to read.
    I absolutely agree that Identity-based spaces are not definitely safe, and can even be violent spaces.
    They become violent through their exclusions, and it is precisely these kinds of spaces (race-or-gender-segregated schools, gender-segregated bathrooms, etc.) that are frequently the basis and continuation of structural violence.
    From a Foucaultian perspective, (How could I not mention Foucault in a discussion about spatiality?) the idea of identity itself is a violent one that confines a person to whichever descriptors have been chosen to demarcate the borders of their selves.
    Communication through language is always a violent process – it reorganizes our thoughts, our beliefs, our feelings, frequently in ways we didn’t expect and often against our will. This is why I agree that “safe spaces” are an impossible goal. Their creation is a foundational act of violence that works to exclude people of certain identity categories that are ultimately contingent, an act which also forces their participants into static boxes that cannot grow or change with time.
    I must take issue, however, with your alternative of Accountable space, because I believe that the notion of accountability also requires a certain shared normative understanding that can serve to exclude or box people in.
    I would like to see people working towards radically open space, or queer space, that challenges normativity and accepted knowledge on the basis of their constructed nature.
    The acceptance that your experiences, thoughts and feelings are historical constructions, it doesn’t always make the pain or the joy go away, but it does create a powerful method to examine the histories of these things to create a broader future.
    Thanks again for your post!

  6. rebekah
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t necessarily want a “safe space” so much as I want a space that feminists can call their own, that we as a collective can debate and argue the issues that are important to us, in an environment that is freer from harrassment, because most of the internet is not, simply because we are women who are talking about social/political issues in our lives. I don’t think that is unreasonable. And while we are not going to be able to keep everyone from remembering the traumatic points in their life I think as a whole the community posters and for the most part the commenters do everything we can to be respectful of each other, our differences, the perspectives that we hold, and the trauma that we have been through. I do however find nothing wrong with calling someone out who is blatantly going against this and saying sexist or misogynistic things, and reminding them that this is a feminist website and saying anti-feminist things is not acceptable.

  7. Naught
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Hey, great post. I completely agree.

  8. Gular
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    When framing social justice spaces, especially those centered around learning, I have come more and more to embrace the idea of accountable space. Accountability means being responsible to oneself and each other for our own words. It means entering a space with good intentions but understanding that we all screw up and need to accept responsibility for our mistakes. It means being OK with and open to being called out. It means acknowledging when others are triggered and when we feel pain and working to learn and grow from this experience. And it requires something incredibly difficult, a trust in those we share a space with that their intentions are good, that they mean well just like we do, that we are all in a process of learning and growing and that making mistakes is part of how this happens.
    This statement paragraph, I think, is the single most important thing I’ve ever read on Feministing.
    I agree so much I don’t even think there’s a word in English to describe it.

  9. Abby B.
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I have a sticker that says “Safe Space” on the door to my office at school. No matter what the words mean to me, at a college campus they’re a pretty universal marker that I’m an open-minded individual who takes the university’s non-discrimination policies very seriously. Your idea of “accountable space”, though, while perhaps a bit more difficult to fit on a sticker, is more towards the space I attempt to create in my professional and personal life. Thank you so much for putting words to it.

  10. Ariel
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree that the internet cannot be a safe space.
    And I see what you mean about safe vs. accountable space: the idea of being in a safe space and opening yourself up to being challenged seem antithetical, but (as far as I’ve seen in the only 2 spaces I consider to be truly safe) community agreements are necessary. Here’s how 2 Berkeley groups operate (and you might consider this safe, or accountable, or a mixture of both)
    1. Know when to step up, and step back in the conversation. Let everyone’s voice be heard.
    2. Before starting a discussion, ask people how they identify, and what pronouns and name they prefer.
    3. “One Diva, One Mic”- One person voices their opinion at one time.
    4. Confidentiality– stories or quotes should not be connected to people outside the space
    5. Check your privilege at the door. Be willing to discuss if other people think you haven’t checked your privilege at the door.
    6. Respect- everyone in the room represents different communities, and decisions should be made with consent of the group. No personal attacks.
    7. Speak your mind. Don’t let your silence be mistaken for consent.
    These are organizing/women’s group policies I’ve seen used to great effect–
    All these agreements can only happen face to face, I feel. But I think a space can be safe and accountable.

  11. magi
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Ariel, I have to say if it wasn’t for your post, I would not have posted. The problems women talk about on other sites, of dogpiling, silencing, and general dismissive comments, I’ve seen here. I do not feel the this is is a safe place for women. It’s only a safe place if you don’t disagree. Having a dissenting opinion on this site is highly discouraged.
    If this site is going to be a ‘safe place’ then it needs to safe to disagree. There are a lot of comments I’ve read (rarely directed at me because I rarely post) that if they had come from a man, they’d be considered abusive. But, because they are made by women too women, it’s perceived as acceptable. How can one demand better treatment from men, while not giving better treatment to other women? The first step too creating a safe place, is pay attention to what you say. If you have the need to rant say so, but that’s different then just directing your ire at someone who as an opinion you don’t like.
    Not all women agree with every feminist ideal. Treating people respectfully who think like you do is easy. Treating people who disagree with you, with respect is much more difficult.

  12. magi
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    Ariel, I have to say if it wasn’t for your post, I would not have posted. The problems women talk about on other sites, of dogpiling, silencing, and general dismissive comments, I’ve seen here. I do not feel the this is is a safe place for women. It’s only a safe place if you don’t disagree. Having a dissenting opinion on this site is highly discouraged.
    If this site is going to be a ‘safe place’ then it needs to safe to disagree. There are a lot of comments I’ve read (rarely directed at me because I rarely post) that if they had come from a man, they’d be considered abusive. But, because they are made by women too women, it’s perceived as acceptable. How can one demand better treatment from men, while not giving better treatment to other women? The first step too creating a safe place, is pay attention to what you say. If you have the need to rant say so, but that’s different then just directing your ire at someone who as an opinion you don’t like.
    Not all women agree with every feminist ideal. Treating people respectfully who think like you do is easy. Treating people who disagree with you, with respect is much more difficult.

  13. femme.
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Jos, this was an amazing post. I love the term “accountable space.” Thank you for this.

  14. daisycrazy
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    This reminds me of my (fairly decent) sex ed in a very good way:
    In the same way that there is no “safe sex” only “safer sex”
    There’s not such thing as safe spaces, only safer spaces
    I like the idea of purely “safe” not being universally attainable because then it stops being a destination and the process and journey toward “safer” can be both focused on and seem within our grasp. This also allows the idea of safety to be completely mutable and open to adaption to different contexts (what’s safe for a person of color may not feel safe for a tansperson).

  15. nattles_thing
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s possible to have a safe space where people discuss politics, particularly feminism where so much of the personal is political.
    The fact is, that the more people you encompass into a space, the more difficult it becomes to make that space safe for everyone. Feministing has a lot of variation among feminisms, and so it’s nearly impossible. I doubt there’s any major group here that feels that this is a safe space.
    I do think accountable space is possible, and I love that phrase.

  16. cattrack2
    Posted August 12, 2009 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    I think there’s a lot to be said for common courtesy, which is extremely uncommon on the Net. Overall the culture is coarsening daily. Back in the day people “loved to hate” JR. Today, people simply love Simon Cowell. Millions tune in daily to reality TV for the express purpose of watching people humiliate themselves. Its hard to find an internet space that doesn’t resemble a Bill O’Reilly interview.
    On the other extreme, we have sites which strive to be PC and forbid intellectual arguments which counter the conventional wisdom of whatever site it happens to be. This boards’ attacks on “ProudFeminist” yesterday echo that. Its true that “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one” but that seems an odd rejoinder for this site.

  17. kisekileia
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I was about to say exactly this, that the idea of “safer sex” rather than “safe sex” (which I also learned in sex ed–in middle school, no less!) is a good analogy here. I don’t think we should use the impossibility/difficulty of attaining a completely safe space as an excuse not to make this space as safe as possible, and I worry that “a space cannot be completely safe” could turn into that sort of excuse-making.
    I do think there has to be some balance between safety and room for dissent at a blog like Feministing where people come from diverse perspectives and many are just learning about feminist and anti-oppression beliefs, but I don’t think that should be used as an excuse to allow hatred or blatant derailing.

  18. ruth
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I agree this isn’t a safe space for women. And I kind of agree with the argument that it could never be a safe space. However I do think it should be a more respectful space. I have been called a troll for posting a comment that some other women didn’t agree with.
    I am a feminist and I don’t think my comment was anti feminist, but because some other women didn’t agree with it I was kind of shouted down. I have read this happening to other woman too.
    That makes me sad as ideally I would like this space to be a place where we could debate issues but still be respectful to each other.

  19. Edgy1004
    Posted August 13, 2009 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    I have to say that your point is exactly why I angrily close feministing every other week but this post and other is why I always come back. It does seem like we (I take responsibility too) attack people when they hold a minority opinion.
    We throw around accusations in order to silence others. The most common accusation seems to be troll.
    What I think is that people only attack when they feel like they are being attacked.
    I guess I just don’t understand the concept of a perfectly safe space. How can a space be completely free of anything sad or upsetting or offensive unless each of us chooses not to be saddened, upset or offended. Let’s be honest, I don’t think any of us will do that because we all care to much.

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