Guest post: Safe spaces

Today’s guest post is by Dianna Anderson, a writer and blogger. She wrote an awesome open letter to Mark Driscoll a few months back, and runs the blog Be The Change.  ETA: And I have a guest post up today at Dianna’s blog on how the constructs of virginity and “sexual purity” completely erase queer, trans/gender nonconforming, and intersex people.

Trigger warning: sexual abuse and violence.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite places to go was underneath our back deck. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a pool in the backyard; it was above ground, and had a deck surrounding it. Off to one side, there were steps that led down into the un-mowed backyard, where there was a huge maple tree growing between the privacy fence around the pool and the fence bordering our property.

This little space of yard was one of my favorite places to play. In the fall, the maple leaves would gather and pile up, and I could climb up the fence and hop down into a soft pile of leaves over and over. I could play back there out of sight of both neighbors and parents (something important when you’re enacting secret missions and pretending to be a spy). It also served as headquarters for my Calvin and Hobbesinspired club – “GROSBoyS” – which didn’t work out so well because my best friend was a neighborhood boy.

Every child needs a safe space – a space where they can feel free to be whoever, do whatever, and feel safe and protected and free. These spaces hold our deep secrets – confessions of “crushes” and talking about fears and how much you actually do like school – told in confidence to friends away from the prying eyes of parents and adults. My space was a place to explore, to develop, to become more myself. I never felt more at home than I did standing, daredevil fashion, on the top rung of our rickety back fence, preparing myself to leap into the pile of leaves or snow or pillows (depending on the season).

But safe spaces aren’t just for kids. Everyone either has, or feels the lack of having, a safe space to call their own. As we grow, these spaces become communities where we can share things without judgment, where we can trust others, and where we can learn about ourselves and others with a safety net. We can take leaps into the unknown in these safe spaces, knowing that there will be a landing.

When we reach adulthood, we develop new safe spaces – they could be virtual, as my blog and Grace’s blog here demonstrate. But very often, they are still heavily rooted in the physical. For me, when I turned 18 and moved off to college, my college was that safe space, as it becomes for many other students. The college campus becomes home base – it’s supposed to be a place where students can come back at the end of the day and feel protected; one develops friendships, does a lot of work to figuring out who s/he is, and learns a lot about himself or herself and others.* The safe space of college mirrors the safe spaces of childhood.

And this is a large part of why abuse – especially abuse involving an uneven power structure, say, that of an adult to a child – is so insidiously awful. It is physically and emotionally and psychologically damaging precisely because it destroys any sense of safe space the abused person may have had. The ultimate “safe space” is one’s own bodily autonomy, and when that is violated, it becomes harder and harder to develop new safe spaces.

Safe spaces are vital for recovery: because abuse causes all sense of safety to come crashing down, developing a new place to feel safe where one can readjust and rage and cry and discuss all the effects of abuse is vitally important. This is why therapy exists. Safe spaces are also massively important to seeking justice – the abused must be made to feel safe and not re-victimized in the act of coming forward.

It is precisely for this reason that the riots at Penn State over the firing of Coach Paterno are so disheartening. Arguably, the firing itself is problematic as he is only the most visible part of the controversy surrounding the child sexual abuse, and his firing seems to speak more of a PR move than actually seeking justice (this is not to say he should not have been fired – I frankly don’t think firing is enough, considering he violated Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting laws).

However, the reaction to the firing is disgusting. There is not a big enough “shame on you” for every single one of those students who “defended” Paterno by overturning news trucks and rioting in the street.

This riot is not an isolated problem. It is not just Penn State’s problem. It is not just Coach Paterno’s problem. It is not just the problem of Pennsylvania, or one isolated incident in the world of college sports.

Many statistics and studies confirm that college-age women are the highest risk group when it comes to sexual assault and rape. As many as 1 in 4 are victims of an attempted or completed rape. Frequently, the rapist is someone they know, someone they have to sit next to in class and see around campus. It can be very hard to regain the safe space that a college campus is supposed to be for this 1 in 4.

And the Penn State rioters just made it even harder. Not only is this a massive display of rape apologism – that a man should not be punished for failing to report and excusing a child rapist – but it makes it harder for “not perfect” victims to seek justice. The college girl who passed out drunk at a party and woke up to being raped? She just got the message that her campus is not a safe space to even try and come forward. The young co-ed who developed an inappropriate relationship with a professor, who then took advantage of her? She just got the message that, not only will the administration likely not support her, but neither will the student body. The sophomore attacked by the star of the athletic team while out for Halloween? She was just told not to come forward because her whole campus might turn against her.

By rioting, the Penn State students have participated in the abuse. They have removed the safe space not only for the children who were Sandusky’s victims, but they have damaged the safe space for sexual assault victims in their university and at campuses across the nation. Paterno was fired for being complicit in covering up child rape – a generally agreed upon “most despicable of crimes” – and students rioted. How much worse would this be if Paterno had covered up the rape of a section of the cheerleading squad and got fired? How much worse if the victim was not an “innocent child” but a “slut who was asking for it”?

The thought terrifies me. Every day, when we participate willingly in a culture that is ambivalent about charges of rape, that will rush to the defense of powerful men instead of the victim (ahem: Herman Cain? Kobe Bryant? R. Kelly? DSK? Julian Assange?). When we riot over the dismissal of a coach who helped cover up the rape of a child, we destroy the safe space that victims need. We take away the thing they most need, and we deny them justice.

And then we wonder why women don’t come forward.

*Linguistic reinforcement of the gender binary is recognized by the author. Apologies.

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3 Comments on “Guest post: Safe spaces”

  1. Some people have wondered if the rioters had thought that what happened to those boys could never happen to them. I’d take it one step further and say that some of the rioters *did* have a rape or molestation in their personal history. I mean some of the boys as well as the girls. Statisically it seems unlikely that at least a few wouldn’t have been victimized. And it is so common for victims in denial to turn around and punish other victims. I don’t think that’s a large motivation behind the riots, but I believe it is one.

    • Grace says:

      I think you’re absolutely right. I think a lot of people don’t understand that abuse apologism is something that survivors of abuse can be very prone to.


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