Not a safe space

Back from a much needed vacation and ready to write a short post. Yesterday I read the transcript of the Great Penis Debate translated by the wonderful Kate Donovan. I didn’t have time to watch and I am always grateful for transcripts because I have hearing loss in one of my ears.

One thing that irked me a great deal reading the transcript is the idea that when Rebecca Watson said skepticism wasn’t a safe space for women, she meant that skepticism was an “unsafe space” for women. That sentiment, that interpretation of Watson’s words was made throughout the debate but was concisely uttered by Travis:

But it’s being billed as an unsafe space.

Is it being billed as a “unsafe space” Travis? Is TAM or any other con being billed as “unsafe?” I don’t mean by commenters on blogs. I mean by bloggers themselves. Please direct me to bloggers that said TAM and/or other skeptic/atheist cons are unsafe for women. I don’t read all the blogs so I must have missed it somewhere.

Now that that is out of the way I want to talk about what is meant by “not a safe space” since I obviously don’t think Watson meant “TAM is unsafe” or “skepticism is unsafe” at least not any more unsafe than the general population.

hmmm. general population. that may be the key to the difference.

See, the general population is not what I call a “safe space for women.” What do I mean by that? At work, if I am sexually harassed by a coworker, I don’t feel confident that it will be dealt with when I report it. I have watched sexual harassment being reported. It wasn’t taken seriously.  Another example: If I am raped, If I am sexually assaulted, I am fairly confident that reporting it will result in slut shaming and victim blaming. I am fairly confident that my entire past sexual history will be cause for my rapist or assaulter to go unpunished, that it will be assumed I was asking for it.

To me for the general population to become “safe for women” it needs to take extra precautions to make sure that the current attitudes of a culture (you know that patriarchy) don’t prohibit women from seeking legal or even emotional recourse for those if’s that may come up. Creating a safe space for women in the general population may be having something like specially trained police to deal with victims of sexual abuse. It may be that a workplace has sexual harassment training periodically. It may even be a domestic violence shelter that has gone so far in making a safe space for women that it creates a “not safe space” or “unsafe space” for men genderfluid or transgender people.

Making the general population “safe for women” overall won’t happen until the culture changes. No matter how many rules we create, we also need to trust those rules will be enforced. So instead we carve out lots of little niches and claim some places as “safe for women” some places as “not safe for women” and some places as “unsafe for women.”

Like it or not, it is we women who get to decide for ourselves where a particular place exists on that “safeness spectrum.”  Watson’s words were describing her initial thoughts that skepticism existed on the safer than the general population end of the spectrum. She learned in the shitstorm following Elevatorgate that actually is wasn’t any safer than the general population. She learned that being a  skeptic didn’t automatically make you immune to misogyny. Being a skeptic didn’t automatically make you care about creating a safe space for women. She learned that skepticism is “not a safe space” where she can rest easy that everyone sharing the space with her cared about women enough to take us seriously on those pesky little issues of the he said/she said variety.

Yeah we all pretty much know that the general population is not a safe space for women. We know that women are damned if we do and damned if we don’t in most scenarios. What we seem to have a problem understanding is that the groups we are a part of aren’t necessarily any better than those we oppose on this issue. We seem to have a problem accepting that we skeptics and atheists are not better than everyone else like we thought we were. We seem to have a problem accepting that we are sometimes, maybe even often, wrong.

One way we are often wrong is when we insist that skeptics and atheist conventions don’t need extra precautions in place to protect attendee’s. When we insist that the extra steps to make women (not just women btw) feel safe are frivolous, when we ignore that it is those extra precautions that make a space safer than the general population, we become part of the problem. When many women say “we don’t feel taken seriously in this movement” and the movement responds by not taking us seriously or even blaming us for the drop in rates of women, that is a problem.

So yeah, skepticism isn’t a “safe space for women.” I want to help make it safer.

18 thoughts on “Not a safe space”

    1. Thank you Jason. I really had no clue this one would resonate so much. Just a quick post about how bothered I was ghat people weren’t getting the distinction. 🙂

  1. In terms of the distinction between a “safe space” vs. a “non-safe space” vs. an “unsafe space”, I was raped at (the equivalent of) an annual conference which I’d say was a neutral space, so neither “safe” nor “unsafe” – though with a high proportion of young people (of legal age, to be clear), it should have been an environment where the organisers were aware of the possibility of predatory behaviour by older participants.

    Tellingly, the organisation has always been an “ad hocracy” and probably to this day doesn’t have an anti-harassment policy (and we’re not talking sexual harassment only). It looks like a public liability nightmare waiting to happen (the org is incorporated, so the individuals are not vicariously responsible for policy and procedural failures, but still could be wiped out by a lawsuit).

    1. Yeah those not safe or neutrally safe spaces are often at risk from a lawsuit if they do not have clear policies about behavior. It is a greater risk with a corporation than with a loosely organized con but taking the problems attendees encounter seriously is important. Consider if someone is being harassed and ze gos to con organizers. Nothing happens and ze is later assaulted. Con organizers may be legally at fault for not taking appropriate steps to deal with the situation.

      Harassment policies are not just to help us. They help cover organizers, asses too.

  2. We seem to have a problem accepting that we skeptics and atheists are not better than everyone else like we thought we were. … When many women say “we don’t feel taken seriously in this movement” and the movement responds by not taking us seriously or even blaming us for the drop in rates of women, that is a problem.

    So yeah, skepticism isn’t a “safe space for women.” I want to help make it safer.

    Precisely. So well said.

    1. Funny cause that was one of the not so precisely worded moments at the start. I struggled to make my thought clear on that part. Glad they were in the end. Thanks.

  3. as a not-native-speaker, please, what is the difference between “unsafe” and “not safe”? Normally, I’m quite good at nuances in English, but this one puzzles me.
    (Note: I am entirely on your side in the debate, just saw this and thought “hey, a chance to learn! yay!”)

    1. Unsafe carries a greater than average chance you will experience something that threatens your mental emotional or physical safety. A war zone is unsafe for anyone who is near or in it. A place so forgiving of child rape like the catholic church is an unsafe place for children because there is long documented precedent that child rapists get away with their horrors within the church. The lack of risk for predators makes it less safe for children than the general population therefore unsafe.

      Not a safe space means that it is not any safer than the general population as far as safety is concerned. Extra precautions haven’t been taken to ensure members inside the space aren’t at liberty to make other members inside the space feel unsafe. It often means that those who feel unsafe have no way to address it unless laws have been broken.

      A safe space is one where extra precautions have been taken and are enforced. My work is not a safe space because I don’t feel harassment is taken seriously but lots of places of employment are safe spaces because their harassment policies are clear. The distinction is that a person may be harassed in both placed but it is less likely to continue or escalate in a safe space.

      I want to help make cons a safe space where harrasing behavior is less likely to escalate into unsafe behavior. That is what is meant when we want to create a safe space.

  4. Are there any “safe spaces” for us women (when unaccompanied)?

    Any time a woman is alone anywhere she has to keep an eye open; don’t get too friendly with the menz, no eye contact in the lift, on business trips don’t go in the hotel bar, in a restaurant get the little table looking at the wall, when alone for a long time with colleagues always mention the spouse and ask about his, if you visit some guy at home have your say and leave, flat shoes and button up, etc etc. You relax for just one minute and off they go.

    And if I (over-50, short, fat, never been sexy looking) feel like this how do the young ones manage?

    1. I don’t know think places exist where objectification and unwanted sexual advances don’t happen. But there are places where complaints of those experiences are taken seriously. There are places that women feel supported when they ask the person giving them unwanted sexual attention to stop. Those places are safe to me. They not completely eliminate every risk I may encounter but they have attempted to minimize them

    2. Back a ways, my girlfriends, sisters and I knew which bars and dance halls were more likely to be safe spaces because their policy was for bartenders and bouncers to take women’s complaints seriously and be proactive about removing jerks before they caused anyone trouble. The bars found it smart because more safety = more women present = a bigger crowd overall.

      Yes, women have to be aware, just as men also have to be aware, but so do businesses and institutions. There is NO DOWNSIDE to creating a space safer than the average, because the only ones who are inconvenienced by that having been done are the jerks.

      1. Totally agree. I don’t understand why everyone wants to protect harassers so much. Well I kind of do actually get it. They fear their behavior might someday be seen as harassing and don’t want to either stop it or be punished for it.

  5. The opposite of safe is unsafe??. If Watson says that a space is unsafe for women then surely she means what she said???
    Could someone please explain wether I’m making some sort of american english/ english english translation error; or if Watson and her supporters are engaging in sophistry??.

    1. I gave you a whole post explaining it and I even clarified for Michael in a earlier comment. Safe and unsafe are degrees on a spectrum. Safe space as a term means that extra precautions have been taken to make something safer than the general population. Watson means that skepticism has not taken the steps to make our spaces safe enough for her to consider it a safe space for women. I happen to agree with her on that. That can mean having and enforcing harassment policies in meetspace events or not tolerating horrible misogyny in the comments of blogs at the expense of others.

      For example I have a pretty loose comments policy but I have expressly stated I will not tolerate bigoted insults. That is because I want my commenters to feel safe when they come there that they won’t be berated because they gay, female, transgender, and/or etc.

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