Safe Space

This Web Site Can Be a “Safe Space” for You

The importance of creating a “safe space”—an environment conducive to the discussion of sexual assault and related topics—is one of the single most important concepts that I learned when I joined the community-based, men’s anti-rape action group Men Stopping Rape. Initially, in 1986, when I joined MSR as a volunteer, I could not even imagine what a safe space was. Safety, I wondered, could one only be safe alone, sealed in a heavily armored vault? Or could one only be safe where there were no weapons, their absence removing any threat? Oh, and no males present. None of these options seemed likely or possible. Andfeeling safe? I understood the words, but not really. I couldn’t imagine feeling safe, especially around any group of males. Think about it, have you ever heard any male spoken of with respect by other males when he was emotional or showed his feelings? I hadn’t either. That mythical male would more likely be beaten up for being gay, his sensitivity being sufficient “proof” for the bullies.

For me as a boy growing up, there was no time that there wasn’t a threat of male violence, on the way to school in the morning, at school, and after school. I might have felt safe(r) at home, since my father was not a hitter. I can only imagine that boys whose fathers or father surrogates were physically or emotionally abusive had it worse—there was never a respite for them. But I didn’t even feel safe at home because I dreaded the next day’s certain ordeals. You were never safe with males. They constantly watched one another, watching for the slightest sign of weakness. They constantly challenged each other, riding each other, testing each other, ready to pounce. If safety was the absence of threat of harm, I had never known safety. Eventually I came to think that this inescapable, inevitable male cruelty and violence was normal and that any problem I had adjusting to that “norm” was a weakness of mine. Male violence was normal.

I didn’t trust males; I feared them. Males hurt you. This I knew from watching bullies in action and from personal experience being bullied and threatened. Males had hurt me. The only thing you could depend on from males is that, sooner or later, they would hurt you. We boys were constantly vigilant, trying to anticipate and avoid the verbal and physical abuse of bullies (both known and unknown). No male could be trusted absolutely; anyone could turn on us at any time. Distrusting males and suspecting them became second nature to us. “It is safer that way, not trusting males,” I thought. Better (and safer) to distrust in advance.
After joining Men Stopping Rape, I participated in consciousness-raising discussions, where for the first time I was facing myself, my fears, my feelings, and my fears of my feelings. And this in the midst of a group of males? Choosing to exponentially increase my vulnerability by admitting to having feelings to men? I was frightened of admitting first to myself and then to other males that I even had feelings, let alone of examining my unfamiliar and thus embarrassing, feelings. As unused as I was to recognizing my feelings, I feared divulging my feelings publicly (in front of other males). Their knowledge of my feelings, my vulnerabilities, would give them power over me, something they would definitely misuse. The promise that by examining my feelings I could learn about myself just created more fear at first. I feared the “unknown” what I might discover looking inward.

I began to take my first, tentative steps towards self-discovery (and in the midst of a group of men!). I discovered that I learned more readily when I was encouraged positively, without coercion or fear of the discussion facilitator misusing his power, of compromising my confidentiality or of ignoring my emotional needs “for the good of the workshop.” As a future workshop presenter, I came to understand that, like me, participants also needed to feel safe in order to engage in honest discussion. This is the crucial first step toward admitting to our own destructive, rape-supportive attitudes and behavior and successfully confronting the destructive attitudes and behavior of other males.

Now, whenever I conduct a speech, training or workshop, I open by establishing the room as a safe space. I would like to convert the usually verbal “invitation” I extend to participants into a print invitation to you the visitors to my web site. I would like this web site to provide you a Safe Space. Welcome in.

Many people have grown up never feeling safe. All they can even imagine about safety is a compromise. Our belief that we don’t deserve anything, perhaps especially to feel safe, can block our desire to be safe, to feel safe. For most people, safety is theoretical and temporary, what is left if immediate threats or menace is removed. Threats can be immediate or the internal violence of repressed or unrecognized assault issues. Safety describes a feeling or a sense of “rightness” where confidentiality is respected and assumed, where people can trust their ability to let go of past and present abuse demons and be strong, present and alive. Trivializing pain as “undefined angst” or constant compromise to avoid seeing the vertigo of living in a fearful, twilight state, does not promote safety. Feeling unsafe can therefore be a constant backdrop to one’s life. This suggests the possibility that some people have never felt safe and can only imagine what their life is not or might be. Caring educators, friends, counselors and authors can help teach people how to live and feel safe.

Our belief that we don’t deserve better can contribute to our not being able to empathize with others. Why should we care, no one cared about us. Even if we want to care, we may not have any caring to spare for someone else. That we feel this way is a victory for our perpetrators, our bullies, our threatening, violent partners, our abusers and others of our demons. I am not writing this to condemn those who have been beaten down. I hope that if we can begin to imagine feeling safe, we will start to feel safer.

I recognize that my web site is loaded with what can be complex, infuriating, painful and difficult material for many people. Visitors will have experienced as many varied experiences as there are visitors. I assume that the same demographics apply to my visitors as to students I’ve addressed, thus visitors will include heterosexual, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered females, and heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and transgendered males. There are visitors who have personally transcended the need for such arbitrary and ultimately meaningless categories. Huzzah!

There are visitors who have had a wide variety of experiences related to both sex and sexual assault. Among visitors of all ages, there are:

Is it possible to address the diverse, even contradictory needs of all of these visitors? Stand back and watch me try.

Some things to think about safety, feeling safe, and safe space:

Most survivors, female or male, never tell anyone.

If someone tells you about their abuse consider it an honor. You may not feel lucky, but you are. Welcome to a very confusing, murky world. Be ready to feel many, sometimes contradictory, feelings. Note: All survivors (indeed, all people) are complex. This is not a checklist, something to memorize and apply to each survivor. I don’t suggest that every survivor wants or needs to hear every item on the list. Different people respond to their experiences in a variety of ways. Most of these apply equally to female and male survivors.

Things you can do: