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:
- females and males who are virgins;
- females and males who have been sexually-active with another person or persons;
- females and males who are waiting for marriage or another long-term relationship in which to be sexual;
- males and females who have enjoyed casual sex;
- females and males who are celibate (some happily, by choice);
- males and females who have never masturbated, who have never pleasured themselves;
- males and females who have masturbated, who have pleasured themselves;
- females (and males) who have never experienced an orgasm;
- females (and males) who have never experienced an orgasm alone;
- females (and males) who have never experienced an orgasm with another person;
- females and males who have survived incest or other sexual assault;
- males and females who have committed incest or other sexual assault;
- females and males who have friends, lovers, relatives, roommates, co-workers, neighbors who are survivors of incest or other sexual assault;
- females and males who have friends, lovers, relatives, roommates, co-workers, neighbors who are perpetrators of incest or other sexual assault;
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:
- For some incest and sexual abuse survivors, today is the first day that their abuse ended. To conceptualize this differently, the first day they leave home (when they run away, go to college, join the military, or are sent to prison) is the first day that they have experienced free of abuse. Their recovery can begin today. What is safety for them? What assistance do they need? Will you be welcoming of their need for support? What support might you need to be better able to provide emotional support for them?
- That the environments listed above (college, military and prison) among others are all places wherein the sexual humiliation and assault of males (and females when available) has long thrived does not mean that survivors of abuse perpetrated there and incest and sexual abuse survivors assaulted previously are not deserving of support.
- It is never a victims’ fault. Never. You didn’t do anything wrong, the perpetrator did. No matter if the perpetrator was abused too, they are responsible for their act(s).
- We each should have the right as human beings to make sense of our experience(s) and define ourselves as we wish to. You don’t have to identify your experience in a particular way if you are presently resistant to doing so. Trust your instinct. You are not a statistic. You are not a “type.” You are an individual. You may have had experiences that coincide with experiences of other people that they identify in particular ways. You have good reasons not to passively accept even well meaning peoples’ effort to define you and your life experiences. You know best what you need. Please don’t let anyone force you into any course of action, especially if they insist that it be “for your own good.”
- Hundreds of students have told me “every time you looked at me or mentioned a particular type of abuse, I knew you were talking about me.” While of course that is not true, my word that the opposite is the fact is not reassuring, because nonetheless I am revealing their stories, their secrets. They believe that they are the only one who ever experienced their particular abuse, it was certainly never mentioned previously in school. Of course I don’t know the particular personal details of the life experiences of each individual male or female, but I do know that every visitor or speech attendee has a complex, secret history. Not every student I address is a victim and/or perpetrator of incest or other sexual assault, but there have been survivors and/or perpetrators present in every group that I have addressed. The same is true for visitors to this web site. I don’t know you, but it can and will frequently seem that I do.
- Please take care of yourselves. Reading this may open old wounds. It may start to feel like “too much.” You may get sick of my authorial voice. If you become uncomfortable for any reason: you can close your eyes, turn off the computer, hug your pet, hug a loved one, or get a drink of water. You don’t have to keep on reading.
- You may question or disbelieve me and the topics that I write about. Think about how you would question or challenge me in person. I usually request that attendees to my workshops, speeches, trainings, and at conferences not throw chairs at me. Most anything else (pointed questions, challenges, rude noises) is welcome.
- The great Dorothy Parker wrote in a book review, “This book is not to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force.” Hopefully, all visitors of this web site will not metaphorically do so. But if at anytime you need to print out my materials and throw them aside with great force, go for it. Just please don’t throw it at a human or other sentient creature. If you must, throw it an inanimate object, preferably choosing something unbreakable, and just in case, something not valuable.
- Call a friend. See a counselor, see a caring clergy. Call the local Rape Crisis Center or domestic violence shelter. Even if you experienced incest not rape you can call the local Rape Crisis Center. Even if in your judgment you are not in crisis, you can call the local Rape Crisis Center. Even if you are a boy or man you can call the local Rape Crisis Center. It is never too late to take the next step and examine the “ghosts” from your past. Today is a perfect time to act. If the day after reading this, hundreds of thousands of people all called their local Rape Crisis Center or domestic violence shelter (if either one of these exist in your area), this would be wonderful. There are only approximately 1500 local Rape Crisis Centers and a similarly insufficient number of local domestic violence shelters in the U.S. If hundreds of thousands of people all called, the system might temporarily shut down. I am not trying to discourage callers or to wish chaos on Rape Crisis Centers and domestic violence shelters. If even a quarter of the tens of millions of females and males who could use emotional support for the incest, sexual assault, domestic violence and sexual harassment they have been forced to endure, called for help, the system would crash. There are not resources available to provide help for so many deserving victims. The under-funded, under-supported, under-appreciated and marginalized Rape Crisis Centers and domestic violence shelters would be able to document a truer reading of the extent of the problem, and would be able to pressure local, area and national funders to supply more counseling and prevention resources. Don’t be fooled by promises of tax cuts as your path of salvation. Demand more and better Rape Crisis Centers and domestic violence shelters even if your taxes and especially the taxes of the rich need to rise to pay for the services millions of people need and deserve.
- Some visitors will realize for the first time that they are victims of incest or other sexual assault. Some visitors who have been for long aware of a variety of abuses they suffered will be deeply reminded of their experiences anew. It is never too late to get help to deal with your problem(s). That you are seeking and receiving help does not reveal that you are weak, it means that you are brave (even if you don’t feel brave). That you have sought and are receiving help will eventually make you stronger. You may already know that from personal experience.
- Some visitors will realize for the first time that they are perpetrators of incest or other sexual assault. Some visitors have been for long aware that they are perpetrators of incest or other sexual assault. No matter what you have done and for how long you have been doing it, you do not have to continue to harm others. Stop hurting people NOW. If you were abused as a child or adolescent and you are now replicating that abuse by abusing others, the abuse you were not protected from was wrong, it was horrible, but it is no excuse. Stop making it worse. You have become or are becoming the same monster who hurt you.
- Remember: Nothing is so bad that you cannot tell someone. We all deserve the right to feel safe. © Protective Behaviors, Inc.
- Take a minute to think about feeling safe and what you need to feel safe. What did it feel like when a good friend took the time to really listen to you. Hopefully, through this web site, I can provide a similar good feeling of love and support for you. As you read and think about this web site and about your life and experiences, we can be in a sort of supportive dialog.
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:
- Believe them — they are telling you the truth.
- Tell them you are sorry this happened, that it wasn’t their fault.
- Really listen; don’t jump to solutions. For example, something not to say is “What you (the survivor) should do now is…”
- Ask what kind of help they would like. If they don’t know, that’s okay.
- Don’t distract yourself with heroic fantasies of beating up the perpetrator.
- Offer to make appointments with them and accompany them to counselor, clergy, police, etc.
- All of us have the right as human beings to define ourselves and our experiences as we wish to. Don’t insist that anyone identify their experience as assault if they are resistant to doing so. You won’t be helping the survivor if you force them to submit to your opinion.
- Don’t say that you understand or know how they feel. You don’t, even if you are a survivor yourself. Your experience was not identical to theirs. It might be okay to say, “I remember feeling really scared (angry, ashamed, etc.) when I was sexually assaulted.”
- Suggest counseling in addition to talking with you. You are not a professional, and your knowledge and experience are limited.
- There is no limit to how long the healing process takes. It is very individual. Saying things like, “You’ve got to forget about this,” or “When are you going to pull yourself together?” won’t help and may harm recovery. In fact, they may stop confiding in you, and pretend that everything is “okay.”
- Be aware of your school and local survivor support resources and share those.
- Sometimes you can’t “do” what seems to you very much, but the “little” that you know may be wonderful, at least sufficient for the survivor now. Don’t assume for them.
- Don’t abandon them. Assuming they want to be left alone, without checking in, may be you “covering” for your unwillingness to get involved.
- Give them time and room and space. If you are talking more than they are, you are probably not helping.
- Don’t give advice, even if asked for it. Survivors of incest of other sexual assault have had their power taken from them in a very profound way. Making decisions for them is not helpful. It over-protects them and may send a message that you think they’re incompetent. Help them problem-solve by offering all the possible options. Offer to support whatever decision they make, then do it.
- Get support for yourself too the more you care, the more you are affected, too. Look inward now, pay attention to your own feelings, and take care of yourself too. Your needs are also valid. Seek support for yourself, if for no other reason than so you can be better support for the survivor.
- Don’t burden the survivor with your “stuff.” Males learn to expect females to “take care of” our emotional needs. We expect her to explain to us what we are thinking/feeling about her trauma. It isn’t wrong for us to have emotional needs. It is wrong for us to add to the survivor’s burden.
- Respect their need for absolute confidentiality. This is their life. Do not play God by deciding that you know better what they need. As they see it, not making their secret public may be the only safe thing for them to do. If you get support for yourself as an affected ‘significant other,’ do not recklessly tell the details of the abuse to anyone. Even though lying is wrong, this is one time that it is better to conceal the truth. For example, your best friend tells you that she is an incest survivor. If you tell another friend about what you are going through, change enough details so that the identity of the survivor could not be obvious. Change your best friend to “someone I knew years ago in high school” or “someone I knew last summer at camp,” etc. If the person who you confide in presses you to identify the survivor, do not tell them. The identity of the survivor is none of their business. NONE. Whatever your intention, if you help make the details of the assault public, assume you will do the survivor harm.
- Check in with a person before leaping into an intense follow-up discussion. Don’t assume that the level of disclosure or intensity of intimacy that you shared yesterday is acceptable today or sometime later when you next talk to that person. If you want to talk further, recognize that this might not be a good time for them to talk. For example, you might say, “Yesterday you brought up some difficult things. I thought a lot about what you were talking about. I’d like to talk more. We definitely don’t have to though. If you’d like to talk, you set the ground rules.”
- Some people will seek out someone they don’t know well to tell their story to. Some survivors may feel safer telling their story to someone they think they won’t ever see again. They feel safer with the anonymity that this stranger provides. Try not to feel hurt or used if someone tells you and then never wants to see you or talk to you again.
- Sometimes a friend/lover/relative will share the information that they were assaulted by someone. Some will then proceed never to bring it up again. If they refuse to talk further about it, or even avoid you, this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with you. You might, for example, be the only person they have confided in and every time they see you or think of you they recall their abuse. Don’t punish them for your feelings (feeling bereft, confused, angry or used among others) if that is how you feel. Similarly, you may choose to approach them at a private time and ask them if they want to talk further. If they don’t, that should be fine with you. Don’t press it. If they do want to talk, that’s also fine as long as you both feel comfortable and safe. The worst-case scenario: That you bully the survivor into a course of action against their will “for their own good.”
- When a survivor tells you that they were abused, this may make you uncomfortable, even intensely uncomfortable, for a variety of reasons. You may be a survivor yourself. You have the right to state compassionately that what they are telling you is too difficult for you to hear. You may choose to gently offer to help them find someone else who can be there for them. You don’t need to tell them the details of why you cannot listen now. This could apply to anyone, but it first came up in a training I was facilitating for college Residence Assistants. I support them (and by extension, any caring person doing so) as long as they just did not peremptorily, brusquely turn away the person seeking support. They appreciated my offering them permission to take care of themselves and not be forced into helping another person at cost to themselves. Having back up support person (s) is crucial for all of us.
- If you are a survivor and you are feeling those painful, familiar feelings again, there are caring resources available in your community or another nearby. Even if your abuse occurred years ago, it is never too late for you to get support.
- If someone’s story resonates with you, breathe. Calm down. It does not prove that you are a survivor. You are a caring, empathic person and may feel some of the survivor’s pain. Many of the feelings experienced by survivors of incest or other sexual assault can be similar to feelings of survivors of other abuse or people who have undergone a great personal loss feel (a parent dying, for example). That you have some similar emotional reactions to someone’s story does not absolutely mean that you are a survivor. On the other hand, it may mean that you are a survivor. Many survivors feel that their assault was the worst thing that could have happened to them. Many fear that they will not ever feel better. Many survivors though, have bravely faced and healed their pain and taken back control of their lives.
- Remember: Nothing is so bad that you cannot tell someone. We all deserve the right to feel safe. © Protective Behaviors, Inc.
- What did it feel like when a good friend took the time to really listen to you?