Monday, February 18, 2013

Survivor-friendly feminist spaces

I've seen tips on the internet lately for how feminist spaces can be made safer for people of various backgrounds/experiences/social locations/identities. As a survivor of sexual assault, I've had several experiences in feminist spaces where I felt silenced because of my experiences, or where I was triggered in a space that was meant to be safe. So here goes...a potentially growing list of dos and don'ts, written with the assumption of an audience who already has (loosely defined) feminist values. The "feminist spaces" I am talking about here includes discussion groups, events, committee meetings...a range of things.

"Safe Space" is a tricky concept. As one survivor reminded me when I asked for input for this post, for some of us, there is no such thing as a truly safe space. For this reason, we are talking here about "safer" rather than "safe" spaces, and recognizing that there can be a continuum.

Tips for creating survivor-friendly feminist spaces:

- Include trigger warnings/content warnings when advertising events.
To arrive at a meeting, for example, to learn that discussing a rape prevention initiative is on the agenda can be overwhelming for some survivors. Wherever possible, make sure that potential attendees know about the plans for a meeting, the content of a film screening, and so forth. At some meetings, it may be helpful to sandwich such discussions between breaks; this gives people who would prefer not to be involved in such discussions the option of stepping out more easily, then rejoin the meeting for parts that don't contain potential triggers. Remember that, for some survivors, just discussing sexual assault can be triggering, even if there are no graphic details whatsoever.

- Recognize that anybody can be a survivor.
Women, men, genderqueer folk, and people who identify in other ways are survivors. Assuming that only the cis women in your group are survivors silences many other individuals [partly for this reason, I am using a gender-neutral singular "they" as a pronoun to describe survivors of all gender identities throughout this blog post]. Survivors may be privileged or marginalized in a wide variety of other ways. Sexual violence is a marginalizing experience, so someone who is privileged in other respects may feel extremely marginalized by their experiences. This doesn't mean that survivors shouldn't have to check our own privileges - just that it is another dimension of privilege of which everyone should be aware.

- Never assume that a survivor is comfortable talking about their experiences.
Personally, I write quite willingly and regularly about sexual assault, though very rarely about my own experiences in any detail. I have difficulty, however, speaking about it in front of other people. Just because somebody is an activist and is somewhat open about being a survivor does not mean that they want to discuss it. For some survivors, it is easier to communicate in writing, and/or; if you're looking for input from survivors, allow us the option of contributing to a discussion in alternative ways. Many survivors will not be comfortable with other people knowing that they have survived sexual assault, and nobody should be forced to disclose whether or not they are a survivor.

- Consider having a physical space where survivors can go to take a break from a main event.
Many feminist groups have limited space available. Often, a main meeting space is designated as "safe space" and operates as a safe space quite effectively. However, there are survivors who may become triggered by posters (for example, "No Means No" campaign posters - even when the overall aim of these images is positive, it can still be overwhelming to be faced with posters, books, pamphlets, and stickers with statistics and images about something that is traumatic) and media in some rooms. If you have the resources, offering a second break-away room can be invaluable. Other possibilities include having seating in your meeting space where a survivor would not directly face posters or other media about sexual assault. 

- Remember that women, even feminist women, can perpetrate sexual assault.
This means that even in a designated safe space, people may not feel entirely safe. Being told that we are in a safe space even if we don't feel that way can be demeaning. Recognize that members of your group, of all genders, could have unchecked privilege surrounding sexual violence.

- Know that not all survivors feel that they have really "survived" and that many of us are working through difficult parts in our healing.
I use "survivor" to refer to any person, of any gender, who has experienced sexual assault. It is not perfect, but it will have to do for now, for lack of another word that is not clinical or demeaning. Not everyone is comfortable with that vocabulary - if someone prefers to refer to themself as a victim, that is their right. Allow people to name their own experiences. Remember as well that being present at a feminist event and intellectually knowing that sexual assault is not the fault of the survivor does not mean that said survivor emotionally does not carry grief or shame with them. For some, "survivor" may be an identity or status; for others, it is not.

- Allow survivors to take the lead on issues surrounding sexual violence, if and when they are comfortable.
If you are someone without lived experience of sexual assault, and you lead a feminist group, consider inviting survivors to take the lead on survivor-related campaigns you run, to the extent that they are comfortable doing so. Never push a survivor to lead an initiative - it is too draining for many people to be that involved with their own trauma.

- Check in with people before, during, and after events.
You don't know what history people bring to your group/event/space. Offering the opportunity to check in, as part of a group and individually with a facilitator, can mean the world to survivors who feel uncomfortable.

- Consider how other elements of privilege and marginalization affect a survivor's experiences.
Violence can, and often does, intersect with any and all elements of a survivor's life. This goes for gender, race, and sexual orientation, but also for less obvious manifestations of power. A survivor who is poor might not be able to afford the self-care that is often suggested for them. Many survivors feel unsafe in spaces that police fat or disabled bodies. These intersections are very often invisible, so for an anti-oppressive space, it is important to be aware of all forms of oppression that can affect survivors, and make a safe space free from racist, classist, able-ist, fat-phobic, heterosexist, and other oppressive comments.

- Recognize that violence is not abstract for us.
Someone who has not experienced violence might be able to talk about it in a detached, political or academic way. It is personal. Melissa McEwan on Shakesville says, "It is unfair to ask a woman to leave aside her personal experience and discuss feminist issues in the abstract. You are discussing the stuff of her life. Asking her to "not make it personal" is to ask her to wrench her womanhood from her personhood. Don't play Devil's advocate. Seriously. Just don't." This is the case for survivors. Some of us can leave our personal experiences aside, and some of us cannot - but how we use those experiences is entirely up to us, as individuals.

Other things to remember:
- Our feminist values may or may not be linked to our experiences as a survivor.
- Our experiences as survivors are unique; please avoid comparing one survivor's experiences with another.
- Everyone has the potential to experience sexual violence.

Please help to build and refine this list - please let me know if you have additions, suggestions, etc.

Adventures in mindfulness, part...I forget

Oddest injury ever, and one that ought to only happen in movies:

I was doing a body scan (mindfulness exercise) yesterday morning, when my foster cat came to check out what I was up to. When he snuggled against my face, I sneezed, prompting him to swat at my nose. I am now sporting a cute little scratch on my schnoz.

There are certain things that it's hard to be mindful through, and that was one of them. I had to stop my practice for the morning and go and do first aid. Dang. Mindfulness and cats can only mix to a certain extent.

Mellow Yellow: Adorable, but too inquisitive to be a good mindfulness buddy!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Privilege and Protests: A Reflection

I am unsure whether to post this, as it likely reeks considerably of privilege. But this blog is a place for my thoughts and voice - so I post with the caveat that I realize that I am on unceded land; I am middle class; I am white, educated, stably housed. At the same time, I am still a survivor. I post tonight as a mix of all of these parts of myself and my experiences.

I went to the Women's Memorial March today in Vancouver's Downtown East Side. For those who aren't familiar with it, the DTES is known as "Canada's Poorest Postal Code" and is quite a dangerous place for women, yet also a vibrant community with a completely different style from the rest of the city. It's more than just rough around the edges; for those of us who are used to a more privileged life, it's uncomfortable. As one woman, Betsey Turtle Bruyere, says in her video, "Be uncomfortable. But listen. Learn. No apologies here."

This was my first time participating in this march, and I had been expecting something more similar to the Take Back the Night marches I'd participated in in Toronto and London. The Toronto march takes place in a different low-income community each year, so that women from across the city have a chance to reclaim their streets. London's march is more centralized and less grassroots in its feel, and has more conflict between the "women's bodies not for sale" and the "sex workers' rights" chants. Toronto's march is overwhelmingly in favour of sex workers' rights, as was today's march in Vancouver.

I hung towards the back of the march with some friends. Partly this was unintentional as it was just where we happened to be when people started marching; however, I didn't feel it would be appropriate for me to rush to the front of the march and lead chants the way I would in another setting. I live outside this community, and I have a level of safety that the women who organized the march do not have. We are marching to honour women who have gone missing, and who have been murdered. Even though I am a survivor of violence as well, my experiences are starkly different from those of Vancouver's missing women. I don't mean in terms of the violence we experienced, as I don't believe in a hierarchy of whose experience is more horrifying. But there is a key difference in that I did survive. I am here. I have privilege through that. Privilege over those who did not survive what happened to them, and yet, I don't have the privilege of having not had to survive. Perhaps that is a right, not a privilege. But I digress.

After my friends left the march to go to various other commitments they had, I started to get a bit emotional; without friends to distract me, the realities behind the march sunk in. It was cold and gloomy, and I began to hurt a bit; I can't quite describe it. I had a card in my pocket that a woman gave me earlier in the march: 

"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along." You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
At this point women were singing a First Nations drum song; I know little about this music and don't honestly know if it would have been appropriate for me to join the singing, as a white person, so I kept silent. At the same time, the card in my pocket made me feel like I belonged, to some extent. Not as part of the DTES community, but to an acknowledgement of women's survival. This is getting very sappy, but that's how I felt it at the moment. I don't belong in that circle of women, but they were willing to let people in from the outside without asking questions, and to give us cards to affirm our ability to survive as well. Would there be the same crossover at events regarding violence against women outside the Downtown East Side? The card for me was a grounding object for the last part of my time there, and one that I needed very much; it's something I will hold on to. I don't know the woman who was distributing those cards, but I wish I could thank her for giving those affirmations to those of us who wanted them.

I think about privilege a fair bit, in both my academic work and my day-to-day life. It's something that troubles me, as I have a lot of privilege on many levels. In the circles that I move in, the more marginalized parts of my identity aren't even particularly marginal. So privilege is always an undercurrent. It rarely hits me quite the way it did today, however.

After feeling uncomfortable (not to mention that I was getting cold and hungry!) for about 15 minutes after my friends left, I decided to head off even though the march was still going on.  As I do every so often when I'm feeling a bit emotionally unsteady, I headed for the nearest wool shop to admire yarn. This particular one was warm and colourful, and had the added benefit of a friendly cat. I got to chatting with the owner, since I really felt that I needed some human connection to stay stable. Turned out that I didn't get what I needed there...this particular woman was quite opposed to such a march happening. It was slowing down the buses in front of her store, and besides, if women didn't want to get murdered, they shouldn't be out on the streets like that, should they? I asked her further what her thoughts were on the area; after all, the people in the DTES have been there for a lot longer than her shop has. Those people are bad for business. They have markets - of used goods, you know, not the sort of thing my customers would buy. My customers don't feel comfortable walking through the area when they have their market. She spoke to me with the assumption that she'd found a sympathetic ear to her grievances. I was to stunned to respond, and left the shop without buying anything.

I don't share the views of this shopkeeper, of course. But I do have the same privileges she has. At the end of the march, I could find some sort of solace - however tenuous - in a local shop, and not have my presence in the area questioned or policed. I could go get coffee and soup to warm myself up. I could go home in the evening and navel-gaze on my blog in a safe space.

Women - united - we'll never be divided they chant at many marches. But is this true? The One Billion Rising campaign has many detractors among feminists - see, for example, Natalie Gyte at the Huffington Post and the multitude of comments on her post. There are problems with One Billion Rising, I'll concede that. But at the same time, what else do we have? It has momentum. The Women's Memorial March is publicized on the One Billion Rising webpage (notably, the publicity does not seem to run in the other direction, and I'd be interested in knowing what politics there are behind this). Yes, One Billion Rising is run by people with privilege, and that's problematic. But at the same time, is it fair to say which survivors can and cannot organize? Gyte criticizes the premise of healing by dancing - and yet, for many people, there is significant power in dancing. For me, there is so much power in dancing that I have trouble doing so. She criticizes the idea of "rising" - but if we don't rise, will we sink? Or stagnate? To me, "rise" in this context does not mean to pull oneself up by the bootstraps, but rather, to refuse to be silenced.

When they say to rise, I think of Maya Angelou:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
Even when we protest, we are divided. Even for the privileged, it hurts. I want us all to rise together, to survive together - but I cannot fathom how.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Adventures in Mindfulness (part 3?)

Not much to reflect on today - I fell asleep!

My conclusion is that if my body wants to sleep, rather than be mindful, I shall let it. So I had two brief naps this evening, in lieu of body scanning. Oh well. I did also go for a lovely run.

Vulnerability, shame and the Internet

I've had friends and family question why I put such personal things on the internet. And that's a tough one, because obviously the content in this blog is very personal. Ultimately, though, there are thousands of people who blog about recovery from illness; about grief; about other challenges that they face. Perhaps that's personal as well, but I do wonder: do those people get the "why do you blog about that?" sorts of questions that I quite often do?

I found a great post online today, in which a woman discloses her experiences of abuse. And she talks about why it is important for her to tell the internet. You can read it here. Since she is a public figure in certain spheres of the blogging world, for her, it's a way of humanizing herself and showing her vulnerability.

For me, posting here is about reclaiming space and a voice when I've had so much taken from me; it's a way of clearly saying that there is nothing shameful about my experiences, and no need for it to be a secret, even though it still hurts me to talk about it in any way other than writing it down. This is a space for healing, a space for vulnerability, and a space for thoughts and for change. It's a way to say that there is no need for secrecy. By sharing things that many people would say are shameful, I am taking them and making them no longer shameful. They are what they are, and what happened has happened.

I am careful about who I tell, at times, because people pry and ask questions at inappropriate times. I am careful because of my safety. That is why I am anonymous on here; unless you found this blog through me, you wouldn't learn my name from it. But nothing about that is because of shame. Shame implies that one has done something wrong. There are things in my life that I am ashamed of, but being a rape survivor is not one of them. Surviving is about the things in my life that I did right.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Adventures in Mindfulness, Part 2

Just some short observations today. I've found that when trying to do things mindfully, rather than doing them mindfully, I find myself thinking quite intently about the need to do them mindfully. It's like there's a layer of wrapping around whatever activity I am doing, that I have not yet penetrated. This also means that even when I am not intending to do things mindfully, I find myself thinking that I should be.

Seeing as mindfulness is meant to be an intentional activity, does the very fact that it's intentional mean that we're thinking about it, and therefore, is that a problem? I've created a circle in my brain here.

Still the same deal with texture and food. I can eat, but not fully mindfully. It's weird now realizing that I've been neglecting a sensation for so much time.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Second post of the night - but more thoughts about engaging with my body and physicality and movement coming out of mindfulness, since one of the exercises we do is a body scan. I've devoted this evening to self-care, and out of self-care comes thinking, and out of thinking comes blogging.

After being asked the other day whether I enjoy dancing, I've given some thought to it. I've been uncomfortable for years with dancing, since I'm clumsy and self-conscious. Ballet teachers as a child had little to say to me that was positive, and I stopped dancing unless required to for some reason by the time I was about 10 years old. Dancing became something that was forced out of me, and an activity in which my control over my body was taken away from me. It was something exposing, and where I was almost invariably criticized and made to feel uncomfortable.

I danced willingly when I was 17, at camp, and enjoyed it, being in a very safe space and knowing that I was not being looked at. I've danced willingly at some queer and feminist events, when the vibe is right and where safe space is very engrained. These days, I dance only in specific situations. I have to feel very safe to willingly do so. There is something too sensual about it, and it draws attention to my body and how I move, and dance seems to always have an implication of sexuality which is often discomforting. I find it exposing and it makes me vulnerable. Sometimes, I dance anyways, even though I don't feel comfortable, because it draws more attention to me if I am on the sidelines.

The image here is something I made as a backdrop for a university production of the Vagina Monologues in 2008. It was my attempt at a self portrait. I am still quite attached to it.
These Scars Cannot Stop Me From Dancing

At around the same time as I drew this, I was on a Melissa Etheridge kick and listened on repeat to her "Dance Without Sleeping" quite regularly.

I danced at a conference last weekend (it's the sort of conference where one dances). I felt very uncomfortable at first, particularly being sober when most others were drunk. Even when someone drunkenly groped me, I kept dancing and did not leave. I was proud. I will never be a dancer, but I will still dance. I will probably not dance well, but I will dance without fear. Here is a new goal, a new mantra.

Adventures in Mindfulness (part 1?)

So, I'm doing a mindfulness program through the health and counselling services at my university. This is the second mindfulness-based therapeutic program I've tried out through the same service, and I'm feeling optimistic. The previous one was helpful, to an extent, but there were things that didn't sit right with me, that I won't get into here and now.

Back to mindfulness. I've tried meditating before, but it hasn't been good for me. Clearing my mind of everything has sent me into a dissociative spiral, and/or brought up things that are too scary for me to handle when I'm in the vulnerable space that meditation seems to put me into.

Mindfulness seems different, though. It's about being physically aware, from what I can gather - the opposite of dissociation. Knowing where my body is, how it feels, and how my feelings manifest themselves physically. This particular program asks for a lot of homework, meaning that aside from sleeping I'll be spending more time on mindfulness than on any other single non-academic activity in a given week.

It's very odd being aware of my body. I've spent years and years trying to shut it down, because of the memories attached to it, or because of physical pain of various sorts. It was actually surprising to find that engaging with my body was not a painful experience. I can feel things, physically, that are not pain, without having to do anything to feel other than think about feeling. As in, in the past I've only felt non-painful sensations in my body if I intentionally work to bring them on, such as through exercise. Perhaps this is something that most people take for granted; for me, it is not. This sort of connectedness has stayed with me for a few hours after I do mindfulness exercises, so that I have a non-painful engaged body for extended periods of time.

People who have read far back on this blog remember my rants about how academics detach bodies from people. I'm beginning to rethink that approach, seeing how detached I've always kept my body and my mind, and how marginalizing that is. I am not entirely sure what I am trying to say here, but I am trying to say something about reconceptualizing interactions between the body and the mind.

Mindful eating is another battle. It seems that I have for years shut down to some extent if I have anything in my mouth, to avoid triggering myself. One part of our homework this week is to eat one meal mindfully. I hadn't even realized how detached I was from touch-related sensations when I was eating, until on successive days I had to mindfully eat a raisin, then an M&M. I've always tasted what I eat, but somehow I think I haven't been feeling the texture of foods, or acknowledged that something is touching something in my mouth. I'm not sure how to explain it.

I haven't had PTSD triggers in quite some time, but eating mindfully means engaging with how things feel in my mouth, which is triggering. I became very triggered after eating an M&M in the Thursday group - the one that isn't working quite as well for me, for other reasons - then had to run to class. It wasn't a good way to work through the day, and I may leave the Thursday group, partly because of needing self-care time afterwards and not having a chance for that with my class schedule.

I suppose I've buried lots of memories in my mouth. I'm working very slowly on this. Very slowly. Today, I ate a corn chip mindfully, then had to stop. I'll work up to bigger things, I suppose. We'll see how it goes.

An odd thing came up in our group session on Wednesday. We did an exercise where we had to visualize a well, drop a (visualized) stone into it, and see what came up, in terms of our reasons for being in the program. I'm not sure if I'm explaining this particular exercise very well. At any rate, the purpose I assumed I came for - the stone I dropped in - was healing. I'm on a healing journey, right? That's why I signed up for mindfulness. Ultimately the word that came out of the well was, oddly, productivity. At first, I thought that was a sign from my subconscious, or something, that I was done healing, and now had to channel my healing energies into more productive things, and focus on my work. After trying some of the exercises at home, especially the mindful eating, I've realized that there must be some sort of blended purpose. Part of me is obviously aspiring for greater productivity - that's obvious. I am often stunted in my work because of my anxiety, and mindfulness will help me focus, academically. But the healing isn't over. I'm not sure whether healing ever will be over, whether it is finite. I am hoping this is the last painful bit I'll have to uncover, but I am not certain. There is a lot of uncertainty here.

At the very least, I am accompanied in my at-home mindfulness practice, for the next week or so, by Mellow Yellow, the Laziest Cat in the World, who flops down beside me and imitates my posture when I do body scans. It is comforting and brings a sense of camaraderie.

This has been a lot of navel-gazing, and I feel like writing a post to publicly muse as to why I feel a need to make all this healing public - I do know that I feel a need to, but haven't put it into words. That's for another night, I think.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Don't Let the Macaroni Burn Down the House!

I'd like to share a really great post by my sister. On Wednesday she spoke at the Faces of Recovery event for Eating Disorders Awareness Week. She's posted the text of the talk she did for other people.

It's a really fabulous piece about fighting the urge to sabotage oneself. While she's talking specifically about eating disorders, everybody should read it.

Don't Let the Macaroni Burn Down the House.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


I've considered myself to be non-theoretical in how I approach academic questions, and I'm often skeptical of how some historians use theory. Several people in the past few days have commented that I seem quite theoretical, in fact. So now, I am wondering: have I become so accustomed to whatever theories I use that I no longer see them as theory, but merely as the normal way of looking at the world?