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.

No comments: