The problem with safer spaces

When you make your trauma a crucial aspect of your identity, it becomes harder to heal from it.

Clare Mohan
24 July 2015

Consensus hands: the process of decision making in safer spaces. Credit: Demotix/HeardinLondon.

The greatest activist discovery when I first moved to London was the concept of 'safer spaces'. Initially, this seemed great: quiet rooms at parties for people who struggle with lengthy socialising but still want to be included - for instance, those who are neuro-atypical or suffer from anxiety, or silent applause to make meetings safer and more secure.

Measures like this benefit those who would find the loudness of public meetings too distressing for them to participate fully. All of this, at first, seemed fantastic.

While many of these ideas are superficially helpful, they foster a much more problematic atmosphere, especially for those with illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In their current form, safer spaces function by giving greater priority to those who face higher levels of oppression. For some things, such as race, sexuality or gender identity, this makes a lot of sense. But for issues such as mental illness or sexual abuse histories, it is dangerous. It forces you to make a difficult, traumatic part of your life a central part of your identity in order for you to be heard. It is very difficult to speak up in opposition without risking being seen as oppressive.

I have in the past found myself disagreeing with policies for safer space building, policies made by people who are open about their traumatic history. I am a rape survivor, but I prefer not to disclose this as a general matter, for the simple reason that it is private and I don't want this part of my history to be the first thing people know about me.

But without acknowledging it, I have on various occasions been accused of 'speaking over' and oppressing those who are open about their history, meaning that I have to out myself, and render this trauma up for scrutiny. This has happened on several occasions, not least at the women's campaign meetings at my former university, where - in a debate about how to make spaces safer, I had the choice of outing myself to a room full of almost-strangers, or stepping back from the discussion but retaining my privacy.

Looking broadly at these communities, in order to be heard you must speak ‘as a rape survivor’, not as an individual with a more complex identity. Your status as a survivor becomes the key that gives you a voice. From a student activist standpoint, I could see the negative effects this had - students talked to me (as Gender Equalities Officer) in privacy about their fears of rejection if they accessed therapy, or tried to take steps to change their mental health.

By the constant focus on identities as the prime way in which people have a 'right' to speak on a topic, our communities in effect force people to bind themselves to traumatic parts of their identities. And as, typically, those with traumatic pasts or mental illness lack power and a voice in society, the experience of being heard can be immensely powerful and empowering.

However, in order to retain that voice in the community, as well as its care and protection, it can feel like your mental illness, or your identity as a rape survivor has to remain a cornerstone of your identity.

When you make something so negative a crucial aspect of your identity it becomes harder to heal from it.

I am particularly interested in how this relates to the intersection between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the culture of safer space. For PTSD survivors in particular, the world can feel like a terrifyingly unpredictable and dangerous place, as trauma triggers can take any shape, depending on your specific experiences. Triggers cover a whole range of stimuli, including specific smells, hair colour, noises, times of day... People are very rarely triggered by the same things, and yet the activist community has latched onto the idea of trigger warnings with fervour born of misunderstanding.

It is demonstrably true that the quickest and most lasting way to recover from the symptoms of PTSD is to expose yourself carefully and with compassion to the world in all its potential danger. Avoiding things that might trigger you just in case you have to face unpleasant symptoms only increases the power those symptoms have over you, and the intensity with which you experience them.

Real, genuine change is needed - a huge attitudinal shift must occur before activist spaces can truly be considered safer and healing for their members, particularly those with PTSD or similar symptoms.

First; I believe that it is important to ensure that everyone has a voice that is valued without having to out yourself as a mental illness sufferer or a rape survivor. We should be able to think critically and clearly about all issues rather than capitulating to the voices of those who most loudly identify with a given group.

Second; we must change the way we talk about self-care. We must acknowledge that recovering from mental illness is a struggle, that recovery will look different to everyone, but that recovery is ultimately both necessary and possible. Self-care is not just a pillow fort and a favourite TV programme. Self-care is also making sure to take care of the practicalities of daily living, even though it is hard, sometimes next to impossible.

Finally; we need to move hard away from the idea that a safer space is one in which no-one will ever face anything uncomfortable, or that it is someone else's responsibility to take care of your own symptoms.

Encouraging avoidant behaviour is one of the most dangerous and damaging things you can do to someone with PTSD - support them, by all means, when they encounter something triggering, but don't act as if as an entire community it is our responsibility to avoid looking at the difficult issues. This is the way in which we make our world progressively less safe for some of our most vulnerable community members.

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