What’s a Safe Space?

Previously, I’ve written about what I see as the overuse of the word “trigger” – how it has essentially become code word for “something I have a strong negative reaction to” and thus not at all the original intent of the word (which was to label those things that, when present, could cause a person to become a danger to someone or to lose the ability to manage their life for a time).  That overuse means that people who feel strongly about some subjects and people who have serious risk to themselves are characterized the same – and that’s a disservice to people who need to explain that, no, this isn’t just something they strongly oppose and have anger about, but is something they can’t be around – not because they don’t like it, but because they’ll lose control.

There’s another term that has morphed over the years: safe space. This term has evolved over the years – I’m going to discuss that evolution and how safe space might be applied by an organization that isn’t only designed to be a safe space, if that organization would want to. I’m going to use the example of a church service for this, but obviously it would apply to other contexts.

Th term, “safe space,” seems to have originated with domestic violence shelters and outreach – the goal was to provide a physical “safe space” where a victim of domestic violence would be safe from their attacker.  These spaces might not have well publicized locations (so the abuser can’t find it), would not identify people staying there, would have procedures for people arriving and departing the space without being tracked, might have security staff, and would be understanding that people who have been abused in their home will feel uneasy just about anywhere after their sanctuary was invaded.

Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t make something like a church a “safe space” in this regard – it probably wouldn’t have security personnel, a hidden location, and procedures to keep the identity of attendees secret, nor would other attendees be well-vetted before arriving.  They might understand domestic abuse and do what they can to keep a victim physically safe, but a normal Sunday service wouldn’t be a safe-space, no matter how great the church, in the original “safe space” sense, without substantial changes.  That said, that doesn’t prevent them from being decent and using some sense – things like child release policies (make sure children in child care are only released to an authorized person, for instance), ensuring that ushers and others know about legal orders or the need to ask certain people to leave (with police help if needed) if they visit the service, and respecting the idea that the victim is in a very vulnerable and hurt state.  A church might even offer key sacraments through a visit to a truly safe space. But, regardless, it’s not likely to be able to make the service itself a safe space in the same way as a domestic violence shelter may, no matter how well intentioned or how good the people are.

Later, the term, “safe space,” became used by feminist and LGBT groups.  Both used the term to means something different than the space used by the domestic violence safe spaces.

Some women’s groups used the term to mean, “places where we are safe from oppression by men.”  This was some of the original intent of women-only (or womyn-only) space – the idea was that, generally, the people oppressing women were men, so without men, there would be less oppression.  This greatly simplifies the concept, and it is quite a bit more nuanced than this would imply – and I know that (and you should too before you just repeat this!).  However, two things came of this – first, obviously some women can internalize prejudice and thus perpetuate prejudice against themselves and other women.  Secondly, creating such a space meant creating a definition of who could be there – and any such definition will be controversial (for instance, is a trans woman allowed?  Whether or not she’s had surgery?  How about an intersexed person?  Or a trans man?).  There have been many fights over who is a woman (I’ll also add that women aren’t the only marginalized community to fight over who is part of their community).  So this definition has been changing over the years, bringing it more in line with the LGBT definition of safe space.

There’s some purposes served by having a space for a marginalized community – it can be valuable for growing a community, giving people a sense of comfort the outside world lacks, and providing freedom for people to say and do things they might not do in the wider world.

But of course this, too, isn’t a definition of safe space that could be applied to our hypothetical church service – unless the church was to exclude all whites, men, non-disabled, etc, people to make it a safe place in this sense for marginalized populations (such as non-whites, women, disabled people, etc).

That takes us to the LGBT definition.  I remember being a kid in school when this started in my area – certain teachers would have a pink triangle (pointed down). I didn’t know the pink triangle had roots in LGBT oppression and was now a symbol of the fight against that oppression, but I was told it symbolized “safe space.”  That is, it was a place where an LGB (I suspect most safe spaces weren’t ready for T at the time) student could go if he or she needed someone to talk to. It would be a place where the person’s sexual orientation wouldn’t be challenged, nor would the person be told they were a sinner. There was physical safety as well – the person displaying the triangle wasn’t going to attack someone who discloses homosexuality.

Being older, and with more understanding of the LGBT movement, I now realize that it was meant to be a place of support, to give the student a place to have a shoulder to lean on that wouldn’t be judgmental, wouldn’t gossip about it, and maybe could help the student find ways of dealing with the discrimination they face. There weren’t a lot of places where someone could go without hearing about the old testament or telling someone who might gossip about it.  I also learned the LGB safe space concept started not in classrooms, but in corporate America, as a way for allies to show their support in a more practical way.

Other oppressed populations have also adopted this concept (including many women’s rights organizations, replacing the original definitions used by these types of organizations).

I believe this last form of safe space – the LGBT movement’s definition of safe space – is the most common definition of safe space used today.  Today, when someone says, “safe space,” what they are probably saying is, “Certain beliefs will not be expressed here, nor will people be judged for certain actions. There’s a community standard in place.”  For example, a disability-rights safe space might prohibit blatant ablism and might require people participating to understand the basics of disability rights already (so that each new non-disabled person joining the space wouldn’t need to be taught disability 101 by the disabled people in the space who are likely very, very sick of doing this teaching with people).

Again, with our hypothetical church service, making it this type of safe space can be difficult. Let’s continue with our disability-rights safe space concept. Maybe the church does decide that they will not allow, uncontested, the discussion of why disabled people should be in institutions. That won’t however stop someone from coming off the street and raising the topic until someone stands up and says, “We don’t do that here” (which will probably raise all sorts of other problems, like how the person is disabled themselves or how they have a disabled family member). Yes, hopefully others will step up, but should the person be removed from the church or should they be educated? If educated, that is one of the things that safe space is supposed to protect the marginalized person from having to do – it gets old to have to give disability 101 training to everyone! But of course some people do need disability 101 training. Maybe you can get non-disabled people to do that training, but that training will take time. What do you do in the meantime?

I believe strongly in value of all the types of safe space listed above, and feel that it is important to have these spaces for people. But, at the same time, I also believe it’s important to define exactly what we want out of our safe spaces – particularly when extending this to spaces that aren’t dedicated safe spaces in the way a domestic violence shelter may be (such as our hypothetical church service). How do we make that church service (or anything else) a safe space? What does safe mean? Does it mean physical protection from your abusive husband? A place where people who you won’t run into a person who shares a common characteristic with your most common oppressors?  A place where you will not have to listen to people’s “ism’s”, such as racism, ablism, and misogyny (an -ism by another suffix)? Or is it a place where you don’t have to explain to every single new person how to interact decently?

It’s worth having these discussions. And certainly, once people are aware of an issue of oppression or safety, they should consider it in the spaces they have authority in – certainly no ally of the LGBT community, for instance, wants to be part of a place that allows homophobes to spew hate. Or which requires the one person in a commonly oppressed group to have to educate everyone in the organization, continually. Or to allow a domestic abuser to gain access to children he (or she) abused. Nothing is perfect, but we can get better.

At the same time, it’s important to say what we want when we want safe space. What, exactly, are the parameters for our space, and how is this different from just wanting a space where everyone is like us or nobody disagrees with us? It is different, but it’s important to be able to explain why and not just use the code word “safety”. Everyone wants safety, but we all have different ideas of what “safe” means. So we need to be explicit.

In the meantime, we need to keep working to eliminate the -isms, to educate people about different kinds of people, and to make sure abuse victims really are safe from their abusers.

Stopping Harassment or Just Stopping Harassment Claims

I’ve been looking for some good adult anti-bullying/anti-harassment training material.  Unfortunately, I’m looking for cheap stuff (preferably free), as I’m not doing this for a for-profit organization, but for a community group.  So I can’t afford “$50 per employee” or such.  I’m also looking for something a bit more general than just sexual harassment (ideally it would cover harassment on the basis of race or disability, as well as other areas).

Unfortunately almost everything I have is full of problems:

Problem 1: The Focus

The biggest problem has been the focus of the material.  Most is about avoiding claims.  While I realize that talking about how much a successful lawsuit against a company can cost might convince a corporate officer to pay for some training material (“See, you’ll save money!”), that’s not what I’m after.  I couldn’t give a flying you-know-what about checking a box that says “Yes, we’ve trained people.  So you can’t sue us. Ha-ha-ha!  And we don’t actually have to stop abuse!  Ha-ha-ha!”  But that’s exactly what I’ve found.

Maybe I’m unfairly characterizing some of this stuff.  But go do your own Google search for harassment training, and report what you find.  Most is marketed as “when your people harass each other, now you can say, ‘I trained them!  So you can’t sue me.  I tried.”  Sorry, no.  First, that’s not what the law says.  But I’m not a lawyer so I probably shouldn’t go there.  Second, and more importantly, there’s a huge difference between trying to reduce claims and trying to reduce actual harassment.  Reducing harassment has a neat side effect of reducing claims, although not necessarily the other way around.

For instance, see Best Practices for Preventing Workplace Harassment – a site you  might expect to tell you how to create a decent workplace, at least regarding harassment.  Nope!  It has gems like this:

Harassment claims are bad for business. They hurt productivity and morale, can make it harder to retain qualified employees, and can damage your organization’s reputation through negative media coverage. Also, dealing with a harassment claim could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, and even larger amounts in settlements, judgments, and punitive damage awards.

Seriously?  Let me let you in on a hint: Harassment even without a “claim” is bad for business and hurts productivity and morale!  I’m not saying this site isn’t giving good legal advice (it likely is).  But eliminating liability shouldn’t be anyone’s major reason for teaching people how to stop sexual harassment.

Problem 2: Discouraging People from Seeking Solutions

A few years ago, the employer I was with (not my current one) made us watch a supposedly anti-harassment video for, presumably, liability reasons.  I say “made us” because  it was clear this was simply a requirement of the company based on sound legal advice – not something that actually mattered in our lives or to our managers.  But I’ll put that aside and move onto the content of the video.  After all, it’s possible that the tool itself wasn’t bad, even if the presentation of the tool to employees was.

After watching the video, it became clear that there was a theme.  The theme was “not everything is harassment.”  Well, duh.  Along with valid points (yes, having a romance between coworkers that is mutual, consensual  and doesn’t create a conflict of interest is fine), it kept emphasizing this point.  What point, exactly?  It was essentially saying, “You might be bothered by something, but that doesn’t make it harassment.  There’s a high bar for harassment.”  The subtle message conveyed was that your (likely real) harassment might not be real enough.  After all, one of the biggest doubts victims of abuse have is that they were actually abused.

Following the “you weren’t really harassed” nonsense, it progressed into talk about how your management would have to do a deep, invasive investigation to figure out the truth, because, basically, you might be a liar.  Sure, they told you (quickly and quietly) that there would be no retaliation for reporting harassment – but the message conveyed was quite different.  It was, “it probably wasn’t harassment, you’re just overreacting.  And even if it was, you don’t want to go through this horrible process that doesn’t respect that if you really are a victim that you might feel scared, powerless, and concerned about even reporting it.”

I suspect this is typical of these videos (along with cheesy acting and bad attempts to use “common” vernacular street terms to demonstrate what is and isn’t harassment, but likely using terms that would never be used by anyone outside of an HR department’s classroom.

Problem 3: Too Much Focus on Distinctions

Almost every training curriculum out there spends a lot of time talking about what is harassment (particularly, what is sexual harassment?).  They focus an amazing amount of time on the distinction between quid-pro-quo harassment and hostile environment harassment.  Now, while this might be interesting and useful to lawyers, it doesn’t help anyone.  Both types of harassment are illegal and immoral, and both types should not be seen in any decent organization.  I don’t know that someone who is a victim of harassment cares whether or not he can label it “quid-pro-quo” or “hostile environment.”  He just wants it stopped.

And that’s my concern.  Rather than making us memorize definitions (ah, but there’s a test at the end!  And it’s harder to test for “decent human being” than “was able to remember the difference between definition A and definition B”), it might be better to focus on how to stop harassment.  Most people only need a short lesson on what is inappropriate (basically, “it doesn’t matter if you’re asking for sexual favors as a supervisor or you are just a coworker making crude jokes about someone’s anatomy – it’s wrong either way.”).  What each type of harassment is called isn’t nearly as important as (1) recognizing it is harassment and (2) knowing what to do.

Problem 4: Response to Harassment

I’ve only come across a few sites that don’t immediately say “go talk to your harasser in private” or similar.  They convey an expectation that if you aren’t just trying to get money from the company, you would talk to the harasser first.  After all, she might not know what she’s doing is wrong.  Or so the theory goes.

Certainly, there are times when a private one-on-one discussion makes sense and can solve an issue.  But harassment is often not one of those times.  Much harassment takes advantage of power differences – a man harassing a woman, a non-disabled person harassing a disabled person, a (supposedly) Christian man harassing a Muslim, etc.  These aren’t equal power – these are groups that have legitimate reasons to fear physical and other attack and abuse from the world.  So asking someone to talk to their harasser…well, that can shut down the whole process right there.

Even if the person isn’t scared to do so, what do you say? What do you do?  That’s rarely talked about, and if talked about at all, it’s talked about rarely.

Some programs get that the best time to confront someone is right when they speak the bigotry, hatred, racism, misogyny, etc.  But then they get it wrong what the response of the victim should be.  First, let me say in most cases, the victim should not need to respond.  Someone else should.  Most harassment is witnessed by others.  But, all too often, the rest of a room remains silent.  Sometimes there isn’t others there.  Either way, sometimes the victim can stop further abuse by speaking up.

It’s important to note a few things here.  There are two possible reasons someone said or did something inappropriate.  Either they knew it was wrong or they didn’t! If they didn’t, and they are a decent human being, a simple quick rebuke should extract an apology and behavior change.  Failing that (or where it is obvious it’s intentionally malicious, sexist, racist, etc), the best response I’ve seen is public shaming.  Confronting the harasser in private protects the harasser, but doesn’t help the victim.  The best example I can think of this was when a woman coworker was grabbed by the arm by a man coworker to keep her from leaving his office until he finished his lecture to her.  She responded by shouting, very loudly, “Don’t touch me.  Don’t ever touch me again.”  She was alone in the office with him, but this shout got the attention of half the building – and got her support if he were ever to do it again.  He didn’t.

What doesn’t work, ever, is ignoring it or using humor and jokes.  Yet, that’s exactly what’s recommended by North Carolina’s Health and Human Services Anti-Harassment Training:

… here are some standard responses, said lightly and jokingly that might be useful:

“Uh-Oh! That’s sexual harassment — you had better watch out before you get in big trouble.”

“Is this a test to see how I handle sexual harassment? (This could also be said without humor. See previous suggestion.)

“Are you sexually harassing me again? I’m going to have to call the sexual harassment committee (EEOC, my attorney, the affirmative action officer, etc.) right now.

Uh, no (in fairness to the State of NC, this training looks relatively old and does have some good in it as well – but they really miss the mark here).

No, the right response, if any, is to tell they harasser they are wrong.  And to stop.  Now.

Problem 5: Making it the Victim’s Problem

Most harassment doesn’t happen in isolated spaces with nobody else around.  But, rather than creating an environment where everyone speaks up when they see abuse or harassment, most bystandards are silent when harassment occurs – or may even laugh with inappropriate jokes or remarks.

That doesn’t mean the bystandards are comfortable – they probably aren’t.  But, at the same time, they’ve acted in a way that says to the victim, “Your well-being is less important than me not stirring up anything.  I don’t care about you.

Yes, that’s what you say when you stay silent.

Yet few trainings on harassment, and even fewer policies, make those who observe harassment accountable for giving power to the abuser through silence.  Instead, they focus on “what could the victim have done?”  No, the victim didn’t do anything to deserve to be harassed.  So the question is, “How could the asshole be stopped?” That involves everyone else (all of us!) speaking up and let him have it verbally when we observe harassment.  Sure, it take courage.  And it’s hard.  But it’s a lot easier for us than the victim.

When this doesn’t happen, we should be accountable.  Seriously.  We can give the victim or the harasser power – doing nothing always works in favor of promoting harassment.

In addition, when we observe this crap, we need to report it.  We were witnesses and can strengthen the case.  This person very likely doesn’t just have one victim during one incident.  By keeping silent, we allow him or her to continue.


Does anyone know of any anti-bullying/anti-harassment training that doesn’t have these problems, is cheap or free, and which focuses on a wide spectrum of harassment, not just sexual harassment?  If so, I’d love to know about it.


Please, don’t be that guy!

Some of this blog deals with advocacy.  Other parts, like this one, are my observations of the autistic community.  We’re certainly not immune when it comes to human evil.

I’m writing to some autistic guys here.  “Desperate Aspie Males” or DAMs to be exact.  I don’t know why it always seems to be guys, and I haven’t noticed any DAWs, but I haven’t.  I’m sure they exist, but compared to DAMs, the DAWs are an endangered species, or at least can hide from sight easier.

What do I mean by a DAM?  The DAM is the creepy guy that goes to the autism support group, sees a woman, and immediately sees her as a sex object.  Her might be one specific woman, or it might be every woman there.  Not only does he see her as a sex object, but he makes it clear to everyone within a 2 mile radius that he sees her as a sex object.

If I was looking for a man, this way of getting a woman would definitely turn me off.  It’s not sexy, it’s not attractive, and it certainly isn’t going to end in someone having sex (unless there is a rape involved).  It’s also why so many autistic women avoid support groups and similar – it’s almost a given they’ll encounter a DAM.

Here’s some signs for guys that you might be a DAM (note I’m assuming that you, the reader, are heterosexual. If you’re gay, then substitute “man” for “woman”, as DAMs know all orientations):

  • If a girl hints that she’s not looking for a relationship, if you don’t immediately give up any deep hopes that she really is looking for a relationship with you, you might be a DAM.  Hint: she’s giving you one.  Save your dignity and quit pursuing her, even if you would have liked to have a relationship!
  • Do you tell women about how you’ve never had relationships, hoping to inspire pity and get attention from her?  You might be a DAM.  Hint: objects of pity are not seen by 99.9999% of womankind as desirable mates.  Not even autistic women.  Your mother doesn’t want to have sex with you (hopefully) – and neither will women you try to make feel like your mother!
  • Why are you talking to the woman?  Is it because you’re thinking about how you need a girlfriend or want to have sex, or is it because you genuinely enjoy spending time with her?  If you wouldn’t be happy without adding anything physical or romantic to the mix at this point, you might be a DAM.  Hint: even autistic women can pick up on whether a guy really is interested in her as a person or just her as a sex object.  So it’s really not worth the effort to lie.
  • Would you be better served by a prostitute (or your own hand), but are seeking a non-prostitute?  You might be a DAM.  Hint: most women don’t want to be your prostitute.  Having a relationship with you is not a basic exchange of “You give me X, I give you Y.”  It’s instead about truly wanting to give to the other partner.  I’m not suggesting prostitution, but I’ve seen guys that would be better off seeking that option rather than treating every new woman who shows up at a support group as a prostitute (maybe not for money, but a prostitute nonetheless).
  • Do you have expectations for a partner that differ from expectations you expect them to have for you?  For instance, do you expect the woman to be stereo-typically beautiful, while you yourself are a 300 lb man with a poorly kept beard and a very asymmetric face?  If so, you might be a DAM.  Hint: sure, beauty comes in all body shapes and types, and true beauty is on the soul.  And plenty of relationships have one partner that society judges to be more attractive than the other, sometimes a lot so.  But most of these relationships didn’t start by the less stereo-typically attractive person excluding everyone like themselves, but somehow expecting the stereo-typically beautiful women to find them attractive!  You need to be willing to be judged by the standards you are judging them.  So be careful expecting stereotypical beauty – in my experience most men who do this really should look in the mirror first and ask if they want women to do the same to them.
  • Do you initiate a bunch of unanswered communication with her?  If so, you might be a DAM.  Hint: if the woman is interested in you, she’ll let you know and she’ll remember you exist.  You don’t need to keep reminding her.  If she doesn’t…well, be patient and see who else might be in your life down the road.
  • Do you think any woman should be thrilled to have you as a mate?  If so, you might be a DAM.  You’re even more likely to be one if you’re angry about this.  Hint: no man is attractive to all – or even most – women as a serious partner (or even one-night-stand, if she’s really interested in that thing – see below).
  • Do you think most women in society want one-night-stands?  If so, you may be a DAM.  Hint: Most women don’t want one-night-stands. They want a relationship!  Really.  And they want a guy that wants a relationship.  Sure, they might want sex too!  But most women don’t want sex without being pretty sure that the man actually wants other parts of them too, and not just casually or for one night.
  • Do you tell a DAM who you see pestering women to knock it off?  If not, you’re encouraging the behavior and just as bad as the DAM.  Show you have some moral strength.

Now of course there are autistic characteristics that would make someone come off like a DAM.  We often miss social cues, for instance.  But there’s a difference between a missed social cue and using our autism as cover when questioned to give ourselves latitude that other men wouldn’t get.  If you’re chasing after a woman (metaphorically) and you find out she’s been giving you cues that she’s not interested in you, and you just say, “I’m autistic” rather than “I’m so sorry” and then cease to chase her, you’re using your autism as a cover.  That’s BS.  Don’t make the rest of us autistic guys look like a creep – knock it off.

I’ve seen autistics also try to cover their sexist attitudes with bogosity about autism – such as claiming “autism is ultramasuclinity”.  Others talk about how women and feminists have ruined their chances in life but then expect these same women to sleep with them while telling the women that they are essentially horrible for wanting things like a chance to earn a living (uh, “Women, you caused me all this suffering and ruined my life.  Want to sleep with me?”).  No, feminism didn’t ruin your life.  Neither did women.  And if you’re thinking men’s rights (essentially anti-feminism) are an important cause, expect to be lonely.  For a long time.  Women – imagine this – like to be treated like full human beings, even if they do hold to the theory that there are men’s and women’s roles in society (and don’t expect most to hold to that).

I’ve seen other autistics that try to leverage their autism into pity.  Some even seemingly regress into infanthood in a misguided attempt to bring out motherly instincts in their (they hope) sex partners.  But as I mentioned above, mom doesn’t want to have a romantic relationship with her kid, and this is just plain creepy behavior.  Others are trying for some sort of “pity sex.”  There’s not much pity sex out there, DAMs!  Sure, pity might get attention, but – and this is important DAMs – attention is not attraction.  Just because a woman is paying attention to you doesn’t mean she’s interested in you romantically.

Sure, there are always exceptions.  There are women who willingly submit to sexist pigs in relationships.  Some women probably do want casual, one-night-stands and would detest a deep relationship.  The nice guy sometimes is single.  No doubt some women would love a 30 year old baby.  But these are exceptions, and if you choose to play the exceptions, please do it in a way that doesn’t pester, annoy, and harras women that aren’t one of these exceptions.  And don’t expect to find a lot of interest if you try going after the exceptions.

Do you want a relationship?  I’ll suggest a few things that do work:

  • Stop looking for a relationship.  Seriously, stop looking.  When you stop looking at women as sex objects or relationship targets, you’ll find more women around you are interested in you.
  • Become interesting.  Find a hobby, ideally something you can share with others. It can be a solo hobby, but it helps if it’s a hobby that you can do with someone as well.
  • Enjoy life.  Misery doesn’t love company, at least not romantically!  If you can’t be happy without a partner, how does a partner know you can be happy with them?  Happiness can be shared – someone who loves you will get happiness from seeing you happy.  If you’re looking for love, some enjoyment in life will help people who have an attraction get something from you that makes them feel good too.  People like to feel good!
  • Take care of your own needs.  Don’t make a potential partner take care of you.  Sure, part of a relationship is helping each other – and that flows very naturally.  But when someone is just getting to know you, they probably don’t want to be your caregiver, shrink, transportation, etc.  This isn’t about being non-disabled or having needs, even needs that can be met by a partner!
  • Leave some mystery.  It’s actually attractive to get to know someone, but not as attractive to have these details dumped in your lap!  Share a bit, but then wait for her to share a bit before you share tons more.  Email her, but wait for her to email back once in a while before sending another email!  If she’s taking a day or two to email back, you probably should generally too.  You don’t have to rush things.
  • Be patient.  It might take you years, even decades to find a partner.  If you find someone you can have a relationship with, it’s worth the wait.  My wife and I waited quite a bit longer than most people wait – it was worth the wait and I’d do it again knowing what I know now.  But see above – it’s easier to be patient if you enjoy life.

There’s no formula to finding a partner.  The people I know who have found someone all found them at a time they weren’t looking, and even a bit by surprise.   Most of us didn’t find someone in our early 20s or late teens – autistic people take longer on this, often.  That’s how it works.  Frustrating, true.  But I don’t know any guy who found it being a DAM.