tales from urban dilettantia

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In Which I Learn Things About Safe Spaces

Due to an unusual intersection of the Easter break and Anzac Day, Australia enjoyed a glorious five day weekend, some of which I spent at the Swancon/Natcon science fiction and fantasy conference. (Until I ran out of human interaction capacity, upon which I returned home to hibernate. By which I mean, play Portal 2.)

Good times were had, and this year I had the honour of being invited to sit on the Safe Spaces panel, in which we talk about communication, situation management, consent and boundaries. Sometimes, Safe Spaces can be quite contentious (the irony!) as it’s a topic on which people have very diverse and strongly-held views.  By the time it was about to begin I’d catastrophised myself into thinking it was going to be a bloodbath of some sort and that everyone would yell at me. I can be a bit of a dork like that.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case at all and we were able to cover a range of views and practical techniques to address various social situations. I brought some of my recent militancy to the mix, in addition to the discussions of more gentle and effective communication, and no-one appeared to glare at me nor tell me I was a horrid person who was Doing It Wrong.  (I worry somewhat excessively about being yelled at and told I’m a horrid person who’s Doing It Wrong, even if I don’t believe it.)  In the process, I learned a couple of things from the audience and from the other panellists that I think are worth sharing here.

Firstly, I had a moment where I realised that I’ve been coming at this from a place where I’ve always been something of a doormat and people-pleaser.  I’ve been working on standing up for myself and others, and on being assertive and outspoken. This has been immensely helpful, since I was raised to be a Good Catholic Woman who avoided causing offence at all costs, and it has certainly helped me realise that I don’t have to please everyone and that it isn’t necessary for everyone to like me. However, a certain comment led me to the realisation that it’s not a black and white issue and that there’s no need to beat myself up if I choose to be polite, tell a convenient white lie or not fight a particular battle. We use the tools we have, and it’s as valid to be kind, distant or evasive as it is to be blunt, honest and assertive – neither is reprehensible or inappropriate, and both approaches can be useful and practical.

Secondly, I was reminded that those things that are obvious to me are not obvious to everyone. Listening to one of my co-panellists talk about the value of learning to ask her loved ones to respect her boundaries and preferences – in her case, a strong aversion to physical contact in many circumstances – initially had me thinking ‘Well, of course I tell my friends clearly what I need, and they work with it. That’s what people who care about you do.’ However, I then remembered being an extremely sheltered eighteen year old who was so worried about fitting in that she would never have asked a friend to stop (or start) doing something to make herself comfortable. It’s good to circle back to such points in a mixed group; as obvious as they may seem to a thirty-something woman who’s been talking about this for years, they’re can also be the catalyst for someone else to realise it really, truly is okay to ask openly for a specific kind of consideration. I, for one, had almost forgotten the experience sucking up anxiety and distress, and hiding my discomfort for fear of being thought strange and difficult.

In short, no-one shouted at me, I said my bit and learned stuff. Good times.

Category: feminism, sovereignty

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3 Responses

  1. feminaust says:

    Hi!
    We have been loving your posts about the world of computers and feminism recently particularly this one regarding safe spaces. I work for an international women’s organisation which focusses on the importance of safe spaces for women as one of its core goals. Whether that is online, at school, at home or in some other part of the community.
    If you’d ever like to write a piece for our blog, we have a special section for people to write about what feminism means to them on a personal and individual level. Professionally, academically, in activism or in altruism.
    I think you’ll like this weeks piece, written by a Kiwi computer scientist (who actually put us on to your blog).
    Keep up the conversation, we’re enjoying listening from the wings!

    feminaust

  2. Helen says:

    @feminaust

    Thank you so much for the comment and link to your site, feminist bloggers! I’d be delighted to contribute to your discussion at some point – I’m a shocking over-promiser though, so it may take a while in the writing. (Poor Colin from Exile Lifestyle was promised a post on polyamory around a year ago; d’oh.)

  3. […] Safe spaces at a science fiction and fantasy conference. […]

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@dilettantiquity is interested in an unreasonable number of things, including the wide and wonderful universe, happiness, well-being, wine, optimal human experience, non-violent communication, complex systems, existential nihilism, rationality, technology, grassroots organising, cacophony, music, creativity, learning and love.

            
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