Safer spaces within feminism

In these last few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about safer spaces within feminism, as so many women seem to have been saying that they feel unsafe.

At least in part, this came from the ongoing attempts of one Hugo Schwyzer to dominate feminism and make it all about him. Rather than hold Schwyzer accountable for abuses he perpetrated and his behaviour towards women of colour, he was excused by an army of white feminist enablers who insisted we should focus on his mental health problems. Meanwhile, others blamed Schwyzer’s mental health problems for the abuses he perpetrated. This storm has led to women of colour and women with mental health problems feeling unsafe.

(as an aside, it ought to be entirely possible to have this conversation about Schwyzer without taking an ableist position. Both positions are inherently ableist: the latter buying into the “evil crazy person” stigma, while removing responsibility from the perpetrator; the former acting as though people with mental health problems are feeble beings, utterly irresponsible for their own actions and in dire need of protection from the big bad world, which is pretty fucking patronising. Any diagnoses of mental illness or personality disorders ought not shield a person from accountability for their actions, but likewise Schwyzer did not do what he did because of any diagnoses of mental illness or personality disorders. Flavia Dzodan also points out how it is problematic to centre this discussion around Schwyzer’s mental health rather than the mental health of the women he abused)

A hashtag has sprung up in the last few days, at least in part as a response to white feminism’s shielding of an abuser. #solidarityisforwhitewomen has created a space for women of colour to articulate the white supremacy which is ingrained in mainstream feminism. I wholly recommend reading it: as a white woman, it was a short sharp shock as to the breadth of the problem, as to the sheer quantity of women for whom feminism has done nothing and has, quite possibly, made things worse. And of course, into the hashtag waded white feminists, attempting to derail and redirect the conversation into something more palatable than the hard truth, and along came Hugo fucking Schwyzer himself.

All the while, the Twitter abuse debate has been rumbling on, and once again it is notable that it is white, cis feminists who have placed themselves at the centre of this conversation. All the while, trans women, disabled women, women of colour, working class women, women with mental health problems, queer women are receiving perpetual harassment. And yet there is no big high-profile media discussion of how people like to collect images of trans women and put them together to encourage potential doxxing; there is no big high-profile media discussion of how continued harassment interacts with existing mental health problems; there is no big high-profile media discussion of the sheer prevalence of racist abuse.

And, of course, there is no big high-profile media discussion of how sometimes white cis feminists can be the aggressors. Last week, I wrote about how the principles of #ibelieveher are too often utterly defenestrated when women talk about microaggressions they have experienced at the hands of of white cis feminists.

Jackie Wang discusses the conditions which give rise to this in her essay Against Innocence: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Safety, pointing to a state of an ideal victim who is, of course, white. Wang eloquently challenges the white supremacy within the politics of safer spaces in dominant feminist discourse. She explains how this can put a stopper on militancy, which is something which is sorely needed. Basically, I recommend you take a bit of time out to read the whole thing, as it is a blindingly good essay which has informed my thinking on this topic a hell of a lot.

And we do see the language of safety deployed when women are challenged on their own oppressive behaviour. This is at least in part because it’s really fucking uncomfortable when you come to realise that you are actually part of the problem. In part, too, it stems from the insistence on engaging in only a manner which is palatable to those feminists with privilege: the dreaded beast they call politeness, with a smattering of their own requirement that everything be treated as a topic for debate, an abstract intellectual difference. It produces conditions wherein the most privileged women are unchallengeable, even as they are the aggressors.

We see it perhaps most starkly when transphobic feminists declare that they want to exclude trans women, using the language of safety as a veil for their own rank bigotry. We also see it where white cis feminists nominate themselves victims after being called out on their own oppressive behaviour. These conditions are pervasive within feminism and while they may create a safer space for some women, they create a fundamentally unsafe space for many more.

And so is it any surprise when so many women reject the label “feminism” as it is just the same old shit, branded differently? We like to say that feminism is a broad set of ideologies and that we do not always agree with one another, but when so many women see unsafe behaviour going completely unchallenged–indeed, frequently actively enabled–how can there possibly be anything in this community for them?

Even the very notion of “inclusion” is alienating for a lot of women. I have been told that saying that something is, for example, trans inclusive, positions cis women as gatekeepers of feminism. There are so many things within are language that do nothing to make many women safer, and contribute to actively feeling less safe.

So what is to be done? Is it even possible for a feminism which does not leave the women who get more shit from the kyriarchy on a daily basis feeling just as unsafe? Perhaps, but it will be a slow revolution, met with resistance from those with most to lose from the abolition of oppressive hierarchies.

To help it on its way, we must hold ourselves and others accountable. We must believe the accounts from women who have been harmed by the dominant white supremacist, cissexist, ableist, classist feminism. We must stand in solidarity, and we must fight all of these battles on all of these fronts, because they are all our struggle. We must let go of a notion of safety which protects abusers and aggressors and perpetrators and put survivors at the centre. We must unthink and unlearn, and kill the oppressors inside our heads. We must talk about these issues and not let them be swept under the carpet due to some nominated “real enemy”. We must look at the margins and the intersections and listen, and learn. And we must accept that many of these women who do not trust feminism may never trust feminism, and yet perpetually persevere in attempting to win this trust.

It’s a fucking thankless task, being against the world, yet is this not what feminism is ultimately about? Do we not want to overturn the dominant social order?

If so, we must overturn it, rather than continuing to replicate these power structures.

Further reading on Schwyzer

Yes, this is about race (Flavia Dzodan)
On Hugo Schwyzer: Accountability, not silencing dissent (Grace)
Why do some feminist spaces tolerate male abusers? (Global Comment)

6 thoughts on “Safer spaces within feminism”

  1. acting as though people with mental health problems are feeble beings, utterly irresponsible for their own actions and in dire need of protection from the big bad world, which is pretty fucking patronising.

    It’s worse than patronising, it’s often the prequel to abuse such as forced medication and scheduling to a locked psych ward. Not to mention a framework for taking away our civil rights so that the neurotypicals can ‘look after’ us whether we want it or not.

    Any diagnoses of mental illness or personality disorders ought not shield a person from accountability for their actions

    Spot on.

    I’m not the only survivor of the mental health system who thinks ‘insanity defences’ should be abolished. It’s not as if they defend us from anything.

    If you’re found not guilty for reasons of insanity you will probably spend more time in a prison psych hospital than you would have in the main prison if you’d been found guilty. What’s more you’ll have far more of your rights taken away, including the right to refuse medical treatment and the right to appeal.

    BTW, I’m writing primarily from my bipolar I perspective, but as a former sufferer of PTSD (car crash) I also find a lot of trigger warnings and claims of being ‘triggered’ offensive and/or patronising, not least because they often appropriate the word ‘trigger’, applying it to reactions that in no way resemble a PTSD flashback.

    1. People are responsible for their actions. However there is a gulf between saying “people with mental health problems are feeble beings, utterly irresponsible for their own actions” and presuming that every action is free of undue influence.

      The reality is somewhere in between. If everyone had equal opportunity and was free of negative influence then I couldn’t argue that they ever had diminished responsibility.

      When people fail to account for the influence of society and the differences between people (such as health and disability) it comes dangerously close to “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” thinking. “Other people managed, other made successes of themselves, you can’t because you’re lazy.”

      I’m not arguing for the abrogation of personal responsibility but if you lay the blame entirely on a single person you are absolving society (and ill-health) of the damage it causes.

      1. Of course you should try to take society, community, family, disability, etc into account when allocating responsibility (both positive and negative).

        You should do that for everyone.

        What you shouldn’t do is create special categories like ‘mentally ill’ or ‘rape survivor’ and take both kinds of responsibility away from them whether they want it or not.

        Every case is special – including yours – and treating people like items on a production line is bound to lead to abuse.

  2. This is exactly it. When white feminism tries to justify stalking marginalised women… time to leave. No-one deserves to be under constant attack in the way that trans women are. No-one.

    And the mental health thing is spot on. No consideration to the mental health of non-ciswhite women, of anyone not a columnist. Even when we’re stalked, victim blamed, silenced, hung out to dry.

    Whereas if I dare say “cis” cis ladies react like there’s a crazed tranny holding a knife to their throat. They actually don’t think we’re human. And all of feminism endorses their bigotry.

    Fuck these people. And fuck the people who say I’m splitting feminism by existing, by not shutting up. And fuck the nice girls who coddle their bigotry.

  3. Able-bodied feminists don’t give a fuck about those of us with disabilities. Feminism isn’t safe when an article about an AB woman being slighted receiver hundreds of outraged comments, then an article about the institutional rape and abuse of women with disabilities gets crickets. We don’t matter, voles THEY want to the Our backs to climb over.

    The last attempt at cataloguing the unpunished rape and murder of PWD had to be abandoned because the toll climbs on a daily basis.

    Rape isn’t a risk for women with disabilities, it’s practically inevitable, but where’s the outcry? Disabled women are often left with abusive partners because hostels won’t accommodate them, and abuse is typically excused with “[Partner] is under pressure”

    Where’s the outrage? Aren’t we women too?

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