On Safe Spaces / by Jeff Leyco

The facts. 

  • On January 22, 2015, Sarah Sullivan revealed she had been sexually abused by prominent Lindy hop instructor Steven Mitchell. Since her post, several more women have come forward with similar stories.
  • My previous post walks through many of the events in depth, but there are still a lot of conversations going on over at her blog, on Facebook, on Reddit, and elsewhere. Jerry Almonte of Wandering & Pondering is probably the best resource for current, updated information.
  • On January 28, Rik Panganiban at Yehoodi.com posted a video to YouTube of a discussion revolving around Sarah Sullivan's post, the community's reaction, and the idea of "safe spaces." The conversation included Bobby White, Rebecca Brightly, Mikey Pedroza, Manu Smith, Nicole Zuckerman, Jerry Almonte, and Gina Helfrich, all of whom brought their own unique views and experiences to the table. I've embedded the video below.
  • Several dance venues, events, and organizations have already implemented safe space policies, or are considering their incorporation into their Codes of Conduct.
  • Pomona Lake has created a tumblr resource for Safe Spaces
  • There's also a Facebook group, Safety Dance, where users are discussing the topic. It is explicitly not a safe space forum itself but rather a place for discussion.

What are safe spaces? 

Depending on the situation and the community, "safe spaces" can actually be a number of different things. At its core, safe spaces refer to places in which people are free to express themselves without fear of judgment or reprisal. They are places where harassment and violence on the basis of self-identification are unacceptable. It also refers to places where people who feel they have been victimized or have survived abuse of some kind are allowed to come forward in order to make authorities aware of what is happening so that the appropriate actions can be taken.

Safe spaces do not have to be physical spaces. Several places such as college campuses, bars, and other meeting places have established actual safe space locations. However, safe spaces have also been implemented in online communities through message boards and comment sections. In effect, they become forums in which members may freely exchange ideas without fear of judgment. 

That's a pretty neat idea. Where did it come from? 

Safe spaces are not a new concept, but its application is largely determined by the community that defines it.

The earliest references about safe space I can find are about protecting the welfare of children in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Most modern interpretations of safe space are rooted in feminism and the LGBT rights movements of the mid-20th century and onward [n.b. I'm very sensitive to the language I use and I already understand that "LGBT" is not the most inclusive term—if you're reading and have a more appropriate suggestion, please let me know!]. It was in these movements where safe spaces expanded beyond only protecting people and came to also represent the exchange of ideas and strengthening communities.

In the context of survivors of sexual abuse, safe spaces have been applied largely through outreach organizations and hotlines, where survivors can speak out about the violence they have encountered in a place of comfort and understanding. As with safe spaces for children, many organizations that formed in the mid-to-late 20th century offered shelters where survivors of sexual violence could stay if they did not feel comfortable elsewhere.

How is it being implemented in the swing dancing world?

Even before Sarah's post, many places had already implemented policies designating their venues or events as safe spaces. Mobtown Ballroom's organizers have been committed to the idea of creating a safe space since it was founded. They arguably have the most visible Code of Conduct regarding it, reproduced here in full because it's awesome:

To put it simply, by attending classes or events at the ballroom, you agree not to be a tool.

  1. This environment is for everyone regardless of gender/gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, religion, or whatever. We do not tolerate harassment of any kind. If you harass someone, you may be asked to leave; you may be kicked out for life. It is at our discretion. So don’t do it.
  2. In keeping with the above, don’t use misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or racist language. It’s not only wrong, it’s embarrassing and in bad taste.
  3. Don’t treat the ballroom like a pick-up joint. Our patrons do not represent a large pool of people for you to hit on. If you engage in this kind of behavior and make our patrons uncomfortable, we will take extreme pleasure in escorting you to the door.
  4. Whether you’re dancing, playing music, or finger painting, do not offer unsolicited advice to your fellow students. In our experience the people who do this are usually wrong (and always annoying).
  5. Generally behave like an adult human being. We welcome every lifestyle and every flavor of person. But this isn’t your living room or a house party: Back-rub chains, cuddle puddles, and the like will make the staff uncomfortable. Please take pity on the staff.

Other organizations with safe spaces in their policies include:

  • Lindy Focus: "Lindy Focus is dedicated to providing a safe and comfortable event experience for everyone, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, ability, physical appearance, body size, race, or religion (or lack thereof). We do not tolerate harassment of event participants in any form."
  • Boston Lindy Hop
  • Fog City Stomp
  • Bees' Knees is discussing the topic
  • Yehoodi.com's Frim Fram Jam has also recently announced a safe space policy
  • Many more are likely to come

Does it work? What are the criticisms? 

One of the most common arguments I've come across is that no space can ever be 100% safe—some places may be considered safer than others, but that doesn't mean a person will be protected from everything. It's impossible to completely regulate human behavior, and some people might even ignore the safe space designation.

In many situations, it's also difficult for people to feel safe in designated safe places. In cases of sexual assault, survivors are not required to come forward to report their experiences, and even in the context of a safe space, they still may not feel comfortable.

Visibility is often another criticism. Physically-separated safe spaces can be difficult to find, or it may be difficult to identify the people who are qualified to respond to situations. Similarly, if a safe space is not technically separated from public use (e.g. an area is designated safe because of a Code of Conduct), then not everyone in a safe space may even know that it is one. Not everyone reads an event's policies in full, and even when announced repeatedly, the message still might not reach everyone.

Some thoughts.

Would a safe space policy have prevented the events that brought the swing dance community to the discussion it's having now? I don't know. I honestly can't answer that question, and I don't know if anyone really can.

The above criticisms do not mean that organizers shouldn't create safe spaces or implement similar ideas. Rather, they point out the difficulties in creating good policy that actually sticks. Safe spaces must be deliberately designed. A safe space cannot be created simply by inserting language about it in a Code of Conduct—it's an idea that must be constantly worked for, even after everyone's stopped discussing it online. 

At the very least, the discussion we're having as a larger community is helping to do one important thing: it's raising awareness that this sort of behavior should not be tolerated, and that anyone who has survived these experiences have the support of so many people and the resources needed to help.

Resources. 

If you are a survivor, or know a survivor, of sexual violence, there are many resources available for help:

If you are interested in creating a safe space policy for your organization or event:

Edit 1 (1/31 11:47PM): Alex Gaw recently wrote a post about language in the discussion that people might not be familiar with (I wasn't!). I thought it appropriate to include that as a link.

Edit 2 (2/1 10:58AM): Added another link in the resources for Dogpossum's blog.