Why ‘Safe Spaces’ Aren’t Very Safe

Why ‘Safe Spaces’ Aren’t Very Safe March 14, 2016

IMG_1800by Suzanne Titkemeyer cross posted from her blog True Love Doesn’t Rape

Last night as I did a quick look-see at the comments on No Longer Quivering before I turned in for the night I read several comments by Let Them Marry Vaughn Ohlman referencing a ‘Safe Space’.

‘Safe Space’ – one of the most overused, fluidly defined, buzz words that keeps popping up in survivor and recovery groups as well as in conservative circles, some churches and online.

It kept me awake, thinking about what a ‘Safe Space’ is and if it truly exists anywhere. Is it important?

This is one of those subjects that I’ve discussed endlessly with my friend Cindy Kunsman. She’s been writing a thoughtfully concise series of articles for her blog about trauma and how to heal from it. We’ve been reposting those articles at No Longer Quivering in the hopes that people struggling to recover will be helped.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to after our long conversations and my own attempts to create safe spaces in my own life. There are not any really true ‘Safe Spaces’ in life. Life is messy, it’s unpredictable. You cannot bubble wrap your entire life, your emotions, or the most painful bits of your past trauma. I tried to create a physical safe space yesterday afternoon for my asthma needs and failed abysmally. Most of the attempts I’ve seen on the behalf of others to somehow create those spaces of safety seem to be about as successful.

In survivor groups many people seeking that place of safety and refuge tend to just want that illusion of control. It is more about controlling the group dynamic, controlling their own pain and managing their exposure to triggers than any amount of safety. The more they try to control the safety of the group the less safe the environment actually becomes.

Sometimes it degenerates into bullying those that do not necessarily line up with the increasingly smaller focus of the group. People that were integral parts of the original group find themselves marginalized and demonized by those still in the group attempting to control the boundaries. People get hurt and retraumatized as they are bullied out of the group.

It becomes a way to try to lessen the triggers in groups and in lives, but as the safety boundaries keep being redraw the triggers themselves shift significantly until there’s no safety at all.

Many times in these groups what happens is it starts out well, but eventually what happens is that they reassemble the same sort power structure as the cult they left. They call it something else but do all the same things as their former group. Which makes it all about as safe as a gorilla careening around on greased roller skates while carrying a loaded shotgun. Others will be hurt yet again as the group isolates and becomes even more insular with members of any given group turning on others they perceive as ‘unsafe’.

Not sure if the safe spaces behavior in survivor groups is part of the psychology of reenacting trauma that happens before you get help to deal with the initial trauma, but it might be part of that loop in getting stuck in a place of victim hood.

Mr. Ohlman seems to think that the notion of a safe space is some silly liberal malarkey made up by coddled college students who were raised on participation trophies, This completely ignores the fact that the biggest users of the ‘safe space’ trope is Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christianity. You see it most strongly in those groups that believe you must control every aspect of your children’s lives from every thing they think is somehow ‘evil’. The children end up like veal raised in that tiny box, unable to function in a real world because of the extreme control and protection asserted on them their entire lives. These are kids that find routine things the most difficult and social interactions with anyone not in their family difficult to execute. They cannot parse body language or understand things like personal boundaries. Families that raise their offspring this way saddle them with a nearly insurmountable handicap.

Fundamentalist churches also love to use the idea of safe spaces to kick out people not lining up with their beliefs. Just like in survivor groups they use the notion to get rid of people, marginalize them, tell lies about the odd man out to destroy them.

This whole ‘safe space’ thing plays out very badly in the many church splits that happen in the more fundamentalist churches. They cannot get along or agree, many times over some very simple doctrinal issue and force a confrontation followed by a split. A ecclesiastical version of a nasty divorce complete with forcing people to chose sides and the telling of highly-embroidered negative tales about the other side. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen this play out just in my local area I’d have enough to buy a large pile of Nashville hot chicken I love so much.

Whenever I think of churches claiming safe spaces I am reminded of this song by Jason Upton from his cd “Beautiful People”. The song is called ‘Lullaby For a Petrified Sacred Society’ – the lyrics reveal what the members think in these safe places that are so unsafe:

Shut up the windowsLock all the doors Make sure nobody gets in Learn to protect what is rightfully yours Or someone will take it, my friend We’ll all sleep well tonight With no worry about tomorrow Everything’s all right Safe in our panic room We’re building a wall Higher and higher Come, join the gospel crusade Don’t you know God loves Good little helpers Can’t wait to show Him what we’ve made There’re Doctors and Lawyers And Presidents here We’ve all become best of friends Finally people are lending an ear and Truth has become relevant Our prophets are nicer And kinder and sweeter We’ve partnered in their great reward They bless us with peace In exchange for a token What more could we ever ask for?

There’s not much safety in forced ‘safe spaces’ because you really cannot control other people.

Life might be messy and unsafe, but learning to deal with adversity or others different than you are critical life skills that make staying in a ‘safe space’ a very bad idea. Some of the most important life lessons we all must experience only come from adversity.

The only really ‘Safe Space’ there truly is comes from inside ourselves. Friends are sometimes ‘unsafe’ and family can be fairly uncomfortable at times, but within yourself you have the potential for a space that allows you to experience your own emotions in a safe way.


Suzanne Titkemeyer is the admin at No Longer Quivering. She’s been out of the Quiverfull Evangelical world for nine years now and lives in the beautiful Piedmont section of Virginia with her retired husband and assorted creatures. She blogs at Every Breaking Wave and True Love Doesn’t Rape

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