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Safe spaces in college discourage victimization

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Last fall, when Brown University announced it would host a debate between a feminist blogger and a rape culture skeptic about campus sexual assault, members of the school’s Sexual Assault Task Force responded by creating a “safe space” for survivors or those otherwise affected by these issues to use during the event. Safe spaces are commonly used as supportive environments for intellectual debate about certain issues that incite vulnerability or trauma, such as rape or sexual assault.

According to the New York Times, Brown’s safe space took a different approach.

“[It] was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” One student, a rape survivor, needed to use the space because she felt “bombarded by a lot of viewpoints that really go against [her] dearly and closely held beliefs.”

The article goes on to mention other instances of college students demanding safer spaces on campuses in order to keep trauma survivors from feeling victimized. A question emerges: is shielding oneself from potentially threatening ideas beneficial in that it prevents further trauma or harmful because it prevents intellectual growth?

This article was a recent topic of discussion in my philosophy class and many of us took issue with its victim-blaming tone, especially when the author calls out safe space users as “eager to self-infantilize.” Much of the article’s comments section takes a similar stance, calling today’s college students weak for being increasingly sensitive to issues like trauma and triggering. My view is that the survivors in question should not have had to feel unsafe enough to the point where they refused to both engage in important discussions and take opposing viewpoints into consideration, because doing so serves as a valuable learning opportunity for people on both sides of an issue.

Judith Shulevitz, the article’s author, does make a fair point about the deficiency of Brown’s safe space in particular. Rather than infantilizing them, I would argue that the space further victimized the trauma survivors and forced them to ignore the issue at hand rather than facilitate a supportive environment for discussion and sharing ideas. Safe spaces should not make people feel like victims; they should empower them and provide a non-threatening setting for facilitating dialogue and increasing people’s understanding of complex and sensitive issues.

Trauma survivors absolutely have a right to avoid undergoing further trauma, such as situations that can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder or painful memories of abuse. These demands for safe spaces clearly show a rising sophistication in college students’ vocabulary about nuanced emotional issues that have until recently largely gone undiscussed or ignored. But what does it say about today’s college campuses if students are consistently feeling threatened enough to need a safe space in the first place?

In light of the recent acts of vandalism and intolerance here at St. Olaf, it is more important than ever that we keep in mind the importance of creating an accepting community on campus that makes everyone feel safe and supported. While safe spaces serve a practical and valuable purpose and responses to events like the debate at Brown point out their continuing necessity, the ideal scenario would be to cultivate a campus-wide discussion that touches on all viewpoints but victimizes no one, making the need for safe spaces obsolete.

Colleges are built to encourage the thoughtful and respectful sharing of ideas and a willingness to encounter unfamiliar perspectives and worldviews. If anyone’s perspective is overlooked or not valued, its loss does the whole campus community a disservice. St. Olaf tries hard to cultivate a community of acceptance and equality of perspectives, though obviously more can be done. Hopefully through continued advocacy work by student organizations, the facilitation of events like Sustained Dialogues and a greater effort among students to respect unfamiliar points of view, the need for safe spaces – especially like the one at Brown – will diminish.

Nina Hagen ’15 hagen@stolaf.edu is from Saint Paul, Minn. She majors in English with a concentration in Women’s and Gender Studies.

Graphic Credit: ETHAN BOOTE/MANITOU MESSENGER