You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

There Are No Safe Spaces

A series of sexual harassment allegations has vindicated the demands of student activists.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If we have learned anything from the ongoing, seemingly endless tide of sexual harassment allegations against famous, powerful men, it is that there is no space that is truly safe.

Progressive magazines have not been safe. Film sets and posh parties have not been safe, even for famous, well-paid actresses. Tomato fields have not been safe. Restaurants—both kitchens and the front of the house—have not been safe. Schools and universities have not been safe. Over and over again, we have learned that people that we thought were feminist or liberal—or at least had accepted the idea that workplaces are going to be staffed with women as well as men—have taken advantage of their influence to make workplaces unsafe for their employees. 

It is not a coincidence that this flood has come now, not just with Donald “grab ‘em by the pussy” Trump in the White House, but after years of public denunciations of the very idea of safe spaces. Liberal and conservative commentators alike have written reams of nearly identical columns lamenting the desire, on the part of today’s young people, for a place they might be safe from sexism, racism, and harassment. These columns, usually focusing on the nebulous “campus,” demand that students respect “free speech,” that they “confront ideas they disagree with,” or some other such nostrum.

No space is safe, they tell us. Students will have to go out into the real world (and get jobs, the implied but rarely stated rest of that sentence goes), where they will be confronted with people who disagree with them. These pretty cliches elide the fact that only those who have experienced violence, harassment, or discrimination know how profoundly unsafe any space can become. 

Over and over, people speaking out against harassment are told that they are overreacting, that they are too easily offended. Even now, with all that we know, prominent writers like Gay Talese are saying: Look forward, not backward. Toughen up. It’s just how the world works. We don’t want to have a witch hunt. 

It is how the world works, of course. That’s why there are so many of these stories, so similar that they blend together in their awful details. Because we’re not, for the most part, fighting “monsters” or even “bad apples.” We’re fighting a society—some call it “rape culture,” I, being old-fashioned, prefer “patriarchy” or more specifically “patriarchal capitalism”—that has controlled women and exploited their labor through threats of violence. Hollywood remains a boy’s club—particularly in the fields of directing and producing, the power positions—because men like Harvey Weinstein were permitted to literally yank their dicks out and threaten women with them. The same is true of the media, where women often do the uncredited behind-the-scenes work of polishing the story that goes out with a single celebrity byline on it. The same is true of the restaurant kitchen and the tomato field. Women’s work is cheapened, in part, through violence and harassment and a thousand other demeaning ways.

It is particularly ironic that the term “witch hunt” is being used to criticize the survivors. It was not, after all, powerful men who were burned and hung in the witch hunts—it was, as Silvia Federici has meticulously documented in her book Caliban and the Witch, women who dared to have some independence, who wanted to control a little land or even just their own reproduction. The witch hunts were about disciplining women’s work, their very bodies. Violence against women to discipline their labor, and to turn them against one another, was what the witch hunts were about. Similarly, sexual harassment in the workplace reminds us that our bodies are still not our own, that they are subject to the whims of those with more power.  

When the flood of #MeToo stories, inspired by the work of anti-violence organizer Tarana Burke, hit social media, many professed surprise to see how common such violence was, including those who had spent their valuable column inches decrying students’ desire for places of safety or for the much-mocked “trigger warnings.” Some of them may have been truly unaware of the pervasiveness of sexual violence and harassment—or that it was happening in their places of employment. But it’s worth remembering that the repeated mocking of students as spoiled “snowflakes” underscored the idea that they could not seriously need safety from anything. These articles marshaled fatuous “free speech” claims to defend an oppressive status quo and even defend the rights of white nationalists and misogynists—those with a track record of using their platforms to harass, out, and endanger students.

Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher is just one of those whose own experience with the campus “free speech” debate has resulted in threats of violence against him. “While they claim the mantle of free speech, they create their own safe spaces through appeals to or justifications of violence toward women, people of color, and anyone—myself included—who refuses to tolerate them,” he told me. These same “free speech” crusaders mobilize their followers to get professors like Ciccariello-Maher and Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor removed from their posts. Taylor has canceled speaking events due to death threats; Ciccariello-Maher was placed on administrative leave following threats against him. When his students staged repeated protests, he was allowed to teach his classes via Skype.

Drexel student Dakota Peterson, one of the leaders of the protests to get Ciccariello-Maher reinstated, told me that safety is being weaponized by the far right to push certain ideas off campus. “The fundamental issue here is that [the university] did little to attempt to protect the safe learning space on campus while maintaining our physical safety,” Peterson said. 

“While the Right mocks the idea of safe spaces for snowflakes, they are the quickest to melt and demand safe spaces of their own: safe spaces for misogynists and rapists, safe spaces for white men, and safe spaces for white supremacists and Nazis of all stripes,” Ciccariello-Maher added.

Like the claim that a “witch hunt” is being waged against the people who already hold power, what is protected in the campaign against safe spaces is the power of those doing the harassing, perpetrating the violence. What is protected is the shape of power, its gender and race. 

It can feel like justice is being done because a few famous perpetrators have lost their positions of prestige and influence. Leon Wieseltier’s new magazine has been canceled, as has Kevin Spacey’s television show. But is the shape of power being changed? Already the usual doubts are creeping in. Even as the patterns of oppression become clearer, damage control is also becoming a pattern. A powerful corporation fires someone, in some cases someone whose transgressions have been known to the company for years, and balance is restored.

Really making our spaces safe will require much more, though. It will require a real redistribution of power throughout the workplace, the campus, the economy, the world. Until then, the blathering class is right on one point: There is no such thing as a safe space.