The National Union of Students Women's Conference has asked its delegates to use 'jazz hands' in a tweet instead of clapping as it can trigger anxiety. Cue: several hundred thousand tweets mocking and denigrating feminists and women who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and general anxiety.
Earlier this week, I was asked to put a trigger warning on an article I published on a blogging network: A Room of Our Own. The request wasn't to include a trigger warning about domestic violence or self-harm, suicide, rape or the reality of male violence, but about regret over her abortion. Apparently, a feminist space that includes a very personal post by a woman who regrets her abortion - an abortion she was effectively forced into - isn't a 'safe space'. The violence this woman experienced did not require a trigger warning, but regretting an abortion did.
AROOO was never intended to be a 'safe space'. I regularly host articles on rape, domestic violence, murder, infant loss, post-partum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, racism, homophobia and all forms of violence against women and girls. Only those articles with graphic descriptions of violence are given a content note so that people can make an informed decision about reading.
It was also never intended to be a space where everyone agrees with everyone else. And, this is the problem with the current rhetoric around 'safe space'. 'Safe space' currently means a space in which no one disagrees with one another ever. There is no room for discussion or questioning.
We see campaigns to have women no-platformed for daring to criticise the sex industry as criticism might hurt the feelings of women who work in it. The feelings of the many women who have survived prostitution and want it abolished don't count in this rhetoric. Former prostituted women who talk openly about their experiences of rape and abuse are mocked, insulted and harassed by supporters of the sex industry. Where is the safe space for women to talk about their negative experiences? Why aren't they entitled to the same right to a safe space?
There are attempts to prevent university student unions from saying anything critical about the sex industry because it makes it an "unsafe space" for students working in it without any consideration for the students who don't want to work in prostitution or lap dancing clubs. The motions put forward by some student unions would effectively bar their officers from supporting a woman leaving prostitution, or even mentioning exit programs, because it wouldn't be a 'safe space'.
How does this rhetoric make universities safe for female students?
The answer is pretty clear: it doesn't and it isn't intended to.
Young women on campus experience high levels of sexual harassment and violence, but it is now individuals who criticise the sex industry that are blamed for making them 'unsafe'. It isn't the fault of the rapists on campus or the university management who collude with rapists, but feminists criticising pole dancing as 'empowerment' for women (and until I see someone suggest that members of the UN take up pole dancing to empower themselves, I'm going to keep believing it is nothing more than a misogynistic attempt to limit women's choices through performative constructions of their sexuality).
This idea that universities must become 'safe spaces' free of dissent or discussion is infantilising an entire generation of students. Staff put content notes on lectures, but you cannot study history without learning about genocide, mass rape and religious wars. There is no literature, in any language, which is free from racism, homophobia, classism, and misogyny. Science is not free from these structures. You can put a content note on a lecture that discusses Sapphire's Push, but that note isn't about supporting the students who are living with child sexual abuse. It's a clause that allows students to refuse to engage with material that they might find challenging. How many times have lecturers heard students refuse to read about the Holocaust because the thought of it upsets them? And, those who want learn about the V2 rockets because machines are cool and not the thousands of slave-labourers who died building them because it made them sad?
We absolutely do need to make universities safer for female students - not by preventing discussions on difficult topics but by actually tackling rape culture on campus appropriately. Today's tweet from the National Union of Students Women's Group asking the audience at their event to stop clapping as it "triggers anxiety" demonstrates the failure of universities and students unions to understand the difference between a space free from male violence and a space free from anxiety. After all, the conference itself has motions on sexual violence and racism. Surely these constitute potential triggers?
We do need to be aware that the use of 'jazz hands' isn't new. It's common in British sign language and is used with people who have auditory sensitivities. It is a way of managing specific situations where clapping would not be appropriate. Asking for awareness of anxiety and trauma is important, but we need to examine why the focus is on loud sounds and not what causes the trauma in the first place.
NUS Women's Group tweet requesting delegates not clap demonstrates the fundamental problem with rhetoric around 'safe spaces', just as does the request for a trigger warning on an article about women's abortion regret. We cannot stop every single thing that might potentially trigger a student - we can help them access appropriate support and help them find ways to manage their anxiety, but we can't pretend away the very things that caused their anxiety or PTSD in the first place.
Unfortunately, this is the reality of discussions around safe spaces and triggers warnings now - it's all about the performance and not actually about making spaces free from rape and other forms of male violence.