What is a safe space?

Last month, a lot of discussion was prompted by a statement by the dean of University of Chicago opposing censorship, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. I’ve already briefly argued that the inclusion of trigger warnings is completely off-base. The inclusion of safe spaces is harder to judge. “Safe space” means a lot of things to different people, and I just have no idea what the dean thought he was criticizing.

Safe spaces under different names

In my personal experience, “safe space” is most frequently used as a description of queer student group meetings or conferences. Basically, we intentionally build an environment where people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. This means starting meetings with an explicit agreement of confidentiality, as well as other agreements designed to head off conflict. Often these agreements have cutesy names, like “Step up, step back”, “One mic, one diva”, “Use ‘I’ statements”, “Don’t yuck my yum”, and “Ouch, oops, educate”, although I think the names might be regional.

I have mixed feelings about the explicit agreements, because they take up time and seem unnecessary. In my experience, atheist student groups also set up safe spaces, but they never call it by that name, nor are there any explicit agreements. Atheist groups also intentionally build an environment where people feel more comfortable being openly critical of religion. Many atheist students act very confident, as if they don’t need a safe space to speak their minds, but when you get to know them better you realize that some of the same students keep it very quiet around their families.

Now take a look at this quote:

[…] as a professor of religious studies, I know firsthand how debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces can have a chilling effect on classroom discussions. It’s not my free speech I’m worried about; professors generally feel confident presenting difficult or controversial material […] Students, on the other hand, do not have that assurance.

This comes from an article criticizing safe spaces and trigger warnings, on the grounds that they make students feel less comfortable participating in discussion in religious studies classes. Gee, how do you make students feel more comfortable expressing deeply personal views? You build a safe space for it! –although you don’t need to call it that. When I took a course on history of religion, we spent some time during the first lecture and discussion establishing such a space.

The author argues that “safe space” is usually associated with liberal values, and that the very phrase is destructive to the particular kind of safe space he needs (which he refuses to call a safe space). That’s fair enough, but *I* have no reason to avoid calling it what it is. A religious studies classroom is clearly a safe space, following the same principles as a queer student group.

I hope it is obvious at this point that there are multiple kinds of safe spaces, many of which are mutually exclusive with each other. An LGBT safe space is very different from a religious studies safe space. Corollary: it is unreasonable to expect all spaces to be safe–at most, a space can be safe for some things and not others.

Safe spaces, watered down

So far, I’ve defined safe spaces by drawing upon my own experience. But I realize that most people did not participate in the same kinds of student groups. So what does “safe space” mean to other people?

After some searching, one alternate meaning became apparent. Have you ever seen one of those stickers saying, “This is a safe space”? These stickers are used to say that the place is LGBT-friendly, or something.

To be honest, I don’t really know what these “safe spaces” mean. In the best case, it means someone attended some sort of allies workshop.  For example, see this Safe Space program ironically located at the University of Chicago.  In the worst case, someone just got the sticker to politically express themselves.  I guess that means you could hold hands with a same-gender partner without getting beaten up?

This strikes me as an extremely watered down version of a real safe space. Compared to queer student groups, those stickers don’t remotely encourage me to be open with my personal experiences. These stickers might be useful in contexts that are overtly hostile (e.g. high schools, more conservative regions, earlier decades), but otherwise they seem useless.

If this is the kind of safe space under discussion, I have little interest in defending it.  Ally training is fine, but anyone can declare their office/restaurant/community to be a safe space at no cost, and it means nothing.  Corollary: when the dean of UofC criticizes these safe spaces, it also means nothing.  Case in point, the same dean who wrote a letter against safe spaces is a part of the aforementioned Safe Space program.

I invite readers to share other examples of safe spaces.


  1. A. Noyd says

    The dean mentioned “intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” but if anything best fits that definition at a college, it would be most fraternities. Of course, those typically benefit straight white men, so the dean’s certainly not going to disallow them.

  2. Queenie says

    I’ve been a couple of spaces that explicitly put together guidelines before we started–one was a caucus for mixed race queer folks and the other was a workshop on power and privilege in the classroom. For the power and privilege workshop, the organizers also explicitly said at the beginning that this would be a safe space but not a comfortable one, and I think that’s a really important distinction that a lot of the panic about safe spaces seems to miss. Safe spaces are supposed to create a space where you can express your ideas, not stop people from expressing ideas that will make you uncomfortable.

  3. John Morales says

    Damion, you’re rather obtuse. That’s an example of intended mockery of the concept, not activism towards it.

    (You know, like your cohorts)

  4. says

    Presuming the accuracy of the news source, I do not think that the Islamic students were insincere in their use of “safe space”. However, it is clear that they assign “safe space” a different meaning than I do, and in my opinion their usage is simply incorrect. Safe spaces are things you construct for yourself, not a thing you demand from spaces that other people have constructed for other purposes.

    Of course, the usage of “safe space” by the Islamic students in a protest is far more likely to attract media attention than the usage of “safe space” to describe spaces for confidential personal discussion.

    The Goldsmith Feminist Society does not even use the phrase “safe space”, so it’s hard to see how it is relevant. They only seem to be saying that they are moderating their facebook discussion, which sounds thoroughly unobjectionable.

  5. Vivec says

    See, the only safe spaces I can think of in my campus were like, classes on “heavy” subjects where students had to know they won’t be judged to actually engage in discussion of race and sexuality.

    Well, that and the meetings in our local LGBT center, but that’s less a ‘safe space’ and moreso the usual sort of “don’t be an asshole in my clubhouse or you don’t get to come back” rule. Sure, challenging your beliefs is nice and all, but sometimes I want to hang out with some NB peeps without having to be told that I’m a special snowflake.

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