Safety vs Comfort: A conflation that furthers oppression

Shiv has a new post up that should be read by anyone unfamiliar with the dynamics of nominally-feminist trans dismissal. I’m happy to let the points that Shiv makes stand on their own: they are well made and well supported.

However, there are a couple of points not made that I think are timely, and though they further support Shiv’s thesis they do not suffer from being made separately.

In this post, I’ll take on a tendency on the part of all of us to confuse safety and comfort, and to confuse feelings of safety with actual safety. Although this comes up repeatedly in trans inclusion “debates” the error is not limited to anti-trans theocrats or trans-exclusive feminists or even the combination of the two.*1 In Shiv’s post “Who needs enemies…” we encounter the writing of a feminist who seems on the edge of making this error overtly more than once.

That feminist, Olivia Broustra, also makes related errors confusing feelings with external facts. It’s not necessary to look far for examples, Broustra’s post under discussion begins:

Silenced by men first and now trans women. Will women ever not feel silenced?

Feeling silenced is, in fact, different from being silenced. Dog knows that there are plenty of MRAs who drone on for thousands of words about being personally silenced*2 and that there is significant overlap between that group and the group of abusive jerks that engage in actual anti-feminist silencing campaigns that target women who speak out for threats and other forms of harassment. This sloppy elision at the beginning of Broustra’s piece is not auspicious.

But as for the conflation I first criticized, it’s important to note that Broustra never makes it explicit. Rather, the post merely juxtaposes situations where safety is actually threatened with situations in which Broustra has been criticized as transphobic:

I am angry that as a woman who has constantly had to be careful of my language and behavior around men to ensure my own safety, I am now being forced to police my language even more, around and for trans women who had entirely different experiences and anatomy.

The way we behave is conditioned from early on to ensure we never escalate situations with men, always carry weapon or text friend to ensure safety, always fear rape more than murder and know that when it does happen, we will not be heard and he will never see a jail.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that trans people and/or advocates have, in fact, done Broustra wrong:

I asked why when women have faced systematic violence at the hands of men and 1 in six women is raped, is it wrong for cis women to have some spaces just for them to feel safe in a world where they don’t? And I was immediately threatened, labeled as transphobic, and left to feel as if my voice was nothing.

When I first attempted to ask in conversations and online, why there is not space for cis women to express their needs in this conversation, I was met with slurs, threats, and even a death threat.

“Choke on my female cock, terf” I received this from multiple individuals on an online forum.

While threats are never acceptable and neither is metaphorical but threatening language such as that quoted by Broustra, the juxtaposition of threats with being “labeled as transphobic” is not an accident. Criticism, even criticism that makes one uncomfortable, is not a threat to safety, but Broustra has little use for distinguishing safety from comfort. When discussing trans persons, actual threats to safety are repeatedly treated as one and the same with actions, events, or statements that are merely uncomfortable for many to hear (both in Broustra’s writing and more generally).

Let me make clear that I do not hold those overtly anti-trans to be necessarily as hateful as those who are overtly racist.*3 The reason that I make this distinction is because ignorance about trans lives is more common and sources of good information about trans lives is less common than is ignorance about people of color or good quality sources of information about race, racialization, and racism. Therefor it is simply more statistically likely that someone reinforcing trans oppression is educable, is not committed to hatred and/or contempt. The oppressive actions and statements of committed anti-trans activists exhibit as much evil as those of committed racists. I’m merely acknowledging that a smaller percentage of people spouting anti-trans talking points are, in fact, committed to them (as opposed to being aware of anti-trans thought but ignorant of trans lives and trans thought).

Broustra’s writing is all-too-typical of those who simply do not understand Confluence Theory and who understand too little of Intersectionality. I want Broustra to be safe. I want Broustra to navigate her life and her conversations without being subject to threats. But I also want Broustra to be able to make the distinction between safety and comfort in a way this particular post failed to do. Without that distinction, there are too many real world problems we can never effectively solve.

Take the title of Broustra’s post: “I am a Woman. You are a Trans Woman. And That Distinction Matters.”

Remember that first line: “Silenced by men first and now trans women. Will women ever not feel silenced?” This introduction makes no sense if trans women are, in fact, women. While Broustra uses the langauge “trans women” preferred by many, for Broustra this is a non-overlapping category with “women”. Unfortuantely, Broustra does not appear to even notice how this normalizing of many and othering of a few serves the purpose of entrenching trans oppression. While Broustra articulates support for personal choice in pronouns and for trans-related medical care, these pro-trans statements are undercut by such explicit marginalization.

Imagine for a moment that Broustra is white*4 and wrote a piece largely similar in content but focussed on criticism of anti-racist movements for the presence of some threatening and/or hostile people of color within them. It could be titled, “I am a Woman. You are a Black Woman. And that Distinction Matters.” One need not take flights of fancy to do so: all one really need do is imagine Broustra’s name attached to one of the many, many similar essays decrying how anti-racism makes white people afraid to speak up and how, if only people of color would be less angry/ less hostile/ less aggressive/ less scary, interracial dialog could happen … but that currently white folk just feel too silenced for dialog to happen.

In fact, one particular passage of Broustra’s feels so eerily similar to racist feminism that the parallels are almost impossible to miss:

Trans women who have never had or known what it is to have a uterus, invading infertility forums, ignoring entirely how different that struggle is for someone who was born with a uterus that is nonfunctioning. A basic struggle for these women is around not being woman enough despite having all the parts and when a trans woman enters that space, cis women often feel invalidated, offended, and angry.

Note that while in other parts of the essay she mentions threats she has received, in this paragraph she is documenting not bad behavior by trans people, but pure transphobia. Broustra asserts that cis women feel “invalidated, offended, and angry” at the merest presence of a trans person. Cis-women on infertility discussion forums don’t articulate this invalidation, offense, and anger however, because:

they fear expressing this because the moment you try, you are spewed insults.

Again, trans people must be held to the same standards as others, and threats are not acceptable. However, if one person expresses, “I’m angry you exist in my presence merely because you are trans and therefor different,” is that not an insult? And with what “insults” are trans people replying? It seems that Broustra’s essay makes no distinction between a criticism and an insult when it comes to the use of “transphobia” or “transphobic”. If the insult of which non-trans women are afraid is, “You are acting out trans oppression,” then the problem isn’t insult-hurling trans advocates. The problem is privileged defensiveness. But the essay makes no attempt to provide useful examples that might inform us of actual bad behavior by trans people or trans advocates on these forums. Trans presence is bad. Discussion of trans presence is avoided because of fear of … something. Is that something common? Is it even wrong? What about trans people who do not identify themselves as trans for fear that others will express anger at your mere existence? How can the essay quantify the insult-risk to non-trans women when on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog?

This paragraph’s contribution to Broustra’s argument relies on the conflation between comfort and safety that pervades the subsurface of Broustra’s writing. It relies on the idea that mere presence of trans women is a wrong to cis women, and that the wrong can be quantified – or at least judged – by the feelings cis women experience at the visible existence of trans people.

Let me be clear: I have said in the past that all rape victims deserve a space where they can speak about their experiences and be supported through whatever healing or recovery they might require or desire. I have said that we don’t grant this (or shouldn’t, anyway) on the basis of being a “good enough” rape survivor, and that if a white supremacist is raped, she deserves this type of space as much as any other person. But that doesn’t mean that there is some sort of violation when women of color show up to a general women’s rape survivor group. There is a feeling that white women’s experience is the “default” or “universal” woman’s experience, but that doesn’t make it so. If you advertise a support group for white women and women of color show up, fine. They did fail to respect the exclusive nature of the invitation. But the presence of women of color doesn’t make a space less about women or less about sexism or less about feminism. Neither does the presence of trans women make a women’s space less about women or sexism or feminism.

If you want a space for survivors of ovarian cancer, go ahead and build one. If you want a space for women survivors of ovarian cancer, go ahead and build one. If you want a space for white women survivors of ovarian cancer who mourn their in ability to secure the existence of white people and a future for white children, go ahead and build one. You are even free to complain when your racist group is criticized for its racism, though that isn’t likely to get the rest of us to stop criticizing your white supremacy.

But if you build that first group and survivors of color or transmasculine survivors drop in, your feelings of fear and anger aren’t the fault of people who don’t see your groups invitations through your own, privileged lenses.


*1: For one example with ongoing political relevance for a largely-US/-UK/ -Canada/ -Australia/ & -NZ based audience, see arguments over the relevance, meaning,  and acceptability of police presence in Aboriginal spaces, on Reservation land, in neighborhoods of color, in mosques, at political protests/demonstrations, and in activist/organizing meetings (typically this last discussion is around undercover officers, but there are cases of lefty officers wanting to join groups for change that have triggered similar discussions).

*2: Not merely activists who speak out about a tendency of MRAs to be silenced that they themselves have overcome, which would at least be logically consistent, even if not necessarily well-evidenced.

*3: Note that they are just as wrong, whether or not they are equally likely to be motivated by overt hatred or overt contempt.

*4: I have no idea of Broustra’s race or history with racism & racialization.



  1. Siobhan says

    While threats are never acceptable and neither is metaphorical but threatening language such as that quoted by Broustra, the juxtaposition of threats with being “labeled as transphobic” is not an accident.

    Boop. An excellent addition to the conversation.


    In fact, one particular passage of Broustra’s feels so eerily similar to racist feminism that the parallels are almost impossible to miss:

    And yet, the article was nonetheless widely circulated on my feminist outlets! Typically without criticism. Clearly the anti-black parallels are being missed, though I gather black womanists have frequently perceived TERFs as racist for that reason.

    I think I’ll do a much broader historical analysis soon of all the tired arguments various defenders of kyriarchy have produced in the past 150 years. None of it is really new.

  2. polishsalami says

    CN: hypothetical sexually inappropriate behaviour

    I would say that comfort is a more general feeling, while safety is more subjective.

    For instance, if I sat down next to an elderly man on public transport, and he immediately started telling me about his inability to get an erection, I would describe the experience as “uncomfortable” — as would the vast majority of people, I’d say. Yet I don’t think I would say felt “unsafe”.

    This is where different life experiences come into play. Women, I guess, would be more likely to say they felt unsafe; but there are many variables in this hypothetical situation.

    Also, an accusation of being made to feel unsafe is much more serious than making someone uncomfortable, from a legal point of view. People should be very careful making these statements.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Broustra’s conflation confusion of “safety” and “comfort” also plays directly into the anti-feminist stereotype of women reacting emotionally instead of rationally.

    Back in the real world, we fortunately have lots of women (both trans- & cis-) who rationally point out the panicked emotionalism of MRAs, but for some reason never register with some people.

  4. nathanaelnerode says

    Great distinction.

    In public spaces nobody has the right to feel comfortable. Everyone has the right to feel safe.

    So, if someone reasonably believes that they are likely to get assaulted (attacked or threatened with physical attack), beaten (physically attacked), harassed (the old definition: someone who won’t stop bothering someone when asked to stop), or have their life, health, family or career threatened, that’s unacceptable: it’s a threat to safety.

    By contrast, being the recipient of challenging, disagreeing, or even bigoted, offensive, stupid, or condescending remarks simply makes people feel *uncomfortable*, as long as there are no implied threats.

    Often, making people feel uncomfortable is a mean thing done by bigoted people; if they’re told to cut it out or leave, and they cut it out, great; if they leave, then, well, OK; and if they don’t, then they’re harassing; and if the people making others feel uncomfortable control the space, the correct response of the others is a boycott of that space, and the controllers have no right to complain about such a boycott. (If the space can’t reasonably be boycotted, as with the government, then of course it’s change-the-government time.)

    But often, making people feel uncomfortable is necessary to wake them up and consciousness-raise, and to break destructive patterns of groupthink. Making people feel uncomfortable is *important*.

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