April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, where college campuses busy themselves with t-shirt displays and panel discussions. Bathroom stalls and sidewalks will be covered with statistics about how one in four women is sexually assaulted during their college careers and how 10% of men are repeat offenders. These events and activities seek not only raise consciousness about rape culture, but also to urge us to reexamine what “safe space” means. That, in 9 out of 10 cases, the attacker is known to the survivor impels us to reconsider the places we deem safe, such as our dorm rooms, and the people we interact with, from our friends to intimate partners.
This reassessment of “safe space” seems all the more pressing in light of the recent bombings and shootings in Boston. In fact, I started writing this last Friday, as I heard the sirens frantically driving to and from Cambridge, trying to find the remaining suspect who shot an MIT police officer on Thursday night. I write this as I question, yet again, my own understanding of what “safe space” means.
Since the Boston Marathon bombings last Monday, there has been a range of reactions from the media. On one hand, I saw Facebook statuses simultaneously expressing disbelief and disillusionment that Boston is no longer the safe city they had always presumed it to be. There have also been furious demands to know who is responsible for such violence. On Tuesday, Senator Orrin G. Hatch said, “You’re dealing with evil people who are very hard to control.” Unsurprisingly, the said “evilness” of the bombings was quickly referred to as an act of “terrorism,” which brought about racial profiling and harassment of “Muslim-looking” brown bodies until the suspects’ identities were made public yesterday. These reactions parallel how discussions about sexual assault; attacks in Boston and sexual assault are both forms of violence that push us to reexamine the promise of safe space.
Whether driven by Islamophobia or sheer incredulity, these reactions are telling signs of how we conceptualize “safe space.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that, contrary to our conviction that tragedies like the Boston marathon bombings “only happen on the field of battle, or in distant countries … we are newly reminded that serious threats to our way of life remain.”
This is a misleading conclusion, because we are never exempt from violence. We have a notion of the personal spaces, be it our dorm room, our home or our city, as invincible and immune to violence. That if we do everything “right” — turn the lights off at night, close the windows, lock the doors, etc. — then we can protect ourselves.
The recent tragedies in Boston, however, show us the frailty of such reasoning. Violence does not discriminate its stage. The entire town of Boston was on a lockdown because of one man: We can do everything we can to protect ourselves, but when someone is in a position of power over us, what we can do hardly matters. Likewise, the prevalence of sexual assault and intimate partner abuse further challenges the myth of personal space as safe space, especially because these are forms of violence that capitalize on intimate spaces.
Another element of the initial reactions to the bombings is the assumption about the suspects. The underlying belief here is that it is simply impossible for “one of our own” to commit such an act of evil. We saw how this bias was manifest in the preoccupation with the race of the suspects as an attempt to categorize them as foreign, evil, and “not us”.
Herein lies what Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism,” our desire for something that is actually “an obstacle to our flourishing”. We desire to displace dangers and threats and violence far away from us and we tell ourselves that, if we keep to ourselves and do everything just right, then we will be alright. We distance it, as if danger is a wicked evil lurking in the distance, just out of our sights.
Yet safety is conditional and contingent: It depends on the people who constitute a particular space and how they commit to making it safer. The aftermath of the bombings showed that, despite the tragedies, Boston rose again as a safer space. When the runners ran the extra mile to give blood, natives opened their homes to visitors, and restaurant owners provided food for people, there was a collective understanding that we, as one city, will build a community. It may not be immune to violence, but it will be a bit safer than before.
Cruel optimism is also at work in how we conceptualize sexual assault. The second-wave feminist slogan of “rape happens” has problematized sexual violence, but the dominant narrative that distances violence away from us and obscures the attacker as a stranger in dark alleyway persists. Rape happens — too often, in our dorm rooms, in our homes, by the people we know. In rape culture, no space is free from victim-blaming mentality that condones and normalizes sexual violence. What we need is a safer space in which the people who constitute it commit to dismantling rape culture by recognizing how our own use of language may perpetuate sexism, being ready to listen, support, and believe when survivors speak up, and holding each other accountable. Building a safer space, then, is practicing solidarity.
I leave you with Sara Ahmed: “Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground.”