On the safe space debate

TW: triggers, safe space, ptsd, discussion of (discussion of) sexual offences


The other day, the safe space debate hit me. I tend to ignore things-on-the-internet, so for it to get to me usually means it’s a huge issue.


“I don’t believe in safe space, what do you think?”


Huh? This came from the person who saw me having an epic panic attack, complete with crying, panda eyes, and a  distinct lack of coordination, and let me sit in his room so I didn’t have to deal with people.

Turns out, the issue isn’t safe space as much as trigger warnings. I am (obviously) all for trigger warnings, and it seems, now that I’m paying attention, the main thing against them is ‘we shouldn’t let people opt out of their pain’.


Um, what? It seems to come from a fundamental misunderstanding. A trigger warning, content notice, warning, disclaimer, rating, whatever, is there as an advisory. It’s not always complete or perfect, but it serves the purpose of saying ‘hey, this might be a thing that makes things hard for you’. What it does not do is say how a person should act on it. If someone decides they’re not up to it today, that’s just as fine as someone saying ‘okay I’mma sit by the door in case I have a flashback and need to get out’ or someone saying ‘I’ll bring a friend and we can play noughts and crosses so all my attention isn’t on the thing’. It isn’t exclusive to survivors or victims – most people generally prefer to know in advance that, say, their criminal law class is going to be dealing with sexual offences and the content might be a bit more personal than the class on piracy.


Sticking a trigger warning on it is like sticking ‘violence’ on the cover of a DVD – it lets you know that if that’s a thing, you can prepare accordingly. Some people would see ‘violence’ on the cover and go online and get one of those sites that says more details, and decide from there. Some would skip it, because they’re in a romantic comedy mood. Some would be like ‘oh awesome I hope it’s really graphic’, in which case they might pass it up for something that says ‘graphic violence’ instead. But! That little box enables people to decide how informed they want to be and prepare accordingly. It doesn’t mean anyone who doesn’t like violence will never ever watch a movie that has ‘violence’ in the rating notes, because everyone knows that’s pretty general.


Kind of like, you know, not everyone respects ‘do not enter, radioactive waste inside’.


So what did I do? I explained safe space, and called it something else.

“I can get behind that,” he said.





In other news, today I was seeing the psychiatrist and the power went out. I made another appointment, because it was the fastest way out, but I felt like we were having two conversations – my side and his side. He seems to think everything will be fixed if I have a structured PTSD treatment plan. I pointed out that I have been making progress just fine, and I’m more concerned about how I have this thing where my brain only functions “normally” in high-stress, high-pain situations, and each time it takes longer to establish a not-stressed-less-pain standard. He thinks it’s a cycle. It’s not. It’s just a thing. My brain learned to cope in that environment and now I’m not in it it doesn’t work that way. I get in a similar standard of environment, and my brain goes back into survival mode.

And, of course, guess what? Today I did not get a referral to a pain specialist, and he’s going on leave again.


I never know what he’s going to laser in on and try to push and I can never steer the conversation to things I need to or am capable of talking about. The whole reason I went in today was to get that referral. It didn’t even come up.




The reason I bring that up in this post instead of a separate post is to highlight another reason trigger warnings can be useful – for people like me, who need extra time to process and respond to things, on top of or regardless of any related trauma, it enables that time to be spent in advance, so the actual face time can be spent on content and not processing. So if I knew the psychiatrist was going to pick today to go on about exposure therapy, again, only a few weeks after deciding that exposure therapy was not useful for me because the things that set me off are things I’m not meant to be used to (you know, being assaulted for wearing nice clothes…), I could have been prepared enough with enough statements on autopilot to not spend half the appointment tracing patterns on the desk while my brain was like ‘but I already did that, this part doesn’t sound like me, why doesn’t he remember we already talked about this’. Which is what happened, instead, as I carefully sat with one leg dangling straight off the chair to minimise the sitting-for-an-hour-excruciation.


Similarly, warning someone that the week’s lecture is going to deal heavily in sexual assault allows someone, regardless of whether they have been through it or not, to go through the reading and identify anything they might not want to talk about in front of a bunch of people they don’t know, prepare a thing they might be more comfortable talking about instead, prepare an exit strategy if it’s needed, and do lots of things to make that class more bearable and not a surprise let’s discuss a specific case in depth. Even if you do all the reading in advance and have a good lecture plan with notes handed out and well-structured tutorials, nothing but ‘this week we are discussing in detail this case, which deals with what acts constitute rape under the Act, and discussing more generally what kinds of things happen and how they are classed’ is going to signal to someone that they might be sitting in a room with 100 people, at least half of them of not-the-same-gender, most of whom they don’t know, perhaps even sitting next to a creepy person,  and finding out for the first time that oral sex doesn’t constitute rape in that jurisdiction through reading a judgment from some dead white dude who said it’s not really sex.

Or, you know, something.


(I’m using sexual assault as my example because when I did criminal law, we had three weeks of it, and even knowing in advance, having a bunch of flowers to look at at the front if the lecture was too tough what with, you know, pictures of injuries on the screen, and we were told the week before that if we were not comfortable we could skip the lectures without penalty as long as we handed in our tutorial assignments. I did see people leaving who were unwell, and I chose to skip the second two lectures because the first made me uncomfortable, and I spoke to the lecturer after and she decided that me speaking to her was an admission of being a victim and that was really the thing that crossed the line.)



Conclusion: warnings allow people to make decisions for themselves based on their best knowledge of themselves = good. No warnings = making decisions for people = bad.




In other news, when you’re so used to cooking without being able to see, and then the power goes out? You bet that cooking is easy. Except for the part where I had to uninstall the induction cooktop to get to the gas cooktop, and naturally, the gas cooktop is still, you know, broken. Who knew that practice doing life tasks with a migraine would be, you know, useful?

(And yes, thankfully, the power is back, so I don’t have to have blankets setting off touch pain just to keep warm. And I can use my heat pack! Yay! All these little things!)