Reading Commentary: Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot
Making Spaces Safer: A Guide to Giving Harassment the Boot Wherever You Work, Play, and Gather is a new book written by Shawna Potter. Shawna is the lead singer of hardcore feminist punk band War on Women as well as an activist, educator, and writer. Making Spaces Safer is divided into 6 chapters: Obvious Intentions, Appropriate Responses, Accountability, How to Flirt Without Being a Creep, What to Do If You’re Being Harassed, and This is What Justice Looks Like. Potter covers all of these topics from her experiences as an anti-harassment activist and punk musician. She has also offered Safer Space Workshops for several years and wrote a short “handguide” version of Making Spaces Safer prior to writing this book.
Potter explains that using the term “safer space” rather than “safe space” acknowledges that no one can control any environment all of the time. We cannot control other people’s actions and behaviors. But what we can do, as the people with a stake in these spaces, is make them safer by intentionally reducing trauma and harm. The book serves as a guide to anti- harassment organizing whether you experience harassment, witness harassment, or run a space where harassment occurs, which, is most spaces. Shawna’s background in music gives her a unique perspective of existing in male-dominated spaces. The riot grrrl movement addressed how unsafe DIY spaces have always been for women. Kathleen Hanna’s infamous slogan “Girls to the Front” exemplified that harm caused in those spaces will only improve with recognition of the problem and intentional solutions.
One of the endorsements for the book, written by Spencer Ackerman of The Daily Beast, says “Punk made a promise of a freer, fairer, and saner world, but never fulfilled it.” But DIY is not the only three letter acronym starting with a D that has a problem with harassment. If we let our socialist spaces, such as DSA, fail to provide freedom, fairness, and safety to marginalized folks, we fail to create a brighter future. Our process for filing a grievance is arduous and places the majority of the onus on the victim(s) to prove that we have been harmed, whilst the abuser goes on continuing to cause harm. Due to how stressful of a process this can be, it is common, in my experience, to choose to stop going to meetings rather than expend undue energy on begging people to believe you and be on your side. How can we feel hopeful about building a new world with each other when we cannot even keep systemic oppression and hierarchies out of our organizing spaces?
It should not come as a surprise that the system in place is not good; as leftists we understand that following whatever system or process already exists is often not the best tactic. Potter writes, “Appropriate responses to harassment must be victim- centered. That means we must prioritize the desires, safety, and well-being of the person suffering harassment in every aspect of our response.” But this is not how many grievance processes operate. It is unlikely that anything will come of the report without a “smoking gun” of evidence. But the reality is that in many cases there is no “smoking gun;” it is a continued and intentional wearing down of the victim. Meanwhile, the harassers know that it is unlikely they will face consequences. They know they can continue the same harmful behaviors while they go on into positions of power, whether that be in the organization, or even on the supreme court. This entire process is extremely stressful to the victim. The initial harassment is already very stressful and then there is the added stress of needing to prove that it happened.
One of the more important things Shawna talks about in the book is supporting the victim with validation and belief. It does not feel like people are believing the victim when there are
so many hoops to jump through when filing a grievance. The most important step, especially for bystanders, is supporting the victim. This means checking in with them after harassment occurs, letting them vent about it without trying to “problem solve” right away, not asking questions such as “that REALLY happened?!” which while it may be well intended can feel like gaslighting. It is important not to make the victim feel like they are being investigated, but rather that they are believed and cared about.
We need to build a network for support that keeps harassers out instead of their victims. When chapters, members, leaders, and other bystanders choose to be silent or noncommittal in
a situation of harassment, they are choosing the side of the harasser. They are choosing to keep the abuser unaccountable while making the victim feel unwelcome and unsupported. It is a choice to protect the comfort of the harasser, while the victim has been made incredibly uncomfortable throughout the entire process. As leftists, we should understand that choosing to remain neutral is choosing the side of the oppressor.
When we had Shawna Potter on my podcast, Season of the Bitch, to talk about her book, she asked about our personal tactics for handling harassment. In response to my saying that
I often do not know how to deal with my own situations of harassment and then get too overwhelmed to do anything, she said, “I guarantee if they are making you uncomfortable, they are making other people uncomfortable too.” That does not mean it is my, or anyone else’s, responsibility to be the one who “handles” it for the sake of everyone else. But it means that we never have to be alone in handling it. Potter explained there
is no perfect answer or advice she could give, as there is no glaringly obvious perfect thing to do. But we have the control to come up with solutions tailored to each individual experience and give them a try.
The final chapter of the book is called “This is What Justice Looks Like.” As Potter explained, justice looks like a community of people taking part, making it clear that this behavior will not be tolerated. It is hard work, and it is often unpleasant, but caring about other people and what they are going through is the foundation of being leftists. Justice does not rely on state or federal sponsored authority figures. It does not rely on the carceral state. It does not rely on arduous processes created by the oppressors to deter the victims from speaking out. Dealing with harassment is not a distraction or deterrence from the revolution, it is an essential piece of the revolution.
“To some, sexuality may seem to be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine, or nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at times such as these, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously crazy about sexuality.”
- Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” (1984)