Stuff your safe places

Stuff your safe places By Shirley Dent

4th June 20153Comments
safe places for women

Situation is this. I’m a woman in my mid-forties, recently divorced, smart, engaged with the world. I’m up for a few more adventures yet before I’m pushing up the daisies.

But here’s the thing. In the modern world I live in, I’m being warned off the risqué and the risky

And this is the even stranger thing. It’s not patriarchal men. Or religious convention. Or political conservatism saying to women “stay off the streets and hide yourselves away from the dangers of life.” It’s us. The sisters are doing it to themselves.

I’m a feminist. Equal pay for equal work. Free childcare. Combating violence against women. The best obstetrics for all women who bear children alongside free, safe and legal abortion. Coming of age in the late 80s and early 90s, you had one eye on the struggles feminists had won and one eye to what was still needed. And that meant confrontations. Not being safe.

But there’s a new feminism on the block, coming from a younger generation in the West. And this new feminism is not about fighting back. It’s about women retreating away from anything that might ruffle the gentle sobriety of our being. And in my view, that’s a step backwards for all women.

Women’s groups on UK campuses have campaigned for and secured areas on campus known as ‘safe spaces’. In theory why would any feminist object to a place where women have no fear of violence or harassment? Well, there’s quite a bit to object to, both in theory and practice. This isn’t as simple as saying these are no-go areas for unwanted groping and the sort – and as an aside when I was in my 20s and 30s we had a way of dealing with unwanted advances that didn’t involve worthy women’s groups delineating public space for us. This is about the correct sort of language and behaviour in public spaces. A comedian was picketed at one university because she supported a legal model that prosecuted punters rather than prostitutes and this was deemed ‘whorephobic’ and offensive to prostitutes – if you are confused by the twisted logic of this, you should be. In one of safe spaces’ most surreal moments the NUS women’s campaign banned clapping at its conference because this might trigger bad feelings in some members of the audience. Let’s step back and consider this for one minute. A women’s campaign that sets us back a few hundred years by propagating the idea of the hysterical, fragile female clutching smelling salts.

This isn’t about kicking back against unacceptable violence against women. It is a closing down of debate, contestation and just plain old banter because women are such sensitive petals they can’t handle people not agreeing with them or challenging them in a way that unsettles their world view. This is nonsense for any woman who takes pride in being an intellectual, political, switched-on being in the world.

It’s also a prissy-mouthed way of draining joy out of the unexpected and risky in life. Part of the pleasure for me of being a young woman – and now older woman – in cities like Liverpool and London was walking the streets and walking the line of where intellectual, social, physical adventure may be. And that was my choice as an adult. Nobody else’s.

I wasn’t the only one. I knew a group of female students a few years younger than me who studied at London Guildhall and lived on the Isle of Dogs. They had a whale of a time getting stuck in and meeting life-long friends in some of the dodgier dives of the East End before gentrification. They used to have each other’s backs on a night out. No safe spaces or duty women’s officer needed.

Interaction with others, with strangers, always has a spark of danger to it. But that, I would argue, is a risk we should hold onto in life. I’ve had good and bad experiences out there in the world with strangers. I have fond memories of one holiday in Crete when a group of us women headed out and none made it back to the hotel that night, the evening involving flaming bars, stag parties of priests, crutches, back alleys and motorbikes. I’ve always wished all involved well.

And I’ve had the bad, unwanted sexual attentions of strangers as well. Travelling on the Paris RER with an unfeasibly huge backpack as a student, I was felt up by a stranger. Badly. When one friend asked “Was it up North or down South?” I had to cringingly admit it was both. I think I was so shocked and surprised I developed a smiling rigor mortis in my face that only served as an opportunity to the sad sack.

And that’s the point. He was a sad, insignificant sack who I haven’t thought about in years (until writing this article actually). And although unpleasant, I wasn’t traumatised. I did not declare public transport unsafe – what a ridiculous keeling over to sad sackdom that would have been – but have gone about my business as a citizen in the intervening years. And I learnt from experience. Anybody who tried that now would find me reaching for their hand and lifting it into the air, while I declared to the packed tube “Whose hand is this? Could you kindly keep it to yourself until invited otherwise.” And if I saw a woman of any age looking uncomfortable on a crowded tube – or anywhere else – I would ask if they were okay.

Life is for living. In my forties, single, I have no issue with walking into any space I want to. I don’t want anyone to tell me what a safe space is. I’ve had lunch in small bar tabacs in France where I’ve been the only woman. I’ve dined by myself in posh restaurants because I wanted to. I’ve gone to launches, parties, political events by myself where people have furiously disagreed with me. And then I’ve walked back late at night from the tube alone. All of that is my choice and my risk. It’s called being an adult.


  1. Great! Thanks so much for this! The NUS “Clapping Scandal” drove me almost totally insane. What happened to all the hard-ass feminists from the 90’s? This is a major issue in feminism for me so thanks for bringing it up.

  2. I heard something on Women’s Hour today which made me think of your Paris Metro experience. French just done a survey and every woman polled out of 600, (yes that is 100%!) said they’d experienced some form of sexual harassment as a young women on the metro.

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