Safe Spaces and Secret Tents

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(James H.)–It’s been a bad night at the socials.

A hopelessly lost Hampshire transplant tumbles forward, spilling an entire mason jar of red wine onto a senior Hockey Player’s Timberlands (what ever will he wear to formal tomorrow?!). Nearby, A freshman sobs openly on the steps of Coolidge. Elsewhere, in the dim bowels of Stone, a group of MoHos spread a PVTA bus schedule across a commandeered pong table like a map of the Western Front, calculating one final strategic advance to the bus stop. A single delay more and they’ll be forced to survive off local fauna until morn.

And then there’s you, stuck in Schwemm’s purgatory. You stand anxiously waiting for your grilled cheese as you explain to the drunken young man beside you that no, you will not pay for his Bagelwich just because you attended the same Japanese calligraphy workshop earlier that day. Just footsteps away, a freshman orientation flame scowls openly at the back of your head and reports your Amherst Compliment as spam. Meanwhile, your friends sit quietly by the fireplace, muttering venomously about the Amherst social life. “mumble mumble mumble…if we were back in Brooklyn… mumble mumble mumble…when I was at Andover.”

These are the key ingredients for creating a “secret tent”, a temporary space where people frustrated with the Amherst social scene can forge meaningful connections through simple, direct honesty with one-another. For the next hour, rather than stumbling around campus searching for a half-decent party, you’ll sit with a few good friends in a dark room and talk openly and sincerely about whatever you want. Perhaps you’ll do all of this under a blanket (hence, the “tent”). Something like a drunken Baby-Sitters Club. This, for my money, is an ideal “safe space” on campus.

“Space” is one of those liberal arts buzzwords that gets tossed around a lot. Like “tension” or “binary” or “otherizing”. Personally, I’m pretty sick of “problematic”, which I know some people might deem problematic in itself. Or problematizing problematicism. Or forwarding an agenda concerned with the problematic problematization of problems.

But anyway – “space”. Specifically, I’m confused about the practice of using stickers to mark of “safe spaces” on campus. It’s not that I fail to see the merits of visually supporting marginalized social groups. As a member of the queer community, I’m heartened to see a “safe space” sticker on a professor’s door. It’s reassuring: we’re here, we’re queer, we don’t have to make up girlfriends to our Chemistry advisors.

But what exactly do we mean when we label something a “safe space”? Doing so hardly turns the room into a vacuum. Mandatory reporting of sexual assault – the requirement that an RC, Peer Advocate, professor, etc. must report anything even suggesting the possibility of sexual misconduct – remains equally as mandatory when the discussion takes places in a “safe space”. The same is true for reporting suicidal ideation. Plus, I hear people repeat gossip from “safe spaces” all the time. It’s not like there’s some enforcement system. No Dean O’Hara with an aluminum bat confronting you outside of Val.

So, a stickered “safe space” isn’t functionally a private space, and it isn’t legally a confidential space (unless your talking to a religious official, mental health professional, or medical doctor). Still, some people say that labeling places “safe spaces” is an important tool for emphasizing that they are open and understanding, but – to use a liberal arts key term – does this binarized view of physical space on campus do us any good? We can rest assured that the newly-renovated Women and Gender Center will support survivors of sexual assault, and the Rainbow Room will welcome LGBTQIA students with open arms, but we shouldn’t try that shit in Scwhemms because there isn’t a sticker? Sure, canceling the next batch of purple and white stickers is hardly going to revamp campus culture, but I’d be curious to hear why we keep using them.

So that’s one thing, but the more important question is, how do we actually create spaces on campus where people feel like they can dial down the Amherst over-achieving warp-drive and speak openly about their hopes and fears and wet dreams about their lab partners? I don’t have a concrete institutional answer, but if a true safe space is one in which Amherst students feel like they can let their emotional guard down, then something like a “secret tent” seems entirely reasonable to me.

Take any handful of your most put-together friends, and I can guarantee you that every one of them has something they’ve wanted to tell you for a while now but could never figure out when would be the right time.

They can never figure out the right time to tell you because a sticker doesn’t change the emotional tone of a physical space. And that’s what I think real safe spaces are: temporary emotional spaces that people have to explicitly establish. It’s cheesy, but it’s necessary. Acknowledging the barrier and then completely discarding it feels great.

And it’s not like this has to be some gut-wrenching, life-altering heart-to-heart. Sometimes people just want to share stupid, wildly inappropriate anecdotes that aren’t Val-friendly. One embarrassing story catalyzes another and suddenly everyone has laid bare their own personal middle school pants-peeing fiasco. Other times, people will reveal intense things that they really want you to know as their friend: They aren’t over their ex-girlfriend, even though they pretend to be. They are really scared to get tested at the health center, and they want someone to go with them. They’re a junior, but they still get really homesick. Also, spoiler alert: prepare to learn that everyone is a little queer. Seriously. (I’m looking at you, Lord Jeff). I recognize that a glorified version of truth-or-dare isn’t the ultimate solution to the need for honest dialogue on campus. It’s a lot better than a sticker on a door though.