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revised/updated: Beyond Safer Spaces to FREE SPACE (for Women)

November 11, 2011

I’ve just read a new piece on Persephone Magazine, called “How about We Occupy a Rape Culture.”

The piece is valuable as a compendium of (reported/publicized) cases of men’s assault on women but I was particularly intrigued by mention of an accountability process being implemented by the women at Occupy Wall Street:

The current method of confronting violence. . . . is to identify and isolate the perpetrator/assaulted, call the Mediation/Security folks and talk to them individually. In cases of sexual assault, the survivor would be asked whether they’d like to go to the hospital, call the police, and/or (as these are not mutually exclusive) go forward with an accountability process.

This is the best news I’ve heard so far—even more powerful than the safer-spaces forf women-and-GLBT folks  safe sleeping area. Don’t get me wrong: I’d sleep there in a nano-second if I was physically able to camp on the street at this point in my life.  However, why not re-name “safer spaces” in bolder, imagination-inciting words like Free Space for Women?  Freedom is a precondition of safety, and freedom is what we’re really after right? It certainly seems the right word for what OWS is already creating with its methods of direct democracy and transformation of everyday life. Freedom for women is our ability to determine the conditions of our own participation in movements, and our own demands for the transformation of everyday life–this living of freedom in the here and now is of course a rich resource for cultivating a radical political movement.

The very fact that women are organizing groups like safer spaces shows that women are beginning to invent our freedom–but also shrinking a bit back from it at the same time. I fear that these “safety” zones, rather than gloriously and joyously as well as necessarily angrily manifesting the Freedom of OWS– remain patrolled by invisible electric fences of ideological barriers we dare not cross lest we be taser-zapped by the invisible cops of patriarchy: men in the street, bed or head. In the head means piped in through media-outlets, pornography and everyday discourse among peers. The inner Reality-show-male emcees  warn women that we will no longer be desirable to men if we go too far, or that if we go too far, we might earn the name “feminist” or ‘bad feminist; meaning , among other things, hairy, dyke, castrating feminist.”  While you might not agree with Valerie Solanas in the S.C.U.M Manifesto, she makes some good points one of which is to call out to “thrill seeking females” to stand up to male dominance and men. Surely women of occupy are already thrill-seeking females in their daring to throw themselves into history by organizing this new movement from day 1.

So to women who live at Occupy and/or attend so many meetings: I am inspired by you as you take the step of shifting from targeting “victim blaming” which is abstract and isolates what is actually an effect of the root cause, namely rapists and rape culture to focusing on the perpetrator with an accountability process.  It’s powerful because such a process has the potential of deterrence since no perpetrator wants to be confronted with what they have done but mostly of politicizing the community—in particular the women organizing this—since it is through practice that new ideas and more radical practices have the potential to evolve. When I say more radical, I mean that I encourage the women organizing safer spaces to work at connecting the problem of sexual assault to the larger political picture associated with Wall Street.  In confronting Wall Street, we are confronting Capitalism, a world system based on exploitation. By this I mean that elite classes—a broader swathe than the 1 per cent—is affluent because it lives off the surplus value (profit) extracted by capitalists from low paid workers.  Capitalism is also organized around male power and intersects with the world order of patriarchy based on men’s exploitation of women. Sexual harassment and rape of women must be seen as sexual exploitation, a systemic means for men (a conservative estimate is that 90 per cent of perpetrators of sexual exploitation including the rape and sexual assaults of GLBT folks are men) to use female bodies for male “profit” in the form of surplus-pleasure, controlling interests in sexual relations between men and women.  Rape is one violent form in which sexual servicing is demanded for male needs. The sex industry makes this already systemic power relation even more entrenched as a system in capitalism—and the race basis of much of this sexual exploitation is very important here. From the infamous and infamously banal but banally vicious Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street video to the Facebook Page Occupy Vagina to the less extreme but also pernicious tactics with which white men are resisting women’s efforts to organize ourselves: You are divisive; you are distracting from the real issues; you need to stick to one message, etc. The sentiments of male resentment and sometimes rancor are already revealing themselves and thus providing a true object lesson that should further incite women to not only organize but work to name the problem of patriarchy and of men’s sexual exploitation of women that is at the root of the harassment issue–and talk about how this issue connects to other issues of exploitation both sexual and economic and race based or all of the above.

I am also cheered by the goals of women organizers to implement a social contract at the General Assembly that includes stating the conditions under which people will be allowed to stay at Zucotti Park:

In the meantime we’ve been drafting a community agreement, a document that states the conditions under which people are allowed to stay in the park. This has been reviewed at the GA and is still a work in progress. It’s also controversial, as some complain that we’re basically policing the space (except, you know, we don’t have weapons or structural leverage). But it’s called a community agreement because, as people bring it to the GA for amendments, it is a public document developed by the community.

Of course it’s “policing” for women to hold men accountable for abandoning their god-given (they think) and natural normal red-blooded American male rights to demand that women remain physically and/or sexually available to them. Notice that this kind of verbiage is awfully reminiscent of Fox News talk about sexual harassment and unfortunately often echoed by male Lefties in their various venues of speech and action.  Let’s not be scared off by this tactic either!

So I join with the writer of the linked article: Yes, Occupy Rape Culture!  And I urge all to attend the General Assembly (and I will supply date here once I get it) when the community at OWS will debate about implementing the above social agreement.  Courage, Sisters! Keep on stirring it up! There are many of us who have your backs!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2011 1:08 pm

    “From the infamous and infamously banal but banally vicious Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street video to the Facebook Page Occupy Vagina to the less extreme but also pernicious tactics with which white men are resisting women’s efforts to organize ourselves:

    You are divisive; you are distracting from the real issues; you need to stick to one message, etc.

    The sentiments of male resentment and sometimes rancor are already revealing themselves and thus providing a true object lesson that should further incite women”

    At Occupy Carbondale, I recently put out 2 missives addressed to the womyn but posted for all to see. I invited womyn to form a Womyn’s Occupy with me, pointed out the male dominated nature of our group in numbers as well as terms of discourse and topics of conversation. I had already voiced these concerns to the GA and individual womyn/men along the way–meeting with spoken agreement that ‘white male privilege’ is a real Occupy concern we should jointly work on–but we don’t. I voiced that Occupy Carbondale is not reaching womyn–and this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Does anyone think the world can be made more just and equitable for ALL, by leaving out womyn and our children? I proposed that the womyn of O.C. might form our own group (see fb page “womyn occupy southern IL”), where some womyn might want to exclusively work, and some might want to participate in as just one part of their O.C. work.

    I noted to the men that they were welcome to ask questions about this, to better understand it. I also told them that their critique of the idea was not relevant and they should even be cautious about voicing support because womyn do not need men’s permission. I asked the womyn to honor the spirit of my proposal to them by remembering that we do not need men’s permission or support to do what feels right to us–but said I did not suggest who they speak or listen to in discussing it.

    I posted my name and ph number. I was able to speak in person with a few womyn who liked the idea and wanted to discuss it further (when convenient…we few womyn of OC all have work/school/kids and are not fulltime Occupiers). Only one man of the OC group spoke to me about it (and he really liked the idea), even though I have made sure to be present at the site at various times, available for Qs or discussion. No other men broached the topic (and I left it up to them) and none called me either–however….

    Next thing I know, I am approached by a man at the Occupy site: he says a group of occupiers had a big discussion about this last night……’we think that it would best for the movement if your womyn’s group was a committee of O.C. (don’t want distraction from the issues, don’t want you to be divisive….etc…yeah, he said exactly what you said, quoted above.)

    Says I, biting back a more severe response: so, you propose that in a group already dominated by men, the womyn should agree that a womyn’s occupy needs to be a subset of your group. That a womyn’s lodge should agree to be under domination by the men–? If a discussion of this happened, how come no one called to invite me to it, it’s precisely why I posted my phone number all over the place?

    Since he was listening it seemed, I pointed out (again) that OC is not reaching womyn, and that a womyn’s occupy might reach more womyn. I told him that some radical womyn will not work with men, whether due to abuse by men or disgust with patriarchy and a firm will to create a new world–beginning with womyn re-naming and re-claiming ourselves and creating a new vision of life to offer the world, undistracted by male forms of discourse and male topics of interest.

    I reiterated–remaining friendly about it– that this is womyn’s business and needs to be decided only by the womyn….all you guys hanging out last night, it seems maybe you thought we womyn were not capable of figuring out the issues we care about and where our own hearts are, with respect to a womyn’s occupy, all by ourselves?

    No no no, it’s not like that! Quoth he. You weren’t there, you are being presumptuous.

    And so on.

    Thanks for your post. To sum it up, I hear you and it’s hard to say how glad I am that I’m not the only one noticing!

  2. SheilaG permalink
    November 12, 2011 10:33 pm

    It’s still the totalizing state of tokenism, that is all about the male, the male in the streets, the streets named after males… it’s the same male left circa 1966, it’s the same male left circa 2011.

    It is a male dominated movment, with males hogging the public assemblies. It is not a movement of the 51% which is women, who are the most exploited in the global system known not as Wall Street, but patriarchy. And it is white male anger at not getting the Wall Street jobs they are entitled to that also drives a lot of this.

    So if we really want to see Wall Street Occupied, we need to have women speak and men listen, and that means at all the assemblies. And we need huge women’s encampments like Greenham Common. It is in women only space, and huge women only encampments that true power is created to serve women.

    • Diotima permalink
      November 13, 2011 4:31 am

      Hi Sheila

      I think you hit the nail on the head. For many involved Occupy is not about changing society, it is about being angry that they are not in the top jobs.

  3. Diotima permalink
    November 13, 2011 3:33 am


    I don’t think “free spaces for women” is helpful. In fact, on the one hand that makes it sound as if we want segregation (a place for women, as we should not be with the grownups) and on the other it sounds like free as in “anything goes” – as in any behaviour is acceptable. So, no.

  4. kmiriam permalink
    November 13, 2011 3:50 am

    Diotima: but the safer spaces is already “segregating” women (and GLBT)–in fact prior to that, male violence against women already segregates women. And I used Arendt’s definition of “freedom” as people acting together for common goals. that’s very different than “anything goes.”

    • Diotima permalink
      November 13, 2011 4:18 am

      Hi Kathy

      I get where you are coming from, and my first thought was that you are making an important point. It’s just the actual wording that I am unsure about. I doubt if many people will be familiar with Arendt’s definition of freedom (lol, I am employed to teach philosophy at university and I did not know it). I’m also not sure, now I think about it, whether I agree with Arendt about this. But that’s probably something we can pursue or not outwith this thread.

      I have the same problem with safer spaces as a term, as it has been used in the past to justify some shocking stuff. Y’know – it’s safer than [insert really unacceptable alternative here] sort of stuff. Or used to deny unacceptable behaviour – as if having a safer spaces document magically stops it happening.

      So … I guess that I am struggling, in the light of everything that is happening at the moment, to work out how we can make spaces as safe as possible, and how we word that so that we get over to others that we are asking for equal status, not special consideration.

      D 🙂

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