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Taking Up Space – The Role of Safer Spaces in the #MeToo Era

By Aine Dolin and Adrienne Ratushniak, University of Saskatchewan

As with other aspects of the #MeToo movement, the prevalence of gender-based violence and harassment at music festivals is not new information to those involved in these events. The growing presence of safer spaces at music festivals over the past decade is a direct response to ongoing problematic and oppressive behaviour, however, their implementation has frequently been met with pushback from festival organizers. Festivals often feel uncomfortable and resist safer spaces at first as their presence may suggest to patrons that the event itself is not safe for women and those with marginalized gender identities. One of the messages that has come out of the #MeToo movement is that nowhere is entirely safe, which will hopefully make it easier to establish and expand safer spaces at events that have previously been reluctant. Once established, the value of a safer space as not only crisis intervention and reporting sites but also as spaces of resilience and community building is often quickly realized, and the presence of safer spaces is increasingly normalized at music festivals. As an example, one of the festivals that Adrienne volunteered at this past summer (2018) established a safer space in 2015 despite resistance, and it has gained respect and is valued by organizers today.

Because safer spaces are a fairly recent creation and arise out of grassroots and community-specific organizing, their structure, the services they offer, and the barriers they come up against can vary greatly from event to event. Some spaces have a dual-purpose function combining traditional safer spaces with harm reduction resources and peer support for people who are too high or are having a difficult experience (i.e. a “bad trip”). This potential connection to drug use can be a stigmatizing factor that has made safer spaces difficult to implement at some music festivals. At other festivals, the multipurpose use of safer spaces has caused barriers for individuals trying to access the space to address gender-based violence and oppression they have experienced, as other individuals may be coming in and out to access harm reduction supplies, or men may be accessing the space for assistance grounding themselves during a “bad trip”. Because festivals are a liminal space, people often have decreased inhibitions leading them to act in ways they may not normally, including increased drug use and sexual activity. Some drugs, particularly psychedelics, can cause past traumas to vividly resurface, creating another reason why people may need to access safer spaces. While there is often cross-over with other harm reduction services, spaces dedicated only to safer space are often necessary.

Inclusion and inclusive language within safer spaces is a highly important consideration within the creation of safer spaces. The moniker “safer spaces” as opposed to “safe spaces” has come out of the recognition that no space can guarantee complete safety for all individuals. Further, safer spaces are often gender-specific to women which can be exclusionary to non-binary and LBGT2SQ+ folks. Another festival that Adrienne volunteered at last summer tried to have a gender inclusive safer space for the first time. However, halfway through the festival, it had to revert back to a “women only” space because of multiple incidents of cis-men entering the space and being verbally aggressive and problematic towards both volunteers and people accessing services. Conversely, the Red Tent specifies that it is a space for 2 Spirit, transgender, non-binary folks and women and allows individuals to self-identify if it is a space for them. This has been fairly successful in avoiding most incidents of aggressive intrusion of cis-men into safer spaces.

Constructing safer spaces as actively anti-oppressive, anti-colonial and anti-racist is also considered fundamental in ensuring spaces remain as safe as possible for all individuals. Further, as music festivals remain events predominantly run and patronized by white Canadians, safer spaces often take on the role of advocates against racial oppressions common at these events, such as appropriation. It is important to keep in mind that safer spaces are not only sites of trauma but are also sites of resilience and cultural reimagining. Within these spaces, people feel free to express themselves, to build community, and to imagine what a world safe from oppression and gender-based violence might look like. Change is brought out into the larger community through pushing for policy change at festivals as well as through outreach, such as community projects which spark dialogue about what consent or a safer space means to the community. Consent remains a particularly important area of discussion, and the #MeToo movement has shown a pervasive lack of awareness and understanding of what consent looks like as well as its legal definitions.

To effectively create safer spaces volunteers and organizers must be able to recognize and address their own internal biases and assumptions. Volunteers must also be highly aware of culturally specific social hierarchies, power dynamics, and norms in order to work to actively deconstruct them internally and outwards within the communities they support. Anthropological principles, such as cultural relativism, are useful tools to help facilitate training for these spaces because they help to combat ethnocentrism, which can create a barrier for those who aim to accept and support people of all different identities and backgrounds. Safer spaces too often are given very little attention as they are run predominantly by and for women and marginalized gender groups. However, in a world increasingly aware that change is needed to create equity for 2 Spirit, trans, non-binary individuals and women, safer spaces offer us a unique window into what that active and intentional change can look like within communities, and they require and deserve further anthropological exploration.

Adrienne Ratushniak and Aine Dolin are currently enrolled in the University of Saskatchewan’s medical anthropology MA program, and we both have experience working with music festivals. Adrienne is researching harm reduction at music festivals in western Canada for her MA thesis, and Aine organizes with The Red Tent, a grassroots collective which creates safer spaces at music festivals and other cultural events in Manitoba.

All photos taken by Aine Dolin and Adrienne Ratushniak

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