Recently the progressive lexicon has seen the popularization of several new terms describing three ostensibly separate concepts that are, in actuality, more troublingly related and similarly dangerous than is immediately evident. One of these is the trigger warning: an alert, usually attached to a work of art, a piece of news, or a discussion, intended to warn trauma survivors that they could relive a traumatic experience as the result of memories triggered by a film, book, or conversation. Another is the safer space agreement, which may list some of these supposed triggers, and is meant to remind everyone who enters a designated space that some remarks are not merely offensive, disrespectful, or in bad taste — they actually undermine the safety of marginalized groups. The assumption that a person can’t account for their own safety, or would just prefer to leave it to a set of externally imposed rules, is also the basis for affirmative consent, a scripted dialogue that details exactly how a woman should give her sexual consent, and how her partner should recognize it, whether in the context of a one-night stand or a long-term relationship.
Legitimate sex does not include non-consent. Sex comes, most often, from a series of physical and verbal signals that bears no resemblance to a Q&A session, but affirmative consent is predicated on the authoritarian notion that what happens during sex in reality doesn’t matter. This is, according to the explicit script, something that we ought to do when having sex. The implicit script takes it further: we who have the power to implement affirmative consent policies can dictate how you have sex, and if you don’t have sex our way, you can and will be punished. There is no problem, its advocates say, with penalizing a certain kind of sexual behavior right now, because, the justification goes, it’s easy to change that behavior. It won’t hurt you to do it more like we do.
Journalist Emily Yoffe challenges this notion in an exhaustively researched article on Slate titled “The College Rape Overcorrection.” She investigates several affirmative consent cases, which have derailed the lives of the accused young men, in which the sex is on record as not just having been consensual, but enthusiastically so. Across universities, the women who later present these encounters as rape share notable similarities in their background: white, upper-middleclass, and — perhaps most importantly — conservative religious parents.
The overprotective mother in particular is a curiously recurring character in the profiles that Yoffe provides. One case looks suspiciously as though it might never have come to pass if the plaintiff’s mother hadn’t found her diary, which detailed some of her sexual experiences, as well as drinking. Her mother was furious, until the plaintiff told her that she hadn’t consented to the events described. A 22-year-old Standford student’s sexual encounters with her 28-year-old mentor were unquestionably consensual until their long-term relationship ended, at which point it seemed so clear to the plaintiff’s best friend that both mother and daughter were bent on post-breakup revenge that this friend actually gave an affidavit in defense of the accused. When we examine this alongside statistical research that shows that the majority of all sexual assaults on college campuses are actually committed by the same small percentage of rapists, an obvious question arises: who is affirmative consent actually protecting?The policy does nothing to address binge drinking, which Yoffe points out is perilously avoided in discussions of women’s safety, or to address the fact that a rapist is far more statistically likely to be a serial offender carrying out premeditated behaviors than an otherwise respectable college boy with faulty communication skills. Even the very existence of a “rape culture” is questionable when all this is taken into account, resting as it does on the notion that women are constantly under threat. Affirmative consent policy certainly provides no means of confirming that a woman is in control of her sexual decisions or that she can learn to communicate her own desires effectively. It would follow, then, that affirmative consent policy actually protects, more than anyone else, conservative parents — from the objective reality that their daughters like sex.
Trigger warnings and safer space agreements are similarly grounded in a denial of objective reality. Both necessitate a subjective definition of safety, which bypasses the question of how safe a person actually is in favor of how safe they feel. By this definition, though, it is too easy to make being safe synonymous with feeling comfortable. Any worthwhile work of art, and almost any meaningful discussion, is likely to strike an emotional chord in those who encounter it. This sensation can and should be jarring. An important aspect of both intellectualism and adulthood is learning how to think beyond our initial subjective reactions, recognizing that no conversation or work of art is inherently related to our own individual experiences — we create those connections ourselves. Safer space agreements and trigger warnings prioritize individual experience in a way that shuts down any reasoned debate about what constitutes a truly safe space, for trauma victims or for anyone else. If a threat is defined not by objective behaviors that will not be tolerated, but by an individual’s experience of what can ultimately be any action taken or word spoken in any given moment, then how can we know what safety even is?
An orientation toward experiences also does not necessarily mean that a person will be receptive to an experience that contradicts one’s narrative. The supposed efficacy of safer space agreements, after all, relies on specific assumptions about the preferences of those who are categorized in a certain way. The resulting proclamations of what must feel good are every bit as presumptuous as the conclusions about what feels threatening. A safer space agreement is an ineffectual substitute for communication, which, far from fostering empathy, presents people from marginalized groups as stories to be memorized and selectively accepted. Meaningful, enduring understanding often comes after, or even as a result of, discomfort in the face of stories that call into question our understanding of the reality we interact with on a daily basis; by equating discomfort with an actual threat to one’s safety, safer space agreements diminish our ability to hear one another fully and understand each other as people, rather than as scripts that fit our predetermined narratives.
Jonathan Chait critiqued this conflation of discomfort and safety in the New York Magazine article “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: How The Language Police Are Perverting Liberalism.” He introduced the piece with two incidents in which people were actually threatened, through action, as a response to works of art that were allegedly threatening to the safety of others. One of these pieces was a satirical cartoon in a college newspaper drawn by a conservative Muslim student; the other was a feminist performance piece that featured a documentary about sex workers. In both cases, twenty years apart, the artists were subject to vandalism and written threats. This violation of safety, however, was not discussed in the criticism of the article. Instead, criticism focused on an imagined narrative, one in which Chait railed against what he termed “p.c. culture” for constraining him unfairly.
This is what happens when associations and experience willfully usurp objective reality: it becomes possible to read an article that the author didn’t actually write, based on assumptions of what they would write, as drawn from expectations formed by their previous work. I am not, for the record, a fan of Jonathan Chait. His recent takedown of Sophia McClennon’s Kazakhstan election coverage was an embarrassingly argued, juvenile rant that did precisely what his critics had done: criticized her article for claims she didn’t make. When personal associations, prior experience, or strong emotional attachment are used to justify assumptions, they should not be taken as a valid defense of an argument.
Neither, though, should these things be elevated because of who they belong to. In the nameless ideology that created and perpetuates safer space culture, the self is of paramount importance. But if trauma survivors can’t be expected to understand reality, how can they possibly understand themselves? Philosopher Harry Frankfurt, while concluding his exposition of a comprehensive theory of the nature of bullshit in the aptly titled On Bullshit, posits that it is, if anything, more difficult to understand oneself than to understand objective reality, because the biases inherent to perception are magnified when oneself is both the observer and the observed:
. . . There is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that it is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.
Whatever people believe to be the truth about themselves is inevitably wrapped up in other factors: what they hope the truth is, what they’re afraid the truth might be, what they’re convinced the truth is not. It is effortless to frame one’s personal experience in such a way as to confirm one’s identity: this is why it’s crucial that we invite observations of ourselves from others as a means of gaining a fuller understanding of the shared reality that we all experience. Anything that we do with a purpose beyond that of our own gratification is predicated on our acceptance of the need to continuously strive for a better understanding of our shared reality: this is true not just in engineering or the sciences, but in the humanities, politics, or even religion. And with that comes the obligate humility in understanding that anything we screw up indicates a gap in our knowledge or abilities, not an inescapable truth that there exists something fundamentally incomprehensible about reality itself. Trauma survivors are not unsafe when someone undermines their subjective notions of what reality entails. They’re unsafe when they can only trust the people who will confirm what they’re already comfortable believing, however destructive that narrative might in reality be.
Image from here.