Sometimes I realize just how far ahead of the crowd my parents have always been on a few things, for as frustratingly out-of-touch as they were on others.
For example, when I was 12 years old, my therapist at the time suggested to them that it was probably time for “The Talk” after I asked her about something I had read in The Diary of Anne Frank — a euphemistic reference to menstruation of having found “seed” in her underwear. Not long after, my dad and I sat comfortably in his room with the door closed, and he said to me,
“You’ll probably have some questions during our talk, and I want you to know that it’s okay to ask me anything, and it’s okay to use whatever words you feel comfortable using.”
At 12, I understood completely that he was creating a safe space for us to have a conversation about a topic that might otherwise be difficult, and that within the bounds of that space, the outside rules didn’t apply. I knew that, had I been comfortable using the terms, I could have asked, “So… your prick gets really hard — like a bone — and that’s why it’s called a boner?” I could have even used “The F-Word” if I felt it was appropriate. It wasn’t an excited feeling of getting to break all the rules; it was an understanding that those rules were being set aside temporarily, because they worked against the purpose of that safe space. Now, I also knew that even if the words themselves were allowed, that they were only allowed in context — I couldn’t tell my dad he was a prick, or to go fuck himself, and if I did I’d expect him to call me on it and for there to be consequences.
I learned the word “prick” in second grade. I knew exactly what it was, I knew that either a “D” or a “P-R” could interchangeably begin the word, and I knew easily half a dozen other names for a penis and nearby genitalia. “Sperm” came in third grade, when I was left so puzzled by the other kids giggling at a certain species of whale that I asked what was funny… and although the concepts and details were lacking as far as how the overall process worked, I quickly picked up “spunk” and “jism” as synonyms. Singing Oh, Suzannah became harder to do with a straight face after that! “Pussy” — well, I’m afraid my understanding of the anatomical usage came a few years later, but I certainly knew the word… that was the one yelled as an insult to a boy who was perceived as having failed to perform his societally-assigned gender role! I don’t recall it being hurled at me in specific, but I knew that it easily could have been.
These and many more “bad words” were in my vocabulary for years before I sat down across from my dad, and he knew I’d been exposed to at least some of them. He spoke honestly and openly, and tried to give me that same privilege. I wasn’t comfortable using most of them, but I knew that I could — and that was pretty damn significant.
Now, I find many places, both physical and online, which call themselves “safe spaces” or “support groups.” These tend to follow the pattern of being organized around a particular topic, and have a standard “speak freely, ask any questions, discuss what you wish (sometimes “what you wish as long as it falls under our organizational topic”) using the language that is comfortable for you.” In essence, the same things my dad said as he invoked that space for us. The trouble I’ve run across, though, is that too often those concepts are just words. “That topic is too deep,” and “this question isn’t okay” — or at least it wasn’t when you asked it yesterday… but when someone else asks, they get lots of information that you were looking for. “Stop trying to throw your voice into the conversation,” and “those words aren’t allowed here.”
The last one is what pisses me the fuck off. I have been frustrated to have to leave a few online spaces recently which claimed to be safe, supportive, welcoming areas set aside for discussion, because “those words aren’t allowed here.” In each case, the posts were deleted, along with the supportive comments made by others, and I got a message from an admin asking me politely to censor myself, “because there are minors here.” Mind you, these are online services where the minimum age limit is 13 — not little children, but young folks at or near puberty. If there are minors present, then I as an adult would think it wise to show them the value of safe spaces — to demonstrate in actions that the words we use in creating that space are not hollow lies. We do these youth a disservice to offer the opportunity to speak freely, only to chastise and censor any speech we don’t like. We make those spaces unsafe when we dictate the exact manner in which expression is allowed, when it is either explicitly stated or implicitly understood that some subjects may never be discussed and some words will always be silenced.
Any space where I am censored, or asked to censor myself, is not a safe space — and I will not stay there. Exclaiming “but think of the children!” does nothing to help me feel safe; the same smokescreen has been used to silence discussion of many other topics, and it’s equally bullshit no matter what issue you’re trying to distract attention from. If you want me to think about the youth, I’ll think about the reason I left home — because I was not free to speak about the things I wished, using words which were comfortable. If you want me to be mindful of young ears, I’ll keep in mind the sense of shame and guilt I attached to certain vocabulary when I was young, because the adults around only wanted to keep them out of sight and out of mind. If you politely ask me to refrain from using curse-words, I’ll point at the button on my purse: Fuck Censorship! Then I might just follow that with “…and fuck you, too!” before walking away.