Safe Space or Free Speech? (Do radical feminists get either?)

Even by the standards of student politics, it was a mess. Comedian Kate Smurthwaite was booked to do a gig at Goldsmiths, University of London on Monday evening when she noticed online reports of a picket by members of the feminist society. Their objections were not to her show, but her politics. Smurthwaite is a proponent of the Nordic model of sex work, a legal approach that criminalises punters but not sex workers themselves. For some students, that made her “whorephobic” and unfit to do a gig on campus.

“I told the society there might be a protest,” Smurthwaite says. “The first thing they said was: ‘Oh yeah, we knew.’ The feminist society had held a debate about whether or not I should be able to perform.”

The society voted 70-30 to allow it, but a minority decided to picket the event anyway. “I should have been happy it was won, but I was just shocked and upset,” she says. “There’s nothing I’ve said which is worthy of a debate on that sort of thing.” Then the organisers liaised with security and decided the event should be cancelled.


Once you dig past the insults and accusations, the Smurthwaite story reveals something troubling about the culture on Britain’s campuses. Whatever the precise reasons for the cancellation, the feminist society took a vote to picket someone because of a policy position unrelated to the content of the show itself. This is not like the antifascist “no platform” campaign of the 1980s and 90s. It is much broader and more nebulous. The potential for offence is trumping the right to free speech.

The row comes amid a growing sense of crisis around debate in British universities. In recent months, Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men; the Cambridge Union was asked (but refused) to withdraw its speaking invitation to Germaine Greer because of her views on transgender issues; officials at London Southbank took down a “flying spaghetti monster” poster because it might cause religious offence; UCL banned the Nietzsche Club after it put up posters saying “equality is a false God”, and Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from their freshers’ fair. The Sun is banned on dozens of campuses because of Page 3. Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines song has also been banned by many student unions.

And this is where it gets interesting. I am against censorship of any speech except hate speech (if pornography counts as speech – and I don’t think it does – then it is hate speech), so to be consistent, I must be as much against the censorship of the anti-abortion society as I am against the cancelling of Kate Smurthwaite.

And I don’t think an anti-abortion group should be banned, until they start harassing people; the best way to deal with these ideas is to debate them out in the open.

The Sun ban is a trickier proposition, does Page 3 make it hate speech? Were lads mags banned as well? What about magazines aimed at women that contain air-brushed, sexualised images of women?

I’m not going to picket in favour of The Sun, but these are interesting questions.

“There are two ways of looking at the challenges to free speech on college campuses – quantitative and qualitative – and it’s getting worse on both counts,” says Joanna Williams of Kent University’s Enhancement of Learning and Teaching unit, who has written extensively about politics on campus. “Censorship powers are being used more often and against a wider variety of targets.”

Whether they meant to or not, those who cancelled Smurthwaite’s gig at Goldsmiths have waded into a row that speaks to a radically changing view of what student life should be about. The show-that-wasn’t, by the way, was themed around freedom of speech.

At the heart of the new wave of censorship on British campuses is the “safe space” policy. Its origin can be traced back to US protests against military recruiters on campus in the 70s. From there sprung the no-platform agenda, which then morphed over the last few years into this latest incarnation. The idea behind safe space is that people of all identities are entitled to a tolerant environment to express who they are. It sounds commendable, but the implications are startling.

“No platform for fascists was clear-cut in terms of which groups were being targeted,” Williams explains. “It was a particular political persuasion and a clear demand of what they weren’t allowed to do. But in recent years, bans have extended out to cover more things – not just fascist groups, but also Ukip. And the nature of what is being banned has also been extended – to certain newspapers, or lads’ mags, or student societies. Safe space is open to interpretation. It’s all-encompassing.”

Smurthwaite, for instance, was told that sex workers were included in the college’s safe spaces policy and might be hurt by her presence. An organiser wrote: “I have to send you a passage about our ‘safe space’ policy outlining kinda what you can or can’t say. Because our union is ‘for’ sex working … it would probably be best to avoid that area of conversation.”

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to be a young woman at university today. You will be told that you don’t exist, that female biology (the root of female oppression) is a social construct and does not exist, while nebulous ‘gender identity’ trumps all. You will also face, on top of a massively misogynist ‘lad’ culture, the possibility of a student union that is ‘for’ the sex industry, and will use protests and censorship to stop you hearing any alternative views on the subject.

It is hard to find someone who will defend safe spaces on the record. No one from the Goldsmiths feminist society would speak about it, nor would their student union. The president of the National Union of Students – a strong proponent of the policy – would not respond to calls. The best defence of the policy comes from Tim Squirrell, former president of the Cambridge Union.

“Safe space gets a bit of a bad rap,” he says. “Most of the people involved in advocating these types of policies don’t mind debate; they just they don’t want to do so in their homes with strangers.

“Every time you invite someone like Germaine Greer on to campus, or someone who disagrees with the rights of sex workers to do their work, or a racist or a homophobe, you’re not endorsing their views, but you’re legitimating their views as something that’s up for discussion. There’s a place for that discussion, but the question of whether it should happen in people’s homes is a difficult one. Greer doesn’t think trans women are real women. These are not abstract issues. They affect real people.
“I know someone in the debating circuit who used to say to teams: ‘If you think your case is offensive, you haven’t found the right case to make. You should go back and find another one which doesn’t appear prima facie to be offensive. There are ways of debating these things which aren’t hurtful.”

But according to many of those who work on campus or attend debates in them, safe space has become a direct threat to freedom of speech.

So now, being critical of ‘gender’ or the sex industry, makes you a bigot, with no debate allowed – can you imagine if people made such question-begging statements (and had the power to back them up) about a foetus being the same as a person?

Julie Bindel knows the implications of safe spaces better than most. Her views on transgenderism, sex work and the Muslim veil have led to her being called transphobic, whorephobic and Islamophobic. She now finds it increasingly difficult to get on to college campuses at all.

“I’ve a quite high public profile in this world, so when I’m invited to an event, it’ll draw interest in the crowd,” she says. “The organiser or the board of the university or the venue will be lobbied until they can take no more of it. These idiots sit there behind their keyboards and do this.”

She adds: “I was born into a very impoverished, working-class background. I never had a safe space in which to air my views. Before this whole lunacy started, I was constantly shouted at if I talked about violence against women or prostitution. We live in a toxic anti-feminist world. There’s no such thing as a safe space. This is the work of privileged, moneyed, over-educated, pampered, middle-class liberal idiots.”

And here we have the Guardian taking part, again, in the same question-begging: the term ‘sex work’ is highly political and partisan, but the liberal/lefty press doesn’t seem to care.

Safe spaces is a direct corollary of the rise of identity politics. As the essentially economic argument between right and left died down, it was replaced by a culture war in which gender, sexuality and race were at the heart of the discussion. This was a much more personal form of politics. Suddenly, arguments on issues such as prostitution and transgenderism were being branded hate speech, and the identity of the person speaking became as important as the words they were saying. This was why the Oxford debate on abortion was cancelled – because both participants were men. It is also why Coddle objects so strongly to the way Smurthwaite and others debate sex work – because sex workers themselves are often not represented in the discussion.

This is such a lie, and it’s a shame to see it repeated unquestioningly. The Guardian publishes far more articles in support of the sex industry than it does of supporters of the abolitionist approach to prostitution (the ‘Nordic model’), or of sex industry survivors. And as this article shows, there is massive support for the sex industry in university ‘feminist’ societies.

Why were universities so ready to give in to demands for a restricted right of debate? The reasons are economic as well as political. Pickets and online campaigns often lead to the cancellation of events because of universities’ fears of litigation, even on the basis of emotional harm. And where litigation is not a concern, there is a fear that protests might create a reputational risk.

“Universities don’t want to be associated with views which aren’t part of the moral consensus,” Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby and founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, says. “It’s a very conservative climate. Universities used to be very conservative and now they’ve gone back to being conservative.”


This institutional caution is being reinforced by the new commercial relationship between students and universities. The introduction of tuition fees has meant that students increasingly see themselves as customers who are entitled to comfort while on campus.

“You develop a cosy relationship with the students,” Hayes says. “You don’t say anything controversial. They don’t say anything controversial. And that’s very nice. Everyone seems very concerned by safe space, so it’s presented in a positive way. It’s not presented as censorship. It’s done compassionately. That broadly is the ethos.”

For Hayes, the new culture is part of a therapeutic worldview that sees students as vulnerable young people.

Safe space is not all bad. It stands as a forceful counterpoint to another troubling trend in student life, in which jokes about rape and racist fancy-dress costumes are almost a badge of honour. To its credit, it is concerned with taking care of the most vulnerable people in a community. As Coddle puts it, they are “interrogating codes of conduct” and asking searching questions about who has a right to speak. Once that conversation is out in the open, it is easier to see how white, male voices are given precedence over everyone else.

This is ironic, since it’s largely women being silenced when it comes to the ‘sex work’ debate. Prostitution negatively affects poor, indigenous, and non-white women disproportionately (’empowered sex workers’ are disproportionately middle-class, white, and educated), but sex industry survivors (including poor, indigenous, and non-white women) are now ‘bigots’ to be no-platformed.

But the policy is also dangerously vague, and speaks to a sense of emotional entitlement that is at odds with the reality of democratic society. The only way to properly abide by it would be to strip universities of all potentially offensive debate. There is a danger it will create a generation of university students who are unable to have their ideas challenged without invoking “offence”.

There are already signs of it seeping into national political debate. Last August a debate on transgender identity on Newsnight fell apart when the programme was accused of questioning “whether or not trans people have a right to exist”, something it plainly was not doing.

What’s also ironic is that the people who cite ‘safe spaces’ as a reason to no-platform and ban radical feminists, are the same people who are 100% opposed to women having genuine safe spaces: the ability to organise politically with out men present (for the past three years at least, radical feminist gatherings in the UK and US have had to change venues due to threats of violence, including protests outside a woman’s home were a meeting was being held in private); and practical safe spaces free from men such as changing rooms, toilets and homeless shelters, since they support a definition of ‘gender identity’ that allows any biological male to declare himself a woman.

For Smurthwaite, the next obstacle is the Leicester comedy festival, where online campaigners are already trying to have her banned. For the rest of us, the danger is more distant, but just as troubling.

We should see this as a threat to all of us, this is men (misogynists, genderists, sex industry advocates) and their female helpers telling us that if we speak out, they will ruin us, they will end our careers, threaten to murder and rape us, and, as justification, call us ‘bigots’ for standing up to men and patriarchal control.

(all quotes from this Guardian article)

2 responses

  1. The idea that an institution as large and diverse as a university can constitute a “safe space” demonstrates just how poor these individuals’ understanding of safe space really is. Safe spaces need to be closely moderated with specific criteria and are usually very small. They have a specific purpose for those of us brutalised by the outside world to unburden, recover, connect and strategise. A student society, or a subgroup within one, could create a safe space, but you cannot expect an institution of many thousands of students and staff to act as one.

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