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A space for mistakes is a safe space | Inbar Rost

In the know

My first time in front of an audience was as a child, performing in ceremonies at school. I found myself signing up to dance classes but quickly leaving, despite my great love for the stage, for movement, for dance. It demanded very specific aesthetics. As a child, I looked like a girl and behaved like a boy, so I didn’t fit in there.

Feeling like my body can’t fit the way I wanted to express myself, led to a grave sense of estrangement.

To deal with the loss, I turned to express outwardly anything feminine I saw in me. For years, until I was 25, I had passed through this world almost completely detached from my own body. It became important for me (subconsciously, of course) to be pretty and make up for any “masculine” traits. Like many other girls, I struggled to identify experiences in my own body that didn’t feel right. I got used to brushing aside any individual or private sense of discomfort to the point of blurring the boundaries.

As a teenager, I started going out to parties outside of my hometown. There, I had the chance to dance freely — or what I believed back then “free” to be. While my social environment sought to protect me by setting clear rules for movement and external expression, the parties had an air of so-called promiscuity. In hindsight, I see how both these spaces restricted my freedom and my security in different ways, but in real-time the experience of those parties registered with me as dissonance. There was no one there to explain why some things feel good but are classified as wrong. There was no one to explain what I could do when something in the space doesn’t feel right. Under the surface, there was a lot of abuse in these spaces, but it was silenced. Whoever made a mistake, whoever realized they harmed themselves or others would keep it to themselves forever. Teenagers wanted to dance in a world full of contradictions; the defined space seeking to assume a sense of safety had become a space where mistakes aren’t allowed to be made in the open. As a result, it became a space that doesn’t let its occupants change.

The other day I gave a talk about the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law at this large company in southern Israel. As everyone was gathering before we started, one of the employees, an older man, comes up to me and says, “I don’t need this talk. You have nothing to tell me that I don’t already know, we’ve heard more than enough from you all on sexual harassment.”

As the talk ended, that same man approached me, embarrassed, to admit that not only did he learn something new from me, but that it suddenly dawned on him that even his wife of 30 years, he’s known in a situation of ongoing sexual harassment.

I think about this man and the rare opportunity to admit, after 30 years, to the harm he’s inflicted upon his wife. Did he have any opportunities over all these years to understand, to learn, to accept, and to take responsibility for it?

A few years ago I received a report about a case of sexual harassment committed by one of the teens I worked with as a local youth leader. That incident left us, staff members, in shock. He was such a shy boy, engaged and sensitive. We never thought such a boy could sexually harass anyone. That boy was disciplined, having been left with the sense of shame and self-worth of a sex criminal. I wasn’t sure he had actually understood what could have been done differently in that situation. I wonder whether, in the years that passed since the sexual harm he had brought about, that boy had any spaces where he was able not to keep the act he committed a secret and learn how to behave differently as a result. I guess not.

The sad truth is that out of our will to keep the space safe and clear of harassment, we’ve silenced spaces for processes of transformation and learning, we’ve pushed aside spaces for claiming responsibility, we’ve silenced spaces for men and women to admit they were wrong in the way they had expressed or used their sexuality and power.

When we feel we can never be wrong, we’ll never learn. When we’re ashamed of things we’ve done that were classified as either wrong or bad, we’ll never make peace and heal ourselves. The shame, the concealment, that truth are all left buried in the dark, never to become knowledge shared with others.

As long as we keep “mistakes” at bay and ignore them in our spaces, seeking to create uniformity that fits everybody and is “right” for everyone, we’re missing the mark. By a long shot.

Any social environment we’re in — a party, work, or home — has great liminality. There’s a “don’t” you just don’t talk about. To keep the space safe, we’re pushing away anyone who made a mistake, practically offering no alternative space to look into that mistake, acknowledge it, work with it and change. How can we expect men to learn the boundaries of safe space without any open spaces for experimentation and conversation? How can we expect women to learn their freedom without such spaces?

In the hundreds of talks I gave to teens, companies, and educators, in the dozens of parties I produced and played at, all of that is where I try to bring healing to exactly that. That is spaces that make room for fluidity and making mistakes. It’s important to stress, I don’t let any sexual harassment happen. But I enable and encourage talking about it, recognizing that there’s no clearly defined border and finding ways and methods to understand my boundaries with myself and with others.

The world is fluid and non-binary, constantly changing. We’re changing. And realizing this makes me realize our attempt to define a safe space is flawed, to begin with. A space becomes unsafe whenever there are certain behaviors you don’t talk about. A space is unsafe whenever there are attempts to preserve the same rules in the same way, without any complexity. A space is unsafe whenever we’re not being made to understand through the body, through words, through guidance, and intensive work, that we have no choice but to cross boundaries. The question is not how to make sure everybody stays in line, but what happens right after we cross the boundary.

Inbar Rost Activist, DJ and producer, lecturer, and content creator on gender, sexuality, and politics, working against gender-based violence and for sexual and gender liberation. She represents Israel at the UN-affiliated Women Deliver Young Leaders Program, leads workshops and training with Toda’a and Maslan: The Crisis Center for Victims of Violence and Sexual Violence, and is a leading member of the Young Women Politicians initiative. A founding member of the feminist club at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, she has a B.A. in philosophy, gender, and conflict resolution.


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