Experiences of the contemporary social world are often defined in terms of safety: a group of friends, a college choice or a sexual encounter could be “safe”, where a classroom, a piece of equipment or a social space would be “unsafe”. But the distinction between safety and unsafety is profoundly unstable, and articulates some of the most disturbing paradoxes of contemporary life. Safety can be banal, when a writer or athlete reaches only for goals within immediate reach, but it can also be utopian, in the scene of therapy, learning or rehearsal. Media rails against an apparently over-prescriptive “health and safety culture”, while government works hard to remove worker protections (no safe job, no safe workplace) and to limit access to healthcare. At the level of foreign policy, a drive towards safety can legitimate the erosion of national sovereignty (“a world made safe”) and suspension of civil liberties. And so the promise of global security conceals a dangerous reality: selective distribution of safety by capitalism. (un)SAFE seeks explorations of the theme of safety and the unsafe from the multiple perspectives afforded to scholars of gender, sexuality and women’s studies. Lacking institutional support, and denied parity in hiring and tenuring, such scholars lack the safety afforded to many academic researchers. Gender, sexuality and women’s studies, however, has constantly resisted surrendering its tendencies towards the dangerous, its pressurizing of the dominant form of safety. We resist the criminalization of the unsafe, whether it be sexual, emotional or institutional, and prefer to dwell in the social relations that might come after safety. We recognize that safety is the necessary mid-point, rather than the desired end: gender and sexuality studies has offered to many scholars a safe interdisciplinary space to discuss and conduct their research, the products of which have contributed considerably to the creation of safe environments for people across the spectrum of genders and sexualities, bridging the gap between academics and activism. So what then is (un)safe? The questions raised by this term are complex, difficult and many. What does it mean to be safe? Or to not be safe? Where are we safe or unsafe? How does one find a place, space or mindset marked by safety or a lack thereof? What are the political, institutional, individual, physical and emotional implications of safety? Is the safe place, the safe practice, the safe route always better? Can the unsafe be productive or beneficial?

To begin contemplating these questions, the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania has organized a conference that will consider the complex personal, institutional and political meanings of safety from all disciplinary and intellectual backgrounds.

The conference will feature a keynote address by Lauren Berlant.


your conference organizers

Melanie Adley, Joseph Lavery, and Caroline Weist

for more information please contact us at  un.safe.2012@gmail.com