To those who claim that women are no longer in need of “safe spaces,” my response is this: well-meaning friends of mine still post rape jokes on Facebook.
For this reason, among others, I am grateful for the existence of Voices of Venus, Ottawa’s showcase for women writers and performers. Having recently celebrated two years at the Umi Café, the series has found a new home at Venus Envy.
So why the big move?
“I think a showcase should always have a backdrop of sassy dildos,” quips co-organizer Faye Estrella.
“Also, Venus Envy is a women-focused, queer- and trans-friendly, sex-positive bookstore,” says co-organizer Allison Armstrong, emphasizing the shared values of the new venue and the series’ expanding audience base.
Since its inception in May 2009, Voices of Venus has earned a reputation in Ottawa as a safe space where women, regardless of biology, share the spotlight. The feature performers — both emerging and established female writers — have ranged from storytellers to poets to short-story writers to novelists. The open-mic portion of the evening has boasted violin concertos, anonymous love letters and emo porn.
“I write smut. I write about sexuality, about gender identity, about sex workers’ rights. I’ve written erotic poetry that talks about recovering from sexual assault. I’ve written romantic poetry that explicitly talks about biology not being destiny,” says Armstrong. “I want to be a woman talking about sex. I want to make it clear that it’s okay for girls to talk about sex!”
Although Voices of Venus reserves the microphone for woman-identified writers and performers only, men are welcome to enjoy the show. In fact, on some occasions, there has been an equal distribution of men and women in the audience — which is encouraging, considering that women’s spaces are often thought of as hostile to men.
“When they think of ‘women only’ they equate it with feminism and they equate it with men bashing,” Estrella explains.
“Personally, I just like women’s spaces; I’m a really homosocial person. But I think people do have preconceptions about what a women’s space is — and when I say people, I don’t mean just guys,” says Armstrong. “For example, we have a massive queer audience, which, as a queer, makes me inordinately happy. But as a showcase organizer who is running a space that is supposed to be welcoming to all women, I occasionally feel a little awkward because I want the hetero women to come out and share their stories, too.”
One common objection to the idea of women’s space — or spaces intended for people belonging to a certain race or cultural-social background — is that it segregates rather than integrates disparate groups of people.
“People who are concerned with race politics often don’t understand why there should be a women-only space. Similarly, some feminists don’t understand why women of colour want their own space. There needs to be understanding of what solidarity is and what a safe space is,” Estrella says.
Voices of Venus is a welcoming and supportive environment for women of various backgrounds and life experiences, and it provides a forum for female writers to explore their artistic potential.
“I think there is a desire among women writers to share their work and learn from their peers. And I think that’s a niche we fill. We have created a comfortable space where women who may be feeling vulnerable have one less thing to feel vulnerable about,” says Armstrong.
“I think that’s part of why women’s spaces are important. Because even though it’s a roomful of strangers, it’s a roomful of strangers who are all dealing with that same particular piece of body armour that you can now take off. Maybe you also have race body armour or queer body armour or trans body armour or mental-health body armour. But you can take one piece off. And that makes for a little more intimacy and a little more sharing and a little more trust.”