Managing Social Space

Common Coping Mechanisms

Given the crisis state of spatial affairs entailed by agoraphobia, it is unsurprising that the subjects should attempt to find ways to protect themselves. Erving Goffman’s sociology has been inspirational for feminist studies of agoraphobia because of his attempts to elucidate the nature of less pathological social anxieties (such as everyday embarrassments) and the tactics by which they are managed. Goffman demonstrates that nonphobics feel a similar (though less pressing) need to negotiate boundaries between and distance from others, often using what he terms involvement shields, such as dark glasses or a raised newspaper to block eye contact or interaction in social spaces of, for example, public transport. Such tactics are invaluable for agoraphobics, who employ them far more frequently and less casually to manage anxiety and reinforce their weakened boundaries. Other phobic tactics include holding an umbrella or pushing a bicycle to create a sense of private and protective space around the fragile self that keeps others at a safe distance.

Being Housebound

Such tactics are not always, however, experienced as sufficiently protective, and some agoraphobics withdraw from social space entirely, becoming more or less temporarily housebound. Agoraphobic vulnerability can mean the sufferer feels she has no choice but to remain exclusively within the home, assuming its protective boundaries as reinforcement and extension of the psychocorporeal boundaries of the self. The agoraphobic thus incorporates her own four walls as an essential element of her ontological or existential security.

Feminist geographers have explored such issues in relation to distinctions between private and public spaces, arguing that, perhaps especially for the agoraphobic, the boundaries between these spheres are very much fluid and unfixed. This is evidenced by the fact that the home space traditionally conceived as private can itself become threatening and dangerous when, for example, relatives converge at Christmas. Likewise, the public space of the town center can be experienced as comfortable and safe when no one else is around. (Ironically, given the common and legitimate concerns of nonphobic women for their safety, this is often when darkness provides calm and cover from the socializing presence of others.)

The agoraphobic’s experience of home can be ambiguous in other ways; for some, home becomes so secure that they are rendered incapable of leaving, and it can thus simultaneously be experienced as both prison and asylum. But, despite the ambivalence of feelings, it is clearly the space of the home that is overwhelmingly perceived to be safe, the (anti)social space beyond its confines that menaces and disturbs.