The Sexist

Trigger Warnings and Being an Asshole

I've been fascinated by the dust-up over "trigger warnings" that's inched across the feminist blogosphere this week. "Trigger warnings," for the uninitiated, are warnings placed before blog posts that touch on certain subject areas (or particularly graphic presentations of them) that could possibly "trigger" the past trauma of a survivor of sexual assault or abuse. So: To trigger-warn or not to trigger-warn?

The debate over the feminist blog staple began with sex writer Susannah Breslin, who thinks trigger warnings are condescending at best, and a disingenuous ploy to keep feminist blogs relevant at worst. The topic then migrated to Feministing, which employs trigger warnings for the simple reason that it "care[s] about rape victims." Feministing declared Breslin a "certifiable asshole," at which point the debate moved on to Jezebel, which doesn't employ trigger warnings, also cares about rape victims, and thinks Breslin is an asshole, too. (For the record, I think Breslin is an asshole, and that's often what makes her work compelling to this feminist, anyway). Melissa McEwan shies from the Breslin: Asshole? angle, but does provide the most impassioned defense of the warnings, writing:

A trigger is something that evokes survived trauma or ongoing disorder. For example, a person who was raped may be "triggered," i.e. reminded of hir rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.

Those of us who write about triggering topics (sexual assault, violence, detainee torture, war crimes, disordered eating, suicide, etc.) provide trigger warnings with such content because we don't want to inadvertently cause someone who's, say, sitting at her desk at work, a full-blown panic attack because she happened to read a triggering post the content of which she was unprepared for.

We provide trigger warnings because they give survivors of various stripes the option to assess whether they're in a state of mind to deal with triggering material before they stumble across it. Just like someone who isn't easily triggered can nonetheless have, say, a shorter temper when stressed or tired or hungry, a person whose history of trauma makes some material triggering for them can often navigate triggering material without a problem, except when stressed or tired or hungry. Trigger warnings give them a moment to consider whether they want to deal with potentially triggering material right now.

We provide trigger warnings because it's polite, because we don't want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance.

My personal position on trigger warnings is pretty clear to regular readers—you won't see a trigger warning on this blog. Unlike Breslin, I don't think trigger warnings are some sort of page-view ploy or a harbinger of the End of Feminist Days. But like Breslin, it seems that neglecting to trigger-warn does make me kind of an asshole.

I'll likely never stop being an asshole, but I am open to reconsidering my position on the warnings, and I'd like to know what my readers think about that. So: What are your thoughts on trigger warnings? Survivors, do you find trigger warnings effective? Are triggers too personal to be avoided with a blanket warning? What about feminist blogs that write about potentially triggering subjects in nearly every post (hi there!)? Anyone got a feminist argument against trigger warnings up their sleeves? How big of an asshole am I? Discuss.

Photo via Let Ideas Compete, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • Ami

    I think that it's just important to know what the particular blog you're reading does. Here, I know that they won't be used and the topics are frequently related to rape. On Feministing, I know they are used when appropriate. Either way is fine with me but I have the privilege of never having experienced assault. I do agree that warnings would be helpful on a wide array of triggering topics, but I would never presume that trigger warnings on rape posts are employed to "infantalis[e], discriminat[e] and reinforc[e] old gender stereotypes about the weaker sex" because CLEARLY men are raped and could be triggered as well.

  • makomk

    Ami: in practice, I'm not sure that feminist blogs (and Feministing in particular) are safe for male victims of rape in general, or that their policy on trigger warnings is really aimed at them. Especially in the comments. I seem to recall a few male rape victims on other sites complaining of entirely unsignposted triggering content such as claims that experiences like theirs are a distraction from the rape of women, or that their experiences aren't like real rape. (If you can't figure out why these type of comments are likely to be triggering, think about the responses male rape victims are likely to receive if they talk about or seek help for their experiences within society in general.)

    Of course, it's still not as bad as some of the comments people write over at sites like I Blame The Patriarchy. Feministe's comments aren't necessarily that much better, though at least they eventually banned Olo.

    Also: before anyone replies using NVCS statistics or similar to claim that men don't get raped, please take a look at the definitions they use. It'll save me a lot of time.

  • PrettyAmiable

    To everyone who has commented that it's redundant to list "Trigger Warning" when the title of the article has the words "sexual assault" or so on in it - have you checked to see if that's true for every blog entry on this site? Because it's not at feministe. Jill, to refute this misconception, actually went and listed all the articles that had trigger warnings without an explicit description in the blog entry title.

    You're not an asshole, however, because you don't presume to know everything about trigger warnings from a Yahoo! answer. No worries.

  • Megan

    As this discussion has illustrated there are a variety of people with and without PTSD who wish to avoid being taken by surprise with unexpected graphic and disturbing content. It seems to me that A general statement or warning that does not single out PTSD afflicted survivors, but instead includes them as part of a group of varied individuals who appreciate/benefit from advanced notice of graphic content is more reflective of reality, and less condescending. Clearly survivors are not the only ones who might be bothered by such content, as a "trigger warning" implies. There are a multitude of factors that influence my decision to deal with difficult subjects at a specific time, it is not just about avoiding potential triggers. It seems to me such a specifically targeted warning is unnecessarily reductive, and excessively paternalistic.

  • Klipse

    I don't see how some choosing to warn people with PTSD about Rape, etc is something that needs to be looked down upon.

    You don't do it? Okay, then you get to be "Hardcore with a keyboard". Enjoy it. -eyeroll-

  • ellen

    ABSOLUTELY. Of course, it's up to you. But it seems those who find them "annoying" aren't usually victims of sexual assault. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I find them extraordinarily useful. And it's not useful for only survivors-- as others have said, it can help everyone mentally prepare themselves if something they are about to read is disturbing. I agree with the others about the titles of blog posts; I think a blanket "trigger warning" is a bit too broad.
    As someone who has also survived a suicide attempt and serious depression, I talked a lot about "triggers" in therapy. One of my biggest ones is reading an article, blog post, or story that has particularly saddening language or a heart-breaking storyline.
    I think it is very important to use these warnings. It isn't because we're "coddling" survivors. It's because we care and because it also raises awareness. Those just now finding out about "trigger warnings" (ahem, Breslin) are hopefully realizing that certain subjects are touchy for people because of what they've been through. It's not about continuing victimization-- it's about allowing survivors freedom to search the internet without being pushed into panic attack mode after simply reading something.
    Again, it's your choice... but I would be eternally grateful if I was given fair warning (and a choice) before I read something that may send me running for my Klonopin, hyperventilating.

  • Marian Graves

    The trigger warning is the title of the post. Rather than having titles like "Some newspaper shows its hate for women!!!!" It should be something like "Some newspaper dismisses a woman's claim of rape!"

    When I see that rape, or ANY OTHER TRAUMA I have experienced that might trigger me is in a post, based on the title, I can immediately avoid that. I don't need the added "trigger warning" statement. Further many times the trigger warning has come AFTER the thing that triggers me! The title makes no mention of what the post is REALLY about, there's a paragraph or two about a serious rape and then POW the trigger warning. THANKS! Really and truly thanks.

    So please stop treating me like a child. Treat me like an adult by telling me what your topics are and I can decide for myself if I will be triggered and avoid it.

    Thanks for listening.

  • Amber

    I find trigger warnings helpful, as long as they're posted at the very beginning of the article. It reminds me to assess my current frame of mind and decide whether or not to continue reading. It also gives me a chance to kind of build up my mental blocks to prevent being triggered, as opposed to when I'm reading something and it just hits me out of nowhere. I'm a survivor of both rape and domestic abuse, and I have PTSD because of both. Trigger warnings help me avoid unnecessarily triggering myself when I'm not in a good place to deal with triggering pieces.

  • Amanda

    The thing is - you're not an asshole because, unlike Breslin, you're not writing whole blog posts about how dumb and pathetic trigger warnings are, and basically telling survivors who appreciate trigger warnings that they need to suck it up.

    I realize that this isn't exactly a response to the question, but the people at Shakesville and Feministing don't (as far as I know) want to force everyone else in the world to use trigger warnings. They were just pointing out that there was no reason to write such an unnecessarily vitriolic blog post about the topic.

  • LInden

    I am not a survivor, nor a sufferer of PTSD. But I really appreciate trigger warnings. They occasionally let me know that I may be five seconds away from reading something at work, for example, that will leave me shaking with anger, crying silently, hoping nobody will tap me on the shoulder and ask me a question. I don't expect to be coddled and protected from the internetz (why would I be reading feminist sites at all?) but I have empathy and I have imagination, and these things affect me.

    I'm going to be slightly judgemental and say those who object strongly are probably doing so because they get uncomfortable. It is one more thing to think about, and to consider the feelings of your fellow humans.

    I will agree to one thing, though: it is not right to *just* put a warning for sexual assault related posts. Although it is an incredibly common trauma, the victims of other types of violence are no less deserving of consideration. My worst reaction was to a newspaper article on a government-demonstrator clash in my home country, which contained details from autopsy results. I didn't know what trigger warnings even were, then.

  • Amanda

    I never avoid a post because of a trigger warning, but I really appreciate them. I've opened a few posts sent from friends, posted to sites where the headline is relatively benign but the story itself is a serious gut-check. I do like to have a heads-up where I'm about to read about the torture of a toddler, ya know? (that was an article sent to me today).

  • Maggie

    Throwing my 0.02 in: like several of the above commenters, I'm not a survivor, and have no problem with having to read two extra words if that helps anyone out. And clearly it does help people out, so yeah it works for me.

  • Mae

    I don't need them, but blogs using them are no skin off of my nose. I can understand people saying "enough of this" if they were used all the time. But they don't seem to be from what I've seen, despite Breslin's swearing that they're on every other post.

    So, I think Breslin really needs to get a thicker skin if she's fuming over them (and from what I've seen in her response on her personal blog, she's not responding to the debate very maturely.) For someone who says trigger warnings are all about coddling, I have to wonder if she needs some kind of coddling from trigger warnings. It's been said, her mindset seems to be "I don't need them so they just shouldn't exist in the world and I am very angry that they do!"

    I find that kind of selfishness a lot more disconcerting than people using trigger warnings, honestly.

  • Mae

    Oh, yes, and to answer the question: No, you are definitely not an asshole if you decide not to use them. Just don't write self-involved diatribes about them, and you're fine.

  • Hannah

    Stories on rape and sexual assault REALLY upset me, sometimes making me physically ill. Sometimes I want to read the story, other times I'd rather stay in a good mood. I like being given the option. It's just considerate. Maybe most people are desensitized to violence, but I don't have that luxury.

  • Kate

    I've worked for a number of years in a team that treats victims of sexual abuse. The nurses and psychologists in the team have to hear the details of many cases of often extreme abuse, and it's standard practise to give a brief warning before going into the details of the case - this just gives everyone a moment to prepare themselves, and there's evidence that this preparation minimises the traumatising impact of this kind of material.

    I'd like to point out that this isn't about survivors, it's about mental health professionals who have training and support, and trigger warnings are still standard practise - so I don't see why this should be seen as 'babying' anyone. People get fucked up by hearing about fucked up stuff - we're not made of stone, y'know?

    I've seen exactly the same techniques used in seminars dealing with other potentially traumatising material - war photography is the example that I'm thinking of right now. It's simply putting into practise the principle that there's a psychological purpose to trigger warnings, and (in my opinion) it's a responsible way of dealing with emotive, upsetting, or potentially disturbing material. That said, I don't think it has to take the form 'trigger warning' - as many posters pointed out, the titles etc of many blogs are warnings in themselves. But, a lot of blogs also have very mixed content, and this seems like a handy way for anyone who runs a blog to standardise practise.

  • Tori

    I'm a survivor of both sexual assault and domestic abuse and, as a result, deal with PTSD and dissociation. I find trigger warnings immensely useful. Not because I never choose to read potentially triggering material, but because I do choose to read it in places where the potential for being triggered is less of a practical big deal.

    I mean, yes, dissociating -- or fighting not to dissociate -- has both physical and mental symptoms that always more or less suck. But dealing with those symptoms at home, where I otherwise feel safe, is one thing. Dealing with them, say, on my lunch break at work out at a coffee shop or wherever is another issue: If I'm fighting to keep my mind and body connected, I *can't* interact with the people at work as I need to (and I work on their schedule; they don't wait for me). Or if I'm actually dissociated out in public, I run the risk of not being *able* to walk, drive, or otherwise get myself home and away from what triggered me.

    And no, I cannot remove all potential triggers from my life. I understand that, probably more completely than anyone who makes this argument to me can realize. But if I can control for *some* triggers or even control when I may experience those triggers? That's a big deal to me.

  • Jess

    I don't think you're an "asshole" for not putting up trigger warnings but I think people who make fun of other people who put up trigger warnings are assholes. I sort of feel like they are indirectly making fun of me because those trigger warnings can be very helpful to me sometimes.

    I am a rape survivor and I really appreciate seeing trigger warnings b/c I still get nightmares sometimes and the day after I have a nightmare I usually feel pretty shaky and am more prone to flashbacks. Reading content about sexual assault on those days can be more difficult for me than on other days. It's nice to have a little heads up.

    But, again, I don't think you're an asshole for choosing not to put up trigger warnings. I think Breslin is an asshole for making fun of it and I wish she cared enough about rape survivors to leave people who put up trigger warnings alone.

  • Twist

    I appreciate trigger warnings. They help me to both gauge whether to read something or let me brace myself if I do read it. I'm a survivor of CSA and have had problems with self-injury since I was 12. I'm almost 19 now, and getting to somewhere where I can mostly deal with triggers--mostly. I know some people have never been in a place where they need the warnings, but I'm thankful for them when they mean I don't have to deal with urges to hurt myself, panic attacks, or flashbacks.

  • Rebecca

    I find trigger warnings very helpful. I may eventually return to read the post, but when it comes to sexual assault, as survivor I often feel too 'raw' to deal with them at the time of reading. I don't expect trigger warnings, but I do appreciate them.

  • Aaron

    I know I am late in commenting but I wanted to throw my 2 cents in.

    As a male survivor of sexual assault I rarely find trigger warnings personally helpful. What triggers me is not flagged and what is flagged does not trigger me. I understand why that is, and where trigger warnings are used reasonably I am glad that they are, to judge by the other comments here, helping someone.

    But, I often see “trigger warning” used not to actually warn people about a potential trigger, but as an attempt to act like the poster cares about what may trigger people (without having to think about what actually might). I’ve seen trigger warnings slapped on things that just don’t need them and when I do I feel like the poster is trying to use real suffering as a way to gain some degree of cred. Like real suffering is being used as a tool for someone else’s gain. (I think you had something similar, but more articulate to say about Sarah Palin calling out people for using the word “retarded” a while back.) And that pisses me off. Hell, I’m more likely to be upset by what a cheep ploy to use my pain for their gain than I am to be upset by lack of a trigger warning. Personally, and take it for what its worth since trigger warnings when used properly don’t help me, I’d rather no one use them than see them misused like this.