The Sexist

Sexist Comments of the Week: Trigger Warning Edition

Last week, I asked you all for your thoughts on the use of trigger warnings on this blog. Sixty-seven comments later, I've come to a decision about how this blog will deal with potentially triggering material on topics like sexual assault, abuse, and eating disorders.

But first, your thoughts:

Emily H. says no thanks:

Definitely don’t want you to add trigger warnings. I don’t object to their being used sometimes, & I can appreciate the idea that a feminist blog should be a “safe space” of sorts where women don’t have to fear seeing traumatic subjects discussed insensitively. But the way it’s used on many blogs is just ridiculous—if a post has rape or assault in the title/subject matter, the writer will put a warning, even if there’s nothing in the post more graphic than the word “rape.” I’ve seen it even with less violent topics like a woman being called called a bitch… which I suppose could be triggering to a woman who’s been verbally harassed… but it just seems like major overkill. & anyway, the amount of asshole comments this blog gets renders the “safe space” idea moot.

Bottom line, I don’t think it’s necessary unless a post contains graphic details of a rape or other violent act, & the title /intro para are so innocuous that they don’t indicate what’s ahead. Which is rare, & doesn’t seem likely to happen here.

Lauren says please do:

As someone recovering from an eating disorder, I am always grateful to see trigger warnings in particularly intense ED-related articles. I assume the same would be true for survivors of sexual assault.

Trigger-warnings are nothing more than an occassional annoyance for the average reader, but for those who are survivors of trauma, trigger warnings are a kind, helpful gesture. I support the use of them.

Kay Steiger says if you do warn, be specific:

Because trigger warnings are used for such a wide range of things, seeing one often makes me wonder why the warning is in place. Perhaps the trigger warnings, if employed (I, like you Amanda, don’t use them and feel agnostic on whether they should be used) should be more specific. For instance, “Trigger warning: the following post explicitly describes the details of a violent sexual assault.” seems more preferable than a flat “trigger warning” that is unspecific. I could see how a victim of rape might be interested in reading about policies surrounding sexual assault but may not want to read about the details of others’ sexual assaults because it hits too close to home.

Mazzie says if you contextualize correctly, there's no need to warn:

I am a survivor of sexual assault who has worked for many years with other survivors in a variety of capacities, so I am pretty familiar with triggers and trigger warnings. I do certainly think trigger warnings have their place—usually when talk about or depictions of sexual assault are unexpected. (For instance, I kind of wish “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” had one.) As a fairly regular reader of your column, however, I never feel like I “stumble upon” material that might be triggering. You’re pretty unambiguous and upfront about your topics. It’s not as if you write a headline about cupcakes and dive into a graphic depiction of an assault. I don’t think you’re an asshole.

Mmmm, cupcakes.

Jenny makes the point that this blog attracts so many horrific comments that trigger warnings may actually be misleading:

I often find the comments here to be very, very upsetting. But I know that you have a very liberal commenting policy, so if I not feeling up to hearing about how dumb sluts deserve to get raped, or whatnot, I don’t read the comments. To me, trigger warnings make more sense in a heavily moderated blog that makes an effort to be a safe space. Here, there is no such promise, so I think trigger warnings don’t really make a lot of sense.

I really appreciate everyone weighing in on this issue. After a great deal of thought, I've decided that I won't be placing explicit "trigger warnings" on this blog. Jenny's right: This is not a safe space. I write a feminist column for a general-interest newspaper, which tends to attract some, ahem, alternate perspectives. On the City Paper website, comments are open to everyone but the most persistent of trolls (who are largely banned, it should be noted, over annoying behavior, not misogynist vitriol). As a result, the comments section of this blog is almost uniformly horrific—with some really wonderful insight thrown in there from regular commenters, whom I appreciate very much. Commenters should feel free to flag comments they don't want to tolerate on the blog, but at this point I have neither the time nor the inclination to reign in the comments section myself.

I realize that the open comments section here creates a sometimes inhospitable environment for hosting conversations about sexual assault. I also know that not all of the potentially triggering material on this blog comes from rogue commenters—a lot of it comes from me. Much of the work I do on sexual assault deals in specific, sometimes horrifying, detail. It also engages specifically with people who shame and blame sexual assault victims. This blog can be graphic, disturbing, and to some people, triggering, but as a journalist and a feminist, I think this work is necessary to prevent people from ignoring, discounting, or excusing sexual assault.

That being said, I know that this type of conversation isn't one that every reader will be interested in engaging in at any time. The debate over trigger warnings has reminded me that whether or not a blog uses a trigger warning, material dealing with sexual assault ought to be presented with sensitivity and care, and in a way that allows blog visitors to opt out of reading it at all. So: When I'm writing about potentially triggering subjects, I will make an effort to craft clear, specific headlines which alert readers to the subject of the blog. I will attempt to place any potentially triggering details after the break so that they don't appear on the blog's home page. In the introductory paragraphs of the post, I will describe the material I'm about to present, so readers can judge for themselves what they want to read and what they want to skip. And because I know that everyone's trigger is different, I'll listen to your suggestions on how to do this better. If any graphic or disturbing material sneaks up on you by surprise, please let me know by e-mail or in the comments so I can amend the post, increase the context, or do better next time.

Photo via Let Ideas Compete, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • vroom

    100% awesome.

    Like a year ago there was a letter sent into Bitch complaining that they failed to put a trigger warning on a cartoon they published in which a woman described a bondage fantasy. Bitch replied in a manner pretty similar to this.

  • basketcasey

    I think the way you plan to go on about the situation is even better than just the words "trigger warning" slapped at the top of an article. I can't think of any specific examples, but I read a ton of blogs that leave it at that and it's pretty much useless because it doesn't explain at all what the trigger might be, leading a person to just read the post to figure it out and potentially get triggered in the process, especially since most bloggers are not journalist and don't understand how to write effective headlines or titles.

    So I actually think that your plans are how trigger warnings should be across the board, is basically what I'm trying to extract from the novel I just wrote.

  • Maggie

    Pretty much sounds like you're going to be doing trigger warnings, just without using the words "trigger warning".

  • rebekah manning

    thanks amanda, I really appreciate this

  • Vee

    Sounds perfect. I think noting specific possibly triggering content is much much more helpful than the general "trigger warning" label, and also, I very much agree with the fact that this work is necessary to prevent people from ignoring, discounting, or excusing sexual assault. Exactly. In internet jargon, you're kind of my favorite.