Trigger-Warning Debate Ignores Survivors’ Voices

Trigger warning: Discusses trauma, suicide, sexual assault, child abuse

Dismissing people who suffer emotional distress or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as “insane” or “too sensitive” is definitely not a new phenomenon.

Not that long ago, people with certain psychological symptoms were dismissed as having “hysteria” or “shell shock.” And calling someone “crazy” for expressing their concerns is considered by many professionals to be a common form of mental abuse called “gaslighting.”

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the current debate surrounding the use of trigger warnings on college campuses is full of professionals ignoring and dismissing trauma survivors.

Trigger warnings aren’t a new concept. The blogosphere has been using them for years at the start of articles, videos, etc., as a way to warn users that the material may trigger a negative reaction, such as a panic attack and/or flashbacks to a traumatic event. The warnings can look like “TW: Graphic depiction of rape and war, mention of suicide” or be used as a tag on a post, such as “eating disorder tw,” that users can then utilize browser add-ons to avoid.

Trigger warnings have gained popularity beyond social media as a way to make certain spaces feel safer for those who have suffered trauma. College students have requested their schools consider implementing trigger warnings into classroom syllabi, for example, in order to mentally prepare trauma survivors for potentially triggering material, or give them the chance to drop the class or speak with the professor about alternatives.

The debate about whether we should have trigger warnings is a healthy one. And obviously any debate involves the opinions of individuals who have actually been triggered, right? After all, you wouldn’t have a public debate about race in America without including people of color … right, Fox News?

But recent media on academic trigger warnings has left out the opinions of those who actually know what it feels like to be triggered. The New York Times, in a recent article titled “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm,” features not a single person who identifies as having been triggered. Only one person identifies as a survivor of sexual trauma, and no one bothers asking her if she knows what being triggered feels like. The Times then interviews several people who don’t understand that being triggered is not the same as “being offended.” Greg Lukianoff, the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (which advocates free speech) tells The Times,

Frankly it seems this is sort of an inevitable movement toward people increasingly expecting physical comfort and intellectual comfort in their lives. … It is only going to get harder to teach people that there is a real important and serious value to being offended. Part of that is talking about deadly serious and uncomfortable subjects.

I wish I could say The New York Times is the only source guilty of ignoring the voices of trauma survivors, but that’s not the case. The Guardian, which in one article calls trigger warnings “one small step from book banning,” doesn’t speak to a single survivor. The Huffington Post provides an argument in favor of trigger warnings, yet also doesn’t speak to a survivor. CNN doesn’t. Jezebel (which eschews trigger warnings) doesn’t.

Is it so difficult to find someone who has been triggered who’s willing to give their opinion on academic trigger warnings? Before I wrote this piece, I took to my personal Twitter and Facebook accounts and sent out a request. Within a single day, I had several people coming forward who were eager to share their stories and give their opinions.

So what does it feel like to be triggered?

It’s different for everyone. For Kirsten J., a 25-year-old theater major from Texas who had struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression, it came in several stages. She was required to read a play for class that described a character’s suicide attempt. Kirsten says,

I got halfway through the scene before I had a breakdown. I gave the play to my brother along with several Post-it notes and asked him to read through and to put a post-it note where the scene ended, and tell me any plot-relevant information. I didn’t make it through the whole scene, but what I did get through had me in a deep, borderline suicidal depression for three weeks. There was no trigger warning on the book. There was no warning from my professor. Later that same week, after being required to go see the play be performed, I attempted to overdose on Klonopin and wine. A month later, I was fine. But my professor’s carelessness, and the carelessness of the publisher, nearly cost me my life.

Jordannah Elizabeth, a 27-year-old journalist from San Francisco who suffers severe PTSD following sexual abuse, says feeling triggered is a more subtle event for her,

I become emotionally sensitive, very vulnerable and a bit lethargic. I can be triggered by content. … And lately, being immersed in world news and watching injustice occur toward young girls, teens and college students triggers me.

Jasmine Eclipse, a 21-year-old student who graduates this spring from the University of Oregon, describes being triggered as “emotional trauma and anxiety”:

These flashbacks were often triggered by being on campus, because that’s where I was assaulted, and I would sometimes fall into a sort of trance where everything around me became a blur and I could feel his [the assaulter’s] hands on me. Very trippy.

When authors blithely dismiss trigger warnings, such as when Jill Filipovic of The Guardian called trigger warnings “a way to short-circuit uncomfortable, unpopular or offensive arguments,” they might never have actually listened to someone explain what being triggered feels like. It’s not being “offended.” It’s a reaction to being reminded of a past trauma. It’s shocking that people still haven’t grasped this concept, more than a hundred years after specialists began studying trauma.

Trigger warnings have never been a way for people to avoid “uncomfortable” arguments; they’re a way for people posting content to have empathy for trauma survivors who, without a proper warning, may be sent into a debilitating (and often embarrassing, if it’s in a public space) panic attack.

But should colleges consider requiring trigger warnings on class syllabi? The student government at the University of California, Santa Barbara, seems to think so. Recently they formally called for trigger warnings in their classrooms. And they’re not the only schools that have considered making this change.

Before a decision is made, though, it is crucial we ask people who have been triggered, as they’re the most qualified to speak on the issue.

Mary-Megan Marshall, a 23-year-old survivor of sexual assault from Bridgeport, Conn., says she appreciates trigger warnings online, because they are a way for her to avoid topics that could trigger her. She feels a warning creates a more inclusive environment that could only help survivors:

I think college professors show they care about survivors by providing trigger warnings for their classes. College is an experience of learning, but unfortunately—and this was true in my case—it’s fraught with sexual assault [1 in 5 women will experience rape or attempted rape in their years at college]. Professors can show their understanding and empathy by providing trigger warnings.

Eclipse says the taboo of talking about trauma is hindering the debate:

I feel like transparency isn’t completely respected when it comes to these topics, because people either don’t want to talk about the issue, or they’re completely insensitive about it. … My professors spoke about [the alleged rape of a woman from the University of Oregon by three basketball players] in class, which I thought was really unprofessional and uncalled for. That girl could have been sitting in our class and no one would have known.

Another popular talking point is that trigger warnings could serve as an excuse for students to get out of doing required work. This was not the case for Kirsten, who wanted to read the play required for her class but who wished she had known about its triggering content:

If the syllabus had mentioned talk of suicide and the fictional portrayal of a suicide attempt, I could have contacted my teacher to find out where the content was located in the script and avoided it much more easily.

But not everyone who has been triggered agrees that requiring trigger warnings is the clear-cut answer to helping survivors. There are those who argue triggers can be too specific to avoid entirely. Survivors can be triggered by things as specific as a name or sound, which trigger warnings cannot necessarily protect people from.

Roman R., a 28-year-old from Washington, D.C., who is a survivor of both rape and child abuse, believes trigger warnings may take away from the important process of learning to deal with those triggering subjects:

I have had panic attacks after viewing content containing graphic child abuse and rape. I think my stance is generational because we didn’t have trigger warnings when I was growing up, since social media wasn’t really a thing when I was a teenager. I think it’s helpful for people to learn to handle difficult subjects. However, I don’t live in other people’s heads and I absolutely do not begrudge their asking for [trigger warnings].

You may believe students who are susceptible to being triggered should know this about themselves and research items on their class syllabi to check for triggering material. Or you may feel that being triggered is an inevitable part of life that we can’t protect people from. Maybe you feel that providing trigger warnings is a way for our society to move toward building empathy for survivors and those with PTSD. No matter the opinion you form from these debates, don’t make the mistake of ignoring the voices of the very people you’re debating about.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alessandra under Creative Commons 2.0.


Ponta Abadi, a graduate of the University of Oregon, is a former Ms. intern. Follow her on Twitter.