Sunday, 22 July 2012

Trigger warning: trigger warnings

One focus of work with survivors of sexual violence is learning to understand and manage triggers to symptoms of trauma.  They can be as seemingly innocuous as smelling something; having someone look at you in a way which suggests they want to be sexual with you; walking past a place that reminds you of where you were raped or sexually abused.

Triggers cause flashbacks, replays of the event associated with the trauma.  This might make someone feel terrified or frozen or helpless or numb.  How your mind and body dealt with the original event - literally how your brain chemistry recorded it - will have an enormous impact on whether you have flashbacks, or avoid situations/triggers, or can recall anything at all.  Learning to manage this is one of the most important aspects of being able to thrive after surviving victimisation.

But "trigger warning" in the feminist blogosphere is used much more broadly, as a kind of cultural marker for pain and trauma in a variety of ways.  It's used to warn about content which may be difficult, traumatising or potentially re-traumatising to read.  A way of looking after each other.  I love that care, but want to acknowledge how potentially difficult it is when we are all triggered by different things.  At what point does "trigger warning" lose meaning?

Personally, I am triggered by portrayals or words which depict or celebrate or fail to question power over situations, oppressive situations, dominance being acted out, historical or current.  So watching a film about slavery say, not my experience, and I'm white, but I will feel pain that will sit with me, pain that is about not understanding how people can treat each other that way, not understanding - on an emotional level - how white privilege enables white people to disconnect from the humanity of people of colour in such brutal, dominating ways.

Reading Michael Laws spewing forth racial and class hatred or watching Paul Henry laughing at anyone who isn't a white, middle-class, non-disabled heterosexual man - it's not that those views exist that I find triggering, it's that they are available in New Zealand's mainstream media, giving them an audience and cultural validity.  It's the fact that their hatred gets minimised by many New Zealanders, letting us off the hook in terms of considering structural oppression.

Living in a world which denigrates and discriminates against queer and trans people, and experiencing queer hatred myself makes me sensitive to the ways it is mobilised to construct heterosexuality as "normal", rather than common.  Hearing others pretend that transphobia, biphobia and homophobia do not exist or are not that big a deal - from both within and outside the queer community - triggering because they attempt to erase all the myriad ways oppression plays out around desire and gender identity.  They literally attempt to rewrite experiences of pain in my life, and lives of people I love.

I can't watch portrayals of violent sex, even when I know it's consensual.  It triggers dozens of stories in my head.  I can't watch with any comfort portrayals of any kind of sex where one participant is not enthusiastically into what is happening.  Same reason.  The enormity of how common disembodied sexual experiences are, sex where one person is putting up with something, or feels they have to participate, or is too frightened to say no - for me, these things are an integral part of rape culture, they are typically highly gendered, and I don't want to see them. 

Yet I hear those kinds of stories often, in work and outside.  Last month, in three different social situations one week, three women told me about being raped.  The last time I caught a cab for work, my taxi driver disclosed a very complex family situation of child abuse, and took details of a local specialist agency I suggested she access for help.  I feel like in order to be able to be with people who need to talk about sexual violence, I have to monitor how much I see, hear or read about sexual violence and supports for sexual violence in pop culture.  Which means missing a good chunk of media representations of sex, despite how much I love and feel joy in sexual play. 

Obviously these triggers are mine, while probably not alone, but some might be considered a good night out by other people.  For me, oppression is trauma in millions of micro experiences, all the time.  Trigger warnings help me monitor on what level I'll allow myself to be exposed to oppression today.  But I think we need to think carefully about why and how we use them if we want them to be effective ways of caring for each other, and mindful too of the complexities of difference.


Deborah said...

I've noticed that on Shakesville, instead of saying "Trigger warning", they've taken to saying, "Content note", and giving a brief description of the content, in 10 to 20 words. This looks to me to be far more useful than just a vague indication that the contents might be difficult or triggering for some people.

LudditeJourno said...

Hey Deborah - that's interesting, and might be a way forward, thanks for sharing. Sometimes it's good to examine the sacred cows I think :-)

Anonymous said...

Agree with what you say about trigger warnings. They can be useful and definitely are a lot of the time, but I think it's pointless to use them in certain cases i.e. when a word is mentioned in a post but not talked about or described - putting a trigger warning that also contains the word...well it makes no difference. If you're triggered by the mention of a word like "rape" then the trigger warning is going to be just as triggering as the post.

In all other cases I think trigger warnings are useful and it's better to err on the side of caution. There are few negative side effects of over-warning compared to the huge side effects of not warning and someone being triggered.


DPF:TLDR said...

There was an interesting discussion of trigger warnings on Noseriouslywhataboutthemenz lately where a commenter noted that it is possible to be too free with trigger warnings - if you use them on every post, or almost every post, people start to gloss over them, and will do so even when they would benefit from one.

I think the "content note" sounds like a good idea.

LudditeJourno said...

Hey Hugh, can you flick us that link? Be interested to read that post. Thanks, LJ

Maia said...

I find this discussion really interesting. I've never used trigger reasons, but not for any of the reasons discussed here. Basically I know that I would never be able to use them reliably - that's just how my brain works (I can't even reliably label my posts anymore because of the new layout of blogger). So I thought about it a bit and decided it was much more likely to cause harm to have trigger warnings and then sometimes forget, than to never have trigger warnings.

I do have more general concerns about trigger warnings though - particularly on blogs that are dedicated to talking about what's wrong with the world and how to change it (which broadly most feminist blogs are).

I think it might be very different in a forum like tumblr where even an individual tumblr might be "Buffy animated gif" "Picture from Game of Thrones" "animated gif of Joss Whedon", description of someone's experience of rape, picture from sesaeme street. And then on the aggregate (which is how many people experience tumblr) the dissonance is even worse.

Recently I was having a discussion and a friend talked about trying to set up: "spaces that were safe for Maori and grappled with colonialism." But of course the more you do the second the harder it is to set up the first - because the more likely it is that someone will say something awful - or that someone will say something triggering.

Talking about oppression is an incredibly triggering thing to do - and people are very different and triggered by very different things. And I'm not sure that trigger warnings really deal with that adequately. I worry about the messages it sends to people whose triggers are different from those things that are seen as needing trigger warnings.

Together these things have led me to want to work in spaces that are clearly grappling with the nature of oppression and therefore not safe - although obviously there are serious pitfalls to that approach too.

DPF:TLDR said...

That's a very good point Maia. Really the only truly conscientious way to use trigger warnings is to put them on everything, since everything potentially -could- be triggering - the colour yellow, cupcakes, rock music, anything.

Very broadly, this is not the practice, which does essentially set up a "tier" of triggers which are defacto treated as more or less valid. I mean, I'm sure most people would agree that people have just as much right to be triggered by the colour yellow as by blow-by-blow descriptions of rapes or assaults, but in practice the second one receives much greater deference.

@LJ: I'll try but not right now, it's nearly 3AM and I should have been asleep ages ago. Also, a warning, a lot of the discussion in that post is not IMO very useful and is potentially quite offensive (and - ironically - triggering)

DPF:TLDR said...

@LJ: Here's the link:

LudditeJourno said...

Hey Maia, thank you, actually I think those things are related to what I was trying to raise. And I completely agree with you about grappling with oppression being inherently triggering. When I think about workshop type things I do, I talk about wanting to challenge people's comfort levels while still being "safe", but that's more around talking and thinking about privilege than experiences of domination. Interesting.
Hugh, thank you, will have a read when I'm feeling robust :-)

Anonymous said...

Hugh - while everything can be a trigger when catering to an audience it does seem respectful and courteous to at least try and cover the main and most common triggers. Obviously there are valid reasons that Maia raises for not doing so, but I don't think saying "rape is a very common trigger" is invalidating or lessening people who do find the colour yellow triggering (or whatever other less common example you want to use). On many blogs the readers with less common triggers are encouraged to make those known so the blog writers can warn for them and cater to their audience. I guess it's important to be clear with people about your boundaries, and triggers form an important part of that as far as I feel.


anthea said...

Thanks for starting this interesting discussion, LJ.

I agree with Maia that context is important - there are things I warn for elsewhere that I wouldn't warn for on THM, because they're things I think the reader would expect to be mentioned regularly on a feminist blog. To me a trigger warning is doing my best of warn of _unexpectedly_ upsetting circumstances.

On the subject of common triggers, when I had active PTSD, one of my full-on flashback-inducing triggers was one that no-one would think to warn for and would likely not even seem negative to people who are not me - and I don't think this is an unusual experience at all.

I never felt it problematic, from a personal perspective, that people would warn for the usual things and not for my personal trigger(s). But what did make me a bit uncomfortable was how triggers were always explained in the context of the medical situation I was in, when I actually don't feel that's the most relevant thing going on when people give generic trigger warnings. I sometimes felt like people had co-opted the language of PTSD because it somehow didn't feel okay to warn about commonly upsetting things simply because people commonly find them distressing - and it should be okay. This is not to say that people with PTSD don't get triggered by common things, and don't benefit from warnings - they do - but I think the practice of trigger warnings has a better correlation with common causes or triggers of distress rather than actual triggers in a medical sense, and I'd feel more comfortable if that was acknowledged.

LudditeJourno said...

Anthea - thank you so much for that - and yes, you're absolutely right on PTSD triggers, unsurprisingly.
One of the things I have been feeling increasingly uncomfortable about in the feminist blogosphere is how divorced from the original way "trigger" is understood in sexual violence contexts, even while, it seems to me, those using "trigger warning" think they are using it in a way derived from sexual violence. That's one of the things I was trying to explore here by defining how it's used in the sexual violence response sector. Sometimes we do harm, in my opinion, when we appropriate language without understanding it adequately.

Anonymous said...

I think the other thing to remember too is it's not just PTSD that can be triggered. Autistic meltdowns, OCD,eating disorders - all those sorts of things can be triggered. Ditto for various mental health issues like psychosis (and its variants). I think those things are important to remember because so often the dialogue gets dominated by PTSD triggers.


anthea said...

Yup, absolutely, me - and those things can be related. I don't think the term 'trigger' needs to be restricted to PTSD at all - but I am dubious about talking about PTSD when that's not the actual or main reason the warnings are provided.