Joanna Schroeder explores the overuse of the term “Trigger Warning” in the blogosphere, and wonders whether the term actually serves to undermine the security of trauma survivors.
Editor’s note: This post originally ran in 2012, but we are republishing it due to renewed interest.
If you spend any time in the blogosphere, you’ve inevitably seen the phrase “Trigger Warning” alerting readers that there will be talk of sexual abuse or graphic descriptions of violence.
But lately trigger warnings have gotten completely out of hand. One article a friend sent me had the following trigger warnings:
Trigger Warning: ableism, anti-gay sentiment (more of both at the link)
(mod note: Trigger Warning for Dan Savage in general: anti-ace, anti-trans, ableism, possibly anti-intersex, misgendering trans people. I can’t give a specific trigger warning for the link because, well, it’s Dan Savage and I ain’t touching it.)
(mod note2: I also added an anti-left-handed tag for this one. I never thought I’d need that, but right-handed people do have some privilege… Being left-handed is a choice, what the fuck?)
Let’s cut straight to it: These trigger warnings are ridiculous. They minimize the importance of the instances when trigger warnings are necessary, which are actually quite rare.
As an editor, I urge other editors and bloggers to consider this: Trigger warnings should only be used in cases when there is a graphic description of sexual violence, violence and/or war, child abuse or sexual abuse, and sometimes (depending upon context) graphic sexuality.
And they should only be used when the title and/or subtitle don’t make clear that the content of the article will contain the above topics. For instance, if the title of an article is “The Crimes of Jerry Sandusky”, no trigger warning should be necessary as anybody who may be triggered by discussion of sexual abuse should consider avoiding the article. Let’s bear in mind that adult survivors are adults and not infants. They don’t need to be babied, they need to be respected.
If, however, I post an article with a title like, “The Lifecycle of Tomatoes” that contains a graphic description of a sexual assault 3/4 of the way through, I have a responsibility to either post a subtitle that hints at the violence contained within, or to post a Trigger Warning. I don’t want a sexual assault survivor thinking he or she is going to read a lovely story about summertime gardening, only to discover the section too late, when he or she could have avoided that added anxiety. However, the actual term “trigger warning” should be my last-ditch option.
The use of subtitles or introductions that allow a person a peek into the content without having to deeply engage can be very helpful. For instance, a subtitle for the Tomatoes piece could be like, “Bob Smith looks back on the summer he survived a sexual assault”, which would serve as a sufficient trigger warning without implying that survivors are a group who must be babied or even feared.
The subtitle trick is really easy when it comes to sexualized content: “Barb Smith weaves an engrossing and highly sexualized tale of her college years at Mt Holyoke.” If I hadn’t have just made that one up, I would totally read that, but someone who knows that highly sexualized content is troubling for them will know to avoid it.
Again, this isn’t always necessary. On my personal blog, where we dispense sex and dating advice, we have stopped using “NC-17 Content” warnings, as we realized that our site’s mission implied sexuality. If, however, one of our articles about the clitoris or anal sex appears elsewhere, it requires a descriptive title, subtitle or if the first two are impossible, an outright warning.
So why does the overuse of trigger warnings matter? Isn’t it always better to be overly careful than risk a problem?
I asked Licensed Social Worker Bethany Bateman her opinion on the multiple trigger warnings we see everyday in the blogosphere. To provide context, she explained the history of the term “triggers” as a reference to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which first gained traction as a diagnosis during and after the Vietnam War.
Once a mental illness is established as being ‘real’, then begins the proliferation of research into how to ‘fix’ it – which can’t be established without understanding as much as possible the mechanisms going on behind it. And so came into awareness the concept of how external ‘triggers’ cause flashbacks – more than an unpleasant or uncomfortable feeling, but for all intents and purposes to the sufferer, an absolutely real reliving of the trauma for them: indeed, the processes that occur in the brain during the flashback or reliving are remarkably similar to what happens in the brain during the trauma itself. Notably, the DSM actually uses the term ‘cues’ rather than ‘triggers.’
I also asked Bateman what could be the consequences of a possible overuse of the term “trigger”.
When writers take ‘trigger warnings’ so far as to warn about things that may be, well, merely disturbing to some, like reading about ‘left-handed sentiment’ or attachment issues, it concerns me that it’s making a mockery of the concept and undermining what someone with PTSD might actually go through when experiencing a flashback.
Ultimately, we know that wanting to warn readers about potentially troubling content comes from a good place. We want survivors of trauma to feel safe reading content on our blogs and in our magazines, but we need to bear in mind that the excessive use of the word “trigger”, to the point where it loses its meaning or efficacy, only creates a less safe environment for readers.
Bateman has one more thought:
I recognize the possibility that trying to frame the argument in this way might lead to accusations of trying to create a ‘hierarchy of pain,’ when obviously, pain in any form is very real to its sufferer. But distinguishing one kind of pain or experience from another doesn’t have to mean that one is more or less valid — just that different experiences of pain warrant different considerations and, practically speaking, can also be more or less disabling to the sufferer.
Good point. Shaming, bigotry or any of the contenders in what some call the “Oppression Olympics” are equally valid concerns, but not all of them constitute the severity of reactions associated with PTSD, which is most commonly caused by sexual violence, war traumas, and childhood abuse and neglect. Let’s try to keep these things in mind as we write and publish, and also make an effort to curb the overuse of the term “trigger warning”.
What do you think of the term “Trigger Warning”? Is it necessary?
Do you feel these warnings are being overused?
If you are a survivor of a past trauma, do you find trigger warnings helpful or problematic? Have you ever been blindsided by content that triggered you, and wished you’d been warned? If so, where does the responsibility for that lie?
Image of tomato courtesy of Shutterstock