Nonfiction

trigger warning

2 March 2015

Trigger warning: references to rape and sexual violence, PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicide

“She’ll kill him! She’s going to kill him!”

My friends watch good Netflix drama like other people watch sport: boisterously.

Watching the woman stare, trembling, into his eyes, I have a sinking feeling. The character isn’t going to kill her abusive ex-husband. She’s going to kill herself.

Ten minutes later, my silent prediction comes true as she jumps from a roof, ending the episode. There are gasps, then everyone packs up the popcorn kernels and fuzzy blankets and retreats to bed.

I sit very still on the sofa and begin to disassociate. A feeling like I am a head floating on a wax doll body, a loose skin bag filled with static.

Time passes, blotted out by the huge roaring things that fight inside me. They redecorate, ripping out breath and blood and organs and leaving a clamour of raw nerves, a white-noise wound. They do not leave a core, only a vacuum.

I am hugged against my best friend’s chest, shaking.

“I’m so sorry… I ruined the… I… they must think I’m… so f-fucking weird. Pathetic. You…. I’m so sorry. You – you should just trade me in. Trade me in for a friend who isn’t faulty. D-d-d-defective. I’m defective.”

“Shhh. We love you just as you are.”

“I just knew she was going to… because so many of us do. We survive, but then we’re so traumatised that- that we…w-w-we kill ourselves… I’ve… wanted to. For so long.”

A week later and I am in class. I’m not familiar with the classical world, but Ovid is being studied. He revels in his lover’s reluctance to remove her clothes, how she turns from him, the tussle. As we progress through reading the poem, I realise he is revelling in rape. An iron hand closes around my throat, familiar static starts up in my guts. The discussion ticks by, words like romance and desire are thrown around, echo in my blank head. I want to cry. I can’t cry. I can’t leave the room. I can’t make a scene. I can’t breathe. A girl across the room says in a frowning voice how violent and rapey the poem is – not romantic at all! I look to her with the gratitude of a mortal saved by a good angel. The tutor looks nervous. “Yes, well, that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it?”


If I read one more pseudo-intellectual op-ed written by an ‘academic’ on how trigger warnings are a product of an “outrage culture” that “cocoons millennials” from “offence and uncomfortable feelings”, I’m going to rip my eyeballs out and feed them to the local university pigeons.

I’ve only recently shaken off the shame and begun speaking publicly about my personal experience with PTSD, so it’s only recently that I’ve realised how deep this anti-trigger warning sentiment goes. Everyone seems to feel the need to weigh in: academics, tutors and lecturers, paid opinion-mongers writing for blogs and online magazines, and even one-time friends on my personal Facebook page.

Anti-trigger warning proponents overwhelmingly have one thing in common: they are not trauma survivors and thus do not need trigger warnings themselves. Yet, disturbingly, they feel qualified to debate the value of trigger warnings and even question the validity of triggers. Attempting to ‘debate’ a trauma survivor on the value of trigger warnings is equivalent to walking up to someone in a wheelchair and presenting an argument against the installation of ramps and elevators on campus. Put simply, you come off looking like an ignorant jackass.

I’ve collected a few of the arguments against trigger warnings (henceforth TWs) below. Let me break down for you why they are absolute tripe.

“Students shouldn’t be cocooned against things they find offensive or uncomfortable because they’ll end up weak.”
My response to this argument is angry and three-pronged:
1) Offence is not my problem. Discomfort is not my problem. PTSD is my fucking problem.
2) Conflating mental illness and weakness stigmatises mental illness.
3)
 How are you able to study or teach at a bastion of critical thinking when you can’t seem to think critically enough to differentiate between “offence”, “uncomfortable feelings” and mental illness?

If you’ll permit me one cliché – healing from trauma can be a long and arduous journey. You, the onlooker, do not get to decide what material a traumatised person should be up to encountering, or when and where they should encounter it. Anti-TW arguments overwhelmingly rest on the assumption that unexpected exposure to triggering material will somehow toughen survivors up like a callus. Demanding survivors face triggering material to ‘toughen up’, however, is akin to sticking your fingers in someone’s open wound and claiming to heal them – in reality, you’re going do more damage, slow the healing process and probably give them an infection to boot. Survivors sometimes spend hundreds of dollars an hour on therapy to work through the knotty snarls of trauma at our own pace. We are bravely fighting to break free of flashbacks, nightmares, and the accompanying depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Yet anti-TW proponents have the staggering arrogance to suggest that they know better – better than a trained therapist and better than a person living through trauma. “Simply have your worst nightmares thrust upon you in front of a lecture hall full of 100 strangers and you‘ll end up harder, better, faster, stronger!” they advise. And if you refuse? Well, you‘re cocooned and weak and pathetic. Typical millennial.

“It‘s too much work for the academic to go through every bit of material they will be teaching to identify triggers and post trigger warnings.”
How on earth are lecturers so unfamiliar with what they’re teaching that they can’t post an outline of the general content and themes? Knowing the material inside out and upside down is a lecturer‘s paid job. So why is writing a few sentences about potential triggers consistently characterised as some kind of Herculean effort? Even if we were to entertain for a moment that doing so was a difficult or time-consuming job (it’s not), we don’t make similar arguments against accessibility for the physically disabled. You’d sound like a movie villain if you argued, “Oh no, we can’t afford to put in ramps or elevators to improve accessibility for the physically disabled. It will require too much effort on the behalf of the university staff and building contractors…”

“PTSD isn’t very commonplace, and anyway, triggers are very subjective. We can never hope to give an exhaustive list that covers every student’s potential triggers – so what’s the point?”
A 2007 survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicates that 6.4% of the Australian population is living with PTSD at any one time. This means that in a subject of 100 students, there are six or seven people who need trigger warnings. To use one horribly commonplace example, study after study shows that 1 in 4 women* will be sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime, and about half of these sexual assault survivors will develop PTSD. If you have a subject of 80 people, and half of those are women, then you have roughly five people who need trigger warnings for content involving rape/sexual assault.

*Non-binary trans people, transwomen and women of colour are disproportionately victims of sexual abuse and violence, at higher rates than cis women. I recognise and wish to include their struggles but do not speak for them.

In addition, triggers are not necessarily as subjective as you’d think. Other very obviously sensitive content that needs TWs includes suicide, gore, violence, war, street harassment, pedophilia, child abuse and domestic abuse, as well as homophobia, transphobia, and racism.

“You should just take responsibility for your own mental health! Email your lecturers! Stop expecting other people to take care of you!”
People who need TWs should not have to ‘come out’ to acquaintances about their abuse histories for trigger warnings to be made available to them. Often, cold-calling a stranger or teacher about these personal struggles without knowing how that stranger will react can be extremely anxiety-inducing, or even triggering in itself. Funnily enough, trauma survivors also have every reason to believe – thanks to the plethora of academics writing articles about how people who need TWs are weak and pathetic – that a lecturer will treat them as if they’re weak and pathetic.

Taking the time to compile a list of TWs fosters an atmosphere of respect towards survivors – it sends the message that triggers are being taken seriously. This respect may empower those whose triggers haven’t been included on TW lists to reach out and write an email to their lecturer without fear of humiliation.

“We don’t want to spoil the material for students who don’t need trigger warnings.”
Do you understand how intra-university communication works? It is very simple to make a separate page on the LMS entitled “Trigger Warnings for Subject Content” and to have that page link to a PDF with trigger warnings so students can choose whether the course material is ‘spoiled’ for them. Setting this up would take all of 20 minutes, and sending the document out in an email would take even less time.

“You can’t just avoid the topic forever!”
This shows a misunderstanding of what a survivor will do when forewarned of triggering material. Just as no two trauma histories are the same, so it goes that no two reactions will be the same. Maybe we will miss the class that discusses that triggering text. Maybe we will listen to that lecture at home with a hot cup of tea and warm blanket on hand, instead of subjecting ourselves to triggering material in front of a full lecture hall. For some, the phrase ‘forewarned is forearmed’ rings true – maybe we will turn up to the lecture and the tutorial psychologically prepared for what is to come and engage fully with the material.

Ultimately, it is up to survivors and their mental health professionals to decide what they can handle, be it a little bit, a lot, or nothing at all. It is up to you to get the fuck out of our way with your unwanted, uninformed opinions as we fight the good fight, make the choices right for us, and find a way back to peace and empowerment.

For information and support about mental health, please visit www.beyondblue.org.au or call 1300 22 4636. If you or someone you know need urgent help, you can Lifeline on 13 11 14 (www.lifeline.org.au) or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 (www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au).

To contact any CASA (Centre Against Sexual Assault) in Victoria and the after hours Sexual Assault Crisis Line (SACL) simply call 1800 806 292 or email SACL at ahcasa@thewomens.org.au

UMSU Legal Service: Level Three Union House, (03) 8344 6546


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