I’ve been fascinated by the dust-up over “trigger warnings” that’s inched across the feminist blogosphere this week. “Trigger warnings,” for the uninitiated, are warnings placed before blog posts that touch on certain subject areas (or particularly graphic presentations of them) that could possibly “trigger” the past trauma of a survivor of sexual assault or abuse. So: To trigger-warn or not to trigger-warn?
The debate over the feminist blog staple began with sex writer Susannah Breslin, who thinks trigger warnings are condescending at best, and a disingenuous ploy to keep feminist blogs relevant at worst. The topic then migrated to Feministing, which employs trigger warnings for the simple reason that it “care[s] about rape victims.” Feministing declared Breslin a “certifiable asshole,” at which point the debate moved on to Jezebel, which doesn’t employ trigger warnings, also cares about rape victims, and thinks Breslin is an asshole, too. (For the record, I think Breslin is an asshole, and that’s often what makes her work compelling to this feminist, anyway). Melissa McEwan shies from the Breslin: Asshole? angle, but does provide the most impassioned defense of the warnings, writing:
A trigger is something that evokes survived trauma or ongoing disorder. For example, a person who was raped may be “triggered,” i.e. reminded of hir rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.
Those of us who write about triggering topics (sexual assault, violence, detainee torture, war crimes, disordered eating, suicide, etc.) provide trigger warnings with such content because we don’t want to inadvertently cause someone who’s, say, sitting at her desk at work, a full-blown panic attack because she happened to read a triggering post the content of which she was unprepared for.
We provide trigger warnings because they give survivors of various stripes the option to assess whether they’re in a state of mind to deal with triggering material before they stumble across it. Just like someone who isn’t easily triggered can nonetheless have, say, a shorter temper when stressed or tired or hungry, a person whose history of trauma makes some material triggering for them can often navigate triggering material without a problem, except when stressed or tired or hungry. Trigger warnings give them a moment to consider whether they want to deal with potentially triggering material right now.
We provide trigger warnings because it’s polite, because we don’t want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance.
My personal position on trigger warnings is pretty clear to regular readers—-you won’t see a trigger warning on this blog. Unlike Breslin, I don’t think trigger warnings are some sort of page-view ploy or a harbinger of the End of Feminist Days. But like Breslin, it seems that neglecting to trigger-warn does make me kind of an asshole.
I’ll likely never stop being an asshole, but I am open to reconsidering my position on the warnings, and I’d like to know what my readers think about that. So: What are your thoughts on trigger warnings? Survivors, do you find trigger warnings effective? Are triggers too personal to be avoided with a blanket warning? What about feminist blogs that write about potentially triggering subjects in nearly every post (hi there!)? Anyone got a feminist argument against trigger warnings up their sleeves? How big of an asshole am I? Discuss.
Photo via Let Ideas Compete, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0