How I Use Trigger Warnings

So The Atlantic published another (another?!) article about trigger warnings this week, meaning my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of outraged baby boomers yet again. Trigger warnings have become emblematic of the over-sensitivity and out of control political correctness of my generation, if you believe the media and its breathless coverage of the “trend” across college campuses to include them in course materials. Millennials demand trigger warnings to protect themselves from opinions that vary from their own, according to said coverage. We want to avoid upsetting topics and silence anything provocative or difficult. Slap an “offensive” label on classic American literature like The Great Gatsby?! The horror!

I have something to confess. As a result of being born in 1992 (gasp!), I am a millennial. I attended one of the most liberal of all liberal arts universities in the United States, not-so-affectionately dubbed “Politically Correct University.” I am also a feminist, a blogger, and a member of the new media industry. Shockingly, I use trigger warnings. Not to avoid topics I disagree with, to screen out upsetting material or to remain in my blissful liberal bubble. My friends and I use trigger warnings as a display of respect for each other’s difficult experiences and to engage with challenging content when we are best equipped to do so.

It is important to note that I am only speaking from my experience and the experiences of my friends. I am not speaking for all survivors, for individuals who live with PTSD, for individuals who struggle with addiction, or anyone who wrangles with their mental health. This is how I, a 23-year-old, white, cis-gender, mostly straight woman who is a survivor of emotional abuse, use trigger warnings.

First and foremost, in my life, trigger warnings are about accessibility. A trigger warning on a piece (or provided by a friend who recommends something for me to read) allows me to reflect on whether or not I am in a place, physically and emotionally, to read or watch content that poses a risk to my state of mind. This is not about sensitivity; this is about avoiding a panic attack when I’m browsing articles to skim between meetings at the office. If I come across an interesting-looking first person essay about domestic violence, I cannot read that when I am about to have dinner with my parents or before a big conference call.

The Atlantic article might call this “fortune-telling,” the claim that I am telling myself I will be upset by a piece of content and I somehow make it so. That’s not the case. I know I cannot read essays about domestic violence while at the office because of that one time I read the tweets of the #IStandWithJackie hashtag campaign and wound up hyperventilating in the women’s bathroom for thirty minutes. Now I partition off time for myself in the event that I have to share a potentially triggering piece of content on social media for my job, which happens every so often as awareness of domestic violence is something TED considers an Idea Worth Spreading. Trigger warnings allow me to manage that dark corner of my carefully compartmentalized brain, opening up the trap door to difficult topics only when I am best suited to do so. They aren’t avoidance, they’re about intentional engagement.

As an aside, to suggest that survivors are setting themselves up to feel like shit by telling themselves they will is to say that trauma is a “mind over matter” issue. That is not the case. And comparing trauma to a fear of elevators, as The Atlantic does, is astoundingly disrespectful. Trauma is not an irrational phobia, and believe me, I have plenty of experience with both. We also do not force people with phobias to confront them immediately and at the whim of other people (such as snooty journalists). You would not shove someone with a phobia of elevators into an elevator because it’s good for them. Presumably they would choose to go to a psychologist who would help them overcome their phobia in a slow, healthy way, with intention.

This photo choice isn't condescending at all!
This photo choice isn’t condescending at all!

Trigger warnings also help me engage with content when I can actually get something out of the piece. If a potentially triggering essay comes up on my feed, I’ll set it aside and read it when I get home and can devote some time and energy to it. I will go slowly, enjoying it even if I’m unsettled by the subject matter. I like being challenged by essays that are similar to my experiences; they help me understand my own feelings. Reading triggering material was crucial for me to heal from my traumatic relationship because it helped me understand that I wasn’t alone. But I needed to wait until I was ready, until I felt safe, until I felt supported.

I think the only content I have not read whatsoever because I knew it would be triggering is Grey, the Fifty Shades follow-up novel. Frankly, I think we can all agree that isn’t much of a loss.

My friends and I use trigger warnings most often when we share articles we recommend, either via Facebook or through direct messages. A status might say, “This is amazing, tw: suicide,” or “Would love your thoughts on this. Heads up, there’s a pretty graphic description of rape about a third of the way in.” Usually the warnings are appreciated and my friend will go ahead and read the piece right away, armed with the knowledge that they are getting into something taxing. But every so often someone will wait until the next morning because they’re feeling emotionally raw from work, or their medication isn’t working.

My friends don’t do this because they worry something will upset them. Like me, they do it because they know that reading something they aren’t equipped for could derail their day, forcing them to reckon with trauma that has already been dealt with as much as they are capable. They know their limits.

A few weeks ago I recommended Lifetime’s unREAL to a friend of mine who had recently been sexually assaulted. I felt awful when I remembered that there was a date rape plot line a few episodes into the series, so I sent her a quick text: “FYI, major TW for sexual assault in episode 3.” She thanked me and waited to watch the episode until she felt ready for it. Do I think all television episodes should have trigger warnings? No. But there’s something to be said for giving advanced warning to a survivor if you know something is problematic.

Then there is the friend who always asks, “Can I handle this right now?” when I send her a link to my latest blog post. She is a survivor of emotional abuse, a topic more and more of my posts touch on recently. If my answer is no, she won’t read it on her cellphone at the office or during class, and will instead wait until she’s back in her dorm room.

No one I know uses trigger warnings to block themselves from content. They use trigger warnings to manage their own well-being and interaction with content.

When I was in college, I took two courses that were profoundly triggering… and central to my healing process. The first was a Cultural Psychology seminar, which I jokingly referred to as the “Everything That Is Wrong In The World” class. For an uninterrupted three hours a week, we discussed racism, sexism, classism, violence, and structural inequality. We were challenged, called out on our privilege, invited to share our personal stories, and cry. We all cried. Every class was optional, in case we saw something coming up on the syllabus we knew we couldn’t handle (also known as a trigger warning). But often the classes devoted to the topics survivors would be most triggered by were the ones they were most excited for—it was an opportunity to speak up, to learn, to heal. We chose to be there, knowing it would be hard and hurtful but would make us better people. I waited for the class on abusive relationships all semester, desperate to understand. I have never felt as safe in my life as I did telling a room full of my peers about what had happened to me, and how much I was still struggling with it. The class was part consciousness-raising, part therapy, part liberal arts heaven.

I never made plans after this class. Monday nights were for Doritos and Netflix as I let my puffy eyes recover and my brain process the heavy discussion. It was an unfathomable luxury that I could wade into my damaged psyche in a supportive environment, and then be alone with my thoughts afterward.

The second course was a student-taught forum called “Writing Through Trauma.” Twice a week we read articles and essays about abuse, addiction, health, violence and death. Twice a week we work-shopped each other’s pieces about the hardcore shit we’d experienced in our young lives. We started the semester using trigger warnings and by the end decided there was no point—the entire course was a trigger warning, and we had chosen to be there. The class was all women (maybe men aren’t into writing about their trauma?), and it allowed me to crack the writer’s block I had struggled with for months. I poured out dozens of pages about running into my ex at WesWings, about him telling me that he loved me for the first time like a consolation prize as he threw up pills from a failed suicide attempt into a Whole Foods paper bag. I cried regularly, not because of the writing but while reading the constructive and kind comments left in the margins by my classmates. I cried because I had finally found words for it all.

Both courses used trigger warnings by virtue of being devoted to social justice. Those trigger warnings didn’t stifle conversation or opposing viewpoints—they encouraged them. They created spaces of healing, of awareness, of hostility on occasion, but always of respect. Respect for the students, respect for the teachers, and respect for the material.

To dismiss trigger warnings as the latest trend in hypersensitive college students is profoundly disrespectful to survivors and to anyone who cares about making this world even slightly better. To ridicule trigger warnings is to write without empathy, and to publish articles calling trigger warnings stifling and dangerous to the development of young minds is deeply unethical. An article against trigger warnings is, frankly, out of touch and irresponsible. My survival tactics are not trends. My activism is not outrage. And my trauma is not fodder for your web traffic.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

11 thoughts on “How I Use Trigger Warnings

  1. It’s rare that I would tell someone they are just flat wrong. But this is one of those situations. You are wrong. I graduated high school the same year you were born. I wish millennials could go back in time to compare how things were then with how they are now. Perhaps then they could understand the frustrations of Baby Boomers and Gen-Xer’s when they see this silliness. The degree to which millennials are self-centered and demanding is mind-boggling. I’ve hired many recent graduates desperate for a job, only to tell me after a few weeks that they won’t work past 5:00 p.m. But when bonus time comes around, they think I’m being unfair to them because their hours are low and I’m not focusing on the quality of their work, which is actually not very good. But I can’t tell them it’s not good because they will spend the next day going around the office complaining and trying to get others to build their ego back up. I’ve assigned cases (I have a law firm) to new attorneys who ask to have it reassigned because the facts are too stressful for them. This isn’t pick and choose. We get the cases we get and work hard on them. I attribute all of this to coddling, including safe spaces and trigger warnings. When I was 5, my neighbor molested me. Thirty-five years later, I was watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower. At the end, spoiler alert, we find out the main character was sexually abused as a child. I started crying uncontrollably. But there was no reason for a trigger warning. First, it would have ruined the movie by giving away the ending. More importantly, a trigger warning would interfere with the natural course of my life. We need to be confronted with surprises and obstacles. It’s a fundamental part of the experience between life and death. Artificially interfering with things does not make us stronger or provide protection It’s a cop out.

    1. “I’ve hired many recent graduates desperate for a job, only to tell me after a few weeks that they won’t work past 5:00 p.m.”

      Good. People deserve to have lives outside of work. Good on them for standing up to demands on their time outside of what was negotiated. If you’re consistently asking people to work overtime, HIRE MORE PEOPLE. People do a crappy job when they’re overworked, and it’s awful for morale.

      “But I can’t tell them it’s not good because they will spend the next day going around the office complaining and trying to get others to build their ego back up.”

      So your solution is to “coddle” them and not tell them they’re doing wrong out of fear of their reaction? You’re doing exactly the thing you’re complaining about millennials doing and avoiding a situation that makes you uncomfortable. Moreover, you’re doing your employees a disservice by not clearly assessing their performance against your expectations and the requirements of the job. You are setting them up to fail by allowing them to believe that they are doing a good job when they are not.

      “Thirty-five years later, I was watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

      So in other words, you had an amount of leisure time blocked out for a piece of media… precisely the same as Ms. Dawson talks about doing with potentially triggering media. There’s a huge difference between that and glancing through an article on a break at work. Trigger warnings are about helping people to identify the amount of emotional investment something is going to take and budgeting accordingly.

      “Artificially interfering with things does not make us stronger or provide protection It’s a cop out.”

      Movie ratings are just an artificial way to avoid uncomfortable topics, right? Should we do away with movie ratings? How about that little box on television shows that says, “TV-MA Sexual Violence and Strong Language.” How is that any different? It allows the viewer to understand what they’re about to expose themselves to and make informed decisions about what they want to watch when. That is literally all that trigger warnings are: information about content.

  2. Ella,

    Thank you so much for this article and all the other amazing and brave writing that you do. I just got in a huge debate over that damn article with a new acquaintance and normally I would have backed down for the sake of not bothering other new acquaintances and then feel shitty about it later but having read this article gave me the conviction to stick to it. Probably did a shoddy job of it (drunk debating is really not the best) but I feel at a least that I got some stuff out there. I rely so much on your articles and I just wanted to say thanks for all that you do.

  3. i appreciate this article
    it was illuminating, as i have been ignorant to the argument (?) about such things.
    for the record, i am all for trigger warnings, and appreciate having the heads up before delving into any movie/conversation/essay/etc.

    though there was one thing you wrote which seems incongruous to the nature of sentient beings, & also with the content of your topic –
    “This is not about sensitivity”
    this is where i will whole-heart disagree.
    we ARE sensitive. all of us. every living thing.
    as someone who has studied 5-Element theory since 1994, knowing the effects of PTSD on a WW2 combat veteran, & watching the unfolding of things in my own life (& organism), and 10 years of farming, i know in my bones –
    that we are ALL inherently sensitive creatures.
    i don’t understand the cultural denial or allergy of “sensitivity”
    like Brene Brown saying we have a cultural allergy to vulnerability – not much different.
    it saddens me, this denial & ever-armoring culture.
    so i love love your writing & strong stance about Herpes & trigger warnings –
    though i was surprised to read that this wasn’t “about sensitivity”
    wishing you all good things

  4. Like Jeffrey, I too thought highly of the Atlantic article, and understand where this response comes from. However, I would encourage Ella to reread the Atlantic article, as she seems to be under the erroneous assumption that the article was entirely about trigger warnings. While trigger warnings are a piece of the argument the Atlantic article makes, it is only one piece, and part of a larger point that is clearly summarized in the very first paragraph:

    “A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.”

    I do agree that the Atlantic article argues too harshly against trigger warnings and their main use (which is quite legitimate, as this article describes), but there is a larger, quite legitimate (imo) argument being made about the sanitation of free speech in college campuses that is completely ignored in this response.

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