The Wednesday Weigh-In: Trigger Warning Edition

Everyone go read Roxane Gay’s piece about trigger warnings and the illusion of safety:

There are things that rip my skin open and reveal what lies beneath but I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I don’t believe people can be protected from their histories. I don’t believe it is at all possible to anticipate the histories of others in ways that would be satisfying for anyone.

There is no standard for trigger warnings, no universal guidelines. Once you start, where do you stop? Does the mention of the word rape require a trigger warning or is the threshold an account of a rape? How graphic does an account of abuse need to be before meriting a warning? Are trigger warnings required anytime matters of difference are broached? What is graphic? Who makes these determinations?

It all seems so futile, so impotent and, at times, belittling. When I see trigger warnings, I think, “How dare you presume what I need to be protected from?”

Although I use them here at Feministing, I don’t think I really believe in trigger warnings either. Mostly because, as Roxane says, “everything is a trigger for someone” and it feels arbitrary what gets the warning and what doesn’t. And on a blog like this, especially, I sort of expect that everything could be somewhat triggering. Indeed, Shakesville has moved towards providing “content notes,” which seems like a more useful kind of warning to me. But, again, what happens is that almost everything gets a warning, because we cover lots of fucked-up injustices in the feminist blogosphere.

On the other hand, despite their imperfections, trigger warnings seem to be appreciated by some people and that’s good enough for me. As Melissa wrote during the last dust-up on this topic, “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.”

But you tell me. What are your triggers? Have you been triggered by a post here or elsewhere on the interwebs? Do you think trigger warnings are useful? Do you appreciate that we use them at Feministing? Do you think we should use them more often?

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation

  • b. lecky

    I found that article spot on. If people want to use trigger warnings, fine, I don’t have a use for them. If somethings labeled “trigger warning” I figure it means “put away the gun…don’t shoot anyone, yet.” What I don’t find useful is when people use trigger warnings as a way of silencing people. I see this happening in a FB group I hang around, someone says something someone doesn’t like (god forbid women have different opinions/interpetations about their own life experiences) and it’s all, “You’ve triggered me!” . Ack.

  • Deirdre

    I see trigger warnings as a good thing. You don’t really know how someone will react to something, and it think it’s best to have a bit of warning beforehand. Obviously trigger warnings can become a bit over the top, but as a general rule I don’t see the problem with them, and I don’t think they’re used with any ill-intent.

  • Kelly

    I think that it’s all about context with trigger warnings. If I am on a feminist blog or website I know that they will be discussing issues of rape and sexual violence etc. etc., likewise if I go to the PeTA website I expect to see graphic depictions of animal abuse.

    I don’t need a warning for that. I know it’s coming because I am entering into a space (i.e. going to a website) where that is the standard conversation.

    But if I go to the PeTA website and they have an article posted that has graphic depictions of rape, I’d appreciate some sort of notice so it’s not out of the blue. There I think a trigger warning is appropriate. Content notes also work, I don’t really care what you call it, it’s the same thing. Likewise if I came to feministing and someone had written an article that contained graphic depictions of animal cruelty, I’d like a heads up. It’s outside the typical conversation and it warrants a heads up if you’re able to anticipate it becoming problematic.

    Maybe a better example is punk rock shows. I play in a punk rock band and we have a song that is about being a survivor of rape. It’s about feelings coping with being raped and getting through that experience and it’s potentially triggering for survivors. Rape is not something that gets talked about at punk shows, and when it does it’s usually shitty rape jokes (in my experience). So, we preface the song when we play it on stage with what we call a trigger warning. We offer resources to survivors and everyone in the band has training to work with people on stuff like this; then we play the song. Part of it is education and part of it is to let people know that we are going to be singing about something that is outside what most people expect at a punk show.

    We don’t do this with songs about poverty or drugs/alcohol or imperialism etc even though these things might be triggering because they are stuff that is the norm in punk rock. People come to punk shows and that is part of the standard discourse – it is part of the context and the culture to openly talk about all of that. Rape, being outside of the general discourse of the space, gets a warning. We call it a trigger warning, but whether you call it something else or not, it’s essentially the same thing.

    So I think trigger warnings about rape and sexual violence etc on feministing are just redundant. I am here on a blog about this stuff, I know it’s coming. That doesn’t mean that they are not useful tools or are somehow bad. Like most things, context is everything.

    All that said, we’re all human and it’s good for everyone (me included) to get triggered once in a while. It’s okay if there is something potentially triggering that goes without a warning because as you said, nearly everything triggers someone. For the things that are likely to catch people off guard due to the context we are presenting them in, and that we can anticipate will trigger a lot of people, they are generally a good idea.

  • ellestar

    Personally, I like them. While I haven’t been the victim of a traumatic crime like sexual assault, I do spend some days where all I do is research women’s stories of rape and I get really sensitive to it. There are days that I just can’t see another description of sexual assault.

    Furthermore, as I have training in talking to survivors, I know how awful a panic attack can be and how that some descriptions, when read by someone who was not suspecting them, can cause them. I’d rather see websites claiming to be safe places for women who have experienced sexual assault and rape err on the side of caution. Putting a trigger warning on a post isn’t censoring, it’s just polite.

    Also, I have a close family member who has an eating disorder. Though she’s in recovery now, she has relapsed in the past. While she, herself, wasn’t triggered by something she read on the internet, I’ve seen and heard stories of people triggered by well-meaning posts.

    I think if people are feeling particularly sensitive to topics, whether they’re not sure they’ll relapse into an ED or have a panic attack at reading someone’s description of sexual assault, a trigger warning might be very useful.

  • thecommonwoman

    i’ve found it useful in real life situations where a presenter is like “hey, we’re going to watch this video and it could be triggering beause it shows a real woman being battered by her husband, so please feel free to take care of yourself by stepping outside or whatever you need to do as the video plays.”

    but i absolutely agree that no one can know what’s going to be triggering to everybody. sometimes i don’t even know what’s going to be triggering for me until it starts happening (or sometimes not until after it’s happened). I’m reminded of a class I took about how to teach the Feminist Empowerment Model of Self Defense. The teacher, Christine Schoefer, spoke about how there is a lot of fear in the room when women are exploring their personal safety, how to be assertive and how to defend themselves when they are threatened verbally and physically. She said that self defense is an exercise in bravery and that as feminist SD teachers we need to be sensitive to our students’ triggers, but at the same time we should encourage our students and ourselves to work at the edges of our comfort. I think this is what working & speaking to end sexual & gendered violence is all about, being supportive and sensitive about our own and other folks’ triggers, trying to create the safest space we can, but at the same time, being aware that we are working right on the edges of our comfort and our fear and that that is an exercise in bravery.

    I’m also reminded of Jos’s (i think, Jos’s!) piece a few years ago about creating safER spaces, not safe spaces, as well as a quote by Adrienne Rich about how there need to be places where we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.

  • Wendy

    I think trigger warnings are vitally useful in the age of the internet where there is no actual physical space to catalogue information. The inverse of “everything is a trigger for someone” is that no one is able to engage in (potentially triggering) information on disparate topics at all times. Context matters. Especially physical context (which the internet can’t account for). I’d like to know if an article might make me cry or rage before I read it in the bathroom at a family reunion. (true story)

    On the internet pics of kittens can be tabbed right next to a post about rape/rape culture. Sometimes even in reverse as an effort offer relief. The transition between these two hunks of information is sometimes helped immensely by a few words (a trigger warning). In other words a trigger warning is courteous to your audience because it considers their possible context/history. It acknowledges that, based on cultural trends, certain topics will probably be more triggering to certain populations others. This is not coddling, this is using assumptions based on cultural trends to allow others to make space for how they are likely to receive certain info. It’s internet polite, if you will.

    The information on the internet is very different from the information in a book/magazine/pamphlet. A book has a jacket/cover, a blurb some imagery, a table of contents, and sometimes even an introduction or preface; a protestor or a promoter probably handed you a pamphlet in a specific location; magazines have tons of images and though-out layout. A trigger warning attempts to provide some of the same context-centering information. Maybe one day we won’t need them, but while we’re still transitioning from a print culture to a digital information one, they serve to make the transition smoother.

    Trigger warnings provide a form of notation for me. They let me know what sort of information I am about to access. If I think of the internet like a huge library of information I know there are sections of information/books I don’t want to access at certain times (I would not go to the horror section in the middle of the night, or to the erotica section after being assaulted, or the sexual assault memoirs section at work).

    As a writer I am always considering how an audience will receive a message. Trigger warnings can help in this regard. I am a fan of trigger warnings as both a reader and a writer. They give me or my readers information that helps them decide when and where to read a text.

  • Lindsey Weedston

    I guess you’re always going to upset someone whether you use trigger warnings or not. But I agree with you, Maya. In interactions with traumatized individuals, I err on the side of caution. I think that the more humans work to take each other’s feelings into consideration in everyday life, the better our world becomes. It’s great that Roxane is healthy enough that she can deal well with being triggered, but others aren’t so lucky. For the sake of those individuals who are still in a stage of healing where they can be easily re-traumatized, I would continue to use trigger warnings.

  • galina

    Posting trigger warnings allows the reader to make a decision for her/himself: She (or he) gets to decide whether or not to move forward with reading possibly-triggering material. I would argue that NOT posting trigger warnings before content that is violent in nature makes the decision on behalf of the reader, which has the potential to further disempower the victim/survivor.

    Warnings also allow for the reader to assess whether or not he or she is in an appropriate physical space to deal with an emotional response. I may choose to read a triggering article at home, but not at work, for example.

    I fully recognize that triggers vary for every individual case, and that my triggers of drunk athletes and anything that even remotely has to do with prom do not affect all other victims/survivors, and I do not expect a “Caution: Prom!” note at the beginning of every article. But I think a general “Trigger-warning: This story contains graphic descriptions of [fill in the blank]” is not only appropriate, but fundamental to some survivors’ healing processes.

  • Na

    We get over trauma by confronting it, not by hiding it or hiding from it. However, if someone expresses that a topic of conversation is triggering for them, I will avoid it while in their presence. Or warn them that I am going to discuss it, so that they can choose whether to stay or not.
    I have had triggers in the past (hilariously, feminism and butch lesbians were two of my massive triggers) but I have worked to overcome them – and I didn’t overcome them by avoiding them though, no matter how hard it got.

  • Beth

    This is quite a bug-bear of mine….. the taking of responsibility from others and the inherent arrogance in that, as I see it.
    Plainly put, I’m not responsible for other adults, I can only be responsible for myself, and, if I take responsibility for others away from them I infantalise them and patronise them, also, I maintain their experience of victimhood. It’s that simple for me.

    If someone experiences frequent triggering then it’s their responsibility to monitor the information that they see and hear, not my responsibility to monitor my free expression, where does it end? Trigger warnings for articles about animal abuse? trigger warnings about discussion on surgical proceedures? It’s ridiculous….. If one is an adult one is responsible for what one puts in front of one’s face to look at or to listen to, if one is a child then one’s parent or guardian has that responsibility. We are not responsible for other adults and making ourselves so disempowers, disables, infantalises and further vicimises others.

    As an aside, because it may be relevant to some; I have experienced both sexual abuse as a child and rape as an adult woman, among many other experiences that would often fall under the umbrella of what can often be ”triggered”. I have graduate studies in psychology and post graduate in various therapeutic modalities, so my opinion on this is a culmination of both personal and professional experience.

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      Wait…monitor free expression? Are trigger warnings curtailing what anyone writes or talks about, or just providing information about it?

    • Anne Marie

      Why be polite when you can lecture people about being “responsible” for their PTSD symptoms?

  • Anjasa

    I don’t personally require trigger warnings, however I use them to be polite. I use my best judgement and respond when someone asks me to put up a trigger warning.

    I find it especially important for my erotica, though I do not like to put it at the beginning. I often have general content warnings so that if someone needs them, they can find out what each chapter contains. I often write very dark erotica and I’d hate for someone buying my book to be triggered after thinking it was going to be a love story or something like that.

    I’d just rather do this very small thing to help people navigate their own life a little more mentally healthfully than be stubborn and refuse just because I don’t need them.

  • Sarah

    I think trigger warning are important for sites like tumblr where images are usually focal points of posts and it’s hard to just “scroll by” something upsetting. For instance, I have a history with eating disorders, so I have a program set up to hide any post mentioning anorexia. I know a lot of my followers have similar issues, so I try to warn for any discussions of potentially triggering issues.

    I do like Shakesville’s system of content notes. If a blog, like that site, prides itself on being a safe space for people, it’s only fair to warn people before discussing even probably benign topics like job hunting or doctors’ visits, which can be major stressors. But, in the greater internet, I think it’s up to the poster what kind of warning to have. If a site or blog tends to trigger you, it’s your responsibility as a reader to decide whether or not to follow it.

  • soukup

    I think it’s great that you use trigger warnings in your blog. I personally don’t have any triggers, but I know people who do and who really need them. Good call, and please do keep it up.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Trigger warnings are not an exact science, and I don’t think they really can be. It seems to be a mix of common sense and guesswork – there are subjects which are understood to be more likely to be sensitive or touch on something someone is struggling with. I can see them being useful to some. For me though, although I’m hair-triggered and will react, they don’t help because like the author I’ll want to read it anyway. Like the author I have no illusions of the world providing safe space. Unlike the author I don’t take personal offense to their existence. They don’t stop me from reading anything if I choose to, and other people may find them useful. So then.

  • honeybee

    I don’t believe in trigger warnings because at best they cover such a miniscule part of our lives. I.e., unless you completely shut yourself out from the world, never reading anything but feministing or similar sites, never consuming any media or talking to anyone outside of super close friends you trust, you WILL encounter material that is potentially triggering. I.e., you can’t hide from it. Trying to just seems futile.

    And for ME – i.e., I emphasize me, I found that the best way to get over past traumas was to contront it. Trying to hide from certain content only maintains the hold and in retrospect made me feel juvinile. Once I decided I wasn’t going to live like that and just deal with anything I came across it made a huge difference.

  • Lo

    I think if you pride yourself on being as safe a space as possible for X group, then you’re going to want trigger-warnings, and pretty much all other opt-in internet situations don’t need them. (I mean “opt-in” as in like, being on a site where you get to choose what videos to play, what articles to read, and so on.)

    As for me, I’m triggered by depictions and talk of drug use, videos documenting violence (though not images or written accounts) of any nature, public humiliation and even the barest mention of sexual activity being conducted in a public space. Those things are, unfortunately, a part of life, so if I go into someone else’s space and find triggering material, I don’t think I’ve got much of a reason to get upset at the poster of the content, though I will leave.

  • Anne Marie

    It all seems so futile, so impotent and, at times, belittling. When I see trigger warnings, I think, “How dare you presume what I need to be protected from?”

    I find this argument absolutely boggling and infuriating. First, just because something can’t be done perfectly doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. I mean, there will be trolls and jerks on Feministing at times but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have comments. What about things like child pornography? I’m sure plenty of people working to eradicate it from the internet feel completely overwhelmed and defeated at times and feel like their work is in vain but that doesn’t mean they’re right or that the work’s not worth doing. I know that’s a ridiculously extreme comparison but my point is that something seeming futile isn’t actually an argument against it. Plus, pretty much everything seems futile if you’re already against it.

    Second, if I see a trigger warning, it doesn’t magically prevent me from be able to read something. I’m not trapped above the warning notice like it’s a bouncer at a Discussing Horrible Things Club. It’s information that allows me to decide whether I feel up to the particular issue right then. I can skip the article or post, read it, save it for later, whatever. It’s not any more belittling than telling a large group of friends that your event will involve a lot of walking so that people can decide if they are physically able to participate. I don’t see people with allergies wandering around berating food manufacturers or parents attacking video game makers for rating children’s games for daring to “presume” that they need “protection.”

    Third, I don’t get why this woman thinks trigger warnings are solely aimed at her and is so personally offended by them. If she doesn’t need them, that’s absolutely fantastic but other people do. Why insist other people should have to miss out on using the internet comfortably because they don’t want to deal with being confronted with graphic discussions of rape randomly and unexpectedly just because you find the idea of triggers warnings “futile” and “belittling”? Should I feel personally belittled because the MPAA acknowledges what’s in movies for the public at large? What if I personally don’t need a warning for nudity and graphic violence? Does that make the whole system “belittling”?

    Also: isn’t it “belittling” to tell someone that they’re weak or not taking personal responsibility because they want to be able to make informed decisions about what they read in order to control their PTSD symptoms?

    Very short version: Trigger warnings are information for people who need them to use to make a decision on what to do next. They’re not prescriptions or judgments. They’re not aimed at anyone in particular Why put your ability to not use them over other people’s need for them, especially when having them there doesn’t affect your ability to read an article or post but not having them there affects others’ ability to use the internet comfortably and safely?