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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Two Reader Responses to My Trigger Warning Post and One Sensible Defense of Trigger Warnings

Posted by on Wed, May 21, 2014 at 4:23 PM

Most of the commenters who were unhappy with my trigger warnings post yesterday failed to address the point I was making about their use when writing about rape or sexual violence—the people who are using them probably don't need to use them; the people who ought to use them probably aren't using them—and simply accused me of being an asshole who doesn't care about rape survivors. Their reaction was so predictable that I actually predicted it: "Express the tiniest doubt about the usefulness of trigger warnings—or their ubiquity and overuse in some corners of the web—and you will be accused of not caring about rape victims." (As anyone who has heard me take a call from a rape survivor on the podcast or listened to me lecture a college audience about consent can tell you, I care very much about rape survivors and badly want to end sexual violence.)

And here's a neat trick: criticize people calling for trigger warnings on everything from the plays of William Shakespeare to spiders and you get accused of trivializing trigger warnings. And that's bad because people will stop using trigger warnings if they seem trivial or silly and that puts the mental health of rape survivors who rely on trigger warnings in danger. But it's not the deeply silly people who want trigger warnings before they read about spiders who are trivializing trigger warnings—or the equally silly people who want college professors to bubble wrap their syllabuses (syllabi?)—it's the people writing about those silly people who are making trigger warnings seem trivial.

It seems to me that people who believe trigger warnings are necessary to protect the mental health of survivors of rape and sexual assault should be the loudest and fiercest critics of the idiots who want trigger warnings on The Merchant of Venice and Charlotte's Web. These misguided activists are the ones who are trivializing this issue, kids, not the newspapers and writers reporting on and reacting to their efforts.

Anyway! On to the reader responses I wanted to highlight and that sensible defense. The first came in via email...

Thank you, thank you, thank you from a survivor of three separate T's, triply diagnosed with PTSD—severe child abuse (sexual, physical, verbal), rape at age 18, and a gunpoint robbery while delivering pizza in college. I had to deal with several legitimate triggers in college, all of which I managed to handle. People calling for trigger warnings on every damn thing are essentially using "triggered" to mean "made mildly uncomfortable," and that infuriates me. "Triggered" needs to actually mean "triggered" or else my life and the life of other survivors will be made significantly more difficult. People self-diagnosing PTSD because (gasp) something shitty happened to them once and then claiming to be triggered because something reminds them of the shitty thing are adding new obstacles to what PTSD survivors already have to cope with, and it sucks. Thank you for using your platform to criticize this odious practice.

This is from the comment thread on my original post...

The attempted rape of 12-year-old me happened during this song. Ever since, whenever I hear it I vividly remember every second of the encounter. Dan is correct—triggers are pretty random. I'm laughing at the thought of putting a trigger warning on Leo Sayer.

And Dani Paradis pointed me toward this nearly two-year-old post at The Good Men Project about trigger warnings. Editor Joanna Schroeder makes a good case for their sparing, judicious use...

Let’s cut straight to it: These trigger warnings are ridiculous. They minimize the importance of the instances when trigger warnings are necessary, which is 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.

Click through to read the whole thing.

This tweet, however, was by far my favorite reaction to my post:

So close to #totescunt! Almost there!


Comments (44) RSS

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Trigger warnings are a great way to treat the people you're sharing information with like a bunch of children. You're not helping people, you're condescending the hell out of them.
Posted by treehugger on May 21, 2014 at 4:38 PM · Report this
If Joanna Schoeder finds herself discussing a graphic sexual assault in an article entitled "The Lifecycle of Tomatoes," I'm going to hazard a guess that she's doing gardening wrong.
Posted by other coast on May 21, 2014 at 4:41 PM · Report this
I agree. One situation in which I think they can be effectively used are for descriptions of self-harming behaviors (cutting, eating disorders, etc.) which can inspire relapse in those recovering from the same. I've only seen this used for blog posts and can't imagine a scenario in which it would be necessary for a college class or news media to use them.
Posted by Seattle314159 on May 21, 2014 at 4:47 PM · Report this
treacle 4
Getting to the first 99.9% of cuntery takes 99.9% of your effort. Getting to the final 0.1% of cuntery takes the other 99.9% of your effort. :)

Joking aside, thanks for the rational conversation about trigger warnings. Trivializing the usage of trigger warnings in the ways that are being discussed here smacks of over-concern trolling (IMHO), and belies a lack of real empathy for survivors of actually nasty experiences.
Posted by treacle on May 21, 2014 at 4:48 PM · Report this
The editor's piece nicely summarizes best practices:

- treat adults like adults

- make your headline a warning in itself

- for common, predictable triggers (rape, violence, child abuse) add a subtitle if the headline isn't obvious.

- unspoken, but as several of us in the previous thread commented: if you have a weird trigger (like me), sorry, you're on your own.

- the words "trigger warning" aren't helpful. The task can accomplishment in more elegant ways.
Posted by DAVIDinKENAI on May 21, 2014 at 5:01 PM · Report this
I am deeply arachnophobic. And I have friends who are indifferent or arachnophilic. When they post stuff that includes arachnids, they are kind enough, oftentimes, to include "Heads up, MissEli, there's arachnids." As I have avoided some anxiety and a possible nightmare - I am grateful. But I wouldn't call it a trigger warning, and I don't expect to see it broadcast all over my media. It's a phobia, not PTSD.
Posted by MissEli on May 21, 2014 at 5:05 PM · Report this
Oh, and @5 has all of my likes.
Posted by MissEli on May 21, 2014 at 5:07 PM · Report this
MacCrocodile 8
@2 - Trigger warning: victim blaming.
Posted by MacCrocodile on May 21, 2014 at 5:13 PM · Report this
MacCrocodile 9
Oh, and could we talk about how Dan Savage himself is cited in that article as a trigger warning? I don't know how to feel about that. Well, condolences or high fives, Dan. Whichever makes more sense.
Posted by MacCrocodile on May 21, 2014 at 5:16 PM · Report this
Cascadian Bacon 10
And the left begins to consume itself, lol.
Posted by Cascadian Bacon on May 21, 2014 at 5:31 PM · Report this
stinkbug 11
That youtube song link is broken.

Was it supposed to be… ?

Posted by stinkbug on May 21, 2014 at 5:32 PM · Report this
Dougsf 12
@5 makes sense to me. It saddens me some people cannot discuss things as adults.

TOTALLY TANGENTIALLY, but interesting nonetheless; recently watched a piece centering around aboriginals of Australia that listed a trigger warning—probably the first I've ever seen using those exact words—that names or depictions of the diseased may be contained herein (many Koori, but not all, believe naming or viewing photos of the dead disturbs them, and it is reasonable to believe people of that culture would be interested in the piece.). That example, though somewhat obscure, seems perfectly reasonable to me.
Posted by Dougsf on May 21, 2014 at 5:37 PM · Report this
I have PTSD (not severe and almost gone now after 30 years) because I am a survivor of a terrorist attack with a bomb which could easily have killed me. The memory is still fresh and I nearly shit myself every time I hear a backfire or a door slam.

It would be impossible for me to watch TV, read websites, newspapers or stroll in the street without a trigger warning at some stage. Screaming headlines about terrorist attacks and bombs are equally evocative and have no warnings, because the headline itself is a trigger.

However, I have had counselling and now after 30 years it barely registers. I don't want to trivialise other people's experiences or conditions but in this modern world with fast changing news coming at you from every direction, you have to have strategies to deal with this stuff. It's impossible to avoid.
Posted by JJinAus on May 21, 2014 at 5:39 PM · Report this
Doesn't insulting Mr Savage with the C word mean the insulter will have to turn in hir Feminist Card?

And, no, I'm sorry, but I am not going to use the singular they/their, even if it's someone's first choice (if someone has no alternate choice, I'll just avoid either word). The last time I did that was more than forty years ago, and I was badly shamed and humiliated in public for doing so.
Posted by vennominon on May 21, 2014 at 5:39 PM · Report this
I was abused as a kid. Sexual, mental, physical, if there was an abuse possible, it was happening. And then I grew up and moved away and sought help. Counseling, therapy, support groups and I got better. The first time I read The Lovely Bones, I curled up in a ball and cried and moaned and thrashed about and this was years after the abuse AND therapy. I read that book to the very end and then I read it again while crying in despair and after I finished it the second time, I picked it up again and read it. That's one good thing about going to someone and talking about your own triggers, you know who the monster is and you get to look that monster in the face and say, "fuck you!"

So, trigger warnings...let's get real. It is unreasonable to expect everyone in the world that creates something, be it a book or movie or music and known how it is going to personally affect you. Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own well-being. If something triggers you, sets off a panic attack, a flashback, then put something in place to deal with it. Plan out your attack. Be proactive and make yourself the victor in your fight. And get some fucking therapy.

If I've learned anything from having a crappy life, the world and everyone in it is dealing with grief and pain and sorrow in their own way and they don't have the energy for your suffering. People have to be the protagonist of their own story. You are the lead in your movie. Turn around and face your ghosts and kick their asses.
Posted by KatynaKat on May 21, 2014 at 5:56 PM · Report this
@1 Using a trigger warning doesn't make any comment on whether or not a person *should* read the article or whether they can handle it. It's information so that they can decide how to best take care of themselves. It gives you a choice rather than stepping on a land mine you had no idea was there. When you have PTSD, a trigger can render you non-functional, sometimes for an hour, sometimes for months. Offering that information to them is a courtesy not a condescension.

@3 No situations in which a college class would use them? Psychology classes have lots of material related to common PTSD topics. Literature classes that cover a big variety of material will probably at some point look at written material involving subjects like war, rape, and violence. Any gender studies class is probably going to include information on sexual violence. Political history classes that cover general media about war or perhaps history of the use of torture. The list goes on, and I'm only sticking to common PTSD related triggers.

The article from The Good Men Project was really good and well balanced. It's worth reading the whole thing.
Posted by kellarules on May 21, 2014 at 6:01 PM · Report this
@6 and some posts on the previous threads: Agreed, this is a discussion about PTSD triggers. Not phobias, not social anxiety, not stuff that makes you say "Ewww!"

Well done, I see it akin to G, PG, PG-13, R, X movie ratings. Reliably, my particular 9-year-old daughter doesn't enjoy PG-13 movies. Quick, easy, helpful, and just good customer service to include the rating. If it is PG, I check further. "bad language"? pffft! - It's a teachable moment. Consensual sex? No problem - her parents do that. Lots of violence or (her big thing) an animal dies? Probably not. Suspenseful situation - not a fun time.

Movie ratings AREN'T about PTSD, but offer a parallel notification system. Just as doctors should "kill as few patients as possible", writers and editors can, through greater awareness, traumatize fewer readers and allow the much larger non-PTSD audience to make their selections based on clear information.
Posted by DAVIDinKENAI on May 21, 2014 at 6:43 PM · Report this
Yeah well, use of the word Cunt/ outside it's prescribed use
( delicious , warm, wet- sacred part of female anatomy - a word that describes the power of woman).. Pisses me right off.
Posted by LavaGirl on May 21, 2014 at 6:48 PM · Report this
mr. herriman 19
I routinely ask before opening whether there are spiders in any link that gets posted that looks like it might.

Ex: Look at these incredible photos of giant animals!

"Hey, Mr. Mr. Herriman, look through this photo gallery for me and make sure it's safe."

"Skip #7."


It's a real thing! I've thrown my phone across the room enough times that I've learned to ask. I would thank anyone who warned of spiders, but I wouldn't insist on it. It's not their job.

Posted by mr. herriman on May 21, 2014 at 7:03 PM · Report this
Cat in fez 20
@14 Once again we find ourselves in agreement. Someone calling out Dan for insufficient sensitivity and using female genitalia as a causing dangerous levels of cognitive dissonance.
Posted by Cat in fez on May 21, 2014 at 7:34 PM · Report this
I used to know a radical leftist activist who led some sort of training. She wanted to add a "trigger go-round" where everyone in the class would be expected to identify their "trigger" so everyone else could avoid bothering them.

Yeah. Every single person was expected to have a trigger. WTF is wrong with this picture?

Triggers cause flashbacks, panic, or phobia-like reactions from people with post-traumatic stress disorder. They are not annoyances. They are not mild to moderate discomfort. They are pathological responses confined to that minority of people who have a diagnosable disorder caused by a horrifying or life-threatening incident. They are not something everyone has.
Posted by Hi_It's_CIS on May 21, 2014 at 7:45 PM · Report this
I think that Dan didn't fully read the comments on his original piece. There were many sexual abuse survivors who don't agree with the triggers warning.
Posted by Escapee from S. Idaho on May 21, 2014 at 7:50 PM · Report this
M'kay, my apologies, not sure I read Dan's piece right. He's right on. I just registered and I'm all giddy and shit.
Posted by Escapee from S. Idaho on May 21, 2014 at 7:54 PM · Report this
Foghorn Leghorn 24
It was a sensible, thoughtful post Dan.

Obvious things: polite warning is fine.
EVERYTHING: impossible and condescending.

Take Slaughterhouse Five for example. Billy Pilgrim gets a PTSD flashback from a barbershop quartet... In real life Vonnegut got flashbacks from various things. There's no predictor, but politeness about obvious sensitive subjects is easy enough.

Say, the firebombing of cities.
Posted by Foghorn Leghorn on May 21, 2014 at 8:16 PM · Report this
The Beatles 25
Trigger warning: This may not be germane to the conversation...But:

Am I the only one distracted by the hot chick in the picture accompanying this post, and also thinking "why is she dressed in men's clothes from 1972"?
Posted by The Beatles on May 21, 2014 at 8:17 PM · Report this
gfish 26
So... you say something deliberately provocative, and then point to the outraged response as evidence for how right you are? Cheap.
Posted by gfish on May 21, 2014 at 8:38 PM · Report this
rob! 28
@23, hey.

See, that didn't hurt. Just a little giddiness.
Posted by rob! on May 21, 2014 at 11:55 PM · Report this
Ms Lava/M? Cat - Pity it didn't go out with The Boys in the Band (in which it was pronounced with a cedilla).
Posted by vennominon on May 22, 2014 at 4:18 AM · Report this
My understanding is that trigger warnings started in the fan fiction community. In that context, they make a lot of sense: "I like Harry Potter! I bet I'll like this story someone wrote involving my favorite characters. Oh, it has a graphic rape scene? (Completely unlike anything in the Harry Potter canon). I think I'll pass on this one."
Posted by Dave314159 on May 22, 2014 at 7:34 AM · Report this
@12 "many Koori, but not all, believe naming or viewing photos of the dead disturbs them "

Yes, and it could cause them considerable discomfort but surely not PTSD? The program should come with a warning but not a trigger warning.
Posted by puddles on May 22, 2014 at 8:53 AM · Report this
I also worry about the pervasiveness trigger warnings setting up the expectation that all survivors of experiences like rape, violence or oppression will develop PTSD. It is not the case that all survivors of these experiences wind up having PTSD symptoms. Those who don't have PTSD might wonder if something is wrong with them, or if their experiences are somehow less valid. And there is also the possibility that the expectation of developing PTSD could actually bring about symptoms, make them worse, or increase feelings of helplessness among survivors.
Posted by dinosox on May 22, 2014 at 9:14 AM · Report this
raku 33
This is a massive strawman and you're reframing trigger warnings into something they're not. Nobody in the world is arguing that everyone who mentions Dan Savage needs to have a trigger warning or there needs to be a warning on every possible trigger.

On tumblr, you'll find all kinds of trigger warnings. That's because people know who's reading them and people ask for specific trigger warnings, and since the writers are decent people, they accommodate. Someone on tumblr putting a trigger warning on Dan Savage doesn't mean everyone is required to use the same trigger warning.

Everyone seems to agree that trigger warnings are needed for obvious triggers like graphic assault, violent racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia -- even your letter writers seem to agree. What are you even arguing then? You're mad that some 20 year old on tumblr is tagging a trigger warning on alcohol because one of their teenage friends living with an alcoholic dad asked them to? You realize that's about as big a bully as you can possibly be, right?

Posted by raku on May 22, 2014 at 10:39 AM · Report this
@30 Just another example of fan fiction writers ruining everything for the rest of us.
Posted by remarkablyadept on May 22, 2014 at 11:18 AM · Report this
@33 That is so not what's happening on tumblr and fanfiction communities. It's a bunch of angry holier-than-thou self-victimizing drama queens seeking out reasons to be offended. I know, I've seen it first hand.

And once again, remembering that you have an alcoholic father is not the same as being PTSD-triggered. How could one even function enough to reach fucking tumblr if they were actually triggered every time they saw alcohol mentioned? As I'm writing this right now there is a lovelab ad to the right with a photo of someone in a bar holding up two bottles of freaking wine.
Posted by puddles on May 22, 2014 at 11:44 AM · Report this
Dan, "Trigger Warning" has always gotten my hackles up. I truly loathe the term and will skip past sites or articles that use them, not because I'm afraid that someone's content will turn me into a weeping mess, but because some stranger thinks they have the power to do that. I have struggled with PTSD for almost 20 years now (abusive childhood, professionally diagnosed, professionally managed). I have worked hard on myself from the time I got away from home to be functional and happy. I watch crime shows, I go to movies with explosions in them, I read and watch things that contain violence of all sorts, just like everyone else. Not every day, not in a binge fashion because it's a downer but some article or someone's fiction on the internet is not going to bring me down. When I see things like "Trigger Warning", whether it's right or wrong, I see it being used by people who are craving attention more than people with a serious, actual diagnosis. It reads as false concern to me and it's worse to look at than the actual writing beneath. Like I said, right or wrong, that is how my PTSD-self perceives it every time. I get insulted. Flashbacks to real things are so shattering, so powerful that media is a joke in comparison to me. And they come when my mind is at rest, with nothing to read and no distractions. So, from my experience, I'd much prefer the warnings to be stowed. I am a grown up who has chosen to go on the internet. I've got this. Thanks.
Posted by FlotationDevice on May 22, 2014 at 11:55 AM · Report this
@30: My sense of fan fiction and erotic story postings are that many of the warnings are to avoid negative feedback. Harry/Hermione, Harry/Ron, and the original "slash fiction" of Kirk/Spock do some VERY different things to each other than in the copyrighted, canonical, original works. So some fans would decry or thumbs-down that fan fic. A disclaimer may be motivated more to avoid negative reviews than to protect fragile readers.
Posted by DAVIDinKENAI on May 22, 2014 at 12:14 PM · Report this
aureolaborealis 38
@25: It's from LiarTownUSA, which uses retro artwork. And I'm pretty sure that's women's 70s clothing. Enjoy.
Posted by aureolaborealis on May 22, 2014 at 12:20 PM · Report this
Dougsf 39
@31 - perhaps you're right. Perhaps the phrase is used differently in Australia?.
Posted by Dougsf on May 22, 2014 at 12:47 PM · Report this
What surprises me in all this, aside from that it is even a thing that people are talking about, is that various commenters (not here, but at the NYT and elsewhere, including Sherman Alexie in Dan's original post) are complaining that trigger warnings are "censorship."

Uh, trigger warnings may be anything from simply polite to misguided and silly, but to put a label on something is hardly to censor it.

This whole thing is just a big victim-fest. I'm a victim! Without trigger warnings, you are victimizing me again! I'm a victim! Trigger warnings are censoring me, boo hoo!

Posted by Drusilla on May 22, 2014 at 1:17 PM · Report this
I am a survivor of longterm childhood sexual abuse. I have PTSD and am in therapy where I work on it. I have a certain amount of sympathy for people who want trigger warnings. This stuff is hard and it feels like the world should try to level the playing field.
However, as others have mentioned, beyond the obvious discussions of child abuse and other sexual assaults, it would take a wizard to know what is going to trigger a PTSD episode for me.
Right now, its my partner leaning over to kiss me goodnight on the side of our bed. But, that's new. Should she never do that again or should we negotiate how I handle it? Any kind of yelling or screaming or make aggression towards females sends me into a panic.

It's hardly ever reading something. I have control over reading. I can pick it up or put it down and no one is harmed in the process.
I'm not speaking for anyone but me, though. I don't know anyone else's experience well enough to speak for them.
Posted by Jyg08 on May 22, 2014 at 1:50 PM · Report this
Yes, Dan, you're so put upon because some people, somewhere, would appreciate it if they got a heads-up about heavy content.

Jesus, quit being such a victim.
Posted by clashfan on May 22, 2014 at 4:02 PM · Report this
@12. I haven't noticed those warnings re Australian Aborigines, using the term "trigger warning".But it is played often, so maybe I just haven't listened close enough.
These posts on Dans site is really the first I have heard about trigger warnings at all, as an issue . Not on the radar at all in Australia. And I read daily paper/ watch evening news..
Posted by LavaGirl on May 23, 2014 at 3:37 AM · Report this
Thoughtful, powerful opposition to trigger warnings in The Chronicle:…

Posted by maddy811 on May 24, 2014 at 6:48 AM · Report this
@42 has some nerve calling Dan a victim when they're playing the victim card.

As if things couldn't get worse--I came across a blog post that I almost passed over because of about eight so-called trigger warnings (really, if you can't even read something that talks about homophobia--then maybe you shouldn't even be reading) and one of the commenters was gushing about what a great idea it was and that there should also be AGE RATINGS on books as well.
We're being nibbled to death by ducks.
Posted by sfhally on May 25, 2014 at 1:25 PM · Report this

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