Two Reader Responses to My Trigger Warning Post and One Sensible Defense of Trigger Warnings
by Dan Savage
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.
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...
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.