Trigger warning: trigger warnings

One focus of work with survivors of sexual violence is learning to understand and manage triggers to symptoms of trauma.  They can be as seemingly innocuous as smelling something; having someone look at you in a way which suggests they want to be sexual with you; walking past a place that reminds you of where you were raped or sexually abused.

Triggers cause flashbacks, replays of the event associated with the trauma.  This might make someone feel terrified or frozen or helpless or numb.  How your mind and body dealt with the original event – literally how your brain chemistry recorded it – will have an enormous impact on whether you have flashbacks, or avoid situations/triggers, or can recall anything at all.  Learning to manage this is one of the most important aspects of being able to thrive after surviving victimisation.

But “trigger warning” in the feminist blogosphere is used much more broadly, as a kind of cultural marker for pain and trauma in a variety of ways.  It’s used to warn about content which may be difficult, traumatising or potentially re-traumatising to read.  A way of looking after each other.  I love that care, but want to acknowledge how potentially difficult it is when we are all triggered by different things.  At what point does “trigger warning” lose meaning? 

Personally, I am triggered by portrayals or words which depict or celebrate or fail to question power over situations, oppressive situations, dominance being acted out, historical or current.  So watching a film about slavery say, not my experience, and I’m white, but I will feel pain that will sit with me, pain that is about not understanding how people can treat each other that way, not understanding – on an emotional level – how white privilege enables white people to disconnect from the humanity of people of colour in such brutal, dominating ways.

Reading Michael Laws spewing forth racial and class hatred or watching Paul Henry laughing at anyone who isn’t a white, middle-class, non-disabled heterosexual man – it’s not that those views exist that I find triggering, it’s that they are available in New Zealand’s mainstream media, giving them an audience and cultural validity.  It’s the fact that their hatred gets minimised by many New Zealanders, letting us off the hook in terms of considering structural oppression.

Living in a world which denigrates and discriminates against queer and trans people, and experiencing queer hatred myself makes me sensitive to the ways it is mobilised to construct heterosexuality as “normal”, rather than common.  Hearing others pretend that transphobia, biphobia and homophobia do not exist or are not that big a deal – from both within and outside the queer community – triggering because they attempt to erase all the myriad ways oppression plays out around desire and gender identity.  They literally attempt to rewrite experiences of pain in my life, and lives of people I love.

I can’t watch portrayals of violent sex, even when I know it’s consensual.  It triggers dozens of stories in my head.  I can’t watch with any comfort portrayals of any kind of sex where one participant is not enthusiastically into what is happening.  Same reason.  The enormity of how common disembodied sexual experiences are, sex where one person is putting up with something, or feels they have to participate, or is too frightened to say no – for me, these things are an integral part of rape culture, they are typically highly gendered, and I don’t want to see them. 

Yet I hear those kinds of stories often, in work and outside.  Last month, in three different social situations one week, three women told me about being raped.  The last time I caught a cab for work, my taxi driver disclosed a very complex family situation of child abuse, and took details of a local specialist agency I suggested she access for help.  I feel like in order to be able to be with people who need to talk about sexual violence, I have to monitor how much I see, hear or read about sexual violence and supports for sexual violence in pop culture.  Which means missing a good chunk of media representations of sex, despite how much I love and feel joy in sexual play. 

Obviously these triggers are mine, probably not alone, but some might be considered a good night out by other people.  For me, oppression is trauma in millions of micro experiences, all the time.  Trigger warnings help me monitor on what level I’ll allow myself to be exposed to oppression today.  But I think we need to think carefully about why and how we use them if we want them to be effective ways of caring for each other, and mindful too of the complexities of difference.


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