Not all trigger warnings are the same


I follow the debate over trigger warnings only loosely. Please feel free to add information in the comments.

In what I see, the debate over trigger warnings is hampered by ill-defined terms and unhelpful hyperbole. I want to give a very basic description of what I think should be a relatively simple approach to the issue, call out a gender problem, and then offer my own example.

To show you where I’m coming from: What prompted me finally to write this was the combination of this popular op-ed by Judith Shulevitz, this essay about the problem of teaching about rape in law school, and the flap over Christina Hoff Sommers’s anti-anti-rape-culture campus tour. I noted that a letter to the editor in the Oberlin Review about her upcoming talk began with this: “Content Warning: This letter contains discussion of rape culture, online harassment, victim blaming and rape apologism/denialism.”

Impending discourse

There are three kinds of relevant warnings that I would group together under the category of “impending discourse notification.” That is, warnings that take the form: something is about to be discussed or displayed. Keeping these three things straight would be really helpful.

1. Warnings of content likely to be disturbing to many people in the audience.

For example, graphic images of violence during a regular TV news program, descriptions of rape on NPR’s Morning Edition, or sociology classroom lectures that contain images of Blacks being lynched. In these cases, a warning of the impending discourse is something like common courtesy. It says, “we are about to see or hear something important enough to risk disturbing the audience, and potentially disturbing enough that you should gird yourself.” In these discrete cases warnings are not controversial in principle, though of course individual applications may be off target or offensive. Many settings carry an implied warning: A horror film can be expected to surprise you with specific acts of violence, but you know something bad is coming; a sociology class on racial inequality should be expected to include discussions of lynching, though some students have no idea about lynching; a history documentary on war is expected to show people being killed. Warnings in these cases seem optional.

2. Warnings of content that may trigger post-traumatic stress responses.

I am not expert on this, obviously, but my understanding (from, e.g., here) is that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was included in the DSM III in 1980, partly based on the experience of Vietnam War veterans. The condition was understood to involve reliving memories of trauma, avoiding reminders of trauma, and hyperarousal that can lead to high levels of distress. There are many kinds of traumas that can lead to PTSD, but some are much more common than others, especially violence, sexual abuse, and existential threats. You can’t expect to prevent all triggering events, but you can take steps to avoid common ones, or warn people when you are going to show or discuss something to an audience likely to be include people with PTSD. Again, war movies are expected to show graphically violent war scenes, but lectures to audiences of combat veterans about disability benefits should not. This is a question of sensitivity and awareness, not blanket prohibitions and censoring. And this is about shocking or graphic imagery, not mere mention of a topic. We just can’t have a democratic discourse without mentioning bad things, sometimes spontaneously. The Oberlin newspaper warning above is wrong. And I don’t agree with another Oberlin essayist who says trigger warnings should be treated as disability accommodations, “as common as wheelchair ramps.” (Of course, I would make an accommodation for a specific student — and I have — who asks to opt out of a specific class session based on the topic).

3. Warnings of obnoxious, offensive, disagreeable, or dangerous ideas.

These warnings are unnecessary and wrong. If someone wants to say the problem of campus rape is exaggerated, that Black men are genetically aggressive, the Holocaust is a myth, or Creationists are stupid — let them. Hand out flyers or picket at their talk, discredit them in the Q&A, denounce them on Twitter, or ignore them. If they are receiving honorary degrees or other accolades (or money) from governments or universities, that’s political fair game to protest. But protecting people from hearing bad ideas is a bad idea (outside of incitement to violence). On campus or in the classroom, exposure to bad ideas is essential to critical intellectual development. If you’re never offended in college you aren’t learning enough.

A gender problem

I have complained elsewhere that the non-criminal procedure for responding to campus rape “downgrades sexual violence from a real crime to a women’s issue.” Something similar is going on with trigger warnings. Although PTSD-type responses can be triggered by many kinds of experiences, it looks like sexual violence is the main arena of debate over campus trigger warnings. Why? This should not be reduced to a “women’s issue.” My admittedly limited exposure to this debate often makes me cringe at what seems like a demand for special protection — from discourse — for women. Women are in fact more likely to experience PTSD than men, but that’s only partly because they are more likely to be sexually assaulted. Men are more likely to experience other potentially traumatic events, including accidents, nonsexual assaults, combat, or witnessing violence, all of which can lead to PTSD. People with sensitivity to trauma-related triggering deserve respect and sensitivity. But women — like any subordinate group — need to exert leadership in the discourse surrounding that inequality, and that doesn’t come from avoiding the topic or silencing their opponents. If the only people discussing rape are people who have never been raped, the dialogue is likely to be male-dominated. We have to work on maintaining the line between offensive and unpleasant on the one hand and truly trauma-inducing on the other. If it’s necessary to avoid the latter, it’s all the more important for those who are able to engage the former.

How did I do addendum

I think we can learn a lot from these discussions. They have raised the question, “What if we acted like sexual assault is actually common?” That reality is hard to grasp — for people who are victims or not — because the experience is so often private.* In the chapter in my book about family violence and abuse, I didn’t include an impending discourse notification, but — after opening with a detailed story of violent abuse — I raised the issue of how discussing the topic might affect students:

The subject of family violence and abuse is personal and painful. Instructors and students should pause at this point to consider the possible effects of discussing these topics, especially for those who have experienced abuse in their own lives. Because this kind of victimization still is so common in the United States, most of us will know someone who has been touched by it in one way or another. However, because families often are protected by a cultural—and sometimes legal—expectation of privacy and a shroud of secrecy, those who suffer usually do so in isolation. That leaves us with the complexity of a problem that is widespread but experienced alone and often invisibly. Such isolation can make the experience of abuse even worse. One benefit of addressing the issue in this book is that we can help pierce that isolation and encourage victims to realize that they are not alone.

I think advising people in the classroom to “pause to consider” before launching into the topic is reasonable — it’s a common experience with a known risk of traumatic effects. But I didn’t write that just to protect people who might have a traumatic reaction to the topic, I did it because it’s a learning opportunity for everyone.

* In the book I tried to put rape in normal-experience terms: experiencing rape (18% of women by one reasonable estimate) is more common than using the Pill for contraception (17% of women currently), but less common than smoking cigarettes for young-adult women (22%, ages 25-34). Does that help?

12 thoughts on “Not all trigger warnings are the same

  1. I agree with your view that a non-criminal procedure for responding to campus rape “downgrades sexual violence from a real crime to a women’s issue”.

    In the Australian defence forces, any complaint of sexual assault against a soldier by another soldier is immediately referred to the police force of whatever state or territory of Australia where the incident occurred.

    The crime itself is not investigated by the military police. Issues of military discipline that arise are separate process from the criminal process.

    By and large, when an employee is under criminal investigation, they are suspended pending the outcome of that investigation. It is common for employment disciplinary investigations to be held over pending the completion of any criminal processes, but the employees suspended.


  2. Why do you freely substitute between national rape rates for all women (which is a suspect statistics anyway) and campus rape rates? Secondly, the normal way to report rates is rapes per thousand; to show a number like 18% is being fast and loose (given that a reliable statistics for life-time rape rate for all persons is not available), like, reporting 40% of people have been assaulted in their lifetime.

    Given that the rape rates for college students of 6/1000 is much lower than the general population, trigger warnings should be for general population. What is exactly happening in the form of campus news dissemination that there is a large number of rape and murder news such that trigger warnings are required?

    I believe this kind of nonsense discourse is perpetrated in social sciences, because the consumer (student) population is largely (> 70%) women, and it is expected that the faculty should act so. Talk to them freely about family violence and rape; they will not be shocked at all.


      1. The US college-educated population lives at the highest standard of living in human history. They have the highest marriage rates, lowest divorce rates, and the stablest life among any groups in the US.

        Creating victimhood for the highest social class in the US takes away valuable resources from the victims in lower classes, the less educated, labor, minorities and poor. No one is questioning the use of rap statics for women as a whole, and help needs to be extended to those THAT HAVE BEEN RAPED. However, diverting attention from the lower classes who need help and creating a victim class among the richest, helps nobody. Sad that Marxist analyses have wholly disappeared.


  3. I think trigger warnings are an area where people should assume the best intentions, if at all possible(*). Yes, it’s a good idea to take reasonable measures to be sensitive and issue content / trigger warnings for discussions that are going to involve emotionally intense issues, but at the same time a person afflicted with PTSD cannot reasonably assume that everyone around them is aware of their triggers.

    When I got out of my first marriage, I had a lot to work through and I had a lot of triggers that would set me off in a blind rage. But here’s the thing – a lot of my triggers are very common and would seem very random to the outside observer; there was no way I could expect to go through life without being triggered by something at least a couple times a week, and there was no way I could reasonably expect anyone to work around me and my triggers. Fortunately I was able to get to a point where I am not an emotional wreck anymore, but because of that experience I really do feel like I see both sides of the trigger warnings issue.

    (*)Yes, I realize that some people enjoy causing other people to suffer, or think triggering a PTSD person is good for them somehow. I don’t know how to combat this but I would like to think these people are a slim minority.


  4. I have a theory about the trigger warning phenomenon and other efforts to create “safe spaces” from scary ideas on elite college campuses. I think it’s at least partly a product of the intensive parenting that middle and upper-middle class kids are exposed to these days — what Lareau calls the logic of concerted cultivation. Middle and upper-middle class kids develop a sense of entitlement about being in safe, stimulating, and rewarding environments, and they learn to be assertive and interventionist in their interactions with authority figures.


  5. I think your third category misses a huge point : hateful discourses are a form of violence which has concrete, real effects on mental health, even if they are not triggering a PTSD.

    As a fat, bisexual person with anxiety/depression, I already had anxiety attacks because of violent homophobic discourses and eating disorders triggered because of gross fatphobia. When I ask for TW for these kind of discourses, I’m not doing it from a “rational”, “strategic” activist act because I think shutting these discourses down is how we efficiently fight homophobia and fatphobia ; I ask for it for my own mental health.


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