Trigger Warnings in Art and Academia

Last week, on the Facebook group for the literary citizenship class I took with the amazing Cathy Day, a conversation started about trigger warnings in writing and in a college setting. It quickly became clear that while many students were familiar with trigger warnings and would appreciate them, professors had, in many cases, never heard of triggers, much less trigger warnings.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to come at this topic, because there’s so much to talk about. Ultimately I’ve decided to come at it the way I do most things – rooted in my personal experience.

A couple of current students in Cathy’s literary citizenship class, Haley Muench and Rianne Hall, have already posted about this topic, and you should go read what they have to say. I will not be responding to what they have said so much as expanding on it. Rianne doesn’t specify, but Haley at least is coming at this from the perspective of someone who has no triggers but is raising her awareness of them (which is awesome), and I would like to come from the perspective of someone who does have triggers.

First off: What is a trigger? First, let me tell you what it isn’t. It is not:

  • Something that causes someone to feel kinda uncomfortable
  • The results of weakness or immaturity
Actually not an exaggeration

Actually not an exaggeration

Triggers cause panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, hyperventilating. They cause full changes in mood and can make someone irritable or anxious for days. And not just kind-of-nervous anxious – the kind of anxiety with physical symptoms. Racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness, nausea. Triggers can even cause vivid flashbacks, like the kind experienced by soldiers with PTSD.

People who are triggered are not weak. They are people who have experienced trauma and who are still in recovery. There is nothing weak or immature about people who have triggers.

Trigger warnings are here to help people prevent being triggered. Trigger warnings do not say, “Don’t write about this topic.” They are saying, “Give people a warning.” Give people a chance to make an informed choice. Give them a chance to consent to handling sensitive material.

I’ve seen people saying that this kind of “coddling” won’t help people with trauma, that they need to face it head on. So, here’s my question: Are you my therapist?

No, really. Are you? What gives you the authority to decide what anyone – much less strangers – needs to overcome their trauma? Where does your magical expertise come from? Are you a therapist who has spent hours and hours in sessions with all of these people? Did you use that information to carefully determine what they needed for a healthy recovery?

I’m gonna bet no. And even if you are a therapist, you’re not everyone’s therapist. You cannot make a broad, sweeping statement about what everyone who has experience trauma needs.

If you’re a trauma victim who doesn’t get triggered or need warnings, great! But there are plenty who do, and you can’t discount them just because you experience trauma differently. Everyone does. It was two years after being raped that I suddenly stopped being able to take the bus or go to class without severe anxiety (both involved confined environments with men that were difficult to escape). For many others, that sort of anxiety/paranoia sets in immediately or not at all.

“But wait!” some people say. “There are too many things that upset people! How can we possibly predict everything?”

Well, you can’t. But is that a reason not to try? I don’t think it is. If you’re not sure what to warn for, here are some good ones to start with: Sexual assault and rape, physical and emotional abuse, suicide and self harm, and graphic violence.

“Shouldn’t we be talking about things that make us uncomfortable?”

Absolutely! We should write and talk about the hard topics (though there are discussions to be had on like seriously do we need anymore graphic rape scenes?). We should be free to write about what we want, and people should be free to choose what they want to read or watch.

“The world comes without trigger warnings, so why should anything else?”

Precisely because the world comes without them. Out in the world, I have men yelling at me from cars telling me to join Weight Watchers. I have people calling me a slut, whore, bitch. I have strange men at bus stations touching my tattoos and harassing me. So what’s wrong with making classrooms safer spaces than the rest of the world?

There seems to be this attitude that people who ask for trigger warnings don’t understand that the world is a hard place. I’m pretty sure that the people who need those warnings actually understand that better than most. I understand that, statistically and in my personal experience, I can’t trust men to listen to me saying “no”. I can’t trust them to let me have control over what happens to my body. So what’s wrong with wanting control over what I read and watch? Of wanting to make informed decisions over whether or not I can handle the content in a class?

I don’t think it’s difficult to add a simple statement or warning to a book about what to expect. You can even just include it in the synopsis on the back. Haley Muench’s post uses the book Towelhead by Alicia Erian as an example. It doesn’t explicitly say “this contains rape” but you can tell from the synopsis that something bad is going to happen. And at a reading, you can just say the story you’re about to read contains suicide or extreme violence – then people can choose to walk away for a little bit.

When it comes to how to accommodate students with triggers, I have far, far fewer answers, so I talked to former and current students to ask about their experiences and opinions. Most students said that they’d never been warned for anything, and several described situations in which they were triggered in class and didn’t feel that they could escape the situation. They didn’t want to draw attention to how uncomfortable they were or to ‘out’ themselves as a victim to the entire class.

One MFA student said: “I don’t personally have triggers, but I am a huge supporter of warnings in an academic environment — to me it’s incredibly basic necessity, given that you’re there to learn, you’re in a situation that has no easy escape, and you can’t learn if you’re trapped in a triggered situation.”

Because that’s what it feels like: Being trapped. “Just leave the class” is easier said than done. It’s better to be pre-warned so that you can either prepare yourself for the material or so that you can talk to your professor about accommodation. Ultimately, the student consensus was that trigger warnings would be greatly appreciated.

Of course, it can easily become very complicated. Where do you draw the line on what to warn about? What happens if a student can’t handle most of the material in the class? How, as a teacher, do you balance giving warnings with giving accommodations? I don’t have a lot of answers, but I don’t think that complexity is a reason not to help people.

Trigger warnings in classes are not about censorship, being weak, or asking to be treated like a precious snowflake. They’re about providing a safe learning environment. What’s wrong with that?

Let’s Talk About Romanticized Abuse in Books

[Trigger warning for abusive relationships, both fictional and real]

I recently got into a conversation on Twitter about Twilight. Right now, you’re probably having the same reaction I did – “People still talk about Twilight?”

Apparently, yes, and I’m now convinced that at least part of the Twilight conversation is still important to have. That’s the part where we talk about how it romanticizes an abusive relationship.

Edward enters Bella’s room without her permission and watches her sleep (again, without her knowledge or permission) and hides that from her for some time. He takes away her ability to make decisions for herself. She is so incredibly dependent on him that when he disappears, she goes basically comatose for months, with no clue what to do with herself once he’s gone. At one point, he disagrees with her choice to go see Jacob, and he takes the engine out of her car.

HurrjOo

The person I talked to on Twitter argued that he was simply trying to protect her and anyway, he never hit her or yelled at her, and that’s what abuse is. (No, no, no no no no no, no.)

Thinking that abuse consists only of physical violence and yelling is extremely dangerous. Abuse can take on many forms and some of them are subtle. It could come the in form of neglect, coercion, or maybe continued patterns of insults and put downs. The type of extreme control that Edward exerts and the and removal of Bella’s agency is definitely abusive.

You might be thinking – okay, fine, but it’s just one aspect of one book. Why does it matter?

First off – it’s far from the only book. Let’s talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Fifty Shades follows Twilight in its romantic abuse, considering that it started out as Twilight fanfiction. Right from the beginning, Christian stalks Ana (even tracking her cell phone after she drunk dials him) and manipulates her. He buys her incredibly expensive gifts that she makes it clear she doesn’t want. He overwhelms her with information about a world she knows nothing about (the BDSM scene), makes her sign a non-disclosure agreement before they sleep together, and manipulates her into a total power exchange relationship – meaning that he’s her dominant not only in the bedroom, but in the rest of her life. Total power exchanges are a real thing, but they’re entered into by consenting adults who are in full understanding of what that kind of relationship means and who, more importantly, want it and get equal pleasure out of the arrangement. Ana never indicates that she understands any of it and doesn’t even seem to want it. He’s just hot and confuses her, and she signs the contract.

And it’s not just Twilight and Fifty Shades. These types of relationships run rampant in our romantic fiction – in books and movies, in paperback romances and YA. The super-hot, mysterious, brooding, controlling man is written to seem like he’s that way because he loves his partner more than usual.

That's creepy, dude.

That’s creepy, dude.

It’s all just passion, not abuse, even when the women end up with bruises they never asked for (considering that one of the books I’m talking about is Fifty Shades, I think it’s important to point out that you can consent to being bruised and hurt – but again, that comes from understanding and consent, which is rarely present).

So why does all this matter? It’s just books, right?

For the purposes of this post and to make my point, I’m going to talk about something kind of personal. I’m gonna tell you a story.

I spent most of high school in an emotionally abusive online relationship. He was incredibly controlling and unpredictable. I never really knew what would make him angry or happy. He hated most of my friends and didn’t want me talking to them. He also introduced me to the lifestyle side of BDSM, though he never actually educated me about it in anyway. I was just expected to do what he said. When I reached out online to find people who I could relate to and talk to about it – well, that made him angry, because I was going to someone else for my information instead of getting it all from him.

Around the same time, I discovered Twilight. Edward and Bella’s relationship reminded me a lot of my own, and Edward did all of those things to Bella because he loved her, right? He was so incredibly in love with her that he had to go to extreme measures to be near her and to protect her. It made my abusive relationship seem special. I became convinced that he did all of these things to me out of concern and incredibly passionate love – not out of, y’know, a likely sociopathic need for complete control of an underage girl.

This relationship was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. It’s five years later and in many, many ways I am still recovering. I can’t help but wonder if I could have gotten out just a little sooner if I hadn’t become obsessed with Twilight and become deluded into thinking that abuse equaled love and passion. And if Fifty Shades had been out then? Well, I’d rather not think about that.

I’m not saying that Twilight and Fifty Shades are the root of all evil. (Well. Fifty Shades might be. I really hate that book.) I’m not saying that every person who reads them will end up in a situation like mine. I’m definitely not saying they should be banned (seriously, I will never say that a book should be banned). What I am saying is that it’s dangerous to ignore the problematic aspects of these books. It’s dangerous to completely ignore the problematic aspects of anything, from your favorite books and movies to things said and done by influential celebrities (even when they’re otherwise awesome people).

You can acknowledge that something has its issues, participate in the conversation, and still enjoy the book or movie or celebrity in question. Twilight has some enjoyable aspects, if you ignore the bad writing. Fifty Shades has…a lot of really, really bad writing and quite frankly there are better sex scenes written by preteens on fanfiction.net, but I guess some people are into it.

If you just completely brush off the abuse, especially in conversations about these books and books like it, it makes it all the easier for people like sixteen-year-old Sarah to think that there’s nothing wrong with these relationships. It makes it easier and more tempting for them to seek out this sort of “love”.

This is probably a whole ‘nother post in itself, but other young adult books can be really guilty of this, especially the ones that have been released in the wake of Twilight’s success. Sometimes it’s not as clear, sometimes it’s subtle, but that doesn’t make it okay. If you have any titles that come to mind, post in the comments.

It’s important to talk about this stuff. So let’s talk about it.

Sarah Reads: “Don’t Think About That”

This past year, I’ve participated in a lot of readings with other writers, mainly my fellow Ball State students. I discovered that I really love getting up in front of a crowd and reading my work and, even better, that I’m not half bad at it.

So here’s my new feature for the blog: Sarah Reads.

Once or twice a month (I’ll set a better schedule as I get comfortable), I’ll be posting audio of me reading original fiction. Currently I’m not going to post the text along with it, but I’d love to hear from my readers on whether or not you’d like to have that text.

This first edition of Sarah Reads features a flash fiction about space: “Don’t Think About That”.

Embed from Getty Images

On Beauty and Body Diversity in YA

Yesterday, writer Taylor Breslin made a great post on Tumblr about some of her big frustrations in young adult fiction. The big topic? Stupid beauty standards and female confidence. It’s a great post, and you should go read it. It got me thinking and I want to expand on this a little and also connect it to my continued desire to see more body diversity in YA.

…what I don’t see in a lot of young adult fiction is characters being physically attracted to each other in a normal way. It’s all “he/she was the most insanely gorgeous and perfect person I have ever laid eyes on.” So many female protagonists gain their love interests and even their male friends because the guys meet them and are instantly paralyzed by their beauty. Not by any aspects of their personality. It’s ridiculous, and it doesn’t give normal teenage girl readers much to identify with (nor is it a good example of how to build relationships with people).

Of course, it’s not only the girls who are insanely beautiful – the boys are, too. The boys are always superhuman gorgeous (even when they’re not superhuman). I get that there’s some wish fulfillment there, but it’s everywhere, and there’s a key difference between the beautiful female protagonists and their beautiful male counterparts. The boys are allowed confidence. That usually makes them sexier. Most of the super hot guys in YA novels are entirely aware of how gorgeous they are, of the affect they have on women, and often aren’t afraid to use it to to their advantage.

Our girls don’t get that. As Breslin points out, the girls talk about all of their physical traits in a negative light – they’re too tall, too skinny, with eyes that are too big. The attempt to make these teenage girls somehow relatable always ends up with them being skinny and awkward. Or they’re a clumsy heroine, which often seems to be used to bring too-strong-willed female protagonists down a peg. The girls who are confident in their appearance are often villains, whether it be that popular girl in school or the sexy lady vampire trying to kill the protagonist.

2a8kuoz

I understand that everyone has insecurities about his or her appearance, but it would be good every once in while to have a character have some self-confidence in that department. Better that it be a NORMAL LOOKING character who can be confident in herself instead of some kind of preternatural model goddess.

It’s incredibly difficult to be a teenage girl without insecurities, especially considering all of the shit that’s thrown at women every day. Be skinny, but not too skinny, because men don’t want a sack of bones. But don’t be too fat, either, god, they don’t want whales. Look like you’re not wearing makeup, but don’t look too natural. Who can get bombarded by that for most of their lives without breaking a little?

That’s even more of a reason to have some confident, normal-looking girls in YA. Give teenage girls someone who really looks like them and who is completely fine with – hell, who even LOVES – her appearance. And let those character discover their beauty on their own, or to already have it when the book begins. Don’t give them half a dozen guys to fawn over them and then have them still wringing their hands saying, “But I just don’t understand why!”

For me, even better would be a fat character with confidence. Not someone who’s euphemistically curvy or ‘a little plump’, but fat. An actual fat girl with casual confidence in herself and her own beauty, who doesn’t need a romantic interest to make her see it, and who doesn’t lose half her body weight and suddenly ‘match her inner beauty’. (Anything that involves fat people losing weight to match their inner beauty makes me want to put that bullshit gif on loop forever.)

We need some normal-looking characters. Check out Breslin’s post for a good list of authors who do that, but also as she points out, most of those are in contemporary YA. In fantasy or scifi YA, it’s almost impossible to find. We need diversity in YA bodies, and we need them to love themselves. Maybe then our teenagers could learn to love themselves a little sooner.