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?