On Reading

Unpopular Opinions: Trigger Warnings

A few weeks ago, I read a memoir written by a twin following her sister’s drug overdose. I was interested because it promised to be a introspective look into what it’s like to have an identical sister, as well as what it means to lose someone who is so integral to your own identity. I read through the first half, intrigued by the style and pace. It was told, in part, by the surviving sister with little pieces of the dead sister’s written works thrown in. 

I thought this would be one of those books that you read in a single setting while lying frontwards in bed. The kind that you reread just so you can experience the emotional depth again and again. 

Then the rape.

Mixed race student studying in library

The scene was unique to most books I’ve read in that the assault was described in pain-staking detail. It was like I was actually there, watching helplessly as the stranger ripped off this woman’s clothes and pinned her to the ground. I could practically smell the man’s breath on her cheek and hear the ripping of her shirt. I thought it would be a brief flashback and the author would resume the narrative, having conveyed the horror that her sister experienced efficiently. Instead, the onslaught continued for pages on end.

I closed the book in disgust and haven’t opened it since.

This memoir stayed with me long after I read it, but not in the way I had hoped. I’ve developed a thick skin when it comes to dark themes and imagery over the years. However, I just couldn’t push through in spite of how talented the writer was. 

I could only imagine what a person who has actually experienced these things in real life would feel about books such as this one. Especially when the dust jackets gives no indication to the violence it contains.

Profile view of woman sitting in grass with face in knees

When I first heard about trigger warnings, I was in favor of them. I have friends who have experienced unimaginable horrors such as physical and verbal abuse, not unlike what the twin in the memoir suffered. If there was a way to minimize their discomfort, it sounded like a worthy cause.

However, as the movement grew in popularity, lists of possible triggers kept bobbing to the surface. The more I read about them, the more incredulous I became. I understood warning people about violent scenes, rape, and murder but holes?

The list of triggers kept growing: misogyny, racism, spiders, discussions of sex (even consensual), pregnancy, childbirth, skulls, needles and cruel words like “stupid” or “dumb.”  While some of these things are uncomfortable is it truly necessary to give people an official warning about them? It seems pretty obvious that a book written decades ago is going to have at least one sexist remark thrown in somewhere. 

For a long time I see-sawed back and forth on the issue, going from a supporter of the trigger warning movement to a nay-sayer. After dedicating at least three weeks to research on the subject, I have come to the final conclusion that I must revoke my support of trigger warnings.

What prompted me to come to this decision?

Four main reasons:

Avoidance Makes Trauma Worse

When someone has gone through a disturbing experience their natural response is to bury their head in the sand and steer clear of any mention of it. However, that is the worst thing a person could do for their mental health. In fact, avoidance is a symptom of PTSD and exacerbates the condition. According to the Institute of Medicine, exposure therapy (which entails a patient going through their experience step-by-step, recounting as many details as possible) “is the most effectual treatment for PTSD.” This goes double for victims of rape. A majority of those who engage in this type of treatment notice a drastic reduction in their PTSD symptoms, and find triggers that once set them on edge no longer have the same power.

Man talking to psychotherapist

The Devil Is In The Details

While trigger warnings help avoidance in a general sense, people are more likely to be triggered by a specific detail than a scene as a whole. 

In high school, I knew a girl who had been raped by her mother’s green-eyed boyfriend. Consequently, every time she came across a passage about someone with green eyes she was reminded of the rape even if the book contained no sexual violence.

Browsing through the comment section of an article on trigger warnings, I read one woman had been triggered by a tissue commercial. Another by the smell of gasoline. Another by a shrub.

How would  trigger warnings help these women?

Answer: They wouldn’t.

An object that is otherwise innocuous to one person could mean something foreboding to another. If I saw a belt I would be reminded of a chameleon’s tongue. If another saw it, they could be reminded of a thrashing they received at the hands of a caregiver. I could see a rose and think of a Valentine’s Day present. Someone else could see a casket adornment for their kid sister’s funeral.

As humans, our experiences are too varied and complex for a simple stamp to act as a one-size-fits-all guard against past traumas.

Close up side view of bright yellow and orange blooming rose

They Conflict With Feminist Ideals

True, trigger warnings were conceived in the feminist blogosphere. Nonetheless, at their worst, trigger warnings are reinforcing the old patriarchal idea that women are so fragile that they need constant shelter from “icky” ideas or imagery.

While the intent behind trigger warnings isn’t an inherently nefarious one, the turn they have taken over the past year or so has made them less of a means to protect those with legitimate mental health problems and more of a way to enable others to avoid conflict of opinion.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil

At Brown University, there was a scheduled debate about the accuracy of the term “rape culture” between the founder of feministing.com, Jessica Valenti, and Wendy McElroy, a libertarian. In retaliation, Ms. Byron, a member of the Sexual Assault Task Force at Brown, created a safe-room for those who could be potentially triggered by having their experiences “invalidated” as a result of this debate. The proposed safe-room included “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.”

To clarify, McElroy was not trying to suggest with her argument that women were lying about being raped (she was sexually assaulted at a young age). Her argument was meant to criticize the term “rape culture,” or the notion that we live in a society that believes rape is socially acceptable and prevalent. 

Now more than ever there has been a push for trigger warnings on college class syllabi and even, in some cases, a call to ban certain books from the curriculum all together. The complaints about these books range from racism, persecution of religious beliefs, and sexism. 

Many students have demanded The Great Gatsby be banned for having instances of domestic violence and sexism.

It seems paradoxical for women to argue they are just as strong mentally and physically as men, and then say they require additional measures to make sure they aren’t worked into a state of panic. There’s a difference between being vulnerable (which every human is to an extent) and being a delicate flower who is sent into a frenzy every time they come across a subject matter they don’t like.

How are women suppose to change racial relations or promote sexual equality if they have their hands cuffed over their eyes and ears?

How are they meant to grow as intellectuals if they refuse to see the opposing side of the argument or how far humanity has come over the centuries?

Personal Growth

While reading the rape scene in that memoir was probably one of the most unpleasant reading experiences I’ve ever had, in retrospect, I don’t wish I hadn’t read it. In the short term it made me uncomfortable, even depressed. But it made me think about rape survivors in a way that I had not before. Even though I wasn’t there, the writing was done so well it made the act feel more personal.

Now that I’ve had time to sit down and mull it over, I realize that this passage wasn’t meant to be simple emotional manipulation, or a tacky attempt to be edgy. It was meant to put a magnifying glass on suffering; not to shock, but to open people’s eyes to the horror of this crime.

Fireflies in a forest

This is what literature is supposed to do. It is suppose to take you out of your comfort zone and expose you to conflicting viewpoints. We read to explore places we’ve never been to, but also to hear voices of those that society may have overlooked. 

I understand not wanting to read things saturated in darkness.

I understand the reluctance to meditate on the negative.

But I also believe that learning about the suffering of others can make us more compassionate people. That isn’t to say all books that contain violence or sexual assault (or even racism) are going to change a person for the better. Sometimes the author really is just trying to employ cheap tactics to evoke emotion from their readership.

Nevertheless, trigger warnings could discourage people from reading books that they need in their lives. A book that could make them a better friend, lover, or parent.

Some of the best books aren’t the ones that are easy to read. 

They are the ones that trigger a side of us we never knew existed.

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