Photo credit Jesus Jenna

People who work in sexual and relationship violence prevention and response often encounter material that describes such violence. That material can include stories and depictions of violence as well as information about the community and social conditions that facilitate violence. Sometimes, some of that material is labeled with a “trigger warning.” Here is a list (in no particular order) of reasons that we find the value of such warnings uncertain.

  1. People who have experienced trauma are not “about to go off” at any moment. People that have experienced sexual violence are all around us and are very often able to manage very well without others pre screening and advising on how they interact with the larger world. They are not by definition fragile and breakable, and do not need others to protect them.
  2.  To think that we can identify what will trigger another person is hubris and misrepresents how sexual violence occurs. Sexual violence can occur in any situation. Sexual violence often occurs in contexts that are not represented in many mainstream discussions about violence. To exclude descriptions that do not meet the (subjective) criteria of warning worthy makes those experiences invisible and further isolates people that have experienced such non-traditional forms of violence and can make them feel that their violence somehow does not count.
  3. Because of the diversity of experiences, literally anything can be a trigger. Peaceful lakes, or green valleys, the sound of a meditation bell or empowering songs or the scent of lavender can all be triggering depending on one’s experience. We simply cannot impose our concept of what may provoke a distressing response on others.
  4. This is often a misuse of the word “trigger”. A trauma trigger reawakens trauma and often feels overwhelming and unmanageable. Experiencing a negative emotion does not necessarily mean you are “in your trauma” it could just mean that you are having an emotion. To conflate experiencing or expressing grief, sadness, or anger with an uncontrollable response replicates the historical tradition that pathologizes a normal emotional response to an upsetting event and labels it hysteria.
  5. It removes agency.  The terminology often implies that people that have experienced violence or certain types of violence are different and or more sensitive than others and need protection. That is paternalistic.
  6. It suggests a higherachy of emotional regulation in which some people are thought to be more capable and competent by virtue of not expressing emotions, or expressing emotions in a more socially approved way.
  7. It is a false construct. Attaching a trigger warning does not ensure safety.  Interacting with material that has not been labeled as triggering can be extremely distressing or even triggering.
  8. It isn’t very helpful. The uncomfortable reality is that the words trigger warning, in and of themselves, are not protective. Sexual violence is emotionally, physically, and spiritually harmful. Adhering a warning does not mitigate that harm.
  9. We can do better. It will take more time, and require more thought and obligate us to use more words, but we can support one another to cultivate the tools to manage our interaction with charged or distressing material.
  • We can support one another to build individual and community resources so that people may talk about their feelings associated with trauma in a community that is open to connection and assumes wholeness.
  • We can put people in charge of their own narratives by describing challenging material in a neutral way that will allow people to control their exposure without labeling the experience for them.
  • Rather than label what may or may not be upsetting, we can cultivate self-awareness and self-care tools so that people may be active and have agency in when and how to  interact with material that may be difficult for them.