trigger warnings

When Trigger Warnings Aren’t Enough: Accountability And Action

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Kate Earley

Killjoy, PR lover, politico, and I run on caffeine.

There are some moments, as a feminist, that you feel the foundations of the feminism you learned begin to shake. The catchphrases we used years ago to defend against transphobia, misogyny, etc are suddenly painfully outdated, surface-level-at-best terms that we’ve outgrown as a community. One example I like to use when discussing this is the prevalence of the phrase “sex and gender are different things,” popular in left-wing blogs and essays circulating the internet. On first glance, this phrase seems great and well-intentioned, designed to demonstrate to people that somebody’s gender can be different than their assigned-at-birth-sex.

However, the more that “sex and gender are different things” has been scrutinized by trans activists, the less it holds up. While well-intentioned, this saying is a stopgap for confronting people’s transphobic discomfort about sex and gender. Saying that sex and gender are different things posits that a transwoman who doesn’t have gender reconstructive surgery is still “male” sexually, which is not only inaccurate, but actually sets a dangerous precedent.

Criticizing “stopgaps” like that one isn’t meant to shame people who found comfort in that phrase, but rather, to broaden horizons and engage in deeper understanding of our biases and shortcomings.

Another of these stopgaps: trigger warnings.

Hold on a moment before you react. I am in no way criticizing people who ask for trigger warnings or find them useful (in fact, I find them helpful in some instances as well), nor am I advocating we take them away. But trigger warnings are a stopgap – a bandaid solution for a much larger problem, that, more and more, has been used by liberal institutions to pat themselves on the back and ignore other very real demands of survivors.

During a long trip with a fellow survivor recently, this topic came up. I was initially apprehensive and, frankly, a little surprised to hear a survivor criticizing trigger warnings in a way that wasn’t meant to downplay their use, but to question their continued necessity. The more I listened to her, though, and researched the topic, I realized that there might be an important criticism here.

That criticism is not the criticism that we’ve heard from right wing relatives or while skimming talk radio – you know the one, the “little snowflakes need safe spaces and trigger warnings” and “trying to silence academic discussion” criticism. Those criticisms are not only blatantly inaccurate, but incredibly (obviously) damaging to survivors. People aren’t asking to not discuss triggering topics, they’re asking for a warning in advance so that they can mentally prepare themselves and engage in a productive manner. (When I used to sway people to that position, I’d compare it to getting a weather report before you go on a hike, so you can bring the right amount of water and sunscreen)

So what’s the problem with trigger warnings?

To be precise: I’m talking about trigger warnings in an academic setting. (Really, people who get annoyed at trigger warnings or content notes on Facebook are extremely confusing – what’s the disadvantage?)

This is where we come back to the idea of a stopgap.

Sexual assault on American (and international!) campuses is absolutely out of hand. This is an undisputed crisis. There have been marches and legislation and performance pieces and general outcry, because a minimum of 1 out of every 5 women on campus being assaulted is nothing short of a very little attack on women as a whole. It seems so commonplace now that we’re almost becoming immune to our own horror when we hear about the latest investigation or Title IX lawsuit.

One particular battleground, as administrators have realized the political consequences of ignoring such an epidemic, has been how to be sensitive to the needs of survivors in the classroom. Graphic depictions of sexual assault or domestic abuse are found nearly everywhere for undergraduate students, and it would be neglectful to not put two and two together and understand that survivors of abuse may need some kind of informal accommodation.

Trigger warnings are not new, but they have become popular exactly for those two reasons: students needed help being able to face a potentially upsetting re-living of the event, and administrators needed to appear as though they were properly accommodating students.

Unfortunately, though, even with trigger warnings becoming relatively prominent on some campuses, students aren’t being properly accommodated. Assault rates remain stubbornly high, and discipline for rapists remains stubbornly low. Furthermore, professors who may balk at the idea of trigger warnings can take this out on students. Even for some professors who attempt to provide ample trigger warnings, it’s not a complete shield.

Trigger warnings in the classroom don’t protect survivors from being horrified that yet another perpetrator was allowed to return to campus. They don’t protect them from men’s rights activists and white nationalists attempting to ramp up recruitment right in the school quad. Trigger warnings also don’t require universities to provide comprehensive mental healthcare services for sexual assault survivors, who desperately need coping strategies.

Trigger warnings do, however, lend themselves to the illusion of progressiveness, allowing college administrators to wash their hands of the assault epidemic and pat themselves on the back for “supporting” students.

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This is not a call to end trigger warnings. In fact, doing so without addressing the underlying causes of trauma prevalent on college campuses would be asinine.

But this is a call to more deeply examine the actions of administrators and professors. Are they truly doing everything in their power to be trauma-sensitive to students? To be survivor-centric? Or are they looking for an easy way out – a way that lets abuse continue to be rampant on campuses?

Because we need protection from more than just flashbacks and distress triggers. We need protection from the abusers who gave us those reactions in the first place.