Trigger Warning: This post contains content related to domestic and sexual violence.
If you spend a lot of time on parenting forums or Facebook groups on the internet, you have probably seen and/or used a trigger warning. Olivia recently provided a great refresher on the subject on Skepchick. I encourage you all to read it, but the tl;dr is pretty simple: people who have experienced trauma – domestic violence, sexual violence, infant loss, racism, combat – can experience trauma responses long after the original trauma occurred. These can be triggered by a variety of things – images, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, movements. Olivia describes trauma responses as emotional, but they can also be physical, your body and brain literally think you are in harm’s way and cause you to have the same fight, flight or freeze response that you would have if you were actually experiencing trauma. It’s important to also recognize that these are unconscious responses and not something that someone does on purpose. Being triggered is NOT the same thing as being offended.
An example: a couple of weeks ago, I bought a new type of garbage bag. I opened the box and replaced the bag in my kitchen garbage can. A few minutes later, I was playing on Facebook when my heart started to race, and I began to sweat. What was happening? I started to panic. I literally thought that there was a man in my house. My kids were sleeping upstairs. I ran and got my giant steel flashlight and went from room to room searching all of the closets and under the beds. I checked all of the windows and doors and even did a walk through of my garage with my flashlight on my shoulder like a baseball bat. THERE WAS A MAN IN MY HOUSE. I considered calling 9-11. I was terrified. I went back into the kitchen and then realized what had happened. There was not a man in my house. The new garbage bags I had purchased were scented. The smell was supposed to be lavender, but to me smells very similar to men’s cologne. I had a panic attack about garbage bags. Whoa.
Clearly we can’t always predict what might trigger someone, but for obvious things – graphic images, content or images related to sexual or domestic violence, stories about child abuse, miscarriage or infant loss, racism or torture – trigger warnings are a kind and easy way to help people avoid trauma responses.
How do I use a trigger warning? Basically, if you are posting something that could be triggering, you type: “Trigger warning: content related to (type of content here)” And then either type a bunch of characters to push your content out of the line of sight or simply post the potentially triggering content in the comments of a thread. This allows people to opt in to the discussion or avoid it if they know it might be triggering. Easy peasy. Or so I thought.
Recently, I was engaged in a heated debate about trigger warnings on the internet (Steph in a debate on the internet? Shocking). Many people expressed dislike for trigger warnings and confusion about them. Some were even angry and indignant. How dare an administrator ask them to “censor” themselves? How could people so sensitive to trauma function in the world? (the answer to that question is not very well some days). People who want trigger warnings should just – “grow a vagina” and “get over it.” (yes, this actually happened).
This meme was posted as a point of discussion. If one had a chance to look beyond the image and read his comments, they were able to realize that the poster did not agree with it and that he had posted it to start a discussion about how wrong it was. However, for those people who have experienced domestic violence, they might have been so triggered by seeing the image in their feed, that they were unable to read his post. Harm had already been done. Simply seeing this image of violence against women should be offensive to all of us. But, for survivors of domestic violence, their reaction might go way beyond feeling offended. By sharing these images without a trigger warning, we may be harming people who have experienced trauma. Vulnerable people. Shouldn’t we want to protect people from harm if we have that ability?
I think many people who are against trigger warnings just can’t wrap their heads around them. It seems hard to imagine that seeing an image could cause such a strong response in someone. It is so outside of their experience that they can’t relate. I am being honest when I say I am happy for them. That, my friend, is called privilege. And don’t even get me started on the misogyny involved when an issue that disproportionately impacts women is diminished or minimized as people being “too emotional” or needing to “grow a vagina.”
Now that you know what trigger warnings are, let me tell you what they are not. They are not censorship. No one is saying you can’t engage in online discussions about these very important topics, just take an extra step. Yes, it is sometimes inconvenient to post images and content in the comments. But, think about the people who might be impacted. Recognize that your desire to engage in a debate or your ease of using social media shouldn’t be more important than protecting vulnerable people. One in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. You have survivors in your networks and most certainly in groups of which you are a member. We are worthy of your respect and empathy. They are also not about people being offended or too sensitive or a desire for political correctness. Remember, these responses are unconscious. I am far from politically correct. I simply want to protect people from harm whenever I can. Because it’s the right thing to do.
If you already use trigger warnings – awesome. If you previously opposed trigger warnings, I hope this post has changed your mind. Use them. And if you are a group administrator or moderator, consider creating a trigger warning policy for your group. Together, we can make the internet and the world a safer and more empathetic place.
Garbage bag image credit
Author note: I do not blame Glad garbage bags for my panic attack. 🙂