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Trigger Warnings, Privilege and Making the World a Kinder Place

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.

1025881185An 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).

57207224This 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. 🙂


Steph is a mom, stepmom, freelance writer, and advocate. When she's not busy writing, chasing kids around, cleaning up messes, and trying to change the world, Steph enjoys snuggling, making pies, politics, reading paranormal fiction, yoga, and fitness. A fully recovered natural parent, Steph now trusts science, evidence, and common sense to lead the way. She has been actively involved in the reproductive and women's rights movements for more than 20 years and is a passionate pro-choice feminist. Her writing can be found on Grounded Parents, Romper, The Cut, and other print and online publications

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  1. What’s difficult about this whole thing is the arbitrariness of what people find triggering. If one was assaulted in a field of lavender, that may very well be a scent that’s triggering. Thus a perfectly harmless article about laundry may send someone into a bad place. There are a million sensory things like that. That’s kind of why I don’t understand this as a movement (and I am a survivor of assault). Maybe it’s because I never found a discussion of assault triggering but the idiosyncratic things around it…. Anyway, I think this is a noble idea but impossible to actually implement.

    1. Which is why I suggest that trigger warnings be used in obvious situations and acknowledge that it is impossible to know. The image in this post is clearly problematic. I am in several large mom’s groups where they are used successfully everyday. It’s not rocket science.

  2. I agree that it’s impossible to add trigger warnings for everything. My triggers are very specific. That means I hardly get upset by stuff on the net, but I curled up in my armchair watching Disney’s “Tangled” with my kids.
    But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t put up trigger warnings for common triggers.
    Because curling up in your armchair is not a good thing. If I can reasonably spare somebody that feeling with little to no cost for myself, I’m going to do that.
    To me, trigger warnings are like your doctor telling you that they’re going to stab you with a needle now. We’d think a doctor who simply ambushes you with a flu shot a criminal, even if you entered the consult yourself.

  3. This is an interesting post, coming on the heels of other discussions about “trigger warnings” and “problematic content” I’ve been in elsewhere. My general feeling is that the use of trigger and content warnings to create safe spaces online is unquestionably appropriate for sites seeking to be a safe space, but that they are not necessary or appropriate everywhere.
    I’m curious about your thoughts on this. Warning, the link and the comments has some pretty insensitive stuff, and discussion of violence and abuse.
    (Yes, Hanoumatoi from comment 31 is me, feel free to disagree or educate me further!)

    1. I’m not really sure how I feel about trigger warnings off line. As a former HLS student myself way back in the last millennium, I feel like someone who is a graduate level student in anything should be able to access the syllabi handed out at the beginning of each semester and make a judgment call about whether they need accomodations. That said, the idea that not wanting to learn about the legal system’s handling of rape in a huge first year required Crim Law class makes someone incapable of being a fabulous civil lawyer is kind of laughable, given the vastly different options for the practice of law. The fact is Criminal Law is a required course in ABA accredited law schools and it is a course that is somewhat notorious for being an unpleasant place to be a woman. Prosecutors and defense lawyers are not just victim blaming for effect much of the time and it’s an additude that can follow them into the classroom. Aaaaand, this was rather more of a specific digression than I intended!

  4. I feel like the “there’s no possible way to predict what might trigger someone” position, while technically true, is really a strawman. I don’t think I’ve ever seen actual triggered people saying things like “how could you not post a trigger warning about the vivid description of the color blue that my assailant happened to wear” but frequently see people who just don’t like trigger warnings for whatever reason complaining about the inability to predict everyone’s reactions. And like pretty much every argument about content and respect on the internet ever, if people who were asked to add a trigger warning to something they didn’t realized needed it just said, “shoot, sorry, I totally forgot/didn’t realize/will add it right away” rather than acting like the inclusion of 3-5 more words to a post or comment was somehow going to overdraft their daily word limit, the entire problem would be solved.

    1. Look, if it makes people happy (or less unhappy, I suppose), you are right – it’s a super simple trivial thing to do on the part of the writer. All I was saying really, is that I do not understand how it is actually useful because I personally as a survivor, have never found it to be such. But yeah, it doesn’t bother me when people do it and were I to ever write something on this topic I would have no problem putting the warning there.

      1. It’s not really about making people happy. It’s about helping them avoid trauma responses, which can be not only emotionally harmful, but can do real damage. I work with survivors for my job. This is basically applying common sense. It’s great that these images don’t impact you, but I promise you that I talk with survivors every day for whom that is not true. Part of being an ally is recognizing that something might be right and worth advocating for, even if it doesn’t personally impact you.

    2. The argument that trigger warnings don’t always work, so they shouldn’t be used is exactly the same as the antivaxer argument that vaccines aren’t 100% effective, therefore shouldn’t be used. Is there a name for this logical fallacy?

    1. And the award for missing the point entirely goes to Mark, for not bothering to read the whole article.

      “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.”

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