Outsider Looking In – Trigger Warnings and Art

This week one of my professors asked her students about trigger warnings (often referred to as TW or triggers).


Was ist das?

We discussed what they are, how they affect people, and what place they might have in both an academic and artistic setting. Before this discussion started I read this blog post by Sarah Hollowell (@SarahHollowell on Twitter) about abusive relationships in YA fiction, specifically the Twilight series. She starts a great conversation about normalized violence and gender dynamics in 50 Shade of Grey as well.

These discussions got a lot of wheels turning in my head. This is a conversation that I am incredibly passionate about and I want to participate. But I find myself struggling to find the right way to do so.

When it comes to talking about these issues and so many others I am very much an outsider. I’ve never been assaulted but 1 in 5 women in the United States alone have and 1 in 79 men have as well (that number is estimated to be a lot higher because of under reporting). And those are just the people who have reported their assaults or have been able to articulate exactly what happened to them. When we start looking closer at the data we do have available it becomes stomach churning. Almost 50% of victims are assaulted before the age of 18. The CDC has a good compilation of these stats here if anyone needs some solid information on this issue.

Given these statistics it seems safe to assume that there are a vast number of people who I interact with on a daily basis who have experienced some sort of sexual assault.

So is there a way to help people who have gone through a traumatic experience, whether is be sexual assault, war, suicide attempts, etc. to avoid things that might trigger painful flashbacks?

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(Please be reminded, I’m talking about triggers that deal with sexual assault or war trauma. I don’t think trigger warnings are necessary for insects and bodily fluids in an academic setting. Maybe the internet where those conversations might be more common but not the classroom.)

Trigger warnings are defined as something (usually a brief sentence or two) this is used to warn people there will be content that might ‘trigger’ them. They can also be abbreviated as ‘TW’ as I did at the beginning of this post.

So what goes it mean when someone is ‘triggered’?

Usually it means they feel intense anxiety at the least and can have full blown flashbacks very much like war veterans with PTSD have.

However, people who have been through a sexual assault are not likely to recieve the same treatment as a verteran might. This has a lot to do with how victims of assault are percieved by our society (often referred to as rape culture, a whole other can of worms).

These experiences are different for everyone and things that are not necessarily related to the traumatic event can still be triggers: songs, movies, actions taken by other people, phrases, and so on.

While discussing this issue with my professor we spoke of it in an artistic context. Should artists be limited by triggers? Should they preface works with possible triggers with warnings? How do we determine what a trigger is since it can be so many different things?

First of all I have never and never will advocate for censorship.censorship

Censoring the material won’t change anything. It never has and it never will.

I do believe that there are some general things we can, as a community of artists and like-minded people, agree are upsetting to people who have been through these kinds of traumatic events. These might include scenes portraying rape, assault, molestation, etc. Very general things that can easily be given a warning and it doesn’t have to be in big bold letters.

My teacher brought up the fact that she had taught Towelhead by Alicia Erian.


The book contained issues that might have been triggering for some people. A student pointed out that the synopsis of the book provided information about the sexual content of the book. It is subtle but most assuredly there when you are aware of what you’re looking for. For example here is part of the synopsis:

“Bewildered by extremes of parental scrutiny and neglect, Jasira begins to look elsewhere for affection. Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait, and high school has become a lonely place for a “towelhead.” When her father meets, and forbids her to see, her boyfriend, it becomes lonelier still. But there is always Mr. Vuoso — a neighboring army reservist whose son Jasira babysits. Mr. Vuoso, as Jasira discovers, has an extensive collection of Playboy magazines. And he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with Jasira’s body at all.

Those last three sentences quickly give the reader a sense of what might happen between Jasira and Mr. Vuso. For many people this is enough to allow them to decide whether or not they wish to continue to read the book. It isn’t obtrusive and it fits with the nature of books.

I also considered how this issue is handled in documentaries. A brief message will roll across the screen saying something to the effect of: “This film contains material that some viewers might find disturbing.” Again, by reading the synopsis of the film or by hearing/seeing this message a person can be prepared for what they might see and then make a choice about whether or not they want to continue.

Things begin to get murky when we talk about live readings, performances, viewings, etc.

This conversation began as my professor giving the example of a writer who gave a reading and was then approached by some of the audience members who tried to inform him about triggers and suggest that he should warn the audience.

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His reaction was less than stellar. It doesn’t sound like these people who approached him were trying to be rude or say that they wanted him to not talk about these things. While I can see some of his point this type of very angry reaction is simply not productive.

Artists shouldn’t be limited in what they want to talk about. But I don’t think this is about limitations. It would take only a few words to warn your audience that the content might be disturbing and those who might find it upsetting can leave quietly or be prepared and know what to expect.

Again, I am an outsider looking in on this issue. I’ve never experienced the trauma that comes with being triggered so I can’t speak from that perspective. But I have, regrettably and unfortunately, caused someone very close to me to be triggered.

A few months ago I retweeted several tweets about rape culture and what that looks like in women’s daily lives. I felt that these were things that needed to be seen and deserved discussion. What I didn’t realize is that these tweets were very upsetting for someone close to me who has experienced stalking and assault. Later in the day they told me about the trigger and asked that in the future I would preface that type of material with a warning so they would be prepared to see it on their feed and then make the decision to scroll past if they needed to.

I was mortified. My attempt at a good action, spreading awareness about rape culture, had brought back memories of a horrible experience. Was I at fault for this? Did I do a bad thing?

There is a fine line to walk when you’re an outsider looking in at these issues. They are incredibly personal and a lot of them are difficult to talk about. Everyone deals with them differently.

Because of that experience I try my hardest to be aware of triggering material.

I know some people will say that trigger warnings are another way of ‘babying’ society and shielding people from the harsh truth of the world. I will give you an analogy I got from this Tumblr post:

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A trigger is like an allergy. We have regulations all over the country on how to package food so that people don’t eat things that can hurt them. People with allergies can’t help this reaction and they can’t overcome it by sheer willpower. In some cases a trained health care professional might help the person introduce the allergen into their body so their body can learn how to deal with the stimulant but you can’t simply throw someone with a severe peanut allergy into a peanut factory and tell them to ‘just ignore it‘.

A trigger is a psychological, and sometimes physiological, event. Certain individuals will handle that event differently and some of them might be able to work on their reactions with the help of a counselor but in the meantime shouldn’t we help the often invisible individuals all around us who might struggle with this issue?

These issues are complicated and multi faceted. I don’t think I have all the answers and I don’t think Trigger Warnings are the perfect answer. But in the day and age of the Internet they help serve as a buffer for those who need it.

Please feel free to comment on this post and share it wherever a professor or teacher might see it. I want this to be a part of a conversation that includes everyone in the academic world. That can’t happen if the profs are in one corner and the students are in another only talking to each other. We have to work together to come to an understanding about this issue and many others.



  1. Great blog! I said this elsewhere in a discussion that I suspect may have led to your class discussion:

    I provide trigger warnings for sensitive material in my class readings, but I don’t excuse students from the reading or any assignments based on that reading. It’s not much of a burden; it takes as much time and energy as hashtagging a tweet if you do each reading individually on your syllabus, and it takes even less if you put a blanket statement about the readings at the beginning of your syllabus. Ultimately, all you are doing by providing a trigger warning is providing students with additional information about the readings ahead of time.

    I certainly don’t use every trigger warning on that list from tumblr; tagging every reading on my syllabus as “classism,” for instance, seems to do more harm than good. But hit the big ones: rape, incest, molestation, torture, pedophilia, suicide. It sounds a bit perverse in the context of this conversation, but the truth is this: as much as trigger warnings warn some students away, they draw others in, because they let students know that we’re talking on some real shit and they’re not being assigned fluff. For some of my first year students, it’s a different sort of shock.

    I think this approach allows students to make their own informed decision; if they decide it would be in their best interests to skip a reading that might trigger them, then they can do so, and plan to put extra effort into other readings or assignments to make up for whatever points they miss. I’ve never had a student complain about this approach, though some are disappointed a bit, and it doesn’t make me feel like I’m coddling students or compromising the rigor of my course.

    In the end, given the relatively low expenditure of effort versus the very tangible possible benefits, I don’t see why any prof wouldn’t want to put trigger warnings out there whenever possible.

    1. Thanks Kyle, I think you’re right. There seems to be a misunderstanding about what triggers are and what purpose they serve. I’m glad to hear you take the consideration to give that brief warning to your students, you never know what you might have spared them. But there lies the heart of this issue: we simply can’t know who needs this accommodation and who doesn’t. But as our world becomes increasingly more aware of these issues it’s important to have the hard conversations in an environment that is supportive and not dismissive of the trauma people have gone through.

  2. Nonsensical, pro-trigger-warning rant coming:

    I am a firm proponent of the idea of the trigger warning. And yes, any artist may choose not to use it. That is the artist’s choice. And critics who disagree with that choice will critique it. That’s how decisions work in a society. You make choices, and people judge you based on them. I am infuriated by over-the-top statements like, “You won’t let me say anything! Do I have to walk on eggshells around everyone?” No one is *making* anyone do anything. That’s the luxury of privilege: your behavior is normalized. But if you know that one in every four women has experienced sexual assault, or that men face harsh judgment if they attempt to confide that they have been raped, and that reminding them of what has happened to them can be intensely painful, and you still decide not to take those people’s needs into account? Yes, I will probably think less of you.

    It has been my experience that telling people about the concept of the trigger warning raises serious hackles, with more or less the same root complaint: “You are making me feel bad/think about something I don’t want to have to feel bad/think about.” When I told a male family member that in all likelihood I had interacted with multiple rapists during college, many of whom would not recognize themselves as rapists, he began sputtering that that was absurd. “One in three college women has been sexually assaulted. Someone had to rape them. Where do you think they are?” His response, paraphrased: “Over 400 people were murdered in Chicago this year. Where do you think the gang-bangers are? Next door to you?” (Yum, classism!) He believes only in the stranger-rapist, and that victims have to learn to live with what they’ve been through without expecting any help from outsiders. Some of my female family members tell similar stories of friends who have suffered assault and worked desperately not to be “the girl who was raped,” but who still experienced triggering events. “This is what you wanted, isn’t it? To have people not think about that when they’re around you?”

    Artists face the same choices as the rest of us. The words you say have both costs and benefits. Know your costs. Know your benefits. Make your choice.

  3. I appreciate the honesty in the lines, “I don’t think I have all the answers and I don’t think Trigger Warnings are the perfect answer. But in the day and age of the Internet they help serve as a buffer for those who need it,” and I agree with it 100 percent. It might not be the best answer, but it helps those who utilize it. If I was a published author, the last thing I would want to do is cause harm to any member of my audience, and I would use a trigger warning if needed.

  4. I agree with what andywelk said; TWs may not be the best possible answer, but it does give those who have struggled with losing power over their lives due to abuse, rape, etc a way to regain control over their lives. The buffer is necessary, I believe, especially for those who aren’t at a place where they can see material regarding their trauma without their trauma rising to the surface again. Beautifully written post, and super informative. The best one I’ve read on TWs that didn’t make me feel like a pig for doubting them somehow.

  5. I’m really glad this discussion is getting some attention in academia. I just hope that posts like yours and others that I’ve seen can shed some light and dispel the notion that we’re just millennial babies who need to be catered to.

  6. I appreciate that you were willing enough to write about triggering and the issues that come along with it. I know how easy it is to look at a post like this and ignore it, but you have some great things to say.

    “Censoring the material won’t change anything. It never has and it never will.”

    “Artists shouldn’t be limited in what they want to talk about.”

    I agree with this post in many ways, but these were the lines that really struck me. As a writer I hate the ideas of limitations yet I concede to it. We learn that the world is open to us. Our opinions and visions are our own and hiding them will help no one. But I do think giving people warning is a considerate thing to do. Anyways, like Brittany, I’m happy that this is a discussion that we are opening up to in academia and even beyond that.

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