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.



Interview Musings

Two weeks ago I bought my first suit.

I really hate it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s well made and I’ve been told that it looks good on me.

But I never in my entire life imagined that I would be the kind of person who needed a suit.

This is my last semester at Ball State, I’ll be graduating in a little over two months time. My professor, Cathy Day, decided to include a practice interview in our Literary Citizenship class. I’ve been on several interviews before but most of them were informal for students jobs that didn’t really hold the level of pressure that my future interviews did. Afterwards, Cathy asked us to blog about our experiences.

There is an insane amount of information out there about how to ace a job interview. And one of my biggest pet peeves is when an article or blog post promises me new tips but it’s really just the same ones with different wordings. So instead of giving out any ‘tips’ I’m going to tell you the one main thing I took away from the whole experience.

My degree is not useless.

There’s a lot of stuff behind this one little tidbit. I’ve been an avid reader and writer all my life, I wrote hundreds of pages of fanfiction in my teens and random bits and pieces here and there but I never really felt like any of it mattered. My parents encouraged me but I could tell they didn’t really know where I could go with writing at the same time. So when I got into college I faltered quite a bit, changed my major five times, and finally settled down with a Creative Writing major.

A lot of the time I feel like a kid finger painting compared to people with accounting or marketing degrees. I feel intimidated when people ask me what I’m writing (because right now I’m not really writing anything creative) and I feel embarrassed.

When I first got dressed and went into the interview I felt like a little kid dressed up in her mom’s pantsuit. But to my surprise that soon faded away and I found myself realizing that even though some people might have doubted the ‘validity’ of my degree it was mostly me who was putting that thought into my head.

There are thousands of written articles/blog posts/tweets/etc. published every single day. Every single one of them needs an author and I have the knowledge and the skills to be one of those authors. The only person holding me back from that this entire time was me.

So maybe this is one of those cliche pieces of advice that comes in every self help book or article about interviews but take it to heart. The worst enemy you have in that room is yourself and no one else.


168 Hours

After reading this story about a father dealing with his daughter’s middle school homework I decided to do a blog post about homework and the amount of time students have. It’s a really good article but quite long. But give it a read and think about your homework or your children’s homework load.

Lately I’ve been absolutely swamped with homework. I’m a senior in college so I accept this as fact. However, as I’ve been more and more swamped I’ve been thinking about homework, it’s purpose and why teachers insist on adding more and more homework that seems just like busy work for high level college students. I’ve told my parents what exactly my course load entails. My father, who didn’t finish college, thinks it’s normal. College is supposed to hard, he says. I agree. However it should be challenging. Not mind melting. My mother, who did finish college, says that my course load sounds a lot harder than what she did.

So after that conversation and a particularly harrowing weekend of tears and homework, I did the math on homework in college. This math included what all ‘experts’ say you should do. So get eight hours of sleep, work out, etc. This also assumes you are working at some sort of part time job. If you’re not working then those hours can be added to the ending total. I’m using my experience and school schedule so keep that in mind too, I’m taking 18 credit hours. Some people take more some people take less. So let’s begin.

Weekly hours: 168

So there are 168 hours in a week. Sounds like a lot I suppose. So lets start breaking the categories down:

Class: 18 hours

Now not only am I in class for 18 hours a week but these hours are spread out all over the place. For example I have class on Monday from 12-2 then an hour break then a three hour class from 3-6, Tuesday I have class at 9:30-10:45, then a three hour break, then class from 2-5, Wednesday I have class from 12-3:15, Thursdays are the same as Tuesdays, then Friday I have class from 12-2.

Confused yet?

Here’s picture that will help:

Keep in mind that this is just my classes. The calender shows from about 9am to 8pm. So now I’m going to add in my work schedule. I work about 13-15 hours a week.
My work is really awesome and I don’t have to work every weekend. However this means that this semester I am going to have a lot of trouble paying rent. Think about that for a moment. Let’s round down and say I get paid 7 dollars an hour after taxes. 13 hours a week a 7/hr = 91 dollars a week. So I get paid a little less than 400 dollars a month. I would round even further down to roughly 350 a month. My rent is 280 a month. So after paying rent I would have 70 dollars left over. After paying for bills I have no money. So in order to make ends meet I would have to not spend any money on anything else and always make it to work. If I’m  sick for one day it could really mess up my whole month. I also have no money left over for groceries!
I know that my job wants me to survive. They know I’m struggling but they simply can’t give me more hours. I don’t blame them. I understand they simply don’t have the need nor do I have the available hours because of my schedule.
So back to the weekly hours, we started with 168 and now have 18 hours of classes and 13 hours of work. We are down to 137 hours. Still seems like a lot left over.
Now we get to the homework. 
Oh lord the homework. According to my university students are expected to spend roughly 2-3 hours on homework per hour of classtime. So 18 x 3 = 54.
Fifty. Four. Hours. Of homework. That’s more than a full time job. Not to mention I already have a job and classes. 
It’s insanity to expect that of people.
So now we have 137 – 54 = 83
Still feeling fairly good, 83 is a lot of hours left over. 
You haven’t slept yet. ‘Experts’ tell college students all the time that we should get eight hours of sleep a night. And we laugh and make more coffee.
8 x 7 =56. 
83 – 56 = 27
Woah. Not so many hours left now. Now we still have to go to the gym because ‘experts’ tell us that we need to work out about an hour a day, sometimes more sometimes less depending on the person. So let’s just round up and say about 10 hours a week.
So now we’re down to 17 hours a week.
None of this includes extracurricular activities, if you belong to a fraternity or sorority, are you an athlete, do you need to go get groceries, do you work more than 13 hours a week, do you commute to your work or school? 
All of these things are expected of students both before college and during college. Everyone is telling us that we need to do all of these things but we simply don’t have the time. You can’t get milk from a stone. Universities and high schools and even middle schools need to reevaluate what they expect of their students. It’s been proven in many studies that the way schools operate is just not as productive as they could be. 
I’m not trying to start an argument about No Child Left Behind or anything. All I’m saying is that the research proves that despite everyone’s efforts the United States is lagging behind other countries. Research also proves that we need to change something, I don’t know what it is but I don’t want my kids to be going through this type of schooling. There is no room for kids to be kids any more. 

It’s a Trap! Gendered Stereotypes!

Came across this image earlier today and it really got me thinking. So I think I’ll address this square by square.

Square 1: why is it all important to ‘get laid’? Some people simply aren’t interested in sex or they have other priorities. Being a relationship doesn’t define anyone’s worth. One would think that in the 21st century a woman (or man!) could dress however they please without being judged based on whether or not they’ll get laid.

Square 2: Rape culture. For heaven’s sake people, again we are in the 21st freaking century. How someone is dressed is NEVER an excuse to assault them sexually or otherwise. I’ve heard so many people (including girls!) making jokes about how someone was ‘asking for it’ because how they were dress. It make me so sad and upset to hear those things. It’s contributing to rape culture.

Square 3: as someone who genuinely enjoys video games this drives me NUTS. Yes I like video games and I am a female. NO i’m not doing it to impress a man. SURPRISE!! The only reason girls aren’t more involved with technological things from a young age is because its not marketed towards us. Boys get video games, girls get dolls. I don’t see how a video game is inherently a male centered activity?

Square 4: Again contributing to rape culture by calling a woman a whore/slut/fake plastic bitch (assumingly) because of her outfits. A woman (or man) can dress however makes them feel happy. For some this might means sweats and baseball caps all day every day, for others it might mean short skirts and crop tops. Of course you should maintain a sense of professionalism and modesty (all genders not just females!) but it doesn’t mean jack about the frequency of your sexual activity if you wear certain clothes.

Square 5: This is how I feel a lot of the time since I’m in college and about to graduate. My boyfriend and I are considering living together for both economical and personal reasons. I really have no idea what I want to do with my life going forward from here. But I’m terrified that I’m going to hear from my family and friends that I’m ‘wasting my degree’ just because I don’t have some high-rise job in Indianapolis or something. Maybe I will just be a mom and write on the side. Maybe my husband will bring home the bacon or whatever. It doesn’t matter as long as I’m happy. I’m not wasting my life and frankly metaphorical strangers, it is none of your business.

Square 6: Again same sort of situation. If I stay at home with my supposed family I’m wasting my life. If I go out to work then I’m abandoning my family.

As a young woman about to embark out into the world all of these fears are very real for me. You can’t win against a society who wants you to lose. No matter what I’m not conforming to some sort of gendered stereotype and I’m a failure. This a overwhelming amount of the world’s views women. If that doesn’t scare you and piss you off then you’re doing something wrong. It’s a trap and it’s been there since before you were born. The only way to beat it is to step outside of the rules and declare loudly and proudly “I do not accept these gendered boundaries you have created. I’m going to live my life in a way to makes myself and those around me happy. Thank you and godspeed.”

Growing up…

When I was growing up I didn’t really understand the world. It was a strange place that I was taught to fear and stay away from. I was safe in the community my parents built for me. I went to church every Sunday, I went to a private school, I only played with kids from my church. My parents wouldn’t let me stay the night at birthday parties because they were afraid. I listened to gospel or country music. Rap was something I never even heard of until I was in at least middle school. Eminem, the Spice Girls, Snoop Dogg, I’d never heard of any of them.

In high school I discovered that there were other types of music and movies out there besides just the ones I’d grown up. I listened to Eminem for the first time and loved it. My sisters and I would play music that was forbidden at home in the truck on the way to school. We loved it but we couldn’t tell anyone. They wouldn’t understand.

When you grow up in this type of environment you don’t think for yourself. My entire concept of the world was constructed solely on what my parents and church leaders told me. While I was encouraged to think about things, I was encouraged to only think about the appropriate things. God, school, the government, they were all wrapped up in a giant ball in my head. I couldn’t fathom how these things could become separate.

Since going to college I’ve become part of a statistic. The dreaded statistic of kids who ‘leave the church’ while they go away to school. And you know what? That’s perfectly ok with me.

I didn’t like church. Well I didn’t like the churches we attended. I didn’t understand them. I wanted to talk about the hard questions. What did God think about gay relationships? What did Jesus do in his free time besides preach and turn water into wine? Why was it ok for Jesus to drink wine but my family avoided alcohol like the plague?

No one wanted to answer those questions. They wanted to sit and listen to the preacher, feel good about themselves, and then go home.

I wanted to know why things were the way they were and the only answer my elders could give me was: “It is what it is. Don’t question it.”

That was not enough for me.

Since attending college I have learned that if someone doesn’t encourage you to look outside of your beliefs then they don’t really want you to learn anything. They want you to stay inside the bubble because that is much easier than trying to get you back into the bubble.

Three years later, at the beginning of my senior year of college, I don’t know if my old classmates could handle the changes I’ve gone through.

I now identify as a feminist, a liberal, I am planning on living with my long time boyfriend next year, I haven’t been to church in almost three years, and I am completely at ease with all of these things. I no longer look to my religious or political beliefs to define me. I simply am who I am. And it makes me happy.