Trigger Warnings: How Do They Work?

Ok, so I’ve been wanting to write this blog for a long time, but I was never really sure how to phrase it until just now. This guy from the internet, who seems pretty alright (Brian Hanson) made a very accessible and well written comic about rape jokes, as well as the word rape in general.

I’ve seen this conversation on twitter and on tumblr a couple of times, but frequently the posters are so upset that it’s hard to think coherently about the whole rape joke thing when it seems like saying anything other than ‘all rape jokes are bad,’ hell where even saying the word ‘rape’ would be completely inhumane. Brian touches on this briefly in his comic, but there is another valid argument in the rape joke debate, and that’s the argument for free speech. Granted, free speech only applies to the law, there’s nothing in the 1st amendment that bars social castigation as a result of what a citizen does with their right to free speech. However, on principal I feel wary of an environment where people are told what they can and cannot say.

Which leads me to what I really don’t understand about trigger warnings: For real, how to they work? I get how they work in principal, there are some topics that certain people just aren’t able to read about, it’s unpleasant for them. I myself stay away from descriptions of disordered eating or regimental eating, and descriptions of self-harm, because of my history with both. However, I also try to stay away from pictures of dead animals or dismembered people, which I would argue that most people try to keep away from. How do I live in this miraculous cone of emotional safety? I stop reading when I start to feel creepy, I don’t click on the links that say ‘dead cat!’ And if the link has a shitty label and I get an eyefull of d.c., I look away and close the window.

If tumblr (and to some extent every liberal part of the internet) is to be believed, no one else can manage to do this. Unless something has a giant TRIGGER WARNING: DEAD CATS on the top of it, people just keep on reading and clicking the links and before you know it they’re under their desk crying and puking.

Maybe I’m just running my mouth about something I don’t know. After all, I’ve never been raped. Technically I’ve been sexually assaulted. One time, a creepy old man grabbed my boob and played with it without my consent and it made me feel really angry and really gross. But I would never compare that to something as serious as a rape, it’s just not in the same league at all.

I’ve talked about this before, but when I was 5 my mom’s boyfriend tried to choke me to death. Unlike the boob thing, it haunts me. I remember his weight on top of me, both his hands wrapped completely around my throat, him shouting he would murder me. I can remember the world seeming to dim and flicker while I tried in vain to struggle even a little bit. Thankfully my mother, who he had locked outside, broke the back window and saved me. There’s no way to know if he would have stopped on his own.

Sometimes I go months without thinking about it, and then something will happen and I’ll dwell on it for weeks. Right now, I’m in the dwelling on it phase. Usually during this time it comes up in conversation, I write about it in my personal journal and I find myself remembering it at random times and places. If there was a dark hole in my life, this would be it.

And yet, I don’t find myself any more ill at ease when people use the word ‘choke’ out of context. Or even when people say things like “I’m to kill Ricardo for taking the last donut.” I understand that they’re joking, saying choke, or even making the choking motion doesn’t freak me out or make me remember it more than I already do.

I admit I do experience anxiety when I’m at the dentist. Something about the her looming over me and having to hold my head still totally freaks me out. But I take deep breaths, I take it easy for the rest of the day and then it’s over.

Maybe I’m in the wrong, and I really want people to tell me if they think I am. I’m sure attempted murder is a totally different animal than rape, also it happened 22 years ago, it’s not fresh anymore.

It’s entirely likely that I’m committing a social fallacy by assuming that just because I’m fine and I seem to be able to live in a world where choke and murder and kill have many meanings that other people should be able to do the same thing. I want this to be the beginning of a conversation, because I really don’t understand how people who need trigger warnings even leave their house every day, and I don’t mean that to sound insensitive.

UPDATE: There’s a great discussion about this going on right now on reddit, if you want to check it out.

2 comments

  1. SG

    I don’t think that you’re wrong, we just all deal with things differently that happen to us. The hard part is most people don’t walk around with a sign or tell people not to tell rape jokes or stories in front of them and it triggers feelings in them that are can be all consuming. I think part of it depends on how much time has passed since the rape, if they have gone through therapy or gotten some form of help. Another variable on how a person deals with it is who did it to them, was it a stranger, a friend, a relative, or a significant other. Also did it happen once, or multiple times maybe even over years of time. Not that any one rape is less traumatic than another. But each person’s coping skills are all very different.
    4 years has gone by and I still have nightmares. They are less frequent and when I wake up I can usually take a few deep breaths and remember that I’m no longer in the bad situation; some days it’s not so easy and I have to drag myself around trying to function normally. Rape is still something hard for me to read about, listen to others joke about, or watch on TV or during a movie. My skin feels like it’s crawling, I get an ache in my gut and it is a little difficult for me to catch my breath.
    But it use to not be so easy (not that it is now), 4 years ago when someone even said rape I would shake, couldn’t breathe, I felt like the world was closing in around me, I would panic feeling the need to run away but not being able to move. I would have a complete physical reaction, sharp pains in my body and the shaking, I would curl up into a ball and it was like I could feel every horrible thing that was done to me all at once. It took some very intense therapy to help me move past all of that and get to where I am today. I think it will always effect me, but with time and remembering that I’m not in that horrible situation anymore that helps me not become non-functional when I’m triggered.

    • marina

      Thank you for sharing this. The conversations on Reddit gave me a much better perspective on triggers and trigger warnings, and it’s informed my decisions on how I’ll introduce future writing that I feel is graphic.