BY SARIT LUBAN
In the latest installment of a ballooning national debate about trigger warnings, last week the Atlantic published a cover story arguing that the labeling of potentially upsetting materials is creating a generation of weak, hypersensitive young people. The article links this trend to an impending downfall of critical thinking and open dialogue on college campuses.
I probably shouldn’t say the article made me angry or upset or offended —that would automatically discredit me as an overly emotional millennial, by its logic. But my own feelings aside, I was surprised by the author’s lack of comprehension of or sympathy for what it means to live with and heal from trauma.
“The Coddling of the American Mind” depicts trigger warnings as cushions or blinders, rounding edges and obscuring the less-than-pretty. Trigger warnings thin our skin, making us ill-equipped for the real world. Of course, what would a survivor of sexual violence know about the real world?
I think about pain and I think about how we suck it up sometimes. I think about the stranger who put his hand between my legs and then ran away as I was walking to get pizza in Chicago this summer. I chased him down and he said I was crazy. I think about my old boss who cut my hours in half after I told him not to touch me or say anything sexual in front of me again. I think about words and how terrifying they can be, like the moment it occurs to you to call abuse by its name. I think about the time I led a workshop at the university I’d graduated from two years prior, in a building next to the one where my freshman year boyfriend consistently pressured me into nearly every sexual encounter we ever had. The workshop was about consent.
I started volunteering at the local rape crisis center in 2012. The dominant principle of my several months-long training period was introduced on day one: supporting survivors of sexual violence in their healing means listening to their needs and giving them the power to make choices for themselves—even when you don’t agree, even when you don’t get it.
Although we typically didn’t bring up personal histories, it was a known fact that many of my fellow volunteers—most of which were women—had experienced some form of sexual violence in their past. While some of us worked the 24-hour hotline or served as escorts to the hospital immediately following an assault, I engaged with the public as a trainer and workshop facilitator.
I had no way of discerning who in the audience might’ve carried related trauma—statistically speaking, it was safe to assume that someone did—or what could trigger them. So, we operated at all times as if there were survivors in the room. At every training I attended or event I ran, we made clear from the onset that it’s OK to step out, or mentally check out, or do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. For the record, I never saw anyone leave or have a visible breakdown. But having that option always made me feel safer. Like if something ever happened, my reaction would be valid and I’d be supported through it.
And that tends to be what survivors need. Being told to get over it isn’t constructive, just dismissive. I need to be allowed to feel how I feel and want what I want—especially because the trauma of sexual violence comes from a situation in which how I felt or what I wanted didn’t matter at all. It was decidedly violated.
That explains a major reason why I use trigger warnings. I might not need a particular warning for myself, I might not understand—but if someone else, someone who is speaking from a place of pain or violence —says they need something, I believe them. I believe they know what’s right for themselves more than I know what’s right for them.
Accompanying the Atlantic’s cover story is a picture of a toddler sporting one of those well-known “college” sweatshirts. While the authors seem to think the desire for trigger warnings is a sign of immaturity and fragility, I see the opposite. Stating one’s needs signifies self-awareness and responsibility, and often requires courage. In the spirit of anti-coddling, I expect people to let me set the terms of my healing, to give me a say in how, when, where, and with whom to navigate my most painful parts.
Lukianoff and Haidt are right to say that direct engagement with difficult feelings and challenging issues can perform an important function in our growth—in fact, it’s another reason I support the use of trigger warnings and content notes when possible: to help people engage with content when their inner and outer environments are conducive to them getting the most out of it.
Instead, the authors suggest that trigger warnings impede recovery by letting one dodge their fears, rather than facing them head-on. Their chosen example to illustrate this point is a woman who has developed a phobia of elevators after having been trapped inside one during a power outage. In order for her to “return to normalcy,” she should be exposed to elevators, gradually interacting with them until she can ride an elevator without fear. Because all in all, elevators are not dangerous.
The key to this approach is making sure the woman’s post-crisis encounters with elevators are positive—otherwise there is no brain re-wiring happening at all. She confronts her demons in a properly functioning elevator where she does regular elevator things. She is not shown video footage of other people trapped in elevators or bombarded with detailed accounts of other people’s elevator horror stories. Moreover, this work should be consensual and purposeful, not haphazard.
I’ve heard several friends speak about the connection between a history of sexual violence enacted on them and their interest in BDSM. They’ve found that re-framing sex and violence within a partnership of trust and respect helps them reclaim their bodies, sexual desires, and safety. The elevator analogy better reflects the sense behind hyper-consensual power play than it does a case against trigger warnings.
So when I see a trigger warning, I know more than what to expect content-wise—I know whoever put it there gives a shit. It’s an affirmation: Your pain matters. Your experience matters.
Labeling content isn’t about censoring out things we don’t like. It can actually be a tool for people to participate in those things more fully and strategically. Knowing I’m about to discuss rape makes it easier for me to discuss rape. Which doesn’t mean I can’t or won’t talk about it without advance warning. But historically, I’ve been better at discussing it calmly and intelligently when it doesn’t come out of left field. (Just to be clear, my preference for a heads up does not diminish my strength. See: That time I ran a flawless consent workshop 200 feet from my boundary-crossing ex-boyfriend’s dorm room.)
You know what doesn’t help me engage with difficult topics? Having a panic attack. Sitting in the midst of a discussion or lecture with a mind that has escaped my numb body and a pair of glazed-over eyes. (That’s called dissociation, to add a fancy psychology term to Lukianoff and Haidt’s list.) Fighting tears during a casual game of Cards Against Humanity when someone thought that, after I drew a prompt card reading “My first time,” it’d be funny to put down “Date rape.”
It took me a while to realize that sometimes it’s the insensitivity itself, and my powerlessness to change it in that situation, that turns a rape mention into a trigger for me. So when I see a trigger warning, I know more than what to expect content-wise—I know whoever put it there gives a shit. It’s an affirmation: Your pain matters. Your experience matters.
I remember the first time I told someone what had happened with my boyfriend freshman year. She was a friend. When I finished talking, she said, “And?” So I did what a lot of people do after an assault or an abusive relationship: I kept my mouth shut.
Five years later at rape crisis counselor training, I remember learning that sometimes it’s not the actual assault that’s most traumatizing for survivors—it’s what comes after. It’s the questions the police asked, it’s people you know calling you a liar, it’s having to see that person again and again, it’s nobody believing you.
If classrooms and college campuses are ideal places to tackle the hard stuff, as Lukianoff and Haidt claim, then they are definitely spaces for learning how to accommodate diversity of needs and perspective, for practicing empathy and active, compassionate listening. On a very practical level, many of today’s young people will grow up to be social workers, lawyers, nurses, and doctors, law-enforcement officers, or politicians—just a handful of professions that work closely with populations impacted by trauma and violence. A doctor who understands the needs of their patients will make a better doctor. A professor who understands the needs of their students will make a better professor. And when at least one in five women and one in 16 men who attend college are sexually assaulted during their college career, the needs of students automatically include the needs of many survivors. Building a campus culture of consciousness around trauma isn’t emotionally soft. It’s smart.
Similarly, showing consideration for other people’s feelings is not a shortcoming. It’s human. Lukianoff and Haidt caution that accepting emotional hurt as evidence of wrong-doing or injustice teaches students to be even more emotional, which ultimately sets them up for future professional and social failures. Not only is this idea incredibly insulting and disrespectful to me as a woman who has endured sexual assault, harassment, and emotional abuse, it’s also false. The best communicators I know are those who listen, effectively express their feelings, and validate those of others. Conflict happens, but having these skills is our surest bet in solving it. Sensitivity to people’s emotions has only made me a better friend, partner, co-worker, colleague, and all-around person.
I use trigger warnings as a way of showing respect, not to coddle. I don’t want to be coddled either. But I do want to be treated with care. I want to be treated like how I feel matters.
Photo via David Goehring/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)