Trigger warnings, and why we use them

Last week, I added a 'trigger warning' to this thread. We've not really used these on libcom as a matter of course before, except for adding one to the introduction of Liberté Locke's excellent piece on workplace organising and sexual violence, 'My body, my rules'. But what are trigger warnings, and why do we use them?

Trigger warnings are inserted into the titles or opening lines of text, or can accompany links, the same way a 'NSFW' warning can give you a heads up before you find something you weren't expecting on your screen. Trigger warnings

Geek Feminism Wiki wrote:
are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called "being triggered". 1

Trigger warnings are often used to warn readers about potentially upsetting content (written or otherwise), commonly including sexual violence, self-harm, disordered eating, torture, suicide, domestic abuse and child abuse, although this list is by no means exhaustive. It's not just direct descriptions or depictions of traumatic events, some people find discussions and responses to traumatic events triggering too. Of course the subject matter people may find triggering is highly personal and wide-ranging, as is a person's response to triggers:

Melissa McEwan wrote:
For example, a person who was raped may be "triggered," i.e. reminded of hir2 rape, by a graphic description of sexual assault, and that reminder may, especially if the survivor has post-traumatic stress disorder, be accompanied by anxiety, manifesting as anything ranging from mild agitation to self-mutilation to a serious panic attack.3

Trigger warnings are commonly found in feminist and pro-sex web spaces, but the terminology originates from the study and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where avoidance of situations and behaviours that can 'trigger' flashbacks to traumatic events, and other unwanted symptoms like panic attacks and the compulsion to self-harm for example, is a symptom of its own. Trigger avoidance can lead to people becoming incredibly socially isolated, as they attempt to protect themselves from distressing situations, experiences and behaviours. It can also lead to the voices of survivors being silenced, as taking part in discussions can be too distressing.

Trigger warnings offer people who know they can be triggered by certain types of content choice, trigger warnings allow survivors the option to engage or self-censor as they see fit. We all respond differently to things depending on our mood, where we are, what our day has been like, and survivors of trauma are no different – what may be triggering to someone in one situation may not be in another situation. Perhaps someone who finds discussion of child abuse triggering is OK with it when they have ample warning, when they're at home, or when there's other people around, but not when they're reading an article on their phone to pass the time on their bus ride to work. Trigger warnings give readers the chance to choose whether or not they want to engage with something, and that's why we use them.

Trigger warnings help make media more inclusive. They're not trying to tell survivors not to read or engage with content, they're not there to patronise anybody – survivors of trauma are not dainty little flowers who need everyone to tread on eggshells, we just appreciate a little thoughtfulness sometimes. Survivors of trauma do not all respond in the same way, and survivors of trauma have as much right to read, write, and engage with triggering subject matter as anyone else – I'd argue the voices of survivors are in fact crucial to discussions on things like gendered violence, for example. Trigger warnings are about facilitating discussion, not shutting it down. As Melissa McEwan has said in her excellent article on trigger warnings, they're just about being polite:

Melissa McEwan wrote:
We provide trigger warnings because it's polite, because we don't want to be the asshole who triggered a survivor of sexual assault because of carelessness or laziness or ignorance.

We provide trigger warnings because we know that 1 out of every 6 women and 1 out of every 10 men is a survivor of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault, many of them having survived multiple sexual assaults, and just because the larger culture doesn't acknowledge the existence of this vast population of people doesn't mean we don't have to.4

Making sure any content on the site, with hundreds of thousands of posts, was all checked for potentially triggering material, and trigger warnings put in place for everything would be impossible. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make an effort to include trigger warnings for posts containing discussion of commonly triggering topics. It's a tiny thing to do that can make a huge difference to the inclusivity of the site – I'm not saying we can't discuss rape, for example, just that adding a trigger warning to the intro paragraph of an article or the opening post of a thread isn't really a big deal, and won't put anyone out of their way.

Hopefully this is mostly self-explanatory, and if you didn't know what trigger warnings were, now you do. But of course not everyone will know what they are, and I've seen criticisms elsewhere on the web, basically saying that trigger warnings are liberal, wishy washy crap, that they're patronising, that they're unnecessary, that they're just people being over-sensitive. So, if you find trigger warnings annoying, unnecessary, or smacking of some kind of yoghurt-weaving hippy third wave feminist self-congratulation, then I'm just really happy that they're not relevant for you. If you don't understand why they're necessary, that probably just means you've never experienced what it's like to be triggered, and that's great. But if you do know what it's like to be triggered, if you do find yourself responding in ways you can't control to certain kinds of content, chances are you'll already know what a trigger warning is and why we use them.

Posted By

Jan 15 2012 22:52



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Nov 20 2015 23:22

Trigger is the word used in psychology/psychiatry, and was used long before any controversy over trigger warnings happened, to refer to something which might cause an anxiety or any such other adverse response. Why would it be deemed necessary to change the long accepted terminology just to satisfy the needs of those who have a totally manufactured, knee-jerk reaction to this completely bogus concept that trigger warnings are censorship, an affront to free speech, or scholarship or whatever? I can only assume you're being facetious when you are confusing the psychological word trigger and the trigger on a gun.

Trigger warnings are not only helpful to people with PTSD but many other MH conditions as well. Even in the case of PTSD, combat acquired PTSD only makes up a small fraction of those suffering with the condition.

Dec 11 2015 04:47

No, I've heard serious arguments that trigger should be replaced because trigger conjures weaponry- which is triggering for those who suffered gun violence in general. This fits within the logic of trigger warnings, it makes sense to me even though I disagree with the use/efficacy of them.

Everdyay femenism does not use trigger for this very reason

we use the phrase “content warning” instead of “trigger warning,” as the word “trigger” relies on and evokes violent weaponry imagery. This could be re-traumatizing for folks who have suffered military, police, and other forms of violence.

Dec 11 2015 04:51
Trigger is the word used in psychology/psychiatry, and was used long before any controversy over trigger warnings happened, to refer to something which might cause an anxiety or any such other adverse response

Yes, the word trigger was used long before to explain the phenomenon of "being triggered". But my problem is that putting "trigger warning" before content which has references to things which could trigger people is itself a trigger as it references a thing which may be triggering. This is all I'm pointing out.

jef costello
Oct 11 2016 17:27

Guardian article reiterating the 'stifling debate' line coming back to the whole "we can't talk about anything now" line.
While I would agree that showing a picture of a concentration camp victim in a class on the Holocaust is hardly unexpected trigger warnings don't shut down debate. I also find it amusing that the author states that academia should be "preparing students to deal with challenging material" while arguing that you should not give them a chance to prepare themselves.A trigger warning doesn't stop you discussing spmething, it just means that those present are given the opportunity to prepare for it.

I remember the news used to warn people "this contains images that some viewers may find distressing" no one said that the news was self-censoring. They also used to, before the 24-hour news cycle, tell you to look away if you didn't want to know the football scores.