Let’s talk about Trigger Warnings.
Note: This post is a response to conversations in our Facebook discussion group about Trigger Warnings. Up to now, our discussion group (along with our other social media spaces) has had no singular policy regarding Trigger Warnings. Some folks use them, some don’t, but it’s not something that I or any of the other mod/mins have chosen to enforce. Lately, we’ve had an influx of new folks and some folks are asking about the TWs – or the lack thereof. What follows is the Professor Sex philosophy on reasonable expectations for our content, and on Trigger Warnings. This is my opinion, with a supporting discussion of the information that approach is based on. Also, some background for folks who are new to my work: I am a certified sexuality educator and a certified sexual assault victims advocate. I am also an assault survivor. I am bringing finely honed professional expertise and the wisdom of personal experience to my approach on this topic and to this discussion.
While I very much encourage you to read this post in it’s entirety, here’s the TL;DR for folks who want it. Instead of setting up a standard around
TWs, it would’ve been better for me to set up language that creates reasonable expectations for the space. Setting reasonable expectations for a space or product is how we make things safe for folks to engage in. This can be done implicitly, through tone and setting. This can be done explicitly, through things like syllabi, book descriptions, movie trailers, and nutrition labels. Content Notices, in my opinion, are preferable to Trigger Warnings and are best used when the content that follows them is outside the reasonable expectations for the space. They’re a lot like allergen notifications on food labels. If the content provided is something a person could reasonably expect to encounter in your space, a TW isn’t helpful and could be infantilizing and counterproductive (like saying “warning, this has peanuts in it” on a bag of peanuts). In some spaces, like sex-positive ones, TWs could possibly even be harmful. If TWs are important to you as a matter of principal, this may turn out not to be the space for you and disengaging may be an act of self-care. That’s totally okay. Knowing you have that boundary and respecting it is important. I support that completely.
Okay, here’s the longer version.
Explicitly Stated Reasonable Expectations for Professor Sex Content
(including the social media spaces and discussion groups):
The list of things you can reasonably expect from Professor Sex content include, but are not limited to frank and varied discussions or depictions of the following: sexuality, sexual pleasure, explorations of sex and gender expression and identity, healthy and unhealthy relationships, disruption of the status quo, consent, sexual assault/sexual violence, trauma, sexism, racism, bigotry, oppression, health, and human rights. Also, there’s cursing.
Professor Sex is pleasure-based, empirically-backed, medically accurate, anti-racist sex education with an intended adult audience. This means that, among other goals, we celebrate sexual variety and fluidity. We prioritize education that is affirming (not just inclusive) of queer and marginalized sexual identities/communities/behaviors (i.e., non-heteronormative, non-mononormative, non-procreative; aka: queer, kink/BDSM positive, fetish positive, non-monogamous, pleasure positive). We believe sex should never be compulsory, and people should always have the choice to engage in sex that provides them pleasure. Consent is a core foundation of our message, and discussion about consent may also include discussions about rape and assault. We believe in challenging assumptions about sexual orientation, behavior, and identity.
We believe in a holistic view of sexuality and sexual activism that actively includes dismantling oppressive systems of power like patriarchy and white supremacy. Because marginalized identities have been heavily politicized and institutionally oppressed, we believe it’s impossible to ignore political issues while engaging in responsible sex education and discussion around this. We ascribe to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) definitions of sexual health, sexuality, and sexual rights. For more on this visit their website here.
When can you expect a trigger warning?
You can’t. Or, if it helps, consider the above statement to be a blanket TW of sorts. That said, I can commit to providing (or asking for) content notices if/when content I present (or approve) falls outside of what a person can reasonably expect from the space. Self-care and compassion are very important, and I know that means this content isn’t a good fit for everyone, or there may be times when folks want the option to disengage. So, regarding social media and the discussion groups: If you’re someone who’s experienced trauma and is still learning what you can do to take care of yourself and engage with this space safely, I suggest turning off notifications or unfollowing, so that you can come into the space with intention rather than having posts from the space pop-up in your feed and surprise you. You can also step away from our social media spaces and check in with us on our website if you don’t want to disengage entirely, and that feels like a healthier option for you. If you’d like resources or recommendations on healing from sexual trauma, please let me know and I’ll be happy to provide them.
Why not Trigger Warnings?
Let’s start with definitions.
- Triggers, in a psychological context, are stimuli that “trigger” a trauma response based on past experiences of trauma.
- Trigger Warnings are meant to “warn” folks when the content of a conversation may have a “trigger”.
While I am very much an advocate for trauma informed care and the existence of safe spaces, I am not a large proponent of the widespread use of Trigger Warnings. I have put a lot of thought into this; I didn’t come to this opinion lightly. If I’m having trouble making a decision as an educator, I do my best to look to science and see if I can find guidance there. The science on TWs is becoming clearer every day. While the intentions behind TWs are largely good, TWs themselves are, for the most part, generally useless and in some cases, they can do more harm than good.
Here are three reasons why I’ve landed on this approach:
1. No “warning” could ever be sufficient
Here’s the thing, because of the ways our brains and bodies process trauma, individuals who’ve experienced trauma experience it in profoundly
unique ways. Similarly, everyone’s healing journey is profoundly unique. This means that triggers are, also, (yep, you guessed it) profoundly unique. Triggers are very rarely about mentions of “assault” or “violence” and are much more often related to specific experiences a person has around their trauma (e.g., the smell of the perpetrators perfume, a song playing in the room, the taste of drink). It would be sincerely impossible to create a TW that would adequately cover all the possible ways a trauma survivor might be triggered. Seeing a TW doesn’t mean that something unexpected won’t pop up while you’re reading, because anticipating someone else’s triggers (especially in a large, impersonal format) is truly impossible. Trauma informed education is less about creating trigger-free content and more about creating spaces where folks who are feeling triggered can know they’re safe and cared for. Because of the vast and potentially endless ways the world around us might be triggering, understanding one’s triggers and creating a safety plan for coping with them is up to the trauma survivor and their mental health support team. If you or someone you know would like some recommendations on resources for healing from sexual trauma, please let me know.
2. TWs often don’t help, and in some cases, they may impede resiliency.
A TW is, by its very nature, an assumption. It is an assumption that the content that follows may or may not prompt a trauma response. It assumes that people who’ve experienced trauma need that warning worded in that way. When TWs are studied empirically, what social scientists find is that it’s the warning that causes anxiety, not the content itself. Several studies have operated on a general template of randomly
splitting participants into groups and showing them the same content. One group gets a TW, and one group doesn’t. The groups who get the TW are more likely to express a belief that the content needed the TW than the groups who don’t get the TW. Neither group report greater levels of trauma or anxiety responses to the material itself.
Moving through spaces where TWs have become commonplace has created an expectation that they’ll be used. The lack of a TW where one is expected is often more distressing to folks than the content itself. We see this empirically and anecdotally. In many cases, folks pass over content that has a warning because of the warning, where they might have otherwise engaged in healthy and productive ways with the content.
3. TWs can sometimes do more harm than good.
This point is of particular importance in sex-positive spaces. “Don’t yuck my yum” is one of the group agreements and a core tenant of my educational and personal philosophies. TWs, as they are often applied, suggest that some sexual content is by its very nature going to trigger a traumatic response. Trauma is individualized; therefore no content is going to be inherently “traumatic”.
Here’s an example: In one of the conversations on the discussion page that started this discussion on TWs, a group member posted making a distinction between rape fantasies and actual sexual assault (story retold with their permission). The post was brief and didn’t go into any kind of graphic detail. Someone suggested a TW that the post had a mention of sexual assault. I argued that such a TW would also have to mention sexual assault and would therefore be useless. Someone else posted in a way that was very critical of the notion of rape fantasies (a very, very, very common fantasy, by the way). This landed very much as “yucking” the yum of the person posting. The person who made the post felt a lot of shame at the suggestion that their interests where inherently deserving of a TW. The goal of the post was to promote consent around fantasy, and to separate fantasy from abuse. It was well within the standard of “reasonably expected” content for our space.
My goal is to eradicate shame and create a space where folks feel free to ask questions, celebrate their sexuality, and discuss their concerns. For our purposes, the implication that some sexual content is inherently traumatic misunderstands both sexuality and trauma. This includes discussions about sexual trauma and rape, which are part-and-parcel when doing sex education that promotes consent. Furthermore, when we teach folks that even mentioning trauma can be harmful, we create shame around survivorship, and we build unnecessary obstacles to plain and honest education around rape and consent.
If you have any questions about this, please let me know. I have updated the group agreements of our FB discussion group to reflect what’s been discussed here and I will be anchoring this post in the announcements there.
For citations on studies I’ve alluded to here along with a longer discussion on the science behind the efficacy of TWs and my thoughts on them, please check out the TW episode of Sex From A to Z.