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Trigger warning?



If you read a lot of feminist websites and blogs like - believe it or not - I do, you'll be familiar with the term "trigger warning" which runs at the head of many articles or posts dealing with sexual abuse.

Trigger warnings are written in bold text so as to give the reader a heads up a sensitive subject is about to be discussed. They are sometimes also used on posts describing self-harm, suicide and eating disorders.

It'll look something like this ... TRIGGER WARNING: This article or section, or pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

If you run a feminist website, or one dealing with any of these issues, I guess you know roughly who's visiting and it's your decision to post whatever warnings or qualifiers you want.

However, lately I've seen "trigger warnings" included on major news sites, including Fairfax, and it's struck me as being just a touch infantile to caution people they might get upset by news and current affairs.

I contacted one well-regarded Fairfax journalist to ask why she'd put a trigger warning on a story she'd written discussing comedians doing rape jokes and she told me it was not her decision; the subeditors had inserted it.

When I asked for her thoughts on the use of trigger warnings, she said: "I am not opposed to their use, per se, but question their necessity on sites that contain a blanket warning already.

"I also think they are a can of worms for the media. Surely most news items, especially those concerning murder, sexual abuse, terminal illness and violence, could 'trigger' negative emotional responses in some readers.

"Everybody has a story, everybody will be offended/emotionally scarred by something. Are we to put trigger warnings on every story? Surely the potential 'trigger' is implied in the headline of most pieces ... maybe don't read that story.

"In the end, however, if a journalist/editor believes strongly that such a warning is necessary, I don't think there's any harm in including one," she said.

I've thought long and hard about this and, while I agree there is no outright "harm" in putting trigger warnings on news stories, I do think it tacitly encourages a mentality that people can't control their reactions in given situations.

I have written extensively about how this kind of abdication of responsibility infects the attitudes of men who use some variant of the "I couldn't help myself, she turned me on" line to justify everything from infidelity to date rape, as well as the "brain snap" excuse blokes use to absolve themselves of acts of violence.

By no means am I attempting to diminish the trauma that women, men and children experience because of sexual abuse, but to cocoon victims from reality doesn't strike me as helpful; it reinforces the model of an external locus of control, which I believe is a large contibutor to feelings of powerlessness.

Another (informed feminist) woman I spoke to about this subject described the entire concept of trigger warnings as "ridiculous".

"Everyone has crappy things that happen to them. Grown-ups know they can control how they react to them. Everyone else needs 'trigger warnings'," she wrote to me in an email.

"If someone is so fragile they can't read a newspaper for fear of being 'triggered', the grown-up thing to do is to not read the newspaper. It's not to ask other people to digest the paper for you and regurgitate it in palatable lumps," she said.

Researching (well, Googling) this post, I came across a quote from feminist author Camille Paglia, that seemed to speak to this infantilisation of women when dealing with confronting issues.

"Let's get rid of Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers, anorexics, bulimics, depressives, rape victims, and incest survivors. Feminism has become a catch-all vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses," writes Paglia.

Harsh, perhaps, but women deserve equality in all aspects of life, and baldly presuming your readership is too psychologically imbalanced to deal with unvarnished discussions of trauma is probably not a great contributor to the cause.

Your thoughts?

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

47 comments so far

  • ""Let's get rid of Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers, anorexics, bulimics, depressives, rape victims, and incest survivors. Feminism has become a catch-all vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses," writes Paglia."

    I'd never heard of, or seen, a trigger warning but I thoroughly agree with the above quote.

    Date and time
    September 06, 2012, 8:02PM
    • And because all of the sisterhood know this, even their most neurotic members can gleefully convince the world at large that women folk are all descended from the angels, it is always, always men who "pull the trigger" and are responsible for the bad things in life.

      Frosted Ambassador
      Date and time
      September 08, 2012, 9:18PM
    • The fact is that feminism uses the fact that some women have bad life stories to sell the idea of special treatment for those who don't. At the same time, it dismisses males with bad stories as extreme examples not worth considering and diminishes the accomplishments of women who have good life stories, or tries to pretend they are due to feminism's influence, even when they are obviously personal triumphs.

      It's dishonest and contemptible in my view and a key reason I despise feminism as an ideology .

      Craig Minns
      Date and time
      September 11, 2012, 7:23AM
  • I need a trigger warning for stories that involve Tony Abbott

    Date and time
    September 06, 2012, 10:04PM
    • You should've given us a warning that you were going to mention that name. Now I have traumatic flashbacks of budgie smugglers.

      Central Coast NSW
      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 10:20AM
    • +1

      It's those ears.... [Shudders].....

      Date and time
      September 07, 2012, 10:24AM
  • I don't think these warnings have anything to do with feminism or protecting victims of violence or abuse.
    The only thing they're triggering are page impressions and reader engagement through morbid titillation. People can't help themselves when it comes to reading/watching sex and violence, you may as well print 'Attention reader: the juicy, gory bit begins here'. It's similar to putting a 'graphic images' warning in a headline, those two words will cause page impressions to sky-rocket, and more page impressions means better advertising rates.

    Date and time
    September 06, 2012, 10:12PM
    • I guess it is anything that caters to one part of one part of a population be it talk back radio, self help groups or whatever. There are people for whom reading or hearing a description of an experience triggers their own memories of their experience. It doesn't mean that the majority feels the same way.
      Having said that there are plenty of articles I have read in the general news section of a newspaper or watched on TV which have made me feel more emotional than something that is similar to any experience of mine.
      I personally believe that everyone is responsible for their own response to a situation and should be held accountable for them regardless of gender.

      Date and time
      September 06, 2012, 10:12PM
      • Ive never seen a trigger warning but I can tell you this: many years ago I worked at a firm where - just before I joined the firm - a member of staff was the victim of a serial killer (who has still not been identified). I can tell you that for many years after that many of the friends of that person would become extremely traumatized if there was even a simple mention of that event in the papers (and the papers have a bad habit of re-hashing these things at every opportunity). After a while even I would have a bad reaction to these mentions - and I didnt even know this person. I cant imagine what friends and family go through every time the media gratuitously rehashes these sorts of stories to sell papers etc...The dead become, not who they were in life, but are forever attached to their killer (even their unidentiofied killer). Imagine how that must feel for their families.

        This stuff radiates out. I suspect you only really understand the impact of it if you have experienced it yourself. Sad, but there you go. I dont have a problem with trigger warnings.

        Date and time
        September 06, 2012, 11:46PM
        • I keep hearing complaints about comedians doing rape jokes, but I've never heard one - nor can I imagine what one would possibly be.

          In terms of "trigger warnings" I agree they're not necessary in news sights, nor probably on the feminist writing sites, because there's a lot of foreshadowing of what will be discussed. It's when things are shown suddenly that there's a danger.

          I've recently been reminded that when a man is unfaithful his partner blames the woman he cheated with, apparently because "he's a man he can't help himself". I find that pretty offensive - I'd say if you can't help yourself you're not really a man, you're still in boyhood. The other justification I've heard is "it's natural to want to sleep with other people, so why stop yourself doing it?" It's also natural to want to punch people in the face, and yet...

          Date and time
          September 07, 2012, 12:46AM

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