On Trigger Warnings in Academia

by | May 23, 2015
filed under Feminism

Sign reading "Warning: Triggers"[Content Note: Sexualized violence.]

Working on a college campus, at a sexual assault support centre, I am acutely aware of the ongoing conversations around trigger warnings in academia. Though the furor has slowed of late, I read just about every think piece coming down on either side of the issue.

The two sides seem to boil down to this argument:

  1. At least one in two to four cisgender women*, one in five cisgender men, and one in two trans folk will experience sexualized violence in their lifetime. It is safe to assume there is at least one survivor in every room. Post-traumatic responses are pervasive, can be debilitating, and can be with survivors for life. Therefore, giving students a head’s up before showing a film with a graphic scene of sexualized violence in class, being very clear on your syllabus what types of material will be taught and possibly providing alternatives to students who find certain material triggering is part of doing education responsibly and sensitively.


  1. Trigger warnings are akin to censorship and places of higher education need to be free to explore difficult ideas. Furthermore, if someone is so fragile that seeing a scene of sexual assault is going to ruin their day, they shouldn’t be in school but should be in intensive therapy. Trigger warnings are infantilizing and I teach grown-ups. And, finally, everyone could be triggered by something. Am I not supposed to talk about anything? Or put a trigger warning before every topic ever?

To be very clear, I come down firmly on the side of trigger warnings and I will explain why, dealing with each of the “anti-“ points in turn. Although it was tempting to let loose my snark, I am actually attempting to attend to these concerns in good faith, which cannot be said for a lot of the anti-trigger warning articles I have seen.

First, places of higher education absolutely do need to be free to explore difficult ideas. But that exploration needn’t come at the consequence of the mental well-being of survivors. Giving students both a clear and transparent syllabus at the start of class as well as being flexible if issues do come up during the semester is not censorship.

No one is saying that instructors can’t teach what they want to teach; they are asking them to apply a little empathy and compassion to the way that they teach it. I once took a class with approximately 99% women (remember that one in three statistic) in it. The instructor showed us the movie Teeth, which includes multiple graphic depictions of sexual assault.

Neither the syllabus nor the instructor’s description in any way prepared the room for what was to follow. Looking around the room at the end of class I saw several shell-shocked faces (Note: “shell-shock” was one of the precursor terms to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In a room of about 45 students, I’d guess at least 10 were actively triggered after watching that movie.

Now, I’m not saying the professor shouldn’t have shown that film. It was an interesting (though difficult) film that raised questions that were very much in line with the course. What she could have done, however, was to mark in the syllabus that it showed multiple graphic sexual assaults, and offered flexibility were anyone to speak with her privately to express concern that they wanted to take the course but worried watching it would be too triggering for them.

Second, I often see this idea that someone dealing with post-traumatic responses should be cloistered, far from society until they’re “less fragile.” This is a problem for several reasons. One is that between 10-15% of North Americans are estimated to be affected by PTSD at any one time, including up to 50% of women survivors of rape**. Extrapolating from that, we’re being told up to 15-25% of cis-ender women, 10% of cisgender men and up to 25% of trans people should just retire from society until they are “over” PTSD. That is absurd. Not only do some people never have their PTSD resolve, others may no longer fit the diagnostic criteria but still have post-traumatic responses that can be triggered and ruin their day (week, month).

Third, survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence are at higher risk of additional violence and female survivors of violence are at much higher risk of living in poverty (trans* folks in general face disproportionate rates of poverty and marginalization as well, it’s likely male survivors also face increased risk of poverty). So asking survivors dealing with active PTSD to retire from life is not only ridiculous (and discriminatory) but is asking them to make themselves more isolated and thus at further risk of violence.

The other important piece to note is that many people dealing with post-traumatic responses are incredibly capable of meeting their day-to-day responsibilities, which can include school, work, raising a family, volunteer work and all the other things that people have on their plates. Not only have survivors often been dealing with PTSD for years, but they may have experienced ongoing abuse that they had to endure while continuing to meet all of their other life demands.

Framing survivors as “fragile” or “delicate” not only does a disservice to them but is plainly wrong. I have worked with hundreds of survivors of sexual and intimate partner abuse over the years and they are routinely incredibly resilient, having survived things most non-survivors can’t even imagine. It occurs to me that the fragile designation may be more apt for the person who is so rigid they can’t bear to add “trigger warning: graphic scenes of sexualized violence” to a line on their syllabus.

The idea that trigger warnings are infantilizing is honestly puzzling to me. It seems to me that making an informed choice about your ability to interact with content that may trigger a reflexive nervous system cascade that includes neurotransmitters and the endocrine system is the epitome of “adult.” Taking stock of your resilience, known triggers, coping strategies, and general well-being is high-level functioning, which is why I find the term “infantilizing” so curious. It seems to have the quiet implication that survivors should shut up already because we’re tired of hearing about sexualized violence and having to think about how our actions potentially impact the simply staggering number of survivors who are out there. With a giant heaping tablespoon of shame added to the mix.

Finally, the idea that every topic ever could be a trigger to someone and thus no one will ever be able to talk about anything ever again is a red-herring at best. At worst, it is disingenuous derailing. No one is saying that every topic needs to be treated with kid gloves. In fact, those of us in favour of trigger warnings aren’t even asking that sexual assault be treated with kid gloves. Rather, we are asking people to briefly attend to the very real impacts of sexualized violence and the huge number of survivors amongst us.

We are asking, literally, for one sentence in a nine-page syllabus. We are asking simply for a detailed description of the media students will interact with so they can make an informed decision about their education and their mental health. We are asking, simply, for a little bit of empathy.


*Statistics are, for myriad reasons, hard to come by. My feeling, having worked in the field for years and focused my graduate research on it is that the number is a lot closer to one in two cis women than one in four, given that commonly accepted statistics say that one in four girls will experience sexual violence before the age of 18 and another one in four will experience sexual violence between 15-24. Of course, there may be a significant overlap (given that prior experiences of sexual violence increase the statistical likelihood of experiencing further violence). Statistics Canada did a one-time Violence Against Women Survey in 1993 which found one in three women had experienced sexualized violence, while one in two had experienced some form of intimate/sexualized violence.

**Targeted News Service. (June 3, 2011) Exercise Should Be Considered for PTSD.

Originally published at The Span of My Hips. Reposted with permission.

Feature photo of Danger sign: “Starr 990414-0484 Casuarina equisetifolia” by Forest & Kim Starr. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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