Last month, the site of the first presidential debate, Hofstra University in New York, posted a sign on their campus that read, “Trigger warning: The event conducted just beyond this sign may contain triggering and/or sensitive material. Sexual violence, sexual assault, and abuse are some topics mentioned within this event. If you feel triggered, please know there are resources to help you.”
Twitter users were under the assumption that the sign was meant for the presidential debate, but it was actually outside of a virtual reality event held by MTV that touched on gun violence, sexual harassment, and racial injustice.
Nonetheless, as someone who was raped on her 18th birthday, a mere month into college, I applaud this trigger warning.
I appreciate that the university took the time and had the thoughtfulness and proactivity to let students know their feelings have merit. As a survivor who went through a lot of therapy to overcome the events that happened to me that night, it took a long time not to only say out loud those three words “I was raped,” but also to understand that it might be something I struggle with—almost every single time I read stories about rape. Or when I drink a little too much. Or when certain smells of stale Bud Light linger in a bar.
While people were under the false assumption that the sign was meant for the presidential debate, it spurred a storm of mocking tweets.
Responses on Twitter illustrate that some people are unclear on why a trigger warning needs to be posted or feel like it’s an overly politically correct statement.
The sign may have not been meant for the debate, but this election cycle has been triggering for survivors of sexual abuse.
Clearly, we need compassion and clarity around triggers and trigger warnings. We need to better understand their purpose.
A trigger is basically what it sounds like: a person, speech, sound, smell, sight or thing that creates an disruptive, emotional response. You might often hear this term references with PTSD patients who served in the military or as a first-responder. Rape survivors are often treated in the same way as PTSD patients during therapy. We learn how to actually talk about what happened to us and understand the events that may come up in our life that could make us feel scared, upset, or bring us back to that moment in time that changed our lives forever.
By understanding triggers, you could help someone who has suffered an atrocious event like rape or sexual assault.
And chances are, you know someone. (It’s estimated that 1 in 3 women experience some sort of abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime and 1 in 5 has been raped.) Recognizing and acknowledging a trigger validates the emotions and experience connected to it.
But here’s something to note about triggers and thus, trigger warnings: While common, they are inherently personal. What triggers you or your best friend might not mean anything for someone else.
Trigger warnings should be issued with great care and concern—not in an effort to stop conversation.
A professor shouldn’t feel like they can’t talk about certain topics in past or modern history that might upset someone but they should also be aware—and prepared—in case a student does see subject matter covered in a particular lecture as a trigger. Does every syllabus that might address a possible sensitive topic need a trigger warning? Probably not. But being candid about what evokes emotion will help us start talking about these difficult topics. Ideally, it will have a positive effect in that it will spur debate.
In terms of sexual assault, I’m one of the lucky ones.
Even though the image of a body moving on top of me that I didn’t welcome and the smell of alcohol and sweat mixed with the autumn air are sensory experiences I can’t let go of, I remember very little about what happened to me.
Even though he apologized as I pushed him off of me, pulling my dress down because it had been rolled up, my rapist never admitted his actions. I was never threatened by my attacker. And I had a very supportive network of friends and family who stood in my corner—even accepted my decision to not go to the police, something I struggle with as an adult who now isn’t afraid of the repercussions.
A decade after being raped, I’ve mostly come to peace with my experience. I’ve allowed it to be part of my story but not my defining moment.
I’m patient with myself when certain triggers set to disrupt my life. And the election season—or really, just listening to Donald Trump himself and his inhumane response to serious, life-altering allegations—hasn’t been easy. In fact, as an active member of the media, a feminist, a Hillary Clinton supporter, and simply a woman with a curious mindset, I’ve been glued to all-things-politics, even though it’s often tough.
It took me six years to tell my story. For some of the women who were assaulted by Trump, it took them even longer. That doesn’t make either of our ordeals less traumatic or important. Their triggers may very well be more intense and maybe even a secret they bare all on their own if they’ve never told anyone about what happened to them.
I feel for the women who’ve come forward and those who have not. For the many women at home watching the news or the debates who’ve found themselves triggered by Trump carelessly parading his sexual expeditions and demeaning women every chance he gets.
I’m hopeful that in a few short weeks, we won’t have to worry as much about triggers caused by Trump. And we can heave a sigh of relief when a strong, qualified and competent woman takes office.
But no matter the result of the election, there will never be an end to triggers.
Because there will always be more Donald Trumps. And more Brock Turners. And more whatever-the-next-one-is-named. But if women start talking about the demons we battle and letting others help us when triggers threaten to make us go into hiding, yet again, then maybe we can change the conversation. While we’ll never forget what happened, we can stand up for ourselves. For one another. For every woman.