Let’s Talk About Trigger Warnings & How We Use Them

Roxane Gay wrote an article aptly called The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion about a number of interconnected things: her own trauma, her thoughts on living with it, and her conflicted feelings about the use of trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are important to many people, and especially familiar in feminist spaces. In my experience, trigger warnings are one of the ways we practice mindfulness about experiences that might be separate from ours. (We use them at Well-Woman and on this blog pretty often.) I’ve always viewed them as working in the service of wellness by offering important space and choices. Roxane Gay offers an interesting take, though; she doesn’t believe we shouldn’t use trigger warnings, but she does feel they’re more complicated than we usually take them to be.
“Many feminist communities use trigger warnings, particularly when discussing rape, sexual abuse, and violence. By using these warnings, these communities are saying, ‘This is a safe space. We will protect you from unexpected reminders of your history.’ Members of these communities are given the illusion they can be protected.
There are a great many potential trigger warnings. Over the years, I have seen trigger warnings for eating disorders, poverty, self-injury, bullying, heteronormativity, suicide, sizeism, genocide, slavery, mental illness, explicit fiction, explicit discussions of sexuality, homosexuality, homophobia, addiction, alcoholism, racism, the Holocaust, ableism, and Dan Savage.
Life, apparently, requires a trigger warning.

This is the uncomfortable truth—everything is a trigger for someone. There are things you cannot tell just by looking at her or him.


This–and the rest of her essay–brings up so many questions that we tend to put aside when we use trigger warnings because we use them in the service of other topics to which we pay more attention. Does selectively offering trigger warnings for certain experiences that are commonly considered especially traumatic invalidate the potentially traumatic effects of other experiences? Can trigger warnings ever be remotely ‘universally effective’? Who decides what makes a topic worthy of a trigger warning? On a different note, can a trigger warning sometimes be a trigger?

If trigger warnings do often succeed in creating an opportunity for readers and listeners to avoid being triggered by certain topics, Gay proposes that perhaps trigger warnings are indicative of a willingness to allow people to opt out of facing topics of trauma.  But the need for trigger warnings can’t be reduced to that, and she agrees. (I have a similar qualm with the process of offering people space to introduce their personal gender pronouns, even though it’s always been an important part of my thoughtful communities: perhaps PGPs, like trigger warnings, allow people to attempt to construct a safe space around themselves, and therefore they are our current best attempts at communicating deliberately. But there is another level at which the need for either, and the inability of these expressions to fully convey what we might like, make them frustrating and worthy of some interrogation.)
Gay ends on an important note: “Trigger warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them… Trigger warnings are designed for people who need them, who need that safety. Those of us who do not believe should have little say in the matter. We can neither presume nor judge what others might feel the need to be protected from.” This presents the same problem of our daily inability to predict what we might offer protection from. But she makes an essential point: for now, they are what we have to offer.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Rachel says:

    This was such a great topic to bring up. There have been so many times when I’ve really appreciated having the option to choose whether or not to read a piece that could be triggering, or more often wished a piece had a warning on it before I read it. I had never even thought of how denoting some things as triggering could in turn seem to invalidate personal triggers. I think this could be especially true for conversations regarding identity. People also vary in how they want to approach triggered material. I think trigger warnings are important, but it was cool to think of some of their limitations. Thanks for sharing!

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