What We Talk About When We Talk About Trigger Warnings


Photo credit Jesus Jenna

People who work in sexual and relationship violence prevention and response often encounter material that describes such violence. That material can include stories and depictions of violence as well as information about the community and social conditions that facilitate violence. Sometimes, some of that material is labeled with a “trigger warning.” Here is a list (in no particular order) of reasons that we find the value of such warnings uncertain.

  1. People who have experienced trauma are not “about to go off” at any moment. People that have experienced sexual violence are all around us and are very often able to manage very well without others pre screening and advising on how they interact with the larger world. They are not by definition fragile and breakable, and do not need others to protect them.
  2.  To think that we can identify what will trigger another person is hubris and misrepresents how sexual violence occurs. Sexual violence can occur in any situation. Sexual violence often occurs in contexts that are not represented in many mainstream discussions about violence. To exclude descriptions that do not meet the (subjective) criteria of warning worthy makes those experiences invisible and further isolates people that have experienced such non-traditional forms of violence and can make them feel that their violence somehow does not count.
  3. Because of the diversity of experiences, literally anything can be a trigger. Peaceful lakes, or green valleys, the sound of a meditation bell or empowering songs or the scent of lavender can all be triggering depending on one’s experience. We simply cannot impose our concept of what may provoke a distressing response on others.
  4. This is often a misuse of the word “trigger”. A trauma trigger reawakens trauma and often feels overwhelming and unmanageable. Experiencing a negative emotion does not necessarily mean you are “in your trauma” it could just mean that you are having an emotion. To conflate experiencing or expressing grief, sadness, or anger with an uncontrollable response replicates the historical tradition that pathologizes a normal emotional response to an upsetting event and labels it hysteria.
  5. It removes agency.  The terminology often implies that people that have experienced violence or certain types of violence are different and or more sensitive than others and need protection. That is paternalistic.
  6. It suggests a higherachy of emotional regulation in which some people are thought to be more capable and competent by virtue of not expressing emotions, or expressing emotions in a more socially approved way.
  7. It is a false construct. Attaching a trigger warning does not ensure safety.  Interacting with material that has not been labeled as triggering can be extremely distressing or even triggering.
  8. It isn’t very helpful. The uncomfortable reality is that the words trigger warning, in and of themselves, are not protective. Sexual violence is emotionally, physically, and spiritually harmful. Adhering a warning does not mitigate that harm.
  9. We can do better. It will take more time, and require more thought and obligate us to use more words, but we can support one another to cultivate the tools to manage our interaction with charged or distressing material.
  • We can support one another to build individual and community resources so that people may talk about their feelings associated with trauma in a community that is open to connection and assumes wholeness.
  • We can put people in charge of their own narratives by describing challenging material in a neutral way that will allow people to control their exposure without labeling the experience for them.
  • Rather than label what may or may not be upsetting, we can cultivate self-awareness and self-care tools so that people may be active and have agency in when and how to  interact with material that may be difficult for them.






Abby Sims

Abigail Sims began her work in the movement to end relationship and sexual violence in 1995, as a violence prevention educator. Since that time she has had the privilege of participating in local, statewide, and national efforts to prevent and respond to relationship and sexual violence through various activities including crisis counseling and advocacy, professional training and technical assistance, program development and management, evaluation, policy advocacy, self-defense instruction, and materials writing and development.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Helena December 18, 2013, 3:02 PM

    A thoughtful and thought-provoking read. I was never quite sure why this phrase bothered me as it did.

  • Patti Giggans December 18, 2013, 4:49 PM

    Thank you for this Abby. A very thoughtful take onion the VAW movement & friends can over protect, coddle and paternalize survivors of intentional violence. Survivors of DV & sexual abuse & rape are some of the strongest individuals on the planet. They are disrespected when people go out of their way to subjugate life’s expierence a. How many times has it been a trigger that got someone to reach out for help, or use their voice or stand up and advocate for themselves? Too numerable to count. Plus what truncated life to be constantly avoiding “triggers ” because of ” trigger alerts”. This harkens of idiot compassion as the Buddhists refer to compassion that undermines or is not true.

  • Rebecca Tomasini December 19, 2013, 12:23 AM

    Spot on Abby. Your thoughts on what can be a trigger and matter of agency resonate most with me. Things that remind me of the rape are things that no one would be able to anticipate. For example, for a year after my rape, I had panic attacks every time I smelled CK One..the fragrance worn by my rapist. It was inexplicable, and no one could have anticipate; it was my reaction. As a survivor of rape, the hardest feeling to overcome for me was the feeling of not being in control of what was happening to my body and spirit. Like many survivors, I got on the other side of the rape so I am stronger than one may expect. I can, and must, decide what images or stories I experience…and if it brings about tough emotions, that is not a horrible thing at all…it usually means there are emotions that need to be let out. Let me figure that out. The only time I have even been re-traumatized was when I retold my story in court–and frankly I would choose to do that again if I had it to do over. I wonder if the concept of “trigger warnings” are more to protect folks uncomfortable with the topic of rape–a way to protect others and ease the discomfort that comes with learning that rape happens.