I Was Wrong About Trigger Warnings
In 2008, when I was a writer for the blog Feministe, commenters began requesting warnings at the top of posts discussing distressing topics, most commonly sexual assault. Violence is, unfortunately, and inevitably, central to feminist writing. Rape, domestic violence, racist violence, misogyny—these events indelibly shape women’s lives, whether we experience them directly or adjust our behavior in fear of them.
Back then, I was convinced that such warnings were sometimes necessary to convey the seriousness of the topics at hand (the term deeply problematic appears a mortifying number of times under my byline). Even so, I chafed at the demands to add ever more trigger warnings, especially when the headline already made clear what the post was about. But warnings were becoming the norm in online feminist spaces, and four words at the top of a post—“Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault”—seemed like an easy accommodation to make for the sake of our community’s well-being. We thought we were making the world just a little bit better. It didn’t occur to me until much later that we might have been part of the problem.
The warnings quickly multiplied. When I wrote that a piece of conservative legislation was “so awful it made me want to throw up,” one commenter asked for an eating-disorder trigger warning. When I posted a link to a funny BuzzFeed photo compilation, a commenter said it needed a trigger warning because the pictures of cats attacking dogs looked like domestic violence. Sometimes I rolled my eyes; sometimes I responded, telling people to get a grip. Still, I told myself that the general principle—warn people before presenting material that might upset them—was a good one.