Hey, guys: it’s taken me a little longer than normal posting the second part of this column. Partly to do with some scheduling issues that no one could possibly care about, but mostly because of the touchiness of the subject matter. I almost shit-canned it entirely, but it’s something I really want to talk about. I realize that putting a warning up front is kinda counter to the spirit of the column in general, but we are going to talk about things that are difficult. But, I promise it’s all coming from a good place, and I hope we’re all on board with having rational discussions about any topic.
So–last time, we were talking about trigger warnings in general; specifically about a particular case involving some well-meaning-but-dippy students from Columbia University. I managed to calm down my old person rage enough to write what people seem to think was a fairly thoughtful and researched deconstruction of their argument, except for one point.
“difficult to read and discuss as a survivor“
This is where things are going to get a little dicey. Again, I’m not going to be saying anything that I think is either controversial, nor mean spirited; but the subject matter itself can be affecting. Since this is a site where people generally come to laugh and be entertained, every once in a while I’ll put up a picture of something cute to break the tension. Not to make light of any of these subjects, but just because we need a break, sometimes.
The history of trigger warnings is, like most things involving etymology, kind of hard to pin down. I’ve read claims that they go all the way back to World War I, as part of studies involving what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) Generally though, most people seem to agree (to the extent that anyone on the internet agrees on anything) that the term as we’re familiar with it starting popping up in one form or another on blogs and message boards in the 90s, as a way to caution people that what they were going to read contained content that they might find distressing.
More narrowly–the trigger warnings tended to be for content that involved rape, molestation, and/or things of an atypical or disturbing sexual nature; which leads us back to this:
“difficult to read and discuss as a survivor“
And that seems totally sensible. Of course we don’t want to re-traumatize anyone who survived being raped or molested. Anyone who isn’t a total fucking sociopath would agree. And, by putting a small, mostly-unobtrusive warning, we give these persons the opportunity to skip the content. And by not exposing them to said objectionable content, we’re helping them recover.
“Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder. According to a rigorous analysis by the Institute of Medicine, exposure therapy is the most efficacious treatment for PTSD, especially in civilians who have suffered trauma such as sexual assault.”
It’s a fantastic article, and we’ll go back to it later. But, it is written by a man, and (by an overwhelming majority) the victims of sexual assault in America are women. Of course, that’s assuming we’re talking about non-institutional sexual assault (prisons, military) in which case, the majority of the victims are men. So, in the interest of gender-equal reporting, here’s a pull from an article in Elle:
“Her answer to those objections is simple: Prolonged exposure works. While a 2008 Institute of Medicine panel concluded that “evidence is inadequate” to recommend medication such as SSRIs to treat PTSD—and there is practically no data on the impact of traditional psychodynamic techniques—solid research demonstrates the efficacy of exposure therapy. It reduces the severity of symptoms by 70 percent”
The “her” in this case is Edna Foa, a clinical psychologist specializing in treating anxiety and PTSD, especially in rape victims. The article goes on:
“When emotional processing is stymied, people develop two ‘erroneous cognitions’ that together create and maintain PTSD, Foa says: The world is an entirely dangerous place, and I’m incapable of surviving in it. ‘The avoidance really maintains the thinking,’ Foa says of this, yes, bitter irony. So Foa devised an antidote that simultaneously ramps up anxiety and gives people information to ‘disconfirm the feared consequence.’
For dum-dums like me, basically what Doctor Foa is saying is that avoiding thinking about trauma gets the victim stuck in a rut thinking that they can’t function like a normal person any more, because they don’t allow themselves to. Compartmentalizing these traumas leads to an insulated world, that prevents the victim from engaging socially, thereby stunting the process of recovery. Okay, that sounds rational. So, once a person receives the appropriate amount of counseling and treatment, they can deal with “triggering content.” Well, that’s fine, but what about those who don’t have the access to that kind of care? Surely we need to protect them too?
“Since then, Foa and her colleagues have learned that about 85 percent of people recover from trauma without professional intervention, usually within a few weeks or months. The natural trauma ‘cures’ are as simple as writing about what happened or talking to friends about it, Foa says, and while such ’emotional processing’ won’t ever make a disaster into a happy memory, the interior mental work strips away its power to devastate.”
And from the Pacific Standard again:
“The clinical psychologist Barbara O. Rothbaum and her colleagues assessed the symptoms of 95 survivors of rape or attempted rape over the course of several months. Although 94 percent of the women met symptomatic criteria for PTSD about two weeks after the trauma, that number dropped to 65 percent after approximately one month and to 47 percent after approximately three months. The data indicate that about half of rape survivors recover naturally from PTSD within three months of the assault.”
Well, fuck. Even after all of that, so what? What harm is it to put a dumb little warning ahead of something? What’s the problem with protecting people? It can’t hurt, right?
Actually it can. Remember last time, when we talked about the problem with defending people that didn’t ask for your help? Well, when it comes to victims of sex crimes, we tend to do something even worse. Especially women.
“Sometimes anti-rape campaigns refer to rape as “having your humanity stolen.” This phrase insinuates that those who’ve experienced rape are not human. It inadvertently dehumanizes us.”
That’s from everydayfeminism.com, and where we’ll pick it up next time. I realize it’s been a tough sit, but that’s kind of the over-arching point of this particular column, and the “Let’s Talk About” series in general. Still, I know it’s not easy, especially for those who have been directly and indirectly affected by the things we’re talking about. So, if you made it this far, I thank you and would love to hear from you.