This Article Is About Rape and Triggers, So Does It Need a Trigger Warning?

ByAndrea Garcia-Vargas

Two words. Nine letters. Sometimes, it's abbreviated as "tw." Do those two words make you want to read more? Do they make you hesitate to keep reading?  

While I support the use of the word "trigger warning," almost always use it whenever I'm sharing an article about sexual assault (even if the title indicates the topic or there are no particularly graphic depictions of rape), and used it recently when I shared my PolicyMic article on anti-rape wear via Facebook, two days ago, I sat down and asked myself, "When is it useful?"

I had to pose this question not because yet another Steubenville had brought the issue to my attention (thankfully), but because social media had. As most of you know, this week the "What Would I Say?" application has gone viral on ours newsfeeds and all across the internet. It's golden. Pure comedy.

Here are some of the first results I got:

Clicking that yellow button over and over again was all good fun ... until I got some results I wasn't expecting. 

Yes, these generated statuses made me squirm. Yes, they were a little jarring — for me, at least. But no, they're not really on the brink of triggering — at least, they weren't the moment they came on screen. What was jarring for me was really realizing, finally, that "trigger warnings" can fail.

Casual, colloquial, funny use of the words "rape" and "sexual assault" can happen when you least expect it. Even those generated statuses with "trigger warning" before the humorous phrases were useless. Nobody is safe from the triggers of sexual assault. Sometimes, it's okay. You can brush it off. It's just a joke. Other times, hearing the word "rape" in a humorous context is too much for you, sending you reeling back into flashbacks of your sexual assault.

via A Softer World

"Trigger warning" can be used as improperly as the words "rape" and sexual assault", jokingly, in a way that mocks its meaning.

via memegenerator

When social media and sexual assault collide, a "trigger warning" may be an imperfect mechanism, as many people have pointed out before, but that's not to say trigger warnings need to be chucked out the window. Not at all. In fact, the two following memes are the very examples of the kind of content that should require trigger warnings (and yes, this is a trigger warning).

Nobody should ever have this first meme dropped on them without being given the "trigger warning."

via memegenerator

No, one does not simply make light of sexual assault. No, one does not simply reinforce the myth that most sexual assault accusations are false.

Even if a feminist blog were to share a meme like the following one, which takesa stab at people who still promote rape culture through Reddit's comment culture, it should absolutely still have a trigger warning.


No, rape survivors (or the general reading public) shouldn't have to think about how being raped by telekinesis would be, unless they have been alerted and know what follows if they choose to click on the link.

Of course, a trigger warning doesn't mean that what follows is automatically a safe space. Not by any means. There is no voodoo behind it. What the phrase does do is allow the person reading it to check in with themselves to see whether or not they are mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with potentially triggering material.

At The Rumpus, rape survivor Roxane Gay argues that the phrase "trigger warning" can create the "illusion of safety."

Still, she recognizes that "in some spaces, we have to err on the side of safety or the illusion thereof. Trigger warnings aren’t meant for those of us who don’t believe in them just like the Bible wasn’t written for atheists. Trigger warnings are designed for the people who need them, who need that safety."

If "trigger warning" is the way we can control our social media selves, our blogs, our profiles, our lives on the internet, we should be using it, and we should be informing ourselves on what types of descriptions would be triggering to a general population. We can't prevent all the PTSD from sexual assault in the world, but we can alleviate it. As Gay concludes, "There will always be a finger on the trigger. No matter how hard we try, there's no way to step out of the line of fire."

"Trigger warning" won't stop the gun from firing, but it may stop some of the bullets. And it only takes two words.