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The Scarlet & Black

Trigger warnings cannot account for everything


By Anonymous


I took a class where students gave warnings before sharing their writing. Warnings included “a little violence,” “allusions to sex,” “intimacy,” “VIOLENCE” and, perhaps my favorite, “existential dread”. I appreciated the effort, but I often found them amusing. Wouldn’t be nice if life issued content warnings for “little violence”? I imagine it would go something like this: “Dear living, we are experiencing some turbulence. In the next few hours to days expect mild to severe panic attacks, insomnia and crushing rage.”

I do not believe in trigger warnings because I do not believe in safe spaces, or at least the spontaneous manufacturing of a safe space by announcing and wishing away the possibility of it not being safe. However, the merit in trigger warnings resides in providing the other with the choice not to engage with an object if it reminds her of a moment or an event in which her will was ignored or surmounted. I wonder, though, if in announcing that a piece of writing includes “allusions to sex” as a way of issuing a warning, the writer already predetermined the “allusion to sex” to be potentially threatening and hence undermined the very agency they wanted to grant in the first place. In this piece, I want to explore how, to use Roxane Gay’s eloquent wording, “no matter how hard we try, there’s no way to step out of the line of fire.”

I had already begun my undergraduate career when the College began its massive multi-site, multi-year construction project. When I was twelve, I was, for the second time, sexually assaulted. It took place in a construction site near my home, in my school uniform. I spent the next decade vigorously avoiding construction sites, a ludicrous effort. The scent of fresh paint, the dust from the concrete, the sound of the drill all return me, return my body to the scene in which the boundaries of my body and psyche were forcefully defied. Why is it that we speak in the passive voice when discussing the violations, the active violations, committed against our bodies?

The first day of the semester, as I do every morning, I walked into an unfinished Humanities and Social Sciences Complex. Some days, I cope better. I am even charming. Other days, I go through the day on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for something horrible to take place, waiting for me not to be able to stop it. Sometimes it is not obvious that is what I am doing. I am just irritable, frustrated at the drawn shades in the classroom, annoyed by the slightly high-pitched voice of my male classmate. I am only awakened to my body keeping vigilance when I feel the searing pain on my shoulder traps, where I had held the tremendous tension of the day.

Other days are much harder. My coping mechanisms fail me. As I sit in the classroom, I could feel my body slowly shutting down, working hard to disassociate. I direct all my energy towards staying awake, sometimes quite literally, so I could do the work that I love and feel privileged to do. I have expended my energy in not disassociating that by the end of the day I am too exhausted to do anything else. In those days, I get angry at myself, at the ways that my body fails me.

I pride myself in having a pretty high ego strength, so the shame of knowing that I am still held hostage by events that transpired ages ago becomes unbearable. Triggers have an adverse relationship to control. It reminds one that she does not have a complete command over the way she inhabits and interacts with the environment that surrounds her. So, it is not just that construction sites trigger me, but in the very nature of the triggering, the construction site reenacts the violence done onto my body by, albeit momentarily, soliciting an involuntarily distress. My contention with trigger warnings is in large part rooted in the involuntary surrender of power. Considering that triggers are rooted in an event where one had to forcefully surrender control, encountering the failure of coping intensifies the pain of inhabiting a violated body, an altered psyche.

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