Why I use content warnings and what happens when you don't

*Content Warning*

[Mention of r*pe, description of types of s*xual abuse, trauma responses, one link to an article mentioning suic*de, one link to an article mentioning childhood s*xual abuse]


I will never forget the first feminist workshop of my PhD. It was the first time I was going into a new space to meet new people and could introduce myself as someone doing a PhD in the psychology of sexual abuse. I was in that exciting and scary phase of wanting to absorb as much information as I could, because like so many first year students, I felt out of my depth and like I would never know enough to be able to complete the huge task before me.


The first presenter got up and introduced themselves and stated that they were going to start their presentation with a short clip from a film. The doors of the room were closed (to stop the light coming in from the hallway) and all of the lights were turned off. Now we (a group of about forty academics and activists) were sitting together in darkness, except for the screen in front of us.


I was sat next to the wall, having been my usual overly punctual self who arrived far too early. To leave the room, I would have needed to stand up, shuffle past several people as they sat (like people do at the cinema or at a seated event) with the half awkward, half polite ‘oh excuse me, sorry, thank you, coming through...’. Then I would have to find my way from the third row of seats to the back of the room, and through the door that had just been closed. There were also several people standing in front of the door because the room was at capacity, another obstacle in this conference-themed maze.


Not the easiest task for the socially anxious, but try it with a flashback.


After the room fell into darkness (itself a trigger for some), the short clip was played. It was a graphic rape scene.


As soon as the scene started, I felt sick. I closed my eyes, but I could hear it. I covered my ears but it was no use. I was forced to witness a graphic depiction of a particular form of rape that I had experienced a few years earlier.



Despite having already spent several years studying and researching rape, volunteering at rape crisis centres, supporting survivors in a range of community and clinical settings - all my skills and ways of coping with being exposed to traumatic content were useless when I was thrown into a situation that I had no control over, no warning about, and didn’t sign up to.


I know what my limitations are, where my boundaries lie, and how to recover from reading through or analysing emotive content. It’s the only way I’ve managed to keep working in this area for so long. Not having a warning about the content meant that I could not prepare for it, nor could I make an informed decision about whether or not that presentation and/or workshop was appropriate for me at that time, on that day.


Now you might think that a rape scene is obviously inappropriate and should have a trigger or content warning, but you might be surprised that it really is needed beyond the obvious. You don’t know what people’s triggers are (not that it’s possible to know or provide warnings for every possible thing), and the authoritative position of a presenter or professor in the very hierarchical context of academia and higher education, can create problems around consent that may be less obvious.


Take for example, those who show sexually explicit material without warning, either critiquing or challenging the status quo in their teaching, subverting sexist double standards, or people showing their own body in an act of body-positive, sexual celebration and a challenge to slut shaming. It’s something that I’ve seen often as a feminist academic.


There will be people in those lectures and presentations who have been forced to witness similar things. Sexual images, nudity, sexuality - are not inherently problematic - but showing them without someone’s consent (or assuming that everyone consents unless you have evidence to the contrary) is. People need to be able to choose to participate in that content, or it can become harmful. And that ‘evidence to the contrary’ can be hard to come by - those who have been deeply upset or distressed by a portion of a class or presentation may have to leave to take care of their mental health - and they might not come back. It’s not exactly the huge warning you might have expected. Although anger and a need to talk can be responses for some, silence is another.


Can’t understand why simply showing an image is harmful? [Descriptions of different types of sexual abuse follows …. ] Think about the cases of sexual abuse where victims are forced to watch pornography, or had to watch their abuser get undressed. Even the increasing sexual exploitation on the Internet, where physical bodies never touch but [*Content warning* - link discusses suic*de] the psychological consequences can be severe. Or even the more recent ‘zoombombing’ of pornography or [*Content warning - link discusses childhood s*xual abuse] images of sexual abuse in lectures and presentations - and how traumatic and distressing participants have found this. It can be easy to assume that rape is only relevant in discussions of embodied and physical violence, but sexual abuse encompasses much more.



It’s not that sexual images are automatically traumatic (although, of course that depends on the image), it’s the context and lack of consent. Watching porn? Cool, whatever you’re into mate. But showing it to someone else when they don’t want to, not asking them if it’s ok, or down right forcing it in a context where they can’t refuse? Nah, that’s rape culture.


That’s why warnings are needed in advance - not just at the beginning of the talk. People need to know what they’re getting into, so that they can make an informed choice if it’s right for them - because *yes* they should be able to skip your class. There are a lot of things more important than your lecture, and your students’ mental health is definitely one of them. Otherwise you’re just perpetuating the ableism and sanism of academia.


Generally speaking, prevalence rates of rape (which tend to underestimate for a variety of reasons) range between 1 in 4 and 1 in 2, depending on the population of study. So, if you’re teaching a seminar of 20 students or a lecture of 300, chances are you have survivors in the room. Of every topic. In every class. In every university.


They could freeze, dissociate, go numb, or have a flashback. They won’t learn what you wanted them to learn. Instead, they’ll learn that your classroom isn’t for them. So, does this mean that *millions* of survivors should not learn? Are they too ‘delicate’ to study these upsetting topics?


Are they f*ck.


If anything, it’s the opposite. It’s even more important that we include the voices of a diverse range of survivors in different disciplines. It’s that same rallying cry we hear in a variety of contexts, from disability activists to queer spaces - ‘nothing about us without us’.


Recommended Resources:


Lockhart, E. (2016). Why trigger warnings are beneficial, perhaps even necessary. First

Amendment Studies 50(2): 59–69.


Rae, L. (2016). Re-focusing the debate on trigger warnings: Privilege, trauma, and disability in the classroom. First Amendment Studies 50(2): 95–101.

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