Letter to the Editor: Include survivors’ voices in discussions about trigger warnings

Bronté Dinges is a senior in the English honors program’s combined BA/MA program, and is writing her master’s thesis about trigger warnings.

I am writing in response to the editorial, “GW should not mandate trigger warnings” by The Hatchet’s editorial board (p.4, September 28).

The main component lacking in The Hatchet’s editorial is input from those it most affects. Discussions of trigger warnings are therefore problematic, because those who need them the most may not be capable of publicly advocating for them. My experiences have taught me that language itself holds the vital capacity to divide or connect survivors with non-survivors of trauma. Its capacity to bridge communal gaps just needs to be actualized.

I am a survivor of rape, and I am ready to change the trigger warning dialogue about survivors to a dialogue with survivors. For starters, there is an enormous difference between “being offended” and having an emotional and/or physical reaction to something as a result of past trauma.

In many ways, I’m still coping and healing from the ways my experience of rape has fundamentally changed the neurobiological operation of my brain. Through years of trial by fire in academic settings, I’ve found that being cognizant of – and therefore able to prepare myself for – content involving rape can be a crucial way to reduce abnormal emotional and/or physical reactions to such content.

I am a survivor, and for my own well being, I make every attempt to stay informed about any potentially triggering content I will be required to read and discuss in class.

During class registration, I attempt to make informed decisions about the classes I take. I check class descriptions, I check online syllabi, I crosscheck readings for potentially triggering content. The problem? Professors aren’t required to post syllabi online prior to registration.

During syllabus week, I attempt to make informed decisions about the classes I remain in, or at least as informed as possible. I re-check class descriptions, I re-check syllabi, I crosscheck readings for potentially triggering content. The problem? Syllabi – when given – are not always comprehensive, and do not always list all potentially triggering content.

During the semester, I attempt to create a dialogue with my professors about potentially triggering content. I reach out, I go to office hours, I proactively discuss alternative assignments far in advance. Nine out of 10 times, professors are completely receptive and understanding. The problem? I cannot create a dialogue about something of which I am unaware. It just isn’t possible.

Despite these efforts, just last week I found myself put on the spot in a creative writing course, and was explicitly asked why Patricia Lockwood’s poem “The Rape Joke” was difficult for me to read, after I acknowledged in class that it had been. I felt trapped, both by my intense emotional reaction the poem triggered, and by a professor unknowingly questioning me about an incredibly painful and intimate part of my life. This class happens to be a required course for my major. This poem was not listed on the class syllabus.

When I am triggered in such situations, I experience flashbacks to my rape, intense fear, an inability to concentrate, shortness of breath – the list goes on. It’s like being hit by a truck of involuntary and intense psychological reactions, and consequently a very real and debilitating emotional and/or physical response.

I am a survivor, yet the rhetoric about trigger warnings indirectly calls me oversensitive, coddled, or supportive of censure.

My support for trigger warnings goes beyond an aversion to being made “uncomfortable,” or wanting professors to censor their course – which I, like many advocates of trigger warnings, do not support. In fact, I would argue that no one wants to be able to read texts such as “Rape Joke” more than me. I would give anything to not be a survivor, to not have such a personal stake in this seemingly trendy issue.

I am a survivor, and my support of trigger warnings is merely a request for syllabus disclosure that allows the classroom to be a safe place for me to learn.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.