Trigger Warning: That Happened


ColumnDid a My Little Pony backpack trigger a bully? Did a trigger warning do anything to protect a victim of assault?

A trigger warning usually comes in the form of a parenthetical in a headline or before the meat of a post, and will say something like: Trigger warning, this story mentions—or goes into graphic detail about—rape, abuse, eating disorders, etc.

When I first noticed that popping up I thought, “Oh sure, good on you for responsible journalism.” Then, as I started seeing it in more and more places, I began to think more about what really is a trigger—and what offering a warning actually accomplishes.

Is a trigger warning really helpful for people or is it a new version of victim-blaming mixed with sensationalism?

First, there’s the idea of a trigger. In super-simple terms: It’s something that causes a person to feel something or do something she wouldn’t have had she not been triggered.

My Little Pony Backpack Turns Lovely Kid Into Bully?

In the real world, I do believe accepting the idea of a trigger as an excuse is a dangerous tread into victim-blaming. We saw this play out recently in North Carolina when Grayson Bruce was bullied for carrying a My Little Pony backpack.

The nine-year-old boy was banned from school because his bag, “triggered bullying,” according to school officials.

His awesome mom was quick to comment that that reasoning sounds a lot like, “She was wearing a short skirt; she was asking for it.”

Yes, it’s easy to see why a My Little Pony backpack would inspire so much hate and anger in a child who would otherwise never bully.

I don’t buy it and no one else does either. But, to protect himself and be allowed to return to school, Grayson has started using a different bag.

Trigger Warning Does Nothing to Protect Abuse Victim

The internet exploded this week when readers revolted against a popular column on XOJane.

“It Happened to Me: I Live With My Abuser,” was the first person account of one woman’s lifetime of sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Who she was still forced to share a home with because of financial circumstances.

The post has since been removed from the site, but was originally published with the author’s real name and photo—and a trigger warning.

Maybe that warning stopped someone from reading something that would have been upsetting, but it did nothing to protect the author.

Publishing that piece with her name and photo put that writer in serious danger. Some accuse XOJane of thinking with its clicks, so to speak.

But, I think it was more careless than malicious. People would have read the story regardless.

As a writer, I am 100 percent certain that I think about the byline way more than readers. I have literally had someone send me my own post with an, “I think you’d like this,” note.

This story has a seemingly happy ending. One reader worked with the editors to connect with the writer and then started an Indiegogo fundraising page to help her get the hell out of that house—as of Wednesday, three days after the post went live, it’s up to almost $5,000.

Which could have happened without her identity being revealed.

We can assume the writer knew her photo and name would appear online and that she provided the photo herself. We can’t assume she did (or didn’t) know what the fallout would be and make the choice to take a risk from a place of empowerment.

But, even if she did, at some point, as the person in charge you have to do more than slap a warning label on something and let the chips fall.

I’m not suggesting we do away with trigger warnings. I think they are useful and probably do keep people from stumbling across content that they’d rather not see.

But, we need to realize the actual power, and limits, of a trigger warning. In these cases, a backpack didn’t create a bully, and a warning to readers didn’t save a victim.

That Happened is Libby Lowe’s weekly column for EcoSalon analyzing media, news and pop culture through a feminist lens. Keep in touch with Libby @LibbyLowe.

Related on EcoSalon:

Bully: A New Documentary To Empower the Underdog

Sexual Assault: Victims No More

Legitimate Rape: Shutting It Down

Image: Karl Herler