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I changed my mind on trigger warnings and here’s why you should too

I’ve seen and read a lot of stuff in my life that was shocking. From the mild things that made me feel a bit queasy, to the more extreme stuff that has given me the shakes or prevented me from sleeping. However, I’m lucky enough that I don’t have PTSD, or any other significant issues that would cause me to be seriously affected by this. The worst I get is anxiety, and that’s more related to my to-do list than my reading habits.

So. Lucky me.

If you’d asked me five years ago whether we should print trigger warnings on books, films, and other media, in order to warn people who could be seriously adversely affected, I’d probably have accused you of trying to sneak in some censorship. What’s more, as a sex writer I’d have told you that my sexual fantasies are sometimes dark, and that you should take that as read when you read this blog.

Surprise! I was wrong.

Trigger warnings and sex blogging

Every now and then the debate about trigger warnings pops up within the sex blogging community, and the idea is incredibly divisive. I can kind of understand why, given my aforementioned scoffing at trigger warnings, so I wanted to have a go at tackling some of the arguments and explaining why I changed my mind. If you’re seriously against trigger warnings, you may already have heard some of these excellent counter arguments about nut allergies, movie ratings, and that kind of thing, but for what it’s worth, here goes.

Ultimately a trigger warning is just an extra piece of information. To be honest, I think the term ‘content note’ is better, but for some reason ‘trigger warning’ is more commonly used. Perhaps the term ‘warning’ is, in itself, unhelpful: warning signs are generally used to mark things you shouldn’t do: walk on the railway tracks, drink particular chemicals, that kind of thing. Because of that, I think there’s a misconception that a note on a particular piece of content is designed to act as a barrier – beware! Don’t read this! – so I can see why writers in particular bristle at the idea – including something that will put off readers goes against our better instincts.

But sometimes our better instincts are wrong, and they lead us to hold onto things which aren’t valuable or helpful. Here are some of the common arguments against trigger warnings, and why I don’t think they stand up.

But trigger warnings will lead to censorship!

Sex writers are used to Google and Amazon’s … umm … intriguing ways with content, and sometimes it is a short step from being labelled ‘adult’ to being removed as ‘adult.’ Make no mistake: the latter is censorship. The former, on the other hand, is simply a sensible way to let people know what they’re in for. You can do the former without condoning the latter. For example, including #NSFW tags when you post a nude does not preclude you from protesting if your nude is subsequently deleted. Not all categorisation is the start of a slippery slope.

No: censorship involves the deletion or obfuscation of a piece of work – a trigger warning is an addition to a piece of work. Telling you that you can’t publish something? That’s censorship. Removing a section of your film/story because you think it might cause distress? That too. Adding a bit of info so that people can make an informed decision about whether to read it? Nah.

Ruby Goodnight puts it excellently in her post about trigger warnings:

“Listing a title, author’s name or book price is not censorship. Listing a trigger warning isn’t censorship either. It’s simply a way to classify the text inside. For some, this ‘controversial’ descriptor is more necessary than for others.”

I get it, I do: while the vast majority of ‘slippery slope/thin end of the wedge’ arguments are based on nothing more than a hunch, I can definitely see where this is coming from. With the alarming Tory rhetoric around ‘protecting the children’ by censoring porn, I can see why people are on edge. But, to reiterate, trigger warnings are not about removing text/videos/images, or hiding content away where people can’t find it: they’re about labelling things with one more piece of info, to help people make a choice about whether they look at it. I think people should be able to access kinky porn, but I also think those who make and promote kinky porn should label it properly, and promote it in the right spaces so it doesn’t pop up as an unusual sexy surprise. That latter belief is not the thin end of a wedge that’ll lead to me demanding a ban on fisting – it’s just sensible. Not to mention also a better business move for kinky pornographers, as they promote their product to a genuinely interested target market.

BUT SPOILERS

If I tell you that Breaking Bad contains scenes of drug abuse, have I ruined the series? No. In the vast majority of cases, a content note or trigger warning ain’t going to spoil your story. But here’s a thing: even if it might, that’s not an argument against them. It’s an argument, perhaps, for thinking carefully about how you present them. For instance, on the cover of a book you might say ‘turn to page 3 for notes and guidance on the content of this book’, then let people choose whether to turn to that page or skip over it. If you’re doing it in a film, you might have that information available on the DVD cover or (because who the fuck buys physical media these days?) on the Netflix blurb, perhaps available at the touch of a button. It’s the 21st Century – we’re absolutely swamped with data, and we do this for all kinds of other information. I don’t think it is entirely beyond us to do it for content notes too.

Oh, and by the way: I have very rarely seen the people who kick off about trigger warnings kick off equally when people say ‘SPOILER ALERT!’ Spoiler alerts are useful, and I like ’em – they mean I get to avoid certain things before I’ve seen a particular TV show. I used one only the other week on this blog. A trigger warning does a similar thing, yet somehow it’s far more controversial.

But they make my writing look bad!

I understand. If you’ve carefully crafted some lovely words, you might be annoyed at having to slap a sticker on top of them that contains nothing but admin information. However, there are many ways to alert people to content that might cause distress, and these do not always consist of a massive neon sign above your copy. You can use tags, colour schemes, general guidance in pop ups or bylines or what have you (see above).

If you need more ideas – you can (if you like) put content behind a click-box (I know there are some sites that do this with NSFW content – there’s no reason you couldn’t do it with trigger warnings or other things). You could eschew the phrase ‘trigger warning’ or ‘content note’ if you like, and simply include something in your copy that flags up the nature of what you’re writing in the introduction: not all trauma has to come as a big reveal.

But ultimately, if you think a trigger will utterly ruin your writing, I’d suggest you have a bit more faith in yourself. If you can write a story that turns people on, or a blog post that gets people laughing, or clicking the ‘Tweet this now’ button, then you can probably include content notes without your readers smashing their laptops in disgust.

Oh but some people are triggered by things like snails and teacups and Sonic the Hedgehog so are we going to have trigger warnings on everything?

Ah, my dear friend straw man – welcome. Have a seat. No, over there in the bin.

Look: people can be triggered by a huge variety of different things, and some otherwise innocuous images or phrases can cause incredible distress because – hey! Trauma is deeply personal and unique! However, as far as I have seen, no one is suggesting that we include trigger warnings for every single conceivable trigger – only those things which are commonly known to cause distress.

Well how am I POSSIBLY supposed to know what to put a warning on then?

Well… how do you know not to swear in front of your grandmother? Or avoid giving in-depth info about your colonoscopy at the dinner table? You learn to do these things because they’re polite, and then if you’re a fairly decent person, you just do them. You don’t shout “Fuck you and your censorship, grandma! Now look at these high-res pictures of my arsehole!”

I’ll be honest here: sometimes you won’t know. Sometimes it might be that you are in such a feverish writerly excitement that you stick your new blog post up on Twitter and say ‘hey so here’s a story about a sex thing’ and a bunch of people go ‘woah, mate, I found that pretty disturbing and you should probably have put a trigger warning in the tweet.’ I’ve fucked up like that, more than once. It happens. But, like saying ‘shit’ in front of your gran, you try and catch yourself when you mess something up and do better the next time.

To be honest, I am sure there are still some things on this blog that could do with better content information. As I say, I normally try and get it into the copy or intro, but I bet there’s a bunch of stuff in the archives that was written before I had properly thought about this: I’m working on it.

Look, I just think having a law about trigger warnings is a bit unnecessary, yeah?

Who said anything about a law? Trigger warnings are just a helpful thing to include – no one’s making them compulsory, like car insurance. Please join your other straw man colleague in the bin.

Life is hard. I can’t protect people from everything!

Ah, the shoulder shrug. This argument makes me sad, to be honest. Of course you can’t protect everyone from everything, and nor should you try – it would be utterly impossible. But given that life’s going to be hard for all of us, to varying degrees, isn’t it bloody lovely when someone makes a small gesture to make your life easier? No one’s asking you to run a marathon or fill out someone else’s tax return – they’re just asking if you’ve perhaps got the time to include a short sentence somewhere that’ll give them a bit of a heads-up.

I agree with you that life is hard. It’s harder for some than others. Why would you ever want to make it harder?

48 Comments

  • Meta-stophele says:

    [quote] Well… how do you know not to swear in front of your grandmother? Or avoid giving in-depth info about your colonoscopy at the dinner table? You learn to do these things because they’re polite, and then if you’re a fairly decent person, you just do them. You don’t shout “Fuck you and your censorship, grandma! Now look at these high-res pictures of my arsehole!” [/quote]

    I call bullshit on this, the argument from intuition. What’s normal around your family table may not be the same as mine – not just on a personal-family level, but expanded further to cultural differences and other societal norms.

    We very reasonably cannot intuit what will and won’t trigger someone, or whether someone will be triggered at all by something. As you said, trauma and experiences are personal. What might send someone into a full fledged panic attack might make someone else simply skip over the next sentence or two if they get the idea that the next line might contain something they don’t like.

    Simply put, life IS hard and it’s not on anyone to protect anyone else from their own personal demons. I’d go so far as to say that pandering to the most delicate of readers is just not worth it as people shouldn’t be wrapped in cotton wool because then there is little to no incentive for them to develop a coping mechanism.
    Referring back to a line from your opening where you originally believed (but no longer do) that people should take it as read that sometimes you would be discussing sexual fantasies of a darker nature – you were spot on – the tone and introduction to this blog tells you everything you can really expect. If you’re triggered by spankings, you probably aren’t going to read on, if you’re triggered by submissive actions or rough sex – why are you reading this?

    In summation, disclosure is fine but it’s never worth flagellating oneself over it, nor worth catering to the one or two people who feel entitled enough to write you and say “BUT I WAS TRIGGERED”. Because it does take a very certain kind of person to read an article that genuinely distresses them, click ‘open email’ or open the comment box and then complain to you about it. When instead they could have bypassed the entire problem by simply stopping at the point they felt upset and left well enough alone.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I think your conflation of ‘triggered’ and ‘upset’ is quite telling – this isn’t about preventing people from ever being upset by anything, nor about wrapping anyone in cotton wool. It’s about giving people information so they can make informed choices about what they read.

      To your more specific points:
      “I call bullshit on this, the argument from intuition. What’s normal around your family table may not be the same as mine – not just on a personal-family level, but expanded further to cultural differences and other societal norms.”
      Sure, which is why I pointed out that we can never have a comprehensive list of things that require trigger warnings, nor should we legislate to say what should and shouldn’t have them: it’s about having empathy and consideration and applying it where it’s relevant.

      “If you’re triggered by spankings, you probably aren’t going to read on, if you’re triggered by submissive actions or rough sex – why are you reading this?”
      Ah, here’s the thing, though: I don’t want to say ‘if you don’t like rough sex don’t read my work’, because hey! I want as much of my work read by as many people as possible. From a self-interested perspective, it would be damaging to me if people turned off because they read one blog post that was about a dark fantasy, then never came back to read posts like this one, or indeed any of the other stuff I write on sex, relationships, feminism, etc. The vast majority of my stuff isn’t triggering, so to say ‘if you don’t like it, fuck off’ is simplistic and exclusionary, to my detriment as well as to other people’s.

      “In summation, disclosure is fine but it’s never worth flagellating oneself over it, nor worth catering to the one or two people who feel entitled enough to write you and say “BUT I WAS TRIGGERED”.”
      Am I flagellating myself? Or am I just saying ‘I think this is a pretty thoughtful thing to do, and here’s why I think writers should consider doing it’? Because I think it’s the latter.
      And as for people who feel entitled to feed back on what I write – that’s what comments are for. You felt entitled to come and disagree with me in the comments, likewise other people should feel entitled to say ‘hey, a heads-up about that would have been nice’, and I am subsequently entitled to say ‘yeah, fair dos.’

    • Sigh says:

      “Because it does take a very certain kind of person to read an article that genuinely distresses them, click ‘open email’ or open the comment box and then complain to you about it. ”

      OH THE IRONY. You do realise you did basically the exact same thing except presumably because your reaction is “annoyance” rather than “reliving trauma” or “distress” it’s okay?

      • Meta-stophele says:

        I had the same realization hours later. But i’ll be damned if the title of this post didn’t get on my goat. I regret nothing.

        • Girl on the net says:

          That’s weird. I’m shit at titles, and I thought this was one of the most boringly descriptive ones I’ve done in a long time. Maybe I should use my first draft titles more because they clearly get people commenting =)

  • Bo says:

    The worrying thing for me is that in some academic institutions in the US students have complained because of the absence of trigger warnings. The warnings have evidently attained sufficiently high usage for students to start seeing them as not optional, but as a form of obligation. Upon shifting from a ‘nice to have’ to an ‘ought to have’, something which institutions have some form of moral obligation to provide, institutions need to protect themselves by following a prescribed list of content which could trigger.

    This is how any form of social protection will naturally evolve, from ‘treat people nicely’ to regulation to legislation. It’s the inevitable trend in a legalistic democracy.

    Hence I think that a slippery slope argument has legs and your paragraph on a ‘learning by doing’ approach to trigger warnings/content notes may not hold in the longer term, as trigger warnings become something expected and people challenge (perhaps even legally) the institutions which don’t include them.

    I do however think that your suggestion of a page 3 of trigger warnings is an elegant solution to this problem and circumvents a lot of the issues that people have raised.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hi Bo. Yeah, I’ve read some of those reports, and I think it’s fair enough if people want to be warned about content. How hard would it be, after all, for professors to say ‘hey, some of the themes in this book are disturbing, see me/this handout/this bit of the website for more detail’? I don’t get the leap from that to “following a prescribed list of content which could trigger,” but maybe that’s just me.

      Glad you like the page suggestion – in all honesty I find it baffling that we have so much metadata about any given bit of content – NSFW, spoiler alerts, as well as the obvious categories, tags, etc. To have some way of including content notes is definitely not beyond our reach.

      As for the slippery slope, I genuinely don’t think we’re on one, and I’m interested because usually people use the slippery slope to say that content notes will lead to censorship (i.e. removal of content which could potentially be triggering). Instead, though, it sounds like you’re suggesting it could lead to rules whereby colleges etc have to include content notes for materials they distribute. I’m not sure they will, and I’m not entirely sure it would be necessary to do that, but can I ask why you think this would necessarily be awful? This is a genuine question, because I’m thinking on this and trying to work out why guidelines around it would be something other than helpful. But I might be wrong.

      • Bo says:

        It’s more of a general point that I was trying to make, perhaps not as clearly as I ought to have in my haste, about the fact that in a legalistic culture a lot of behaviour becomes regulated and/or legislated, institutions become defensive because they don’t want to be on the wrong side of a legal case/rules/public opinion and so on.

        I don’t have any particular issue with content notes/trigger warnings per se, but I do, from a somewhat libertarian perspective, worry about the impact of rules/regulations/legislation in inhibiting individuals’ desire to create/express themselves.

        This might seem a bit abstract, but to give a relevant example, I would be concerned if say a secondary school English teacher concerned about touching on a sensitive topic decided to avoid the whole thing entirely because of the “hassle”. Because that is a real risk. Haven’t we all avoided controversy/falling out with someone by just following the path of least resistance.

        For example, I studied the poem Leda and the Swan at school, which covers the very sensitive topic of rape. I can well imagine that teachers might avoid such a poem to avoid hassle. The problem then is not about content notes themselves but the behaviour change which results. Having said that, I think that coverage of such material should be really thought through and can well imagine the impact on some students. I don’t know what the best solution is but there are interesting hypotheticals on both sides and your suggested solution seems to be a good way of avoiding many of the pitfalls.

  • Vida says:

    A trigger warning gives people choice. I don’t really see what’s so challenging about that. Do you really want to ambush a rape victim with a rape scene? Why? Why do you? What do you get out of retraumatising someone? Snails, my arse.

    I’ve read a few things in my life I wish I hadn’t. None of them are related to a trauma I’ve had. I don’t really argue that they should have held warnings as other people might not have taken them to heart the way I did (foot binding procedure, child abuse, foetal chicken in boiled egg story in Margaret Atwood). However, I wish I’d had the choice not to read them, if I’d known they were coming I might not have, and now I wouldn’t have the uncomfortable visual memories that stay with me decades later. If my feet had been broken and mutilated as a child, I feel I’d have every right to a one line sentence telling me what was coming, you betcha.

    Conflating ‘upset’ with ‘trauma’ is such an emotionally ableist standpoint, and shows a massive lack of empathy and a massive degree of failure to understand PTSD.

  • Ian says:

    I certainly don’t think films need “trigger warnings” as I’d have thought the BBFC guidence notes that accompany the rating ought to be more than sufficient. I do think the name needs revisiting, “trigger warning” sounds like the contrivance of a shrill do-gooder, whereas asking for voluntary content classification seems quite reasonable “contains scenes of a sexual nature”, or “contains violence” I have no problem with. Perhaps there’s an argument as to where they’re necessary, for instance this very blog girlonthenet doesn’t immediately suggest sexual content, though immediately upon visiting the site it’s fairly obvious what the content is even before reading any of it so I’d not criticise you for not including a warning, but equally a “contains strong sexual content” seems perfectly reasonable.

    Finally, in the same way every other self-entitled, bored, middle-class fool has a food alergy so taking offence and “piling on” has become common currency especially on Twitter. If you have a real diagnosed food disorder that causes you genuine pain and suffering, those claiming a humus intolerance at dinner parties are deeply annoying and should be called out as such. By the same token those suffering genuine PTSD, who’ve been attacked, suffered in difficult relationships, for example, need to be the ones leading the debate not the others who are seeking meaning for themselves by championing a “cause”.

    I really think simple content classification where the content of a site isn’t glaringly obvious,above the fold is fine and easily implemented, I think the hoards of tweeters shouting “trigger warning” about content they aren’t personally affected by is not as they are the fringe which gives others the opportunity to dismiss the whole argument.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I see where you’re coming from, and I agree with you re: wording – I don’t think ‘trigger warning’ is as helpful as ‘content note’ or ‘guidance’ or what have you. Films already *do* have trigger warnings – the content classifications that you mention.

      You mentioned the sexual nature of this blog, which is an interesting one – I have actually spoken to a web dev about how easy/difficult it’d be to split my site in two, and have a ‘sfw’ version and a ‘nsfw’ version, where you could toggle images on/off, and potentially have the sfw one hosted separately. I get frustrated by content filters all the time, and many of my blog posts which are totally sfw end up being inaccessible to people on mobiles with content locks and that kind of thing, but it’d also be useful for people who don’t want to read super-sexual stuff (or who can’t becausethey’re at work or what have you). Turns out it’s massively expensive/tricky to do though, which doesn’t surprise me. Do you think I need a ‘+18’ badge or something? I kind of figure all my traffic comes from places where people know my content’s sexual, and things like titles mean people are unlikely to click on sexy articles when they’re at work, and have clicked on a rant. But maybe I should have something more than what I do currently. Hmm.

      Re: people who aren’t triggered by something complaining about it – I get what you mean and I agree that the discussion about what could have content notes should probably be led by those it affects. Having said that, it is useful to have allies who are willing to point these things out. I think the concept of trigger warnings/content notes is fairly new, and as such it’s quite polarised. I might be being ridiculously optimistic, but I feel like in the future it’s just something we’ll naturally consider, and there’ll be less controversy over how and why content is classified.

      • Ian says:

        I don’t think you need an 18+ badge (or equivalent) no, precisely because it is, I think, pretty clear what the content will be from the outset and this is precisely where the difficulty with warnings arises. There’s always that one person who sees it differently and will say “I though it was going to be all PG-13 sexy-times and you suddenly start writing about being roughly rogered from behind” you can’t deal with every edge-case and neither should you seek to.

        Actually I think the media advice, not always adheared to by the red-tops but they’re getting *slightly* better on the subject of suicide is probably a good example. I’m not aware of any serious commentators suggesting the media should not cover suicide, it’s both an issue and sometimes, sadly, newsworthy. People who’ve attempted suicide or had friends of relatives attempt suicide I’m sure don’t enjoy hearing it but it is a reality. Nobody seeks to expunge the word, but instead seeks to limit reporting of detail both to minimise discomfort and potential insightment in others. Anyone seeing the headline, and I don’t think preventing them even seeing that is resonable, can simply make the choice to read no further. So I guess I’m concluding the vast majority of content, if presented correctly, doesn’t need a warning. In the rare cases, a warning may be warranted.

        However, I will make one further observation. Is there a danger of the warnings being more contronting. Say for instance I hate needles. I see a programme about hospitals, and think I’m not going to like this and switch channels without thinking too much about why. If instead the program starts with a warning saying “Contains scenes of NEEDLES” perhaps that’s even more jarring. I just don’t know, it’s a really tricky topic to get right.

        On the subject however of a SFW version of you blog, have you tried speaking to multiple IT people? Not wishing to tread on anothers toes, but WordPress supports multiple domains on a single install so having a SFWGirlOnTheNet ought not be that tricky or indeed expensive. Though given *most* of what you write would be classified as “adult” by commercial filter applications you’d probably not gain much benefit by doing so.

        Incidentally, can I ask if you have been approached by anyone who has had an adverse reaction to any of your content unexpectedly who wished they’d be warned before hand?

        • Girl on the net says:

          Agree it’s a tricky topic to get right, and to be honest I think one of the reasons it’s controversial is that there can’t really be an accepted way to get it right, just as there isn’t a universal code of, for instance, politeness or what have you.

          Re: the domain thing. I haven’t, mainly because I have one person who does my blog and because of anonymity I can’t shop around or owt. Than you for your suggestion though! I think the main difficulty is around archive content, and how to do the split, as well as how to flag it (i.e. embedded links in an old SFW post – how to mark those as ‘goes to the nsfw site’?) It’s a conundrum.

          And to your final question – yep. Most notably, a couple of posts I’ve written about things that have happened to me that I Did Not Like – an incident in a swinger’s club, for instance. Often people will say on Twitter, but I have occasionally had emails iirc.

  • Ayzad says:

    Hi,

    I would like you to consider this point from The Factual Feminist: https://youtu.be/hC7Ii1I8wx0 about the excessive use of trigger warnings.

    • Girl on the net says:

      That video is arse in a number of ways. She cherry-picks quotes from one psychologist who agrees with her, implies that only women ever suffer from PTSD, cites various incidents entirely out of context, and massively overstates what people are actually asking for. She laughingly quotes a teacher who says he’s worried that students will be “starting a twitter petition demanding you chop off your hand in repentance.” I am not surprised that she’s so popular, because it’s really easy to create fun, fighty polemic if you give no shit whatsoever about accuracy. To call her a feminist is questionable: to call her ‘factual’ is hilarious.

      • Meta-stophele says:

        Yeah what would Christina Hoff Sommers, banner carrier for Equity Feminism know eh? I absolutely see how her feminist credentials are in question here.

        At least a couple of the places she cites are the ones she’s been personal witness to the ‘trigger warning’ crowd in action. The idiot students in Oberlin who had to ‘safe space’ themselves from her because they were ‘triggered’ by what she was saying.

        And as regards cherry picking, I’d love to see an article on psychologists who think trigger warnings are good compared to psychologists who think they are bunk. I’m sure there are roughly equal numbers, and just because i’m likely to favour the latter over the former is fine – provided both sides have research with solid methodology. Which I feel since Hoff Sommers is a psychologist herself she must feel is the case.

        • Azkyroth says:

          Yeah what would Christina Hoff Sommers, banner carrier for Equity Feminism know eh?

          Christian Hoff Summers a feminist?

          I suppose you think Laos and Ethiopa actually were Democratic Republics that belonged to the People, too.

          • Meta-stophele says:

            And I suppose you think that third wave feminism is the way to go despite the fact it’s might more accurately be called ‘fainting couch feminism’ because of its over reliance on victimhood and lack of personal agency.

        • Girl on the net says:

          Jesus. Or maybe, rather than painting things in super-simplistic terms (survivors need to get on a ‘fainting couch’ or ‘toughen up’), there’s actually a far more useful way to view trigger warnings and content information. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/07-08/course-distress.aspx

          I am genuinely surprised that this blog has caused so many people to get angry in the comments. I write content: I’m keen to make sure that as many people as possible can read that content. I want to explain to other writers why I feel like including certain information is useful, and will enable more people to read that content.

          Re: Hoff Sommers, if what you’re aiming to do here is to change my mind (or, indeed, change the mind of anyone who’s quite keen on the idea of content notes and etc), then citing her is probably not a great move. Whatever you want to call her brand of feminism, as a darling of the MRA movement, and someone who’s frequently cited in arguments that aim to counter feminist viewpoints, she’s a spectacularly useless source if you’re trying to persuade people to change their minds. Just as, if I were arguing with a right-winger about corporation tax, I probably wouldn’t point them to a video of Mark Thomas having a good old lefty rant. I’m not saying ‘don’t post her stuff’, I’m just saying that posting her stuff is rarely (if ever) going to have any effect other than pleasing those who already agree with you, and causing eye-rolls among those who don’t.

          • Meta-stophele says:

            Yeah this is the fundamental difference between second (and earlier) wave feminists and third wave feminists. The third wavers love to disregard many of the second wavers because – oh heavens no, some men agree with the second wavers. Stop. Check your privilege. Hammer time.

            It seems to me that this is one of those times when people should be looking at their reactions and saying “Wait, does this mean we’ve won? When our opposition actually acknowledges that we have good points and agrees with us? Isn’t that what we wanted from the get-go?”

            I’m not comfortable with third wave intersectionality, i’m not comfortable with it’s largely sex-negative attitudes, I don’t like it’s hive mind mentality where “If you’re not following the party line you’re hurting ALL WOMEN”, and I especially despise how it attempts to co-opt every other demographic – despite many of those demographics actively saying “No we don’t want any part of you, our struggles are our own” (shout out to my gay brothers). The final nail in the coffin for me is that i’m not comfortable with it’s cultural Marxism.

            Disclaimer: I vote for left parties before anyone decides to try and slag me off about being a conservative or a right winger.

            At some point we need to say “Hey maybe everything that Greer, Friedan and Hoff Sommers fought for is now accepted by the majority of people and that the difficult struggle for acceptance we had in the past is now significantly less difficult because of this”. Because feminism doesn’t need to be in opposition to exist – something that the third-wave really depends on.

            So when you say ‘Hoff Sommers is a darling of the MRA’ – that’s not because Hoff Sommers IS an MRA, but because her once radical ideas (along side those other second wave luminaries) are no longer radical and are accepted. The message hasn’t changed, she is still a registered democrat, she is still a feminist, but she isn’t one of the new ‘vogue’ feminists we see all the time.

          • Girl on the net says:

            I think you’re confusing MRAs with men. There are plenty of men who are feminists, yet who’d also disagree with Hoff Sommers. I’m not entirely sure I get the point of the rest of your rant, none of which (sex negative? towing party lines? hive mind?) I recognise in what I believe, and certainly not in what I’ve said.

  • Chris says:

    I see trigger warnings mocked regularly nowadays on YouTube comments and the like; as if it’s an absolutely absurd idea. The funny thing is, the concept is treated by some as one more ridiculous step towards an overly-PC censorious hellscape; however the concept of a ‘spoiler warning’ is an indelible social contract that every human being is morally obliged to adhere to. Trigger some PTSD sufferer into cutting themselves up and that’s fine – they should just learn to fucking deal with it – but spoil an episode of the latest HBO drama and you’re basically worse than Hitler.

    • hazelthecrow says:

      Thankyou. Yes, hi, PTSD sufferer here. And a game of thrones fan who’s not up to date yet. The spoiler alert analogy is absolutely perfect, as is the food allergy one. People getting hypervigilant on my behalf are making a mockery of a very real thing and can fuck right off. Also taking 3 days off work cos you can’t breathe or leave the house and having to mither friends to come round and distract you from thinking about where the knives are is a bummer. Even more of a bummer than the whole Jon Snow thing. Content warnings just make like easier you know, like peanut warnings? If only they came on people…

      • Yes, yes, yes! Warning labels on people, can we make this a thing?

      • Girl on the net says:

        Thank you hazelthecrow! And very good points! I promise I will never post GoT spoilers without a warning either. None of the people who are vociferously disagreeing here have picked up that comparison (or indeed the NSFW one), but I’d love for one of them to because I think that’s a pretty close comparison.

  • Azkyroth says:

    Movie ratings are kind of a bad example, given that they’re both subject to legal enforcement and problematic in a slew of ways.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Ah, maybe. They’re definitely very generic, and (in my opinion) really oddly applied. They also have really strange rules – Simon Pegg once wrote something about his use of the c-word in one of the Cornetto Trilogy films. Apparently they had to keep the instances down to 3 or fewer mentions, all in particular jokey contexts, or the film would be labelled an 18 along with things like Reservoir Dogs. The NSFW/Spoiler/food allergy comparisons work better, I think.

  • Pep says:

    Surely the real question here is do these trigger warnings actually help the people they claim to help?

    So far as I know from the available literature and based on the opinions of respected sociologists there doesn’t seem to be much merit that they actually do. To point towards a bit of specific material:

    Richard McNally (Professor of Psychology at Harvard, his research specialisng in anxiety disorders – very specifically PTSD and OCD, the former of which I understand is what these ‘trigger warnings’ are supposed to help) wrote this article for the Pacific Standard, giving some studies that are worth reading with regards to whether or not trigger warnings are of any use:

    http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/hazards-ahead-problem-trigger-warnings-according-research-81946

    Mertin Basoglu (former head of trauma studies at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London before moving to Turkey to found the Istanbul Centre for Behaviour Therapy and Research) is also not convinced by this – the Telegraph ran an article a while back where he was interviewed, when asked if he thinks trigger warnings are worth being used he said “There would be no point, you cannot get a person to avoid triggers in their day-to-day lives. It would be impossible” (This is of course a single line to illustrate my point – the entire interview should be read).

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/11106670/Trigger-warnings-more-harm-than-good.html

    Basically my point is that we can talk all day about the ‘kinds of people’ in the world that exist in our opinions, but when you examine 1. Studies which actually look at this kind of thing and 2. The opinions of people who due to having lead extensive careers studying trauma (and therefore are in a good position to make informed comments on the matter) they don’t seem to be in support of the idea that trigger warnings help.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Interestingly, the media is far more likely to pick up on extreme stories than on ones which are nuanced, and involve messages like ‘there actually isn’t much research in this area, but how about we take a sensible approach, yeah?’ It’s baffling to me, but there you go.
      http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/07-08/course-distress.aspx

      In the meantime, I’m not a psychologist – or indeed anyone’s personal counsellor – but what I *am* is a person who wants to make sure that as many people as possible read and enjoy what I like. I don’t think it’s the worst possible thing in the world to make allowances for those who would otherwise be turned off by my using trauma for shock value. Nor do I think the world will collapse if books that include it came with a page of notes, that you could read or not read as you wish.

    • jupitaur says:

      The McNally article includes information like “most people who are traumatized don’t have PTSD” which doesn’t help at all. He does write, “CONFRONTING TRIGGERS, NOT AVOIDING THEM, IS THE BEST WAY TO OVERCOME PTSD”

      “systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder. … Working with their therapists, clients devise a hierarchy of progressively more challenging trigger situations that they may confront in everyday life. By practicing confronting these triggers, clients learn that fear subsides, enabling them to reclaim their lives and conquer PTSD.” Gee, it’s almost as if a content warning could help you systematize that exposure and practice confronting those triggers progressively rather than having them smack you between the eyes out of the blue.

  • THANK YOU!!!!! Seriously, I just want to give you the biggest bear hug right now. This meant a lot to me, and I know it will have the same effect on others.

  • Content note: I agree with everything in your post.
    Seriously. There are glorious people out there who have had unthinkable things happen to them that make them sensitive to what would be completely routine to you or me. If a content note (nice substitute, btw!) prevents them from having a panic attack and doesn’t censor your material, why not just be the better person and help that individual live a better life?
    Not once have I avoided an article because of a warning. I just know that I should proceed with caution according to my own life experiences.
    Wonderfully written piece!

    • Girl on the net says:

      While it’s not yet clear whether Google takes specific numbers of blog comments into account when calculating page rank, it’s generally accepted that the more comments (and fresh content) any blogger has on their page, the better. I look forward to your additional ‘yes’ or ‘no’ comments on future blog posts, depending on whether they tickle your fancy. Cheers.

  • I do think we need to be cafeful not to let people stumble unexpectedly upon explicit material. The GOTN main and sub-banner make it quite clear what sort of content you are likely to encounter.

    We use 18+ or ‘over 18′ in our banners or force people to scroll down and click to continue and we also give a trigger warning if the subject is rape. Peter was very careful to warn people in his FGM article, too.

    I do agree that any adult should be able to access sexual material unimpeded, but younger people should receive some sort of protection. Unfortunately young teens are very curious and find learning about sex problematical without accessing adult sites. This is where the problem becomes more serious. I was a teen in the sixties and we had no access to any information. My boyfriend then (aged 16) had never heard of a clitoris, didn’t know if the anus was in our magical crack or that we could have orgasms etc. He learned all of that from me by trial and error and I was almost as ignorant.

    Today it is easy to discover what all our various bits are for and I think that is a good thing. However, there is a destruction of innocence these days when a curious young teen can come across videos of treble penetration without any warning at all. Watching a tasteful video of people making love is different from watching some of the hard core material which could actually traumatise the teenager. Think of the effect on a boy with a perfectly normal 5″ penis discovering all the porn stars have erections in the 8″ plus range.

    I don’t have any answers to any of this, but worry that do-gooders could damage our freedom. In the UK it has just become illegal to make a film of female ejaculation, but it is perfectly acceptable to film men ejaculation over pretty girls’ faces. When ignorance creates laws it is very worrying, but no one seemed to have the guts to stand up to this law during the debate, and say “female ejaculation is real – it happens to me!” The prudes and ignorant won the battle and it is no longer allowed to be filmed.

    How long will it be before such a policy applies to our blogs, too.

    One of my books deals with my teen life aged 14 and I had to make us both 18 to publish it. But the whole point is that it was a true story and our naivity was an important part of it. It didn’t work at ages 18 so the story was ruined. We don’t have that problem publishing on the blog, although we could easily come a cropper on the child sex laws. I’m all for protection of children, but totally against censorship of true stories having to be altered. Sorry, beginning to ramble.

    Anyway, very interesting piece. Thanks.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Hi Angela – I’m 100% with you on the ridiculousness of the UK porn laws. Strangely, the rules around e.g. female ejaculation are actually not about protecting anyone (although presumably some people would argue that they might be), it’s actually more about the strange whims of a UK organisation called ATVOD. The rules are bizarre and utterly illogical, and some fantastic people (including Pandora Blake – look her up, she’s brilliant) are challenging them. I’m trying to help too where I can!

      Given the weird prudish nature of a lot of our lawmakers, I can definitely understand the desire to fight censorship where we see it (as we should!) but I think adding something that warns people a certain blog might be traumatic (your example of Peter’s FGM piece is a good one), or where it goes into graphic detail, is not a step on that road any more than categorising a blog as +18 is. Now, this is probably a whole other blog entry, but I think in general keeping children from seeing inappropriate material is more down to education and parental supervision than law: the law can never truly block all adult content, and all it’ll do is create a false sense of security for parents who think ‘oh the government’s banned porn so my little tyke is safe.’ The book thing, too, is really tricky, and is something I’ve had to navigate carefully when writing in my book about sexual memories and experiences prior to 18. I can see why there are rules around this, and obviously it’s important to protect children, but likewise it’s unrealistic to believe that all of us were totally asexual until our 18th birthday!

      • Ian says:

        I certainly wouldn’t do ATVOD the courtesy of calling them an “organisation”,they are both literally and figuratively a QUANGO. At best they’re an unnecessary boil on the backside of OFCOM, whose sole purpose it seems to me is inventing increasingly Kafkee-esque ways to produce absurd regulations which, completely coincidentally I’m sure, raise revenue for themselves. Not that I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about them or anything!

        • Girl on the net says:

          Trust me, I am one of the last people in the world who would be tempted to do ATVOD a ‘courtesy’.

  • Ivan says:

    Trigger warnings are absurd, and pandering to tumblr culture is even worse.

    You usually know what you’re getting with what you’re reading, and it’s hardly a case to say that some people need to have their whims catered to. I’ve lived a rough life and have been through some serious shit in the past, but I’ve learned to build up a resistance to things that bother me by coming centered in myself and taking charge of your my own life.

    Building a society where we cater to people’s whimsical needs, and push toward censoring things that might be offensive is the worst thing you could do. The world isn’t a nice place, and you shouldn’t try to soften people up to it, since it will only make the blows that much harder. If you don’t like something, then don’t read it, simple as that.

    I’ve been following you’re blog for quite some time now, and overall I’ve found your tales to be amusing, and eye-opening in regard to the workings of the female mind. In general, I find most of what you write very agreeable, but every once in a while, you write something I flatly don’t agree with, which is fine, people have different opinions on things. This is one of those things.

    Now, as always, different opinions and such, however, I have to vocally disagree with you here. No, catering to people’s whimsical needs and building a society where we’re blinded to the reality of things or avoid saying things, or warn things of things that might hurt them just angers me. Say what you have to say, non-apologetically, and let people deal with it later. Political correctedness is the root of many of the problems in westen society.

    But hey, that’s just my point of view. Perhaps I’m just sour cause of how the tumblrettes have treated the entire concept, pushing it as a basically oppressive idea.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I’m not entirely sure what you mean by ‘tumblr culture’ – I’m not on tumblr, so maybe I have missed something significant.

      Please see above comments, though, for a response to your use of the phrase ‘whimsical needs’, which I think is pretty dismissive.

      I’m glad you like some of my blog, and equally glad that you disagree with some of it. If people agreed with everything I ever write, there’d be no point posting these ranty ones, and I could just stick to the porn forever. Although I’m surprised that someone who thinks that political correctness is the root of many problems finds my blog anything other than enraging, so you know, delighted you’re still here.

      I’m going to ask you the same question that I asked above – how do you feel about spoiler warnings, food allergy information, or people including tags like ‘NSFW’ when they post nudes, so that you don’t open them up at work and get fired or embarrassed in the office? And how do you think I, as someone who writes content, would in any way be damaged by taking into account people’s different needs? Maybe I flatter myself, but I think that if I can write a piece that gives people strong enough opinions that they’ll leave a comment, I can surely write a piece that gives people a heads-up if they might not want to read something graphically traumatic.

      • Aj says:

        Context seems to be the important thing. If I ever see a blog post here that says “Trigger warning: buttsex”, then I’d stop following you. While not the whole point of the blog, it certainly falls under what I’d expect to see written about here. Seeing such a warning would feel like being treated like a child, and, as an adult, I say balls to that. On the other hand, if, for some reason, you decided to write a post about beheadings, and decide to illustrate it with pictures, then a content warning would probably be appropriate given it’s well outside what usually write about, and the pictures would be graphic. On the other hand, if I was reading Encyclopaedia Dramatica, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see gore and don’t expect to warned. Visiting ED is enough warning.

        This is where I particularly disagree with the main thrust of suggested use, university english courses. That seems, to me, far more like the first case than the second, and I certainly didn’t want to be coddled when I was in university. A trainee nurse (say) who feints at the sight of blood has a major problem for their chosen profession that they absolutely need to overcome. Similarly, someone who wants to be an english professor who can’t read Romeo and Juliet without a warning about suicide has a major problem with their chosen profession that they need to overcome.

        • Girl on the net says:

          That’s kind of interesting, because I have already been using content notes etc for quite a long time – in intros and stuff, if I feel something might be particularly dark – so maybe it’s just something you haven’t noticed? No, I’m probably not going to say ‘warning: buttsex’, unless it’s part of a joke, but I probably would use buttsex in a title or intro – again that lets people know what they’re in for (and in any circumstance will act as both a draw for those who like it and a flag for those who don’t).

          I think a lot of the dissent in this discussion comes from really extreme examples – you’re absolutely right about context. And with your university example, I doubt it’d be presented as ‘Romeo and Juliet: WARNING WARNING etc’. Please do read this: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/07-08/course-distress.aspx which is, I think a good explanation of content notes at Uni courses, and a much more nuanced and context-driven approach than the ‘argh warnings’ and extremes that are often cited.

          • Aj says:

            Isn’t that’s just good writing? My objection is mostly to the way this is typically presented: specifically using the words “trigger warning”, “content warning” or something that breaks the flow of the essay before it’s even begun. (I have the same visceral disdain to reaction gifs throughout text that have started to become prevalent even on higher end outlets.)

            A well written essay should have a good covering of what’s going to be talked about in the first paragraph. It also shouldn’t segue into some completely unrelated topic later on. That’s the whole point of good essay writing; the introduction is what your readers use to decide if they want to read the rest. Even in the situation I described above, where I postulated that you wrote about gore, I’d prefer an opening that was along the lines of “Today, I want to write about something that I usually don’t; gore. This is a topic I want to cover because…” rather than “Trigger warning: gore”. This may be the grammar nazi in me, but I do think good writing is not completely subjective.

            When it comes to universities, the syllabus is definitely the place to describe what will be covered and, if relevant, a list of books used. If a student knows they are made uncomfortable by certain topics, that list should be sufficient for them to decide whether or not to take the course. Particularly today where a synopsis of each book can easily be obtained online. I disagree that students should be allowed to skip classes or particular works because they are upset. Like the nurse example I gave above, it is necessary for the people who have problems to either decide to overcome them, or choose a discipline that doesn’t expose them to such material. This is really no different than preventing an engineering student from advancing if they cannot pass basic mathematics. It’s too important to the profession. My objection here is based on the idea that other people need to take responsibility for how I feel. I say bollocks to that too.

            While it shouldn’t be necessary to my point, I do have trauma in my past. I know there is an event from my childhood that if I spend any length of time thinking about will cause me to break down. I don’t expect the world to bubble wrap me. I also think that completely avoiding it for years meant that I didn’t make any progress towards healing. It was only after confronting it that I’ve been able to make progress on the way that it has impacted my life.

          • Girl on the net says:

            I’m a bit confused – did you see the blog post above? There’s loads in there about different ways to deal with content warnings that don’t just include saying ‘WARNING’ in bold text: it’s essentially about working out the best way to give people extra info, and it can be done in loads of ways. I’m not sure here what you’re getting at – initially I thought you objected to trigger warnings but in this comment it seems like you think they’re part and parcel of good writing (FWIW, I agree! And I think they can definitely be included in introductions when things are going to get dark/graphic, as well as in lots of other ways).

            (Having said that, I think there are lots of contexts in which I’d prefer to use ‘Trigger warning: gore’ as opposed to ‘Today, I want to write about something that I usually don’t; gore. This is a topic I want to cover because…’, because I feel like the latter’s a bit clumsy and the former has the benefit of brevity – in a blog post it can be slipped between paragraphs without being cumbersome, and it can also easily be worked into the rhythm of whatever I happen to be ranting about. Depends heavily on the piece, obviously, but the writer in me couldn’t avoid pointing this out. I get that you probably know this though.)

            I think when it comes to course subjects, we’re essentially talking about whether students should be given this information if they ask for it, and I genuinely don’t see why that’s a problem. Sure, if something’s vital to the course and they feel they won’t be able to do it, then they might want to have a chat with the professor and work out the best course of action. This happened a few times in my degree course when, for instance, people were ill and missed sessions – there was other stuff they could do to catch up. If there’s an entire module on violent content, it’s perfectly possible for people to pick different modules. Key thing, though, is that they can’t possibly do that if they don’t have any info. Basically, I disagree that being resistant to graphic depictions of violence is as necessary for an English student as bloodwork is to a nurse. What’s more, there are possibly reasons why we’d want someone who was unable to do one important thing to still be able to do the others – there are countless examples of people who have had reasonable accommodations made for them in the workplace/uni/etc etc because people recognise that their other contributions are valuable. Key word being ‘reasonable’, obviously, and it feels like ultimately that’s what we’re disagreeing on.

            I’m really sorry to hear that you have something traumatic in your past – and glad that you’ve been able to make progress on it. I don’t think everyone is in the same place, though, and it’s important for me to take this stuff into account.

  • ValeryNorth says:

    Here’s some content notes on DVDs:

    “Contains strong comic violence and gore, and strong language” (Tucker & Dale Vs Evil, 15 certificate)

    “Contains moderate sex and drug references” (First Season Boxset, Community, also 15 Certificate)

    “Contains sustained threat and moderate horror” (Apollo 18, also 15 Certificate)

    Nexus books (erotic BDSM publishers) have for over ten years had a system of content notes by symbols, the symbols explained on the inside leaf: “You’ll notice that we have introduced a set of symbols onto our book jackets, so that you can tell at a glance what fetishes each of our brand new novels contains. Here’s the key – enjoy!” Yes, it works to advertise, but it also works (and could work) for kinks that are a turn-off. Or kinks that are, for that reader, a trigger.

    I’ve noticed that some thriller/horror/crime novels are now using a similar system, and seem to have been for a couple of years at least. Again, it’s used to advertise and sell the content, rather than warn about it, but equally, it’s a way of avoiding what the reader doesn’t like.

    I say again: publishers of erotic novels already have a system that works and, with a little tweaking, could be extended to other genres.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Valery – I think that’s a bloody great system, and it does also highlight that what serves as marketing to a certain extent (i.e. letting people know exactly what they’re going to be reading) also doubles as a content note for those who don’t want it. Realistically, many book covers act as content notes to a limited degree (i.e. someone who doesn’t like horror is unlikely to pick up a Stephen King novel, etc), and this is just an extension of that – I think it’s bloody helpful.

  • Stephanie says:

    On censorship:

    This discussion (and post) reminds me of something I heard about the novel “American Psycho” by Brett Easton Ellis. It later went on to become a cult classic movie starring Christian Bale.

    At least as far as bookstores (not online stores) wre concerned, “American Psycho” came shrink-wrapped. Once you bought it, there was absolutely no way you coud return it for a store credit. You were stuck. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jun/27/imperial-bedrooms-bret-easton-ellis-book-review

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