Opinions

Trigger Warnings Are The Arm Floaties of The Internet

I hate to be the one to break it to you, love. There’s going to be pain in your life. There are going to be moments when you feel like the waters have drifted up over your nose, and you have to stretch to get a breath. There are going to be moments when the past nips at your heels, and you’re too tired to keep running from it. There are going to be bad people who do bad things to you. It’s going to happen.

Consider yourself warned.

Trigger Warnings, in case you have been living life AFK for a while, have been come an internet fad. The idea is this: When you're going to post something that might cause intense emotional response for people, the new etiquette is to head the post or article with a verbal warning of the contents, and that it might "trigger" an emotional reaction. 

Deep breath, here. At this point I'm triggered by conversations about trigger warnings. I've been kicked out of feminist groups, female "solidarity" groups, "sex positive" discussion groups over this. Because I "lack empathy for those that might be triggered by a certain posting." (Fascinatingly ironic if you know me.) Because I refuse to adhere to the Cult of Trigger Warning. Each time it's a blow to my sense of belonging to those communities. I'm not turning away from the slaps in the face. I'm taking a breath and leaning into them. Instead of avoiding the whole subject, I'll explain exactly why trigger warnings are bunk. A false sense of security as flimsy as plastic blow-up poofs from China.   

1. Tickle me again and I will kill you and drag your bleeding corpse into the street for the dogs to pick at your bones. 

There is inherent privilege attached to trigger warnings. For example, hearing how great your mom is kills my soul. Doubtful there's even a TV sitcom I can watch without a mother figure I don't covet. (OMG Sofía Vergara in "Modern Family." Yas. Please. Hell, I even mom-crushed Paula Dean before she was racist.) 

But when I saw that cute picture of you and your mom celebrating a birthday lunch, I DID NOT ask you to warn me about the next luncheon with mom so that I am not spending the next two days in a spiral of self-loathing. That would be weird. Instead, I just increased my dopamine levels with ice cream and sex. You know, like a normal person. I dealt with it. I don't demand, "Safety poofs for one and all!" every time the subject of motherhood comes up and I feel the tide rising. The pain belongs to me. 

Even when you're talking about subjects that likely would create intense emotional for a lot of people, like rape, there is embedded privilege toward "violent" rapes. I'm cringing as I write that because we all know that all rape is violent. But here's the thing, no one was flashing trigger warnings for Pennsatucky's tragic rape scene in OITNB. The only article I found about the scene said, correctly, it was the only show that really understood rape. The scene accurately depicted our fucked up conceptions of what rape looks like. Pennsatucky's frightening dead-pan face as she lurched back and forth close-up on the screen was more triggering for me as a realistic depiction of rape than any scene from "Game of Thrones." Yet the "violent rapes" depicted in that show were all over social media, trigger warnings ad nauseum. On the other hand, OITNB was all thumbs ups. All memes liked and shared with glee. Maybe I was the only one triggered by that scene. 

I'm also triggered by tickling. Rarely respected as a serious limit until I threaten physical retaliation. 

2. Don't think of a pink elephant. 

If you have already told me what you're going to talk about, and that subject triggers emotions, then the emotions are potentially already triggered by the trigger warning. Amiright? There's probably a fancy psychological term to describe this phenomenon. But I didn't consent to be your research bitch.

I'm sorry if you were at some point in your life someone's research bitch and your anxiety was just triggered because I said "research bitch." Sorry grad students. Interns. My bad. (But yeah, if you could get me the info on all that cognitive emotional stuff.... that'd be great. Thanks.) 

3. Excuse me, your BDSM scene makes me feel icky, can you please hang a giant banner over your play area saying, "THIS MIGHT MAKE SOME PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE"

Trigger warnings create an unrealistic expectation that people will cater language and behavior to accommodate you. 

In Kink culture, you're responsible for your own self-care. If you're walking through a dungeon and happen upon a scene that really squigs you out, you do not have the right to step into that scene and ask the participants to warn you the next time they decide to shove metal rods up someone's urethra. Kink colloquialisms vary from city to city, but in my hometown if you see something you want to unsee, you say, "I'm going to go get a cookie." Then you leave the room and have a cookie and a breath. Because the locus of control over your emotions is internal. It is not up to the people doing or saying the potentially disturbing whatthefuckever to tailor their expression to your comfort level. 

Sex therapist and writer Buster Ross had similar feelings and expressed them at his workshop with Dr. Chris Donaghue about sex shaming at Catalyst Con

College professors claim that the students are overly sensitive to language and ideas in the classroom. Law students ask for trigger warnings for or be excused from subjects that they deem potentially "emotionally disturbing." like Rape Law. Um. Yeah. We all find that emotionally disturbing. Some students at Harvard asked their law professor not to say the word "violate" as in... "Does this conduct violate the law," because the word "violate" was emotionally triggering to people who had been, at some point in their lives, "violated." For gawd sake. If you are a law student please do not skip "Rape Law Day" at school because it's intense for you. 

4. "I can't" is not a safe word.  

Harm avoidance is not a healthy approach to self-care in most situations. I'm not saying anything new here. "Leaning into Discomfort" is a widely accepted coping strategy taught by social workers and counselors. Pretty sure Buddhism says something about pain, too. Something about pain being inevitable, but suffering optional. I'm just saying, I'm building off pre-existing theories here. I'm not riffing off the cuff. 

But this is something I learned as a Kinkster. 

"Please stop, Sir. I can't..."

"You can't," he repeated. "That doesn't seem to be the case, beauty." He didn't skip a beat. The bamboo cane landed rhythmically across my ass, thighs, and back. 

"Please." I struggled to focus. I anticipated every blow. My breath became halted, my muscles tense. 

"Princess. We're not stopping. Unless you're saying the safe word?"

"No Sir." 

He strikes hard across my back. The welt it leaves is already burning. I scream and struggle in my bondage, but with my wrists secured tightly to my ankles and my shoulders in the bed, I'm helpless. There's a pause, and my fear of the next blow is so intense that when he touches me lightly with his fingertips I jump and cry out. 

"Relax," he said, pressing his cool hand against my ass. "Breathe." He ran his fingers through my hair, brushing the wild strands from my face, and then taking it into his fist and pressing my cheek against his thigh. "Don't flinch from the cane. There's going to be more than you think you can handle. But you'll endure it. This is your pain."

My breathing slowed. His fist securely entangled in my hair, I focused on relaxing my body and settling into the inevitability of pain. After time, my resilience grew. 

The answer is not arm floaties. The answer is endurance. 

The answer is not arm floaties. The answer is endurance. 

The strategies he was teaching me to process physical pain - accepting that pain is enviable, meditative breathing, reinforcing feelings of security, letting go of the stress of the anticipation of pain, relaxing into the blows instead of wasting energy trying to avoid the inevitable - these are all strategies that apply for processing emotional pain. They are parallel to the steps taught in the "Leaning into Discomfort" coping strategy. They build resilience to discomfort, instead of limiting exposure to it. 

And it's some pretty zen buddhist shit, too. 

The answer is not to shield yourself with a flimsy tagline. The answer is endurance. Sharing intense emotions with other people, like pain, creates empathy. Empathy is the guerilla glue of humanity. We needed to see Pennsatucky dead-eyed and passive. Empathy doesn't just mean we feel sorry for her. It means we are there in that truck with her. Those are our dead eyes looking back at us. We needed to feel our guts wrench with recognition because breath stealing blows like that build the humanity and resilience we need to keep others from drowning. 


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