Trigger warnings are more important than spoiler warnings, so why are they more controversial?

Trigger warnings are more important than spoiler warnings, so why are they more controversial? June 7, 2015

This post originally appeared on my new website, which you should check out.

A few fair warnings: First, I’m about to discuss events from two recent episodes of this season’s Game of Thrones, “Unbowed, Unbent Unbroken” and “The Gift.” Second, I’m also going to discuss graphic depictions of rape. Those who aren’t up to speed with the show or who might be triggered by depictions of sexual violence may want to proceed with caution.

Sansa Stark, the oldest living daughter of Eddard Stark, was arranged to marry Ramsay Bolton, the sadistic bastard and legitimized heir of the man who betrayed and killed her brother and mother. This would be a harrowing enough thing for a teenage girl to experience, but Ramsay raped Sansa after the ceremony and forced Theon Grayjoy, a childhood friend of Sansa’s, to watch. That episode ends with a close-up of Theon’s trembling face then a cut to black, with an echo of Sansa’s cries reverberating out. Minutes into the next episode, a tearful Sansa begs Theon to help her (he doesn’t). We learn she is kept locked in her room and visited by Ramsay each night, with no clear sense of how much time has passed.

It’s considered basic courtesy in online spaces to include a warning before delving into spoilers like this, and it’s for good reason. A large part of the appeal of well-crafted stories is the experience of suspense and surprise as they unfold in sometimes unexpected directions, and there’s little worse than having thoughtless use of social and online media spoil a twist you haven’t seen coming.

The harms of being spoiled pale in comparison, however, to the harms of being triggered—a spoiler may make an experience less enjoyable, but exposure to traumatic material without warning may leave someone in a full-blown panic attack. Why, then, are spoiler warnings basic etiquette while trigger warnings are seen to be catering to oversensitivity and censorship?

Both sides of the issue can treat trigger warnings too broadly—being triggered is more than just being reminded of something unpleasant, offensive, or painful—and it seems that in some cases (classism and colonialism come to mind), trigger warning are misapplied as a way to acknowledge difficult material and divergent experiences of students in the classroom. In this sense, it’s a noble attempt to acknowledge unexamined political assumptions and correct curricula that too often treat whiteness and maleness as the default. This is a worthy cause in and of itself, but it overextends beyond legitimate notions of clinical trauma.

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the Bible for psychological clinicians if there is one, gives several criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Two particularly relevant ones are that someone must experience a traumatic event (which they define as being exposed to death, injury, sexual violence, or threats thereof), and that traumatic event is somehow re-experienced, be it through intrusive memories, nightmares, or triggers. Someone experiencing a triggered flashback, which “may occur on a continuum from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness,” often experiences what the DSM describes as “intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders” or “marked physiological reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli.”

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