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

Last year, Jen Doll at The Guardian said trigger warnings were “one small step from book banning.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Christina Hoff Sommers calls them “demeaning to feminism,” indicating in the third-person, “the factual feminist is concerned.” Even the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has weighed in, calling trigger warnings a “threat to academic freedom” which “reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.”

The controversy surrounding trigger warnings has resurfaced again as an op-ed at the Columbia University student paper published in April received broader media attention earlier last month. Students from the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board argued that the classic Roman Poet Ovid’s work, Metamorphoses, should be labeled with a trigger warning for it’s graphic depictions of rape. To writers like Jerry Coyne at The New Republic, this is “the road to literary fascism.”

(As an aside, it’s hard to imagine “the road to literary fascism” describing anything other than Ezra Pound’s trip to Italy. While Pound not only produced indispensable writing advice and fine works of poetry—warning, like the Starks, that “Earth’s winter cometh”—he also spent a good deal of time criticizing Jews, calling Hitler a saint, and producing propaganda for the Italian government under Mussolini.)

One wonders, then, what’s so fascist about a warning? Consider book six of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.Here, the Thracian king Tereus has kidnapped his wife’s sister, Philomela:

The king took [Philomena] to a high-walled building, hidden in an ancient forest, and there he locked her away, she, pale and trembling, fearing everything, in tears now, begging to know where her sister was. Then, confessing his evil intent, he overcame her by force, she a virgin and alone, as she called out, again and again, in vain, to her father, her sister, and most of all to the great gods. She quivered like a frightened lamb, that fails to realise it is free, wounded and discarded by a grey wolf, or like a dove trembling, its feathers stained with its blood, still fearing the rapacious claws that gripped it.

Philomela gathers herself together and responds with resolve, “I, without shame, will tell what you have done. If I get the chance it will be in front of everyone. If I am kept imprisoned in these woods, I will fill the woods with it, and move the stones, that know of my guilt, to pity. The skies will hear of it, and any god that may be there!”

Tereus responds by drawing his sword and cutting Philomela’s tongue from her mouth.

Such a plot wouldn’t feel out of place in an episode of Game of Thrones, and it’s easy to see how reading such an account unprepared may trigger a victim of sexual violence. So why, then, would giving students advanced warning about the passages graphic nature be in any way censorious or coddling? At least any more so than I am coddling you, dear reader, or censoring myself as a writer by providing a spoiler warning at the front of this piece?

Statistics routinely put the number of women who experience rape or attempted rape by the time they’re in college between 1 in 6 and 1 in 4, and this is further supported by a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, where 26% of women in one school experienced attempted or completed rape at least once by their second year of college. Such statistics are troubling when taken in conjunction with research Richard McNally discussed at the Pacific Standard last year, where he wrote, “The lifetime prevalence of PTSD among the female and male sexual assault survivors was 43.2 percent and 17.1 percent, respectively.” That’s a substantial proportion of undergraduate women who might have traumatic associations with sexual violence.

Given that being triggered in class is a not-insignificant barrier to education, and given that sexual violence is common by the time students are in college, and given that sexual violence disproportionately affects women, and given that women are disproportionately likely to develop PTSD in response to sexual violence, it starts to be clear that trigger warnings go beyond the basic courtesy spoiler warnings are afforded and instead become a matter of educational equality.


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