Trigger Warnings and “Man Up” culture

P1080929.JPGTW – dicusses rape, rape culture, and being a survivor. I wrote this a while back but it was too raw to post. It was my response to somebody calling me out for not posting trigger warnings about rape-related posts on Facebook, in the wake of the Stanford case.

How did I get to the place where I was sharing stuff about rape without using trigger warnings? Of all people, I should know better. I am a former victim of both rape and long term childhood sexual abuse. (I always want to say “serious sexual abuse”, but I have learned that there is no such thing as non-serious sexual abuse. I learned that the day a close friend told me about her father kissing her sexually on the lips just once. It had completely unravelled her life. Understandably so.)

I would never dream of posting something without a trigger warning on a Facebook group, or a page I run. I understand the importance of trigger warnings not just as a former victim, but also as a trauma therapist – they actually help traumatised people engage with difficult material better, and challenge themselves more, because we cannot engage well when our fight/flight/freeze/fuck it response is fully triggered. See my friend Onni Gust’s excellent Guardian piece about this.

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Warnings help us walk our more vulnerable selves through the process without freaking out. It’s a bit like when you bend your knees and clench your tummy muscles before lifting something heavy to avoid injuring your back – you need to know it’s heavy beforehand, but that doesn’t stop you from lifting it, it just helps you prepare properly.

So why would I not give myself, and my friends, the respect I give to people in groups and pages I run or belong to?

Because I am ashamed to show my vulnerability and sensitivity to this issue. Because I am frightened of being judged, as all victims of sexual crimes are judged, one way or another. I am scared being known as someone who experienced sexual crime will indelibly damage my reputation and how others treat me.

Underlying all this is one reason rape culture is so pervasive – in an unsupportive environment, we dissociate from suffering because it is our only way of coping. It’s dysfunctional, it perpetuates suffering and spreads trauma, but sometimes it’s all we can manage to do. That’s the real cycle of abuse – the self-perpetuating cycle of distancing – not caring about it enough, not listening, not believing, not dealing with it, and ultimately pushing it all back onto individual victims.

Why does society systematically deny the suffering of abuse victims? One reason could be that people cannot bear to connect to that suffering.

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I can generally cope with discussions about rape if I’m allowed to prepare myself, I’m even extraordinarily good at supporting victims as a therapist. In the counselling room, my high levels of sensitivity and the depth of my ability to understand the issues are of course an asset.  I’ve dealt with my own hurt enough (thanks to shedloads of therapy) for it not to get in the way with clients – I can prepare myself, and put it aside precisely because I know what I’m about to deal with. I have explored the terrain in every way I know how. I have learnt to be self-reflective and aware of my own processes.

But you’re rarely “all healed, all of the time” from trauma and abuse, it just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes when we’re not prepared, this stuff sneaks up on us.
In spaces where I socialise, I should be able to keep myself safe enough not to end up dissociated. I shouldn’t have to have the subject of rape thrown in my face over and over without any warning. It’s manners to warn people if you’re about to throw something harmful their way – give them a chance to prepare themselves and duck if necessary. 1 in 4 women experiences sexual assault and that figure is even higher for all trans people, as it is for other marginalised people, such as some disabled groups. You can safely assume you’re talking to multiple former victims when you share stuff online.
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So I am deeply sorry for all the times I have failed to prepare people before sharing a difficult subject. This does not just apply to rape, but to other traumatic material such as racism, violence, and anything else that might trigger a trauma response.

The “man up” culture around trigger warnings, and suffering in general, let’s be honest, is merely proof of how much society is dissociated from sexual trauma and unable to really engage with it sensitively. One dissociation begets another; I find myself unconsciously “manning up” (read, acting like a jerk and inflicting harm on others and myself by shutting down my sensitivity).

When I searched my heart, I realised I was afraid to use trigger warnings in my social sphere for fear of being seen as overly sensitive, fragile, special snowflakey etc. So not really brave and facing the issue at all – I was fearful, and ducking the issue. Ashamed to admit I’m a former victim and afraid to show too much care for other victims. I also realised that the Stanford case had shifted me into full blown dissociation – I was sharing meme after meme about it, but completely emotionally detached from the impact of yet another incident where the perpetrator’s feelings and reputation were prioritised far above those of the victim. Just like in my own experience, and pretty much every other victim of sexual violence I’ve known.

I was experiencing only a detached kind of fury that refused to connect to the underlying hurt and vulnerability of reading that poor woman’s intimate and harrowing account.

When we “man up” against being sensitive to difficult issues all we do is dissociate and that makes us pretty much useless at empathy and being vaguely decent human beings. We perpetuate harm to ourselves and others. I’ll take being sensitive over that any day of the week.

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So thank you to the person who called me out for my lack of trigger warnings. It helped me reconnect to myself as well as be more sensitive to others.

And for all of those people who don’t want to see vulnerability displayed out in the open like this – please find somewhere you too can be vulnerable. Stop attacking other people for showing the things you so desperately want to hide from. Because all of you who think we should man up, be less coddled, just get on with it, etc – you’re the real cowards here, afraid to face the enormity of other people’s suffering, and quite possibly your own.

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