Trigger Warnings: Narration and Healing in the Feminist Blogosphere

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The trigger warning has become a prominent feature of the feminist blogosphere. A trigger warning is a textual warning that precedes internet content (usually an article or blog post) for content that follows which may trigger memories of traumatic or sensitive experiences. Trigger warnings can precede content on a variety of topics—eating disorders, poverty, self-injury, addiction—and is not limited to use within the online feminist community.

Despite its prevalence in the feminist blogosphere (and, increasingly, among other newer social media communities), use of the trigger warning has also been a source of controversy. In April 2010, writer Susannah Breslin wrote two blog posts arguing that trigger warnings are “condescending at best, and a disingenuous plot to keep feminist blogs relevant at worst.” Online feminists defended the trigger warning out of “care” or survivors, giving them to choice of whether they want to consider potentially triggering material at that particular moment in time. Other feminists have provided more nuanced critiques of trigger warnings—that their proliferation will cause the word “trigger” to be meaningless, that triggers are extremely specific and unpredictable and hence, trigger warnings are ineffective, that trigger warnings hinder discussion. 

Survivors and Narration

In Susan Brison’s Aftermath, she articulates that the communication of traumatic events transforms traumatic memories into narrative, where a narrative is “a social interaction—actual or imagined or anticipated or remembered—in which what gets told is shaped by the (perceived) interests of the listeners, by what the listeners want to know and also by what they cannot and will not hear.” Brison argues that narrative “reintegrates the survivor into a community, reestablishing bonds of trust and faith in others.”

Certainly, posting an account of one’s rape on a blog is such a  social interaction. Although personal blogs have been compared to diaries,  “blogging is not a solitary occupation, but takes place within a community of web users.” Blogs offer a platform on which survivors can narrate and have access to many potential readers. Many blogs also provide a “comment section” following each post for readers to respond to the post, the author, and to each other. Thus, blogging can be one way in which survivors use narration to process their trauma and hence heal.

Blogging about rape within the feminist blogosphere has the potential to be particularly healing form of narrative, because it can reintegrate the survivor into a community of online feminists—a community of “empathic others” who might more empathic than the general public.

It is important to situate the reception of rape narratives within a larger context of patriarchy, both online and off. Online and off, many women’s narratives of rape are still met with mistrust and slut-shaming.  Although this feminist community does, at times and in certain spaces, reproduce some of the exclusion of women of color in mainstream feminist movements, a survivor’s rape narrative is more likely to be received with empathy and validation in the feminist blogosphere than by the broader online community.

Online Feminism on Tumblr

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To that end, one of the most important purposes that trigger warnings serve is as a linguistic in-group designation. A trigger warning for rape or sexual assault at the beginning of a blog post not only indicates that the content that follows is about rape, but signals that the narrator is asserting her narrative into a feminist space. A trigger warning signals that other norms of the feminist blogosphere apply. For example, norms against victim-blaming and slut-shaming  are fundamental to discussion in the feminist blogosphere.

A closer look at the way that trigger warnings tags are used on Tumblr illuminates some of the contours of this designation. Many blogs use tags (user-generated descriptors of the post) to organize their posts around various topics. A blog entry can be tagged with topics such as: rape, pregnancy, work, reproductive rights, etc. and readers, by searching for or clicking on a particular tag, are presented with a series of blogposts with the tag in question on the given blog. On Tumblr, which is comprised of microblogs, users are able to search for tags across all tumblr blogs. There are thousands of posts tagged with: “trigger warning,” “trigger warning: rape,” “trigger warning: sexual assault,” “tw,” “tw: rape,” “tw: sexual assault,” etc. Posts tagged with “trigger warning: rape” range from personal accounts of rape and sexual assault to facts about rape culture  to poetry reflecting on rape and sexual assault, to personal accounts of encounters with victim-blaming, rape jokes, and other manifestations of rape culture.

Despite the varying types of content tagged with this trigger warning, the posts are all participating in and contributing to the community and project of online feminism. For example, one 17 year-old posts a story on tumblr of her parents “…saying that this one character in a movie is ‘asking for rape’ because she feels insulted that her husband/boyfriend told her to essentially put on a bra for more self respect…” and follows with “…no one – NO ONE – asks to be raped, and my heart just sunk a little because I am reminded that I do not live in the world my Tumblr bubble provides me with…” This author conveys disappointment at her parents’ victim-blaming and slut-shaming and also expresses her gratitude for her Tumblr community, one which acknowledges that victim-blaming and slut-shaming are symptomatic of rape culture, and thus, may merit a trigger warning. The trigger warning for this post is primarily working to signify that the post is to be integrated into an online feminist community.

Especially as a tag, readers are able to easily search for all Tumblr posts with the tag “trigger warning: sexual assault.” By clicking on this tag, readers are delivered to a webpage with all Tumblr posts where users have employed that particular tag, with the most recent posts at the top of the page. This webpage gives readers the opportunity to explore and engage with content that is critical of rape culture and is part of the online feminist community.

Thus, the “trigger warning,” when it is used as a tag, not only signifies belonging in the online feminist community, but also organizes the content of the online feminist community around rape culture.

Trigger warnings, therefore, serve a purpose to integrate rape narratives into an online feminist community of “empathic others” as well as structure that community itself. 

Narration and the Reproduction of Norms

In contrast to traditional western epistemology, feminist theorists have been instrumental in advancing the claim that experience is knowledge. Many feminist theorists doubt “that anyone can truly reflect the essentially and universally human.” As such, personal narratives and the production of such narratives, especially written by women, are feminist projects. From a radical feminist perspective, Catharine MacKinnon writes: “much of the contemporary storytelling narrative has come from resistance to the claim of exclusivity of the single dominant version of social reality.”  For example, our culture “churns out” a dominant version of social reality where “women are rapable, women deserve rape/women provoke rape, women want rape, women are ashamed of being raped/women publicly lie about being raped.” As such, rape narratives shared using social media and the feminist blogosphere are crucial to the production of knowledge countering these prevailing images, and harbor the potential for political action. Different forms of new media, especially the feminist blogosphere as discussed here, have provided crucial platforms for rape survivors to share their narratives.

These rape narratives, however, while a form of knowledge that has the potential to subvert “the single dominant version of social reality,” also have the power to shape the experience of the rape itself. Sharon Marcus argues that rape is a language that “structures physical actions and responses as well as words, and forms, for example, the would-be rapist’s feelings of powerfulness and our commonplace sense of paralysis when threatened with rape.”

As intractably real as these physical sensations may appear to us, however, they appear so because the language of rape speaks through us, freezing our own sense of force and affecting the would-be rapist’s perceptions of our lack of strength.

Rapists do not prevail simply because as men they are really, biologically, and unavoidably stronger than women. A rapist follows a social script and enacts conventional, gendered structures of feeling and action which seek to draw the rape target into a dialogue which is skewed against her.

Marcus, here, is making the controversial claim that social constructions of rape in culture can impact the experience of rape by survivors. In particular, Marcus is concerned that the language of rape constructs women to be “endangered, violable, and fearful,” and therefore fail to fight back.

What Marcus describes as the “language of rape” is similar to Kukla’s claim that certain texts have “performative force.” Kukla uses “performative force” to describe the way in which the questions raised by pregnancy manuals not only suggest “what questions and concerns are appropriate for pregnant women to have but also creates, shapes, and reshapes readers’ prior concerns.” I would extend Kukla’s claim and argue that by affecting these pregnant women’s prior concerns, these pregnancy manuals will also affect the woman’s experience of the birth itself, directing women’s anxiety toward certain biological phenomena as opposed to others.

Adopting Kukla’s terminology, I contend that rape narratives posted online have performative force and can affect the way that women experience rape and the way that women respond, both physically and emotionally. As such, the trigger warnings that frame these rape narratives also have the potential to structure the way that women experience and respond to rape.

What are potential ways that trigger warnings could structure the experience of rape? What does it mean for a woman, in the course of being raped, to access a “script” of rape that is based on online rape narratives with trigger warnings?

I am concerned that women’s experiences will be shaped by a prior concern about whether her experience would “merit” a trigger warning. To the extent that women want their narratives to be included in the feminist blogosphere, women might want to use trigger warnings as symbolic designations of membership in this community. Might women feel concerned that their future narratives are not as trauma-inducing so as to deserve a trigger warning? If so, what consequences might result? Similar to  Marcus’ argument, I would contend that women with such socially-constructed concerns, might be less inclined to aggressively fight back against their attackers, wanting to preserve the narrative of a more traumatic rape so as to deserve a trigger warning. For the narratives involving slut-shaming or victim-blaming, individuals might be less inclined to interject and call out this behavior for the same reason. Thus, trigger warnings may be potentially structuring a narrative of rape that may be harmful to women as they are undergoing traumatic experiences.

Trigger warnings, as a symbolic delineation of membership in the community of feminist bloggers, also has the power to structure the narrative healing process in a way that is harmful to women. Returning to Brison’s definition of narrative, she contends that this narrative is shaped by what “the listeners want to know and also by what they cannot and will not hear.”  Thus, survivors may understand that listeners only want to hear narratives that are “deserving” of a trigger warning. The same concerns about whether their narratives are trauma-inducing “enough” to be deserving of a trigger warning may discourage survivors from sharing their narratives online. Given that the process of narrating one’s experience of trauma can be instrumental in the rehabilitation, the structure of the trigger warning poses a risk of harm to survivors.

Thus, although trigger warnings serve an important purpose of signaling belonging to an empathic community for rape survivors, they also pose a risk of structuring the experience of rape and its healing process in a way that harms women. The tumblr tag “tw,” short for “trigger warning,” is one example of an online innovation that potentially mitigates harmful impacts of trigger warnings. The tag “tw” still designates belonging to the feminist blogosphere, but without the word “trigger” it alleviates some of the pressure that a trigger warning implies. As opposed to a trigger warning, which is intended to prevent flashbacks to traumatic memories, a “tw” is something else. It does not reference trauma as the word “trigger” does and has no meaning outside of the context of the feminist blogosphere. Thus, it is less likely to structure women’s experiences of rape and the aftermath of rape with potentially harmful consequences.

Certainly, online spaces have great potential for healing rape survivors and countering dominant narratives of rape. However, it is crucial that these spaces do not harden to reproduce norms that may be harmful. To that end, participants in the online feminist community should be vigilant and critical and also continue to innovate. Feminist narratives have the most potential for liberation when they are fluid and flexible and plural.

By: LiJia Gong, Submitter

All Images found via Google Image Search 

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