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

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.”

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.

A common concern is that trigger warnings aren’t effective. From his survey of the literature referenced above, McNally concludes that “[t]rigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort.” He continues, “Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.” 

McNally’s mistake here is twofold: first, trigger warnings aren’t designed to avoid trauma, though it allows for it; rather, advocates of trigger warnings stress that trigger warnings allow students enough warning to prepare themselves and engage with traumatic materials on their own terms. Second, the idea that trigger warnings don’t work because exposure is a successful way to treat PTSD misses the key fact that exposure therapy, not exposure full stop, is a successful treatment for PTSD. Exposure therapy, as described by the study that McNally cites, includes “psychoeducation, breathing retraining, and relaxation, in addition to exposure.” There’s no evidence at all that exposure alone, be it in class or during a course reading, would help treat PTSD. In fact, a trigger warning provides exactly the kind of opportunity someone might need to prepare in order for exposure to be helpful. Trigger warnings are only counterproductive if we fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of trigger warnings and the nature of exposure therapy. 

Even more, there’s a double standard at play, here—we don’t demand evidence that spoiler warnings work before deciding whether Gawker should put a spoiler warning at the top of a discussion of the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. In fact, there’s good evidence that spoiler warnings are actually counterproductive. A 2011 study in the journal Psychological Science showed that spoiling the ending of a short passage actually made readers enjoy the story more across several genres. The authors explored this finding even more a few years later, and their findings suggest that spoilers make stories easier to read and they follow more intuitively, and this increases enjoyment (it’s an effect called “processing fluency”). It’s hard to imagine that these findings would comfort anyone who had an upcoming twist spoiled for them, though, and it doesn’t make spoiling someone any less thoughtless.

Like most moral disagreements, though, it’s obvious that this debate isn't about whether freshman English students should get advanced warning that they're about to read about rape. Even some critics of trigger warnings support such measures, so long as you don’t actually name them for what they are. In Jerry Coyne’s essay above, he wrote without irony that the Columbia professor teaching Ovid “might have mentioned beforehand that there is violence and sexual assault in Ovid, but that’s as far as [Coyne would] go.” That’s as far as there is to go, of course, and there’s nothing in the op-ed he rails against to suggest the students at Columbia want to go any further. 

We can't put a trigger warning on everything, but that doesn't mean we can't provide them for the most likely culprits of the most harmful cases. It's true that not all victims of sexual violence need or want trigger warnings, but it’s unacceptable for hand-wringing reactionaries to create so hostile a climate that even asking for them gets survivors lumped in with fascists and book-banners who don't realize that, as Coyne suggests,“life is triggering.” I suspect victims of PTSD may have figured that out by now.