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Trigger warning

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TRIGGER WARNING This article or section, or pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

Trigger warnings are customary in some feminist and other spaces. They are designed to prevent people who have an extremely strong and damaging emotional response (for example, post-traumatic flashbacks or urges to harm themselves) to certain subjects from encountering them unaware. Having these responses is called "being triggered".

Content to warn for

Content which is widely agreed by feminist blogs and fandom writers to be warned for:

  • graphic descriptions of or extensive discussion of abuse, especially sexual abuse or torture
  • graphic descriptions of or extensive discussion of self-harming behaviour such as suicide, self-inflicted injuries or disordered eating
  • depictions, especially lengthy or psychologically realistic ones, of the mental state of someone suffering abuse or engaging in self-harming behaviour
  • discussion of eating-disordered behavior or body shaming

These are more extensive than the mainstream media observes. Of these typically only suicide is elided, understated or warned for by the press. In some countries television shows or movies might be preceded by an indication of the nature of violent or sexual content. Professional fiction does not typically warn for any such content on bookjackets or in reviews or similar.

Some people argue that even factual, dry mentions of the above subjects should be warned for. In some sections of Media fandom there are also arguments that warnings should be made for:

  • depiction or discussion of violence
  • depiction or discussion of particular kinds of consensual sexual activity (BDSM, homosexual encounters, heterosexual encounters...)
  • depiction or discussion of any consensual sexual activity
  • depiction or discussion of discriminatory attitudes or actions, such as sexism or racism

Wording

A trigger warning usually takes the form of some emphasised (usually bold) text starting with a warning phrase (such as "trigger warning," "content warning," or just "warning") and describing in broad terms the upsetting nature of the content. The actual triggering content might be below the warning or hidden in some way requiring readers to click through.

There is no consensus on the 'best' way to word a trigger warning so that it accurately describes the potentially-triggering content without becoming a trigger itself. The phrase "trigger warning" may itself be triggering to some trauma survivors. People can also be triggered by warnings that include too much detail. Warnings with very general language, such as "Warning for a graphic depiction of sexual violence" or "Content Warning: disordered eating" are less likely to trigger readers than warnings that include specific details about the triggering content.

Some have suggested shifting to "activation warning" or "stress warning." The purpose would be to make the warning more inclusive of a larger range of responses and also to avoid a metaphor that can be a reminder of guns.

Autonomy

All trigger warnings should respect autonomy. Present factual information about upcoming triggers but DO NOT:

  • imply that people are obliged to remove themselves from triggers; people may choose to view material or be part of things that upsets them (simply being upset is different from behaving badly towards others, this you can respond to whether it arises from being triggered or other causes)
  • suggest or prescribe particular self-care mechanisms to other people, as these are individual (the suggestion below to provide self-care objects and places at events is to provide them event-wide: people should not be individually counselled on which if any to use)
  • suggest that any particular group of vulnerable people (eg, sexual assault survivors) are not allowed to view your material at all

In person events

Having a trigger warning delivered at the last moment is very difficult because:

  • people may be distressed by the sudden need to switch to self-preservation mode
  • people may be unable to escape from the triggering situation due to, eg, being seated in the middle of a row
  • people may have a negative reaction to the warning in the moment that they didn't want to have in a room full of people

If at all possible, trigger warnings should be delivered well in advance of any triggering presentations, stories, displays or demonstrations. They are ideally:

  • presented in writing and distributed to attendees in advance of the event, so that people can react to the information privately and have time to make decisions and self-care arrangements
  • re-iterated at the beginning of the session containing the material
  • combined with a emphatic reminder that people may leave any activity at time for any reason and will not be shamed for it, nor asked their reasons at all

In addition, potentially triggering material should be:

  • delivered in sessions where there are alternative activities available (so not, eg, in plenary sessions)
  • delivered in physical spaces that people do not need to enter for other reasons (for example, not in a passageway that people may need to travel through to another activity, not in rooms where venue staff are working and not on displays that can be seen from other rooms)
  • delivered in spaces and at a volume where sound does not carry to other parts of the venue 
  • not described graphically in, eg, schedules (the warning should be clear but not unduly detailed)

Take especially care to extend trigger warnings to paid event staff and volunteers, whose roles may make them feel that they aren't allowed to be safe or practice self-care.

Where possible, have self-comfort places and objects available to your participants such as things they can play with with their hands, and a self-comfort area available such as a quiet room.

If triggering material is on-topic at your event, and advance warnings are not possible, such as in freeform discussions, roleplays and similar:

  • ban such material from any session that all participants are required to attend or that have no alternative activity
  • take extra care to create an ethos where people may leave any activity at time for any reason and will not be shamed for it, nor asked their reasons at all
  • unless indicated very clearly in advance that an entire session is trigger warned, ask people to deliver warnings when they are aware that they are about to say or do something triggering
  • after the warning, give people adequate time to leave, do not ask them to simply close their eyes or similar

Participants in high stakes extemporaneous sessions such as lightning talks, improv, slide karaoke and similar should be explicitly warned to simply avoid triggers. Have a strong experienced chair who is alert and ready to redirect or end anything of this kind that goes astray (even if unintentionally).

Other communities

In online support group communities, trigger warnings might be required for something commonly upsetting to members of the group, for example, an infertility support group might require warnings for pregnancy announcements or discussion of pregnancy, parenting groups might have warnings for harm to children, and so on. These are sometimes called trigger warnings and sometimes other jargon is used.

A similar style of warning is often used in a variety of media in Australia to warn that the names, voices, and/or images of people who are deceased may be shown. This warning has developed to support some Indigenous Australians, for whom such things are highly distressing and in contravention of avoidance customs. The Australian Broadcasting Commission, who also offer guildelines on the appropriate way to interact with a greiving Indigenous community here, offer a standard form for use:

WARNING: "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following program may contain images and voices of deceased persons".

Further reading

These articles explain triggering and trigger warnings. When trigger warning precedes the link, a trigger warning applies to the article itself.

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