April 2nd, 2017

Content Warning(s): Rape, Joking about Sensitive Topics, Media

Day two! April is Sexual Assault Survivor Month! This post will contain sensitive material; please exercise caution if you see a topic that could be upsetting to you. We're all about respect here! A final caveat: these are written from my limited perspective as a bi woman who was raped. I don't have all the answers and I'm still working through my own journey. There are many other kinds of sexual assault and abuse that are relevant this month. Take time to consider the needs of your diverse fellow survivors. Speak up for them when they can't speak up for themselves, but don't speak over them. Thank you!

Lately, a lot of attention has been drawn to the word "trigger" in the context of censorship. From controversy whether warnings should be applied to college courses to jokes about people overreacting, "trigger" is beginning to stand for "anything someone thinks someone else isn't going to like because they are incapable of handling it." This social and media-defined definition is both insensitive and far from the actual meaning of the word in the context of PTSD in particular. A "trigger" is an experience (viewing, smelling, feeling, tasting, hearing) that causes someone to recall a previous memory of trauma. I feel that a lot of people who haven't been through the trauma of rape (in my case) or other sexual assault or abuse tend to imagine triggers as consistent or infantilizing, or that they can only apply to military personnel.

Since I was in denial for many months following what happened to me, I didn't allow myself to acknowledge what I was feeling. I'd go to this one particular dance class, challenge myself to do more than I could physically handle, punish myself for "not being good enough," and sob the entire 20-minute drive home. Looking back, it was because every few weeks, my rapist would show up and attend the class. I didn't want to appear weak, so I numbed out and tried to rely on physical strength and concentration on the choreography. It was hard to concentrate. It was hard to eat. I'd have nightmares, wake up screaming, shove it way down. I'd compulsively scratch my leg over the spot where I'd gotten a mosquito bite around the time the rape occurred and it would later develop into a staph infection from going untreated. To this day, I avoid a particular venue, block particular words, and have a song I can't listen to without being immediately brought back to the time of the incident. I was experiencing PTSD and am still learning to cope with triggering events.

However, I've noticed that even though I speak up about what happened to me, even when I specifically ask people to keep me notified of ongoings related to survivorship, I still have people who don't share things with me because they THINK I'll be triggered. For example, if a friend wants me to watch a television show they know to have a rape scene in it, they might say, "Oh, well, you won't want to watch this one episode, you might be triggered." In most cases, while I appreciate their discretion, I end up feeling as though people want to do the censoring FOR me. Certainly I dislike seeing rape portrayed in media, but perhaps there will be a catharsis about the character handles it, or conversely, the work will have harmful misconceptions that I would want to discuss with other survivors. Even if something sets off an unpleasant memory (though this is unlikely, as my triggers are much more based on personal details surrounding what happened to me in the context of my life), that doesn't mean I don't want to consume the medium. I feel stressed when I see reporters mocking the use of "trigger warnings," because I don't think they realize that survivors still navigate whatever the so-called "triggering" topic is. We know we can't avoid our triggers entirely, but caution allows us to process it our own way. I liken it to how I will sometimes spoil myself for the end of a book before I get there so that I can prepare if there's a major character death, etc.

Even more infuriating to me is the recent culture of using "triggered" as a meme or joke. Raise your hand if you've ever been offended by one of those! People misusing the term "trigger" has led to the rise in belief that anyone who refers to their actual triggers by the word "trigger" is either exaggerating as in those jokes or asking for special attention. Hell, it made me avoid using the word in my own recovery; I felt that I couldn't acknowledge that a particular song was triggering to me because I worried that other people would mock me for it, tell me to "get over it, it's just a song." I'm sure many of you know that your triggers aren't "just" anything. The only solution to this is to gently remind those who misuse the word for demeaning purposes that I'm a survivor with actual triggers, and to misuse a term intended to aid people recovering from trauma is disrespectful. However, I know not everyone is able to do this at all times and sometimes I lack the energy to deal with "devil's advocate" individuals.

If you've ever been upset by the misuse of the word "trigger" outside of the therapeutical context of survivorship recovery, you're not alone. Let's do what we can to keep each other safe while we process our own needs and goals.

Thanks for reading! Tomorrow's topic will be about debunking the circulating tumblr post about "interviewing rapists."


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