Last year in the Media Literacy class I was teaching, I got a lesson from a student about triggers. As a feminist, I thought I had my bases covered when it came to warning my students about content that had the potential to be harmful by way of conjuring up memories of personal trauma. More specifically, sexual trauma. As a woman, I know from both my personal experiences and the statistics , to be mindful of showing media clips or introducing readings that may trigger memories of sexual abuse or assault.
So when a a student approached me after class one day, noticeably distressed, and asked me to please provide a trigger warning next time I use the clip from “Glee” that was shown, I honestly wasn’t sure she was talking about. That particular day in class was led by a student. In many of my classes, I require that each student lead a day of discussion, and in my Media Literacy class, they are asked to show a media clip that corresponds with the articles we read. Having just read two provocative articles about heterosexist hate speech, my student decided to show a clip from Glee that showed how a closeted character tried to kill himself after being outed at school.
My student continued, “Seeing stuff about suicide….is hard for me.”
Suicide. The idea that I should monitor media portrayals of suicide never crossed my mind.
I apologized profusely. It was one of the lowest moments I have had as an educator. Students put a lot of trust in a teacher when they walk in a classroom, and I have often given lip-service to my intention to create a “safe space.” Of course, “safe spaces” are inherently flawed because no matter how hard we say it (or bold-font it on our syllabi) we cannot guarantee safety, because our classroom does not exist in a vacuum.
Roxanne Gay makes a similar argument in her intense essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion.” In it, she writes:
There are things that rip my skin open and reveal what lies beneath but I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I don’t believe people can be protected from their histories. I don’t believe it is at all possible to anticipate the histories of others in ways that would be satisfying for anyone.
There is no standard for trigger warnings, no universal guidelines. Once you start, where do you stop? Does the mention of the word rape require a trigger warning or is the threshold an account of a rape? How graphic does an account of abuse need to be before meriting a warning? Are trigger warnings required anytime matters of difference are broached? What is graphic? Who makes these determinations?
It all seems so futile, so impotent and, at times, belittling. When I see trigger warnings, I think, “How dare you presume what I need to be protected from?”
Gay is addressing a debate that has been on the mind of feminist zinesters, bloggers, and other media-makers for a long time. But I have not seen as much discussion about the role of triggers for educators.
Immediately following my experience with that student, I became vigilant about monitoring the content I showed, and I required that all student presentations be emailed to me before class so I could review the clips they picked. But I felt overwhelmed, as Gay suggests, about what may or may not be triggering. And I also started to feel problematically protective. When do we cross the line from a “feminist ethic of care” to paternalism?
I believe in a zero tolerance policy when it comes to racist, sexist, heterosexist, (etc.) speech in the classroom, but there have been times that students have said things, innocently, in those categories, and had no idea what they were saying could be considered harmful. As educators, we can use those times as “teaching moments,” but they illustrate that our professed “safe space” is an empty promise.
Some teachers try to work around this by giving the same kind of trigger warning you often see on the top of articles on Feministing or Jezebel, but verbally, right before the clip is shown. I have always found this to be a pretty terrible approach, because if there is a student who might feel triggered, any hope for anonymity is lost. Imagine: “There are images of sexual violence in the clip I’m about to show, so if you feel like you might be triggered, you’re welcome to leave.” Student gets up and leaves, and perhaps experiences humiliation on top of the already inevitable reminder of past sexual trauma. Not awesome.
I’m genuinely curious to know how other educators handle the idea of triggers. Do you refuse to show content that may be triggering? How do you determine what is and isn’t triggering? Do you give verbal trigger warnings? Is there value in the “teaching moments” that triggering material may provide?
 There are a variety of studies that show the tremendously high numbers of women who are victims of sexual violence. A relevant one to college educators: 1 in 4 college women report surviving rape. It is likely that in every class you teach, there is a rape survivor.