Let's Be Honest: The Debate About Trigger Warnings Is Really Just Misogyny

[CN: Duggars, child porn mention, rape mention, suicide]

Note: Upon publication, several veterans whom I am friends with pointed out that I am mistaken about veterans' experiences in the classroom. This post needed a deeper discussion of the public perception of masculinity and combat trauma than I gave it, and for that, I apologize. My concentration on the gendered nature of the debate gave me tunnel vision and deprived this piece of the nuance it requires. Veterans do suffer from a major lack of support, both at the VA and in the classroom - something I mischaracterized in my presentation. If you wish to learn more, the website for the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans act is here.

On this past Thursday, the news of Joshua Duggar’s teenage sexual assaults and subsequent cover up by his family broke just before I went to work. That day, I’d also been researching and reading about the action of The Village Church in Dallas, TX, where the wife of a missionary was brought under church discipline for wanting to annul her marriage after she discovered her husband had child pornography on his computer.

I went to work, I played with my daycare kids, and I came home. I shut my computer down and pulled out my Nintendo Wii and the new (to me) copy of Twilight Princess I bought on Wednesday. And I sat and played, for the whole evening. I thought about nothing else but the game I was playing, and allowed myself some time to reorient and recover my sense of myself apart from the reminders of this utterly terrible world we live in.

When I returned to the Internet later in the evening, I felt more myself, more at ease, and more readily able to confront the news of the day. I emailed my editors; I chatted briefly on Twitter. I returned the “real world” ready to take things on. I just needed some time to care and to be alone.

This, ultimately, is the importance of warnings about potential triggers for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. When brought to our knees by the news or by some description or joke that invokes our past traumas, survivors of all kinds of experiences find ourselves forced to withdraw, to take some kind of break in order to recuperate.

PTSD was first understood following World War II, when veterans of war struggled emotionally and psychologically upon their return to the calm, quiet streets of suburbia. Referred to as “shell shock,” numerous veterans suffered from flashbacks and recurrences of their traumatic war experiences. Something as simple as fireworks on the Fourth of July could set off a flashback, could trigger an incident.

For decades, these traumas went untreated. In an unspoken tragedy and toll of the war, vets killed themselves in large numbers, lacking the tools to adjust to life at home following a traumatic experience. Once we began to understand the true psychological implications of war and the effects that trauma has on a person’s psyche, our sociological approaches to veterans of war and various traumas became commonplace. The VA now has numerous programs to help fight PTSD and to make it possible for victims of trauma to function in normal society (and is working on getting funding for more).

No one tells these veterans to “buck up,” to embrace and understand that this is just how “the real world” is. Such statements would rightly be disregarded as callous and harsh and deaf to the suffering of trauma survivors.

Why, then, do we look askance at female survivors of rape and gendered violence when they enter an academic environment – supposedly “the real world” – and request that their traumas be understood? Why, then, do female students – the group most at risk for sexual violence – get the brunt of condescending editorials and thinkpieces about the ruination of academia through trigger warnings?

If a male veteran walked into a teacher’s classroom and requested some warning before being made to listen to a reading of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, chances are such warnings would be taken in stride and understood to be a part of that student’s experience of the work.

But what we’re seeing again and again is that female students who request the same kind of care be taken to understand their history of sexual violence are scorned, dismissed, and mocked.

We wouldn’t dare call male Vietnam Veterans suffering from PTSD a “trigger happy generation.” And yet, when female students recognize the impact of sexual violence on their lives and request accommodation for those problems, they get sanctimonious op-eds in the Wall Street Journal.

This debate on trigger warnings isn’t really about people’s unwillingness or inability to understand trauma. It’s not even really about academic freedom. It’s about the continued dismissal of events predominantly experienced by women. It’s misogyny, broad and bold, disguising itself as a debate over “academic freedom” and the university. Let’s stop pretending it’s anything else.