Trigger Warning, sometimes abbreviated TW, has created a debate among scholars and survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, veterans, and others who live with PTSD. The Rape Abuse Incest National Network estimates that an American is sexually assaulted every two minutes.
Numbers are even higher when it comes to domestic violence. A CDC survey reveals that a total of 24 people per minute are victims of intimate partner violence in the United States. Each statistic is a person. Each person deserves access to the support they need to heal. For many, that means turning to the internet.
People are openly asking how the usage of “trigger warning” got started. I can tell you the story of how it began.
The term trigger warning began in online support groups that I opened in late 1995 or very early 1996. There was precious little support for survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault back then. Online support provided the only support that many survivors received both then and now. Trigger warning and its abbreviation TW were carried to other groups as the support for survivors expanded.
Trigger Warning began because online support has one drawback. Sometimes, reading the story of another survivor would trigger PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks. We began using the term so survivors could give and receive support without worry. The term trigger warning came about as a way to protect others from the potential of additional emotional harm. It was not part of a feminist movement but a humanitarian movement. It was born of out of understanding and compassion for survivors of sexual crimes who struggled with PTSD.
It is not different from warnings that appear on television shows, video games or music. People still decide whether or not to view or use the media. The term simply helps survivors make informed decision based on his or own individual needs. Just as a television viewer has a choice of whether or not to change the channel when a program comes on with the familiar “the following program may be disturbing to some audiences” advisory, anyone who encounters a TW still faces the choice of whether to keep reading or to scroll on by.
Trigger warnings are not a way of avoiding the uncomfortable or the offensive. Survivors who have PTSD live with those feelings daily. A TW at the top of a post serves as an advisory that the material could be emotionally damaging. The reader can then decide to read the post or skip to another based on the needs of the survivor.
The use of trigger warning spread because it fit a need. The practice spread as survivors opened other online support forums. Having a warning label for potentially triggering articles and posts helped create a safe environment for sharing and support. It gave survivors a sense of empowerment that led to higher self-confidence. The term helped bring healing so that survivors could overcome PTSD and live life to the fullest. In the forums, I saw the term trigger warning help people recover from some of the worst social ills in society.
I think that the current interest level speaks to the continued need (and hopefully increased sensitivity) toward individuals who struggle with PTSD. If two little words will make that possible for college students who have PTSD, then shouldn’t the discussions be worth having? At least 24 people a minute will think so.