Do we need trigger warnings in academia? Video Games? Life?

I’m numb. Or not. A coldness seeps through my body – starts at my face, which relaxes away from any intentional expression and stays there. Weird. Then my throat – seized. Little breath. Little need to swallow, as my mouth feels bone dry. Something inside of me starts to get hot – it begins deep in my gut, moves up through my chest, gets pushed back by the cold. It isn’t gone. Inside. Not sure what is happening. Not sure I care. My hands, my arms, shaking. With cold? Was my hair standing up? Can’t look. I don’t know. My eyes, wide open, aren’t for seeing – I’m not sure what they’re doing. My throat is so tight.

My boyfriend asks me if I liked the movie. I make a noise, or I don’t; I gesture, or I don’t. I don’t know. I stand. We leave.

How long does it take him to notice? I wouldn’t know. That I’m not answering? Sound can’t seem to leave me. My entire being seems centered around my throat. The pain. It continues to tighten. Will I continue to breathe? Do I care? I don’t know. My eyes. Are they always this useless? I can’t look. I just… look.

For some reason, I fantasize, just for a moment, that I can evaporate.

The heat is back, and the shakes haven’t gone. No. Not now. Somehow I’ve made it to my car. We’re driving. He’s worried. Why won’t I answer? Why am I staring, eyes so wide? Why am I shaking? Why aren’t I smiling?

The heat, the cold, it’s too much. We make it four blocks. My throat. I can’t breathe. There’s a parking lot, an abandoned school in the darkness. The moonlight skitters off of the glass, onto the snow. I pull in – was that me driving? Did I make that decision? I don’t know.

I break.

That was how I felt after seeing Sucker Punch.

I am fairly new to the term ‘trigger warning’. Unfortunately, I have no idea if I had heard the term frequently in my life and just not understood, or related to, the notion(s) behind it, or if I really did not come across it in my blissfully ignorant days. All I know is that after I developed my own ‘triggers’, I discovered the ‘trigger warning’, and my faith in media was renewed momentarily in this grateful, warm-and-fuzzy kind of way.

The term ‘trigger warning’ my have a long, convoluted history and/or definition of which I am not aware. To me (and Wikipedia, apparently) this is a caveat provided at the beginning of material that may negatively affect a reader. This is not a general ‘this may be a touchy topic’ kind of heading, either – trigger warnings are particularly suited to topics of which someone who has had previous trauma in this area may not want to (or be able to) be exposed to. A trigger warning allows someone to decide not to read the article or to enter mentally girded for their particular sensitivity.

I’ve mostly encountered trigger warnings on media sources that I only recently began using (such as Jezebel, which tends to be more self-reflective and sensitive than mainstream news media) that cover topics such as domestic abuse, sexual assault, childhood abuse, and eating disorders. These trigger warnings, in my experience, mean that there is something particularly graphic or triggering about the content, not just that this topic happens to mention rape. By ‘triggering’ I mean that this information could trigger a variety of reactions in the reader, including an emotional reaction, breakdown, flashbacks, or relapse. For example, my colleague Sam (@Sprinkled_Sam), who I hold in high esteem for her ability to blog about intensely personal and poignant issues (along with lots of exciting foodie things!), warned readers of one particular blog post that triggers for eating disorders present in her post included photos of extreme weight loss and numbers (pounds lost/weighed). As this is an area where I do not feel triggered, I was touched and impressed by her sensitivity and awareness of potential triggers for her readers, and her interest in protecting them from unwitting harm or trauma.

So, I like trigger warnings. Trigger warnings, to me, are not ‘oh god, look how ‘politically correct’ we have to be nowadays – we have to put warning signs on everything!’ AND they are not an assumption that a certain behaviour is ‘contagious’ in any way. Rather, to me, they respect that an audience may include a heterogeneous population with a variety of experiences and shows this respect by acknowledging that the effect a piece may have on people varies from reader to reader. They allow people with ‘triggers’ to perhaps not read that article on the way to work, or in class, or at a friend’s house while she is in the washroom; they allow us to make an educated decision about our personal state at that time, and the value to be gained from reading versus the potential harm done. In addition, people that bother to look at their own work for triggers have decided that despite this risk, the information is important to include, rather than ignorantly splashing sordid details and/or pictures willy-nilly.

(Man, I don’t know if I’ve ever typed ‘willy-nilly’ before…. anyways.)

Okay, here we go.

Do we need trigger warnings in Criminology?

I have frequently found that presenters, professors, writers, etc. in criminology seem to assume that their target audience does not contain the type of ‘othered’ person they are talking about. I will certainly not generalize this to everyone, but it is a serious problem, in my mind.  Many criminology professors teach about crime as if ‘criminals’ and the students they are lecturing are mutually exclusive categories. Discussions of ethnicity, sexuality, and religion are, to me, not as badly ignored in the collective ‘we’ nowadays (in my experience) likely due to a great deal of exposure on these types of difference, but labels such as ‘criminal’, ‘mentally ill’, and various types of ‘victims’ are often – usually? – discussed as if they are a theoretical notion, a group of ‘other’ people. One exception to my comment about ethnicity, though, is First Nations people – too frequently I have heard students, more than professors, slip into ‘us’ vs. ‘we’ talk when discussing First Nations reserves in particular and the people in general.

Okay. So. One main question I have, which I would seriously love answers to, is this: do you think that this is a functional removal of emotion and humanity from academia, or is this an example of glaring ignorance about the population actually involved in academia?

I particularly love qualitative research because, as far as I have been taught, qualitative research realizes that the research her- or himself is a part of the process. The researcher has a subjective, but valuable, approach, an impact on the collected data as well as the participants, and the feelings and experiences of that researcher hold value for other researchers. I am delighted to find that people actually care about the seriously affective (to me) experiences I have been having researching the clients of sex workers. The fact that I think I interviewed one person badly, or that I lost control of interviews with forceful personalities, or that I felt very complex emotions are points of data, not just examples of how I am not a good researcher. They show me personally how to improve, but they also exemplify the two-sided nature of qualitative research. Thankfully I have wonderful academic mentors that could point this out to me before I threw up my hands and decided I was a failure as a researcher.

So, we’re people. But does that mean I can’t be a criminal? Or have been a criminal? That I can’t have (or have had) a mental illness, eating disorder, assault in my past – or even present? I don’t think so. From what I’ve heard, Victimology classes can be a bit rough, because female students start volunteering sexual assault histories in class, much to the discomfort of the professor. While I am not sure class is the right place for a counselling-type conversation, it also does a lot for stigmatization when this type of conversation is discouraged.

My point?

I think that academia (as if that broad term refers to an actual thing) needs to take a good, hard look at itself and realize the impact studies, presentations, lectures, etc. can have on their audience. I think that pictures posted for shock value should be reconsidered in light of this idea of the ‘trigger’ and the potential survivor(s) an academic may have in the audience. I don’t think this needs to be done because our society is too afraid of hurting people, and look at how sensitive some people get, anyways – I think this needs to be done to emphasize to those in control of these images and material that your relationship with your audience is dynamic. You are not isolated when you share your research, your audience may not be aware of the material you are about to present, and it is your duty as an ethical human being to minimize the negative effect you have on others. If your point, information, photos, etc. are crucial, fine – some of criminology is not pretty. Just give that person in your audience who was having a perfectly normal day a fair opportunity to continue that day as planned.


I hope to write soon on the rest. My experience with the new Lara Croft: Tomb Raider video game was terrifying. It amazes me how little room there is in the general world for those who may have different needs, experiences, harms. I read so much on how Lara Croft being a ‘survivor of rape’ was a good/bad/horrible/wonderful development; to me, the discourse surrounding this completely missed the point and ended up having nothing to do with the ultimate effect. But that will be its own post.

Thank you for reading my rant – I’ve been drafting this in my head for hours, and I could not keep it inside. I would really love to hear what you think of this. Is this too sensitive? Is a trigger warning on academic material unrealistic? Should academics be able to put personal experiences and triggers aside if they are engaging in academic literature? What do you think?


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