A Letter to My Professor: Why You Need to Use Trigger Warnings.

***TW: This post contains explicit language on topics of sexual violence, rape, gang rape, abuse.***

I am currently enrolled in a class that covers topics related to humanitarian aid and crises, including a history of international aid, natural disasters, epidemic diseases, and affects of war on civilians. Last week, we were covering the impact of conflict on women and children and one of the readings was an excerpt from Half the Sky. This particular excerpt contained detailed first-hand accounts of violence, suicide, honor killings, sexual assault, and rape. Examples of this include the following (TW reminder: graphic langauge):

“Frequently the Congolese militias rape women with sticks or knives or bayonets, or else they fire their guns into the women’s vaginas. In one instance, soldiers raped a three-year-old girl and then firetheir guns into her. When surgeons saw her, there was no tissue left to repair.”

“One by one, the five men raped her. Then they held her down as one of them shoved the stick inside her.”

The stick had broken into her bladder and rectum, causing a fistula, or hole, in the tissues. As a result, urine and feces trickled constantly through her vagina and down her legs.”

The reading was riddled with language like this, so my obvious reaction was to email my professor to ask him to use TWs for this reading in the future due to its graphic nature; he did not respond well to my request. So, let’s break down his reply and allow me to respond in kind:

“On the first day of class, I specifically pointed out that the course deals with violent and traumatic events.”

A broad, sweeping statement such as, “we talk about sensitive topics,” does not adequately address this specific situation. Language such as in the quotes above is not covered by a blanket statement about violence, which was briefly announced six weeks prior.

“If I were to give trigger warnings, then I would need to do so for each class and each reading.”

Not every weekly topic covers material that is commonly considered triggering or held under the expectation of TWs. But even if you felt so inclined to include a TW for each week, how hard is it to write “TW: sexual violence/rape/abuse,” or, “TW: violence/death”? Does typing these extra eight words into your syllabus inconvenience your life so much that you feel the need to dismiss the thought all together? Lastly, I would like to remind you that the use of TWs being inconvenient for you is irrelevant, because they are not for you – they’re for potential victims who are in your class and completing your required assignments.

“I have spent much of my career working with survivors of psychological trauma, including sexual violence, and in my experience, trigger warnings do not serve any useful purpose.”

You cannot take your personal experiences and apply them to all people and all circumstances. While you may have found that TWs do not help the particular survivors with which you worked, you can’t assume, therefore, that they don’t help anyone. In addition, your work in displacement camps in war-torn African villages is not comparable to a university campus in Virginia; the experiences of these two groups cannot be lumped together. You cannot say with absolute certainty that they don’t help survivors who may potentially be triggered by explicit language, so what is the harm in using them?

For more on TWs – how they are defined, used, and are portrayed in pop culture and academia – check out lucilleontheball’s article. What do you folks think about TWs – helping prevent triggered trauma or just another mechanism of the PC-left? Share in the comments below!

Featured Image Source: Flickr

2 thoughts on “A Letter to My Professor: Why You Need to Use Trigger Warnings.

  1. I believe trigger warnings are essential in circumstances like this. One of the readings for a class included a rape victims memoir, and our professor gave us the option to leave an anonymous note if we did not want that to be a class reading, no matter the reason. He gave us three weeks to contact him, but nobody said anything so we went ahead with the reading. It’s disgusting (but not surprising) that your male professor belittled the experiences of Others. 😦


    1. I wish all professors were socially conscious enough to give TWs with readings or films used in class that contain potentially triggering and graphic material. You can never presume to know what other students have experienced and what might trigger them.


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