Trigger warnings began as a niche internet convention that is now becoming increasingly more political and institutionalized. A decision to use or not use them should be based in the ethical and medical realities for survivors of trauma and not in a reactionary resistance to change.
Heightened awareness of the ways in which sexual violence affects academic achievement has prompted discussion of new academic practices. In an effort to reduce re-traumatization of individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other panic disorders, some student groups have encouraged professors to use trigger warnings for potentially disturbing content.
The concept of trigger warnings is not new. Numerous cultural products from movies to video games are coded with content warnings. However, in a digital moment that is still trying to carve out its linguistic norms, trigger warnings have become a symbol of what its critics call a culture of oversensitivity.
In order for someone or something to be overly sensitive, there must be a consensus about how much sensitivity is normal or reasonable. As the voices of sexual violence survivors become stronger, the standards for how we talk about trauma also begin to change. Considering the significant number of people who have been sexually assaulted, and the significant subset of those people who suffer from PTSD, the decision to employ trigger warnings is an acknowledgement that it is more psychologically costly for victims to discuss sexual violence and other traumas. Trigger warnings suggest that if we can collectively take small steps to prevent re-traumatization, then we should do so.
There may be evidence-based reasons to choose not to employ trigger warnings. One review found that avoiding triggers only reinforces PTSD, and that systematic exposure to triggers is the most effective way to reduce symptoms of PTSD. Although it can be argued that trigger warnings actually allow PTSD patients to develop this system on their own, the warnings may also enable long-term avoidance. Another study found that survivors whose trauma becomes central to their self-image tend to experience more severe symptoms of PTSD. The desire to honor the agency of survivors of sexual violence should be weighed against these findings.