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Emerging Practices: Trigger Warnings
Posted by On Friday, June 5, 2015

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.

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Weekly Roundup
Posted by On Friday, April 18, 2014

How, where, when, and to what extent should school, media, and professors talk about sexual assault and other forms of sexual and domestic violence? As Sexual Assault Awareness Month continues we want to highlight three stories that involve how and how much sexual assault should be addressed in different contexts.

Lawmakers Call for College Rankings to Factor in Rates of Sexual Assault

One place that sexual assault is not being addressed is in college rankings. While the likelihood that their students may be sexually assaulted might seem to be a fairly crucial factor in determining the quality of the student experience at a given institute of higher learning, it’s not one of the seven factors U.S. News & World Report uses to create their annual ranking of American colleges. Now, lawmakers are looking to change that. Twelve members of the House of Representatives have written a letter to U.S. News and World report urging them “to include violence statistics…and information about institutions’ efforts to prevent and respond to incidents of campus sexual assault…when ranking colleges and universities.” According to the letter, published on the opinion page of U.S. News, “institutions that fail to adequately respond to sexual violence should not receive accolades from your publication.”

The Trigger Warning Debate

How faculty address sexual assault in class discussions and material has also raised questions about whether they should include trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are used to label content that might be upsetting for people who suffer from PTSD or have had traumatic experiences. Sexual assault is just one of many topics that might require such a warning. Others include genocide, war, suicide, murder, or other topics that could trigger a negative reaction in survivors of traumatic experiences. While trigger warnings have existed in the blogosphere for some time without raising much controversy, their migration to the classroom has provoked a backlash. Faculty at UC Santa Barbara and Oberlin College have balked at policies that would require trigger warnings for syllabi and lectures, and editorials in the Los Angeles Times and the New Republic have decried those rules as an obstacle to academic freedom and real education.

Responding to Sexual Assault without Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Campus SaVE Act

How would colleges and universities address sexual assault if it weren’t for laws with reporting requirements such as Title IX, the Clery Act, and the Campus SaVE Act? One example comes from Patrick Henry College, one of four private schools in the country that accepts no federal aid and is thus not obligated to comply with these federal laws. While the university’s student body may be free of Pell Grants, the same cannot be said, unfortunately, for sexual assault. In February, the New Republic published an exposé in which several former students alleged that they had been assaulted by male students at PHC, and that the school’s responded by blaming them and making excuses for their attackers. To address the concerns raised by the article, the school has hired an as-yet-unidentified law firm to audit their sexual assault policies and convened a nine-member  “Alumni Review Committee” to “thoroughly examine our atmosphere, policies, practices, and experience in dealing with the kind of issues raised in that article.”

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