For a long time, words were my weapon. There’s a reason I called my book ‘I’m the girl who was raped’. My power was taken away when I was raped, so I lashed out with what I had left: owning my shame.
In 2012, the year after I was raped, trigger warnings weren’t a core part of how we communicate online yet. I was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, but as a media intern I had to read the news every day. This often meant reading stories about brutal sexual assaults. There was no heads-up that this content could be disturbing to someone like me. I remember trying to numb myself every morning.
I didn’t like trigger warnings when I saw them popping up on my newsfeeds. I didn’t understand why everyone couldn’t just tough it out. That was until April 2017 when a Zapiro cartoon of Jacob Zuma zipping up his fly after raping ‘lady’ South Africa popped into my inbox. ‘She’s all yours, boss!’ read the caption, as a Gupta brother got ready to rape her next.
Minutes later I was in the bathroom at work, biting my hand while I cried. I wish someone had given me the choice to decide whether I wanted to see that cartoon. Because I wouldn’t have clicked on that e-mail if I knew what was in it.
In 2016 the University of Chicago released a statement saying that it does not support ‘so-called “trigger warnings”’ or ‘safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own’. The problem with this is that it ignores what trigger warnings are about: choice. Trigger warnings give readers, especially those who are sensitive to particular subjects, the power to engage with content on their own terms.
If you’re irritated by trigger warnings, take a moment to consider that perhaps we’ve never had to treat these issues with nuance because those affected have never had the power to demand that we do so.
You don’t get to decide whether you were raped or a victim of violence. But you do get to choose how you engage with that identity and what steps you can take to protect it and fight for change.
Trigger warnings remind us that we don’t have to use words as weapons. We can use words to give people power instead.