My first trigger warning came in 1999 during undergrad in my WST 101 class: Contemporary Feminist Theory. It was a verbal warning that we were about to discuss sexual assault. My first thought as a Psych major was, “Okay. This prof doesn’t want to risk re-traumatizing anyone. I get it”, even though the syllabus had told us already what we would be discussing that day.
No one left, but the discussion was tense and got pretty personal.
There were 5–6 more trigger warnings during the course of the semester, with a couple more students leaving with each instance. By the final one, at least 10 of the 100 students in the class left when the warning was announced. The number of students excusing themselves gradually increased to roughly ten percent. As my Research Methods class had taught me, that was a statistically significant number.
I wasn’t sure what to make of it and I wasn’t inclined to doubt the students’ sincerity in leaving, but I was also in other Psych and Sociology classes that discussed some pretty heavy material that didn’t employ trigger warnings and where the discussions, while sometimes emotionally challenging and covering other distressing issues like, say, the psychological effects of combat on returning soldiers, were engaging and worthwhile and fully attended.
There are other complicating issues surrounding trigger warnings and I’m not sure what the correct balance is yet, but this research is interesting.
What if trigger warnings are beneficial to those who have been traumatized, but detrimental to those who haven’t been?