How to create a safe campus environment for survivors
trigger warnings: PTSD, depression, rape, incest, sexual abuse, intimate partner violence
In the first semester of my freshman year, I attended a class that incorporated a large number of movies and documentaries. One week, the movie featured was Precious. The movie contains many graphic depictions of rape and incest, of which I was unaware prior to the class. Having settled into class, I proceeded to have to witness the graphic, horrific rape of the title character by her father multiple times. In that class, at 3pm on a regular Friday, I experienced one of the most severe flashbacks I had ever experienced as a result of my sexual abuse. I, for lack of more elegant words, freaked the fuck out. An intense cocktail of dread, fear, and pain paralyzed me. My heart began pounding out of my chest as I struggled to regain control of my breath. Thinking about it now still makes me shake. The only thing that kept me even close to reality was a friend next to me whispering, “It was not your fault. It was not your fault.” Nonetheless, the sheer psychological and physiological force of that flashback was overwhelming and painful. Later that day, I called the counseling center to make my very first appointment since it was abundantly clear to me that I was unable to handle what seemed to me to be the realities of attending university classes.
This instance would not be the only time I was triggered on campus. This semester, one of my courses had a lecture on gender equality in Africa. Excited to attend the class, I soon found that the lecture was in fact a brief summary of gender inequalities followed by a disturbing and graphic account of violence against women in South Africa, including rape, violent victimizations, intimate partner violence, child sexual abuse, and incest. Let me be clear: I think these are crucial issues to be discussing. However, I would have preferred to be in a state of mind in which I could have rationally discussed these issues. Instead, unprepared for the graphic nature of this lecture, I spent the hour battling an oncoming flashback and trying not to appear distressed. By not providing me with fair warning about the examples discussed in the class, my instructor endangered my mental health and denied me the opportunity to engage fully with the material.
One argument against trigger warnings on campus is that survivors should take initiative to avoid triggers. It’s not our personal responsibility to scout out triggers. Many lecture-style classes do not disclose the specific nature of each class beforehand. The responsibility lies in university instructors to ensure that their students are able to learn and be enriched by their knowledge. Creating potentially unsafe environments that could be catalysts for mental health crises is counter to the amount of care instructors should have for their course material and for their students. It is not hard to be considerate of these needs, or to suggest lecturers include warnings about material they present. Additionally, placing the responsibility on students to ask specifically for accommodations is forcing survivors to out themselves and discuss their previous trauma in detail they may not be prepared for.
I’ve encountered much too often the rhetoric that trauma survivors who ask for trigger warnings are simply asking to be coddled. The reality of being a sexual abuse survivor is that there are a myriad of things in my everyday life that remind me of my abuser. Some are relatively innocuous and on most days only provoke mild discomfort. Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, Nietzsche, and the Phantom of the Opera all fall in this category. Some are much more severe and fall under the category of triggers. Depictions of sexual activity that aren’t explicitly consensual make up the bulk of these triggers. On top of this, navigating sexual or intimate encounters following a sexual assault can be incredibly difficult. I distinctly remember having multiple panic attacks in my dorm room while having some of my first sexual encounters years following my abuse. I do not expect people to ask for a list of my potential triggers. However, I do not think it is a stretch to ask for warnings when 20% of college students have survived sexual assault.
My experience and many others’ experiences should show how pervasive trauma can be throughout our lives. It’s not a stretch to request the ability to properly prepare for material that could set us back significantly in our recovery process. I do not believe that PTSD-induced flashbacks should be a normal or regular part of the university classroom. Denying sexual violence survivors the ability to have a safe university environment is needless and a harmful perpetration of the violence so many of us have already suffered.