Commentary  The power of words and images

Courses should use warnings to indicate potentially triggering content

This article may contain potentially triggering content.

Trigger warnings are notifications, given verbally or in writing, of the potentially emotionally triggering content of an article, video, or image which might cause flashbacks of rape, other physical assault, or even eating disorders to surface. Individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), abuse histories, or other conditions might have a lower ability to tolerate reminders of stirring emotions or memories in everyday life. Reminders, in this case, are deemed “triggers,” and can constitute any visual depiction or detailed written description of abuse, rape, suicide, self-harm, disordered eating, or any of the psychological states that result from these.

I learned about trigger warnings while enrolled in an introductory Women’s Studies class at McGill, which is why I was surprised when one of my feminist studies professors failed to give warning before assigning a reading about a film where one of the main issues was sexual assault. Then again, before playing a clip from a movie about rape, she also said nothing. The clip we watched was from a 2007 Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. It’s about two female students in communist Russia who try to arrange an illegal abortion. The man performing the abortions requires sex as payment in a scene that I would describe as portraying rape. It was emotionally provocative to say the least, and many students left seeming shaken or appalled by what we’d seen.

I was surprised, and even offended, by the lack of warning, but I assumed this would be an isolated incident. While the problem never resurfaced again in that class, I was confronted with a similar situation in a communications class just before reading week.

We discussed the media coverage of the infamous Chris Brown and Rihanna mess in which he physically abused her, and toward the end of a class, we watched a Public Service Announcement (PSA). The video contained a scene reenacting the transcription contained in the police reports from the event, as a narrator simultaneously described the exchange. The actual PSA contains a trigger warning, but there was no time, and frankly, no option, to leave class before it was shown.

The acting in the PSA might have been terrible, but the words from the transcription were terrifying. There were quotes like “she attempted to gauge his eyes, but he bit her fingers” and “she brought her knees to her chest and placed her feet against his body, pushing him away. He continued to punch her legs and feet. She began screaming for help.” For those watching without histories of abuse – sexual or otherwise – this video may have been simply unpleasant. But if you’ve been through a similar situation, and there’s no indication of the potentially referential content of a course lecture or reading – something that you are obligated to participate in – you might find yourself reliving a terrifying and traumatic incident in class.

Some might argue that there aren’t enough students with psychologically traumatic histories to make trigger warnings necessary, but I would disagree. First of all, if there are any students at all at McGill who might benefit from such a policy, I’d say that makes it significant enough. Second, while there are really no precise statistics on students with abuse histories, I would argue that many more people than we realize have experienced psychological traumas. Third, it is the University’s responsibility to provide McGill students with a safe learning environment. Students should not be put in a position where they might have to reveal a personal history of abuse in order to advocate for trigger warnings.

A November 2000 study conducted by the National Violence Against Women Survey found that 17.6 per cent of women in the United States have survived an attempted or completed rape. Statistics on this issue are, because of their nature, impossibly hard to calculate. Furthermore, this statistic is what I would describe as the bare minimum possible number, and are only those documented in the survey. It doesn’t include those attempted (or followed through) rapes that went unreported, instances of domestic or sexual abuse, or rape cases where the victims weren’t women.

A little more recently, there was a 2004 study in Psychiatric News examining the effects of PTSD on university performance. Out of the 230 students polled, 105 “had experienced one or more serious psychological traumas at some point in their lives.” It may have been a small study, but that was almost 50 per cent of students randomly questioned. The study found that students with PTSD performed just as well as other students in school, but there’s no record of how often they were forced to encounter flashbacks, subjected to reliving traumatic events, or experienced panic attacks resulting from a lack of trigger warnings in classes or while doing readings.

It is important to remember that we are responsible for what we say. The information (and opinions) you disseminate affect other people, sometimes more than you may realize. If you’re in a public forum, and especially teaching a class, you’re accountable for your words and your actions. In a class where attendance is taken, it may not be an option to just skip a lesson you think might upset you, and students shouldn’t be forced to relive traumatic experiences simply because the professor didn’t think about what they were doing.

Olivia Messer is a U2 Humanistic Studies and Communications student, and The Daily’s Illustrations editor, but the opinions expressed here are her own. She can be reached at