Trigger Warning?

arvan's picture

I was recently asked to provide trigger warnings for some images and links we posted on the SexGenderBody Tumblr and Twitter feeds. 

This is a topic that I have struggled with since we started this site.  We don't get many requests for this, but when we do - I take stock of what we are doing, how it might impact people, where we are accountable (or want to be) and what choices we make as we go forward.  So, I thought I would share my thoughts and open it up for discussion.

I take such requests very seriously.  SGB is designed to honor the terms of our individual identities and that is no easy thing to do.

We cover a lot of ground here at SGB: anything to do with sex, gender, body.  This includes not only the first things you might consider regarding these topics, but everything else.  Including but not limited to: sexuality, asexuality, age, gender, queer, body mods, tattoos, kink, vanilla, celibacy, non-monogamy, relationships, family, frienship, politics, feminism, rights, advocacy, activism and a zillion other expressions and conversations about the human body. 

Every person on the planet has their own definition and terms that they use to define their own sex, gender & body.  Some of these are common and some are less so, making for a very large (almost 7 billion) sample of variations.  Additionally, we each have our own ideas of what we like / don't like / are attracted to / offended by.  These too come in common and uncommon variations.

Many of us are survivors of assault and when we read about such things it can be very difficult for us.  We may wish to avoid such things or at least know that they're coming, so that we can manage it in some way.  Even if someone is not a survivor per se, they may simply wish to avoid such topics for some other reason.  Certainly, the desire for such advance notice is a reasonable request.  So, on one hand I would like to honor that request.  That's one element of this issue.

The elusive standard.

My struggle is in addressing a pair of considerations. 

One problem is: what is offensive? what is a trigger?  What words or image qualify as "offensive" in their mere existence? 

The next issue is: What is it to cause offense or trigger?  What actions does a writer take that are by definition - an offense or trigger?

Do we give a trigger warning for "likely"  or "possible"?  What determines "likely" or even "majority"?

Not to be callous in any way, but I have yet to find something that deals with sex, gender, body that does not run the risk of offending someone, somewhere.  With so many people, so many cultures, histories, languages, conventions and beliefs - finding an majority view of "offensive" or "inoffensive" worldwide, is a very hard thing to do (much less actually prove).  It seems to my untrained eye that location and language determine whether something is considered "offensive" more than content or anything else.

A picture of Charles Atlas on a beach with no shirt will not get many people fired...

but a picture of a "topless" woman on her vacation could very easliy do so.

Even the word "topless" is more slanted toward the meaning of a woman with no shirt.  If a man goes topless in many places, it is of no concern to anyone but him.  He might be called "shirt less", but not very often "topless".  While at the same time, a woman would be arrested for doing so.  Again, this varies from one culture to the next.

We have readers and contributors from across the globe, so the question of what is "offensive" becomes even more difficult to answer.  In each of our own personal lives and the communities we touch, we get a sense of what we think is a generally accepted definition of "offensive". 

That said, it seems like a "no-brainer" that some things should come with a warning: murder, rape, torture.  But, a "no-brainer" it is not.

The newspapers are full of murder stories daily.  If murder is offensive, then the NY Times should have a trigger warning on the top of the front page.  But, that would be silly because we are used to reading about murder, mass murder, genocide, starvation, disease, famine, queer bashing, kidnapping and a slew of awful things done by humans to other humans.

When it comes to rape, that's in the papers, too.  Rape is as foul a thing as there is on this planet.  There are very few absolutes and rape is not one of them.  Some people have healthy sexual fantasy and role play that involves consenting adults in a rape scenario.  Their voices are no less valid than the rape survivor who cannot stand the mention of the word.  They are just different people with different identities.  This site will deny neither identity nor the expression of those identities.  They are not the same thing and neither one is better or worse.

In a very similar comparison, torture and kink can have vastly different expressions of identity and reactions.  The key distinction is the presence or absence of consent.  

The issue at hand is that however any one person identifies themselves, they are welcome to share their identity here.

Is a warning just a warning?

When someone places a "NSFW" tag on a picture of a naked human, what is communicated?  It seems to mean "if your job will fire you for looking at naked people, then don't look at this".  This usually includes pictures of sex or genitals, but some companies have different levels of acceptable flesh that they are interested in their employees looking at. 

But, that's not all it means.  Some companies apply that directive at such topics as politics, (competing) religion, workers' organizing, education, media, human rights and many more.  Depending on the culture of any websurfer, the list of "NSFW" can include a wide selection.

Language and images are not neutral - they carry a great deal of meaning besides the initial, immediate usage would indicate.  For example, when "NSFW" is used concerning nudity or sex, it also reinforces messages regarding the value of people based on their gender, sex and race.  So, when we throw "NSFW" up, we run the very real risk of reinforcing an truckload of patriarchal value statements on whether or not

Do we consider the impact of our content?

Yes.  We think about it - a lot.  We consider whether or not we are reinforcing value statements about someone's body being devalued based on some gender, sex, body term of devaluation as well as whether or not it may be "offensive".  We think about  a great number of considerations.  Hopefully, we find voices that are less frequently heard, perspectives that are unique and assumptions that are largely ignored to be examined.

Are we responsible for people's emotions?

No.  This is not a flippant or dismissive response.  It's a fact.  The only person's emotions that any of us are responsible for are our own.  Many cultures and individuals believe and agree with each other that they are either responsible for other people's emotions or that others are responsible for theirs.  I am not talking about a physical contact, actions, drugging / poisoning or some physical act that leads to an emotional / physical response.  I am talking about words and images.  In this case, all the agreement in the world is nothing more than agreement and it is still not a fact.  A person may believe that other people are responsible for zie's emotions, but zie still chooses zie's emotions inside the context of those beliefs and not because of any actual causality between one human and the next via words or images.

We are responsible for our own words and if we are preaching hatred, intolerance, lies, cruelty and encouraging the rights of others, then there are laws to protect society from such cruelties.  That having been said, I also know from personal experience that words can be very upsetting.  In the case of blogs, we have a simple recourse - close the browser window. 

What is "acting with responsibility?".

This can also be defined from person to person, based on their values.  The values of this site are to foster an open discussion on sex, gender, body that allows people to articulate the terms of their own identity and to hear / accept others as they articulate theirs.

In the end, I suggest that when people read something upsetting (here or elsewhere) - don't read that site again, or for a while, etc.  Put some space between one's self  and that information / image that caused the upset.  That is good, rational behavior.  The world is full of things that will upset each and every one of us.  We share this world together and it is unreasonable to think that we can ask the world to stop talking about things that upset us or to label them on our behalf.  We need to find a way to accept that by moving about in the world (and on the Internet), we will bump into things we don't like very much.

If we don't like what we see, we can move away from it.  I completely understand that.  It's a smart thing to do.  I don't want anyone to be upset and I don't want anyone to think that we are deliberately ignoring their concerns.  To the contrary, but we are also hosting conversations about the entirety of human corporeal form and identity and nobody is going to like or be comfortable with all aspects of those conversations. 

If you don't like something that you see here or on our other outlets, I apologize.  I wish that it was not so.  If you need to leave our site and never return for any reason, then I completely understand and honestly, sincerely wish you to be happy.  If you have to tell everyone you know that you think our site is the worst possible thing on the planet, I fully support your right to say and believe that.  I won't agree with you of course, but you won't get any argument from me about  you doing what you choose.  I am with Voltaire on this one:

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.

If you are at work and you could get in trouble for looking at nekkid humans, then don't surf sites with the name "SexGenderBody" in the title.  Even if it's not ours, I could win most bets by guessing that you'd see some flesh.  Do your spreadsheets and check us out when you get home.  That is a good, responsible thing to do on your part and only you control which pages you view.  We don't have pop-ups, spam or any of that stuff.  You can only see our site by coming here of your own volition.

So, to conclude: I leave it up the each contributor on this site to include or omit trigger warnings.  I will not be adding very many trigger warnings.  I don't want to say never, but I am having a hard time figuring out just exactly where.  Other writers on this site may include them on every post and that is fine with me.  It is their choice, and I am very proud to support that.


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Has the use of the term

Has the use of the term trigger warning changed while I wasn't looking? As far as I understand trigger warnings aren't for workplace warnings of naked people but rather things that could be harmful or really upsetting. As an example (I use tumblr as well) recently a lot of people I follow on Tumblr reblogged something with a picture of a very badly beaten woman over and over again. Personally I find that really upsetting when it's a surprise and I think a warning that X image could be upsetting due to it being graphically violent would not have been a bad thing.

I use trigger warnings myself on occasion when I discuss or share articles that concern things like rape, abuse, graphic violenence etc not as some kind of not safe for work warning but rather as a heads up you might not want to read this warning.

Warnings of NSFW etc are something else entirely and if you want to look at naked people or read about sex that is a whole other thing. I've seen this mix up of terms a lot recently and on a personal human level it bothers me. Yes it is simple to just close the browser window, but I think a second of consideration is pretty awesome.

I am rambling a little bit but I find this turn towards bloggers of various stripes essentially saying that to take a second and warn their readership that something could freak them out in a bad way unfortunate. I think that trigger warnings as I have used and experienced them is not a part of censorship but showing some compassion. Again this isn't really directed at you or this site in particular but to the trend I've been seeing among a lot of blogs I read. From a human to human perspective I just can't understand.

I only just heard about this

I only just heard about this site because of a retweet of this article from @NoQuivering... But this piece alone was so well articulated, considerate & rational, I look forward to exploring the site much further.

Kudos on a balanced and sane approach to a wide-ranging area of topics.

While I agree with Weebeasty

While I agree with Weebeasty in being surprised that the usage of the term has become so broad, I also agree with Arvan that it's not always easy to figure out what should have a trigger warning.  I blog about BDSM, and apparently some of my posts trigger people who prefer trigger warnings for "sexual violence".  My problem is, I really don't get triggered around anything anymore unless it seems clearly non-consensual.  Violence doesn't trigger me at all -- non-consent does.  So it's hard for me to know how to label my posts with trigger warnings, because there are no guidelines that clearly explain the kinds of things other people regularly feel are triggering.


For more on this, note the trigger warning that was put on this post I wrote at Feministe:


... and the discussion of trigger warnings in the comments.

Thank you for the link

Thank you for the link Clarisse I really enjoyed your post. I'm not a regular reader of Feministe so I missed it.

Your trigger warning I think is honestly a perfect example of what I was talking about.

I think that deciding to have open and honest communication about any issue that could potentially be upsetting or difficult, just telling people not to read if they are upset is a bit exclusionary. I really love when bloggers (even after the fact) say oh hey, I'm talking about X thing and it might trigger people with X issues. I love giving someone the opportunity to make that decision prior to getting hit upside the head with something that might freak them right out.

I myself am not super triggered by anything, there are things I prefer not to engage in or see but my personal level of tolerance has nothing to do with when I post trigger warnings. I want all of my readers to have that moment where they can say, oh shit I can't see this and know that they can come back at some other time and probably be able to read. Did that make sense?

My personal gauge for trigger warnings are fairly common types of things. If I'm talking about really kinky things to non kinky people I will say, this might freak you out. If they want to continue that's awesome if not that's awesome. I honestly think a lot of the bloggers I read regularly and want to believe that it is not a huge stretch or inconvience to mention if they are talking about rape or violence etc. I think I take this whole trigger warning thing personally because I feel it's just a kind thing to do and kindness is extremely important to me and how I interact with the universe. I would rather not hurt someone to begin with then go back and apologize if I can help it. I'd rather just not hurt them in the first place.

Damn it I am rambling again I hadn't intended to. Also sidenote Clarisse I really like your blog and will be reading regularly.


If you have a thorough tag system in place, those alone should act as an indication of what will be found in the post.  Some of the most recent posts are tagged "anti-gay hate" and "violence", which I would consider to be itself a warning to people who wish to avoid exposure to such things.  The only problem is, tags don't show up in the RSS feed.  Perhaps you could begin as the first line of each blog post a list of tags, such as:


  • Very well put, Arvan.

    There are some blogs who have so many trigger warnings on them it's actually a fetish in itself--worshipping their own hypersensitivity--and it gets old and boring to those who just want to read a blog.  

    To trigger fetishists:  "Close the browser window" and don't visit again and DON'T expect other people to be responsible for your reaction to their words and images.   Oh, and not being flippant, I mean this sincerely:  get some therapy.   You deserve better than to worry when you're surfing the INTERNET from the safety of your own home that you will have a visceral emotional reaction to something on a CRT screen.  Permanent victimhood is NOT a solution. 


    Thanks Arvan, for a wonderful post.

    Trigger Warning?? Um, no.

    Shirley X's picture

    Hi, it's me Shirley, everyone's favorite former prostitute. She who actually enjoys and is freed by sharing and educating with her detailed stories of trials and tribulations as a downtown Vancouver sex seller.  My blog too could be used/read in the "wrong" way, even as a "trigger" sure. Before I ever started my blog I worried that any tales of how I was humiliated or degraded whilst prostituting would give some sicko a boner - some people are into that sort of thing. This post is exactly right, we cannot control people's emotions and the percentage of individuals that will read my story and get off on it in a perverse way is a much smaller number than those that read it for what it is. It's blog about triumph and hope and truth about what goes on down "there". In no way glamorizing or embellishing to make anything other than what it is.

    I write it because I would want to know this stuff if I hadn't lived it. It is real life, it happened and it will continue to happen. I think sexgenderbody does a great job of being interesting and factual and challenges me to new thoughts. The name alone says it all and I think it is a fabulous.

    I will continue to use the odd asterisk when using terms like bl* w job or f*ck but that is as far as I would ever go to make my content less offensive. 

    Trigger, as IF. I find that offensive. Thanks Arv for this post and what you do. You de best.


    Shirley, right on!

    @Shirley X: Your comment about not being able to control people's reactions is exactly IT. I may say something that someone takes as upsetting, but I did not "upset them". If they were upset by what I said, it was they who chose to be upset. Now, of course, the whole point of a trigger warning is to warn off people who can't step back and evaluate their reaction... but as Blue Gal said, in no flippant way, "get some therapy".

    If you can't even read something on the internet about an intense subject without being able to take a deep breath and step back and evaluate what it triggers for you? Well, you really haven't got to the point where your reaction is healthy, and you really need more time in therapy to process your past experience. That's a sad & upsetting place to be, but it's really not the writer's fault that you're still in that place.

    Again, as Blue Gal put so well, "Permanent victimhood is NOT a solution."

    I should add, on re-reading,

    I should add, on re-reading, if I deliberately said something to someone I *knew* would upset them, that would be a different case. But just reading a blog post that is not specifically directed at you? That's what I was referring to. :-)

    But that's a hard standard

    "if I deliberately said something to someone I *knew* would upset them"


    Which means I should never blog about clowns....   :D


    But seriously, the only line I see there is publishing personal information that someone does not want known.  The issue of privacy and what our readers are "entitled" to know about us is a whole nuther issue entirely.  


    I'm pretty sure nobody should ever blog about clowns... hehehe

    To those saying "get

    To those saying "get therapy":  Please consider these comments again.  There are a lot of both ableist and classists attitudes behind it.

    On the first point:  Therapy takes time.  I would bet a lot of your readers have triggers of various types.  Recovery time for various traumatic disorders is often measured in years.  Yes, we know that there will be triggers in life.  The warnings are a courtesy, and one for which I am grateful.  It let me learn and absorb information to help process what happened and deal with the reshaping of my own worldview without having to deal with information when I wasn't ready for it.

    On the second point:  I never got therapy after my abuse, ignoring the school mandated stuff that was basically me sitting in a room with someone telling me that I just needed to try to be more normal.  It just wasn't available, because I was not financially independent and thus was unable to procure suitable services without parental consent.  The internet was the only place I had available to turn for information about sexual assault.

    As an above poster said, tags are an acceptable substitute.  Most decent trigger warnings also contain a description of what the content is, so people can make their own choices.  It's a simple courtesy to extend to members of a community that have all too frequently been victimized.

    I know

    I did not have "access" to therapy but I DID call an abuse hotline.  They helped me tremendously by saying a few words:


    It made a huge difference. 

    I think those of us who blog ARE ableist, to a certain extent, in that those who blog regularly clearly have internet access, education, a certain amount of talent and perseverance to write.  If I am writing posts about sex several times a day and including "trigger warnings" on each post, then fetishizing how "triggering" those posts can be to sensitive members of MY community, and complaining at other people's blogs about how something THEY SAID was triggering to me and others....

    I've been there with certain bloggers and ableist doesn't begin to cover how much I avoid people with that disability.  For them, I practice "the power of away from," and I am not required to cojoin with differently abled people categorized by sanity to believe they should have access to help.   It's too bad more free and open access mental health services aren't available.  But A and B list bloggers have access to lots of resources that don't involve building a purity moat around their blog community and then violating that purity by publishing non-stop triggers several times a day.  

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