RED ZONE: How trigger warnings affect sexual assault victims and sufferers of PTSD

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Sexual assault is a traumatic experience, and some schools and universities around the nation are taking the initiative of warning their students about subject matter that may trigger a stressful reaction. For example, the student senate at the University of California, Santa Barbara passed a resolution in 2014 to mandate trigger warnings in all syllabi.

At first glance, this seems like a decent idea. After all, there was an option to opt out of sexual education back in elementary school, so why shouldn’t there a be a way to preview what’s happening now?

“If you’re teaching a college level class, you shouldn’t hold back or sugarcoat anything,” Jarett Tucker, a student of education at UAA, said. “But I feel like if I’m going to take a class, I would want to know what information is being offered.”

Like many ideas, it sounds good on paper. However, it may not be the best idea in practice. According to a 2008 study from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, those who suffer trauma from events like a sexual assault are often better off confronting the trauma rather than avoiding it.

Dr. Claudia Lampman, a professor of psychology and director of UAA’s Psychology Department, agrees.

“On a basic psychological level, the only way you get over something that’s hard for you is to be exposed to it,” Lampman said. “That is the only way.”

Lampman considers the idea of trigger warnings ludicrous and counter-intuitive. They’re better at spreading fear than they are at spreading awareness, she said. While it is important to ease victims into discussions of that nature, it’s still important for them to face that discussion.

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“If someone has a fear of flying, you don’t make them avoid airplanes,” Lampman said. “You systematically make them closer and closer to taking a real flight. It’s exposure in that therapy that’s necessary. Avoidance of those things actually makes you fear them more, not less.”

While trigger warnings, according to psychological study, don’t necessarily work, there are students that agree that there should at least be an alternative.

“Presenters always need to be aware of their audience and how they present their content,” Riley Creed, a biology student at UAA, said. “It is important to be respectful and prevent crude or crass remarks and ideals, and also understanding that sympathizing with someone else’s situation is not censorship; it’s being respectful.

There’s not just psychological basis for Lampman’s argument, however. According to Lampman, the idea that college-level students would need warnings for possibly offensive material is almost kind of offensive in its own right.

“I think that we want college students to be prepared to be professionals in the workplace,” Lampman said. “To do that, you need to be a resilient, strong person. Trigger warnings kind of make the assumption that college students are not resilient, strong people. It kind of means you’re a weak and fragile person that can’t be exposed even at an educational level to a conversation about something.”

Thankfully, in a collegiate environment, students have the choice of looking into what they’re studying. They still have the opportunity to know what they’re getting into.

“If an individual who has PTSD would like to go to an event, then by all means they can go,” Creed said. “Just as a person who doesn’t have PTSD has the same opportunity. They also have the right not to attend. If [the study’s] findings are true, then this could possibly be integrated into the counseling system.”

It is important for students to know what they’re getting into. However, being in college, it’s also important for those students to challenge the ideas that they find offensive. PTSD is a real issue, especially for victims of sexual assault. Trigger warnings may seem like a reasonable measure. According to psychologists, though, they’re very, very far from being the ideal solution.


  1. Think of a trigger warning as a traffic report. If there is an accident or 40 ahead on the highway – maybe its time to just go home and study for a test the next day….

    A trigger warning is really helpful to someone with PTSD. For a veteran, it’s helpful to know if war is going to be on the syllabi a certain day. I’ve seen several veterans need to leave class and take important time for self care. A trigger warning is similar to a traffic report which today helped me choose to work on homework at home instead of spending 4 hours stuck on a bus on the Glenn Highway. Trigger warnings allow a student to make the choice of how their own time is best spent.

    I do agree that it is important for people with PTSD to learn how to deal with anything that they may encounter, however, if you have a midterm or a research paper due the next day, perhaps it is a better choice for a student to take that time to study rather than deal with a complicated issue which may require more time for them to deal with than others.

    I appreciate the attempts that UA has made for their campuses to be inclusive to everyone. In an amazing course PSY 135 on Domestic Violence Advocacy, the entire course was a trigger warning, it was also a way to learn how to be present for someone no matter what they may be going through. I hope that everyone has a chance to watch “The Hunting Games” a film about the nationwide cover up of sexual assaults on University campuses. If you do see that, you may understand just a little bit more about the issues sexual assault survivors may be facing whether or not they have ended up with PTSD symptoms.

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