“The most important thing becomes control. Engaging with it on your own terms. Anything to not feel helpless.” – Daisy Tonner, The Magnus Archives
Content warning for mentions of violence, sexual assault, and some personal PTSD experiences involving dissociation and panic attacks.
Despite being a sexual assault victim, and despite being someone who struggled with sex repulsion for a period of time after the assault, I love pieces of media that are violently sexual. Rape revenges, ero guro nonsense, despicable sexploitation films – I eat that shit up. On paper, that stuff should all be triggering as all hell, right? But, somehow, it isn’t.
I’ve thought a lot about why I gravitate to those types of things. I used to think watching movies like rape revenges or anything with grotesque sexuality was like, a pride thing. “You can’t hurt me, I can handle this.” But really, it’s more of a control thing.
I know exactly what I’m getting into. I have the power and I choose to expose myself to violence or what-have-you. The I Spit On Your Graves and The Last House on the Lefts are easier to handle than “real” stuff, because they’re such Over The Top Oogey Boogey Man Jumping Out Of The Bushes type bullshit. Yeah, I guess something like that could happen, but probably not. It’s not nearly as likely as, say, acquaintance rape or some sneakier insidious non-consensual act. The way these movies approach rape is so one dimensional that it actually makes them…comforting, in a way.
I know I won’t find things like this triggering because they are so far removed from reality that it’s almost like a parody of the pain a victim like myself may experience. Deep within that parody, I still find a little bit of truth to latch onto, but it’s surrounded by a nice layer of hokey practical effects and blood splatters. It’s…safe.
It’s hard to be into that sort of stuff, because people love to make blanket assumptions and say that those pieces of media shouldn’t exist. They’re harmful! They’re romanticizing rape! They’re evil, they’re icky, it’s fetishizing trauma, etc. etc. And in some cases, they’re probably right, but I’ve dedicated a lot of time to breaking down some of these supposedly evil movies and figuring out the heart and soul within them. Some of them are a lot more delicate than the naysayers might have you believe. Some of them are actually really touching stories that got marketed as splatter house bullshit, thus ruining its reputation forever.
It’s even harder to be someone who creates such works, especially if you’re an indie creator. You’ll get swaths of “well-meaning” people trying to cancel you for exploring difficult subjects. It’s a phenomenon that I’ve always found really puzzling – stuff like that is the most comforting for me as someone with PTSD. I don’t want to limit their existence; I want people to keep exploring these subjects in bombastic ways.
But, according to the rest of the world, these things are evil and triggering and will cause me and everyone like me irreversible harm!
They generally don’t, though. Here’s what actually triggers me:
• An unexpected news item about a powerful person abusing their underlings. People in the comments of the article defending said powerful person. Real things, things I feel I cannot escape from. I can’t take something like Brett Kavanaugh and turn it into something to laugh about, or drench it in red corn syrup to make it more palatable. Those exploitation movies are easy because they exist so firmly in the realm of fiction. Yeah, it’s important to acknowledge the “real” stuff happening, I know, but damn does it hurt.
• Things like anti-sex discourse online, or people who make blanket accusations about people who dare enjoy a transgressive film. Stuff like, “oh if you enjoy a rape revenge, it must be because you’re a rapist and that harms rape victims!” Or, “you wrote a book that deals with sexual abuse, and therefore you are ROMANTICIZING IT and harming people!” That shit fucks me up!
I still struggle deeply with a sense of shame and guilt about my sexuality, even though I myself am pretty vanilla. It comforts me to see media that deals with sexuality in such overt and transgressive ways. At the same time, seeing people who are open about their non-traditional sex practices or fetishes (so long as it’s all consensual) makes me feel good, even when I don’t share any of their proclivities. It’s like, “well hey, if they can be cool about sex, then so can I!”
Inversely, when I see people mocking sex workers, kinky folks, “deviant” films and filmmakers, etc., it triggers this domino of guilt and shame within myself, even though I’m far removed from many of the actual practices being shamed. That’s what makes it so ironic. A lot of this discourse is centered on (or at least pretends to be centered on) “protecting” people like me – assault victims, the traumatized, the mentally ill – but really, it hurts me far more than fiction ever could. It makes me feel ashamed, and maybe even worse, it makes me feel like I’m a big dumb trauma baby who is incapable of making my own choices about the media I consume.
• Random things that could never be given a trigger warning – the names of certain medications, the names of certain brands of alcohol, the smell of certain cologne. Seemingly random things in movies can really screw me up, too.
• You know what really fucked me up? That fat Thor thing in Avengers: Endgame. It wasn’t because he was fat and “haha fat people are gross” – I had actually seen trigger warnings about the fatphobia, so I was prepared for that.
No, it was more because Thor became fat because he was deeply traumatized by loss, and that trauma response was played for laughs. The entire theater laughed at this sad man trying to cope, and I felt my entire body get ground into dust. Stuff online didn’t mention the nuance of that, they just said “it’s bad because he’s fat.” It’s good that people were warned about that! But the actual content that triggered ME still completely blindsided me, and I disassociated for the rest of the running time as I wondered if my friends sitting next to me thought I was a joke, too.
Which brings me to a note about trigger warnings. I have seen more and more people demanding that each and every work have an exhaustive list of trigger warnings. But how can you account for everything? Sure, putting a warning about sexual content or violence should be a thing, but isn’t that already normalized? Don’t we have an MPAA system, ESRB ratings, doesthedogdie, parental advisory labels, and so on? I feel like a lot of things that people demand already exist, and many of those things are notoriously harsh towards minority groups, so maybe we shouldn’t try to push for more of that?
More importantly, trigger warnings can only do so much. They cannot solve all the issues of PTSD. I’ve seen people list so many trigger warnings on a piece of media for relatively innocuous things “just to be safe” that they practically lose their meaning and just confuse me. In fact, new studies suggest that an overabundance of trigger warnings can actually make things WORSE.
And, when there is a content warning for something obvious like depiction of rape, it only half helps me. Okay, so it has a rape scene. Is it violent? Is it ridiculous enough that I won’t be phased by it? Or is it treated respectfully, in a way that’ll hit close to home but won’t deeply hurt me? Or is it treated respectfully on-screen at the time, but the writing shames the victim later on in the running time, causing me to contemplate my entire life and cry? Just saying there’s a rape scene can make me brace myself, but it doesn’t ACTUALLY tell me whether or not it’ll cause me strong emotional distress.
I need specificity. Specificity that a stranger putting together a content warning list will never be able to provide. At some point, I just have to accept that I cannot be protected, and move on with my life. It’s not a stranger’s job to protect me, anyways.
…Besides, if I don’t freak out over a movie, I’ll have a panic attack at the store because I hear a song that played at a party I was groped at or something. There’s not really much saving me there!
It’s all complicated. People act like the traumatized need to be protected or have their hands held, but a lot of the time, it’s that behavior that makes me feel like shit. It’s the stuff that I “need protecting from” that makes me feel better. Of course, not everyone is like me – we all have different coping mechanisms, we all have different triggers, we all have different boundaries.
Only you know what’s best for you. What’s best for you will only work for you. We can try to censor or plaster warnings everywhere, but it’ll never really work for anyone. It can’t. PTSD is far more complex than a Twitter thread might have you believe. And we absolutely cannot expect everyone else in the world to bend to our specific needs, or shame people for not operating in the exact same ways that we do.
That just hurts more people down the line.
Careful As You Go. – on how to approach movies like Promising Young Woman and shows like I May Destroy You with care, but without patronizing sexual assault victims (also I’m mentioned in it, teehee)
Stop Asking Kitfox Games To Cut Boyfriend Dungeon’s Triggering Content – context for the recent discourse on Boyfriend Dungeon‘s content warnings, and dives into how expectations are unfairly higher for indie games versus games from larger studios.