Having trauma doesn’t mean you can only consume mild, boneless art.

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.

Still from Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978)

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.

Still from Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972)

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.


Image shows the bottom halves of four girls - the lead characters of the game. A text prompt at the bottom reads, "Would you like to review detailed content warnings, which contain spoilers? Alternatively, in-game content warnings can be enabled in the setings menu at any time." Above the text box are two choices. One reads "Yes, contains spoilers" and the other reads "No."
The updated trigger warning page for Doki Doki Literature Club Plus!, which allows players to choose in-game warnings and spoiler-filled warnings.

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!

Casca from Berserk, who will be traumatized to hell and back…so of course she’s my favorite character…

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.


Additional Reading

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.

19 thoughts on “Having trauma doesn’t mean you can only consume mild, boneless art.

  1. I’ve done some research into recovering from trauma. You’re method makes sense.
    .
    There was a very successful program for helping soldiers who had PTSD from their service in the middle east. It consisted of video games that started with really mild stuff and slowly became more and more realistic. Eventually the soldiers built up tolerance for “triggering” environments to where they could engage in realistic first person shooters. At the same time the other symptoms of PTSD diminished or vanished entirely.

    It isn’t the only example of unlearning the PTSD through gradual exposure to stimuli in safe environments.

    PTSD stems from reactions learned in our amygdala and limbic system. Those are primitive areas of our brain. They deal with the basic emotions, fear hate lust, even mother-love. When something happens that overwhelms the higher brain, they take over. Everything associated with the threat is recorded in high definition and 3D and may become a trigger. Works fine for most mammals and reptiles who need to escape predators on a daily basis. but not so good for humans in a complex and diverse society.

    Oftentimes the most difficult part of getting beyond a traumatic experience is believing that you can.

    One of the best books I have ever read on the subject is “Surviving Survival – The Art and Science of Resilience” by Laurence Gonzales.

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17573683-surviving-survival

    Liked by 1 person

    1. thank you for the recommendation! i did not know about that study, but it makes sense. i read that complete avoidance is countertherapeutic mostly because it leads to your brain defining you entirely by your trauamtic experience. as in, it feels inextricably linked to your entire being and makes you forget other aspects of yourself. that being said, the gradual introduction totally makes sense

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My feeling is that avoidance reinforces the traumatic memory. You are aware that you avoided it and that creates a sense of success which rewards the avoidance. If the world then warps around you to avoid your triggers, at the expense of those who aren’t triggered by the stimulation, how is that good?

        You have to decide that you don’t want to be traumatized by something. So maybe you start easy and work your way up. But effort is required as well as tolerance for small amounts of uneasiness.

        I remember as a young child I was absolutely traumatized by a TV show I watch where a little boy was bitten by a b;ack widow and almost died. Later, as a 10 year old, I still could not go near anywhere that has spider webs. Even harmless house spiders feaked me out. A point came when I knew that my fear was irrational. We had a lot of spiders in an old house in a very rural area. It was keeping me from doing things I needed to do and making me seem foolish.

        I read up on everything spider I could find. Literally sat and stared at them from a distance and slowly moved closer until I could put my hand inches away from them.

        The funny thing? I never saw a single widow during my 22 years in Michigan. I was afraid of something that did not exist. Ironically, I move to California where the country is infested with them. Lucky I overcame my fear.

        Now I love spiders and creepy crawlers in general. I overcame my fear and replaced it with respect. This trauma was probably not as severe as people who have experience really horrific things but I think the principle still applies.

        https://aunatural.org/2019/08/10/meet-charlotte-and-her-web/

        https://aunatural.org/2019/09/22/a-visitation-of-killers/

        Liked by 1 person

        1. AW I LOVE CHARLOTTE! funny you should mention bugs as an example, because they freaked me out until my dad became an exterminator and would leave his diagrams of cockroaches everywhere…i just got used to them lol

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had to confront this constantly more or less my whole life as a CSA survivor, and what it oftentimes seems to boil down to is that people who get very up in arms about these things do it, not because they care about what might help or protect people struggling with this trauma, but because they themselves are disquieted by the reminder that these things happen, and couching that in the idea they are advocating for the safety of survivors gives them an ethical blank check to react as viscerally as they want to the discomfort they experience with that sort of content.

    For me, at least, I agree with the notion of control and how these things are so squarely grounded in fiction, but also, it helps me to overcome the very palpable notion that these sorts of experiences should never be talked about, that acknowledging that that sort of trauma has shaped a part of your relationship to your self, your body, your sexuality etc etc is something which should be kept hidden for the sake of others to the point that, in some of my more vulnerable moments, left me wondering whether it happened at all since I could find no means to connect my experiences to those of others.

    When I encounter these sorts of things in fiction though, it’s like I get to acknowledge that was a thing that happened to me too. I see how this character is grappling with it, even in fiction, and it allows me to connect my traumatic experiences to the broader context of my existence in the world, but then when I see people coming down on those sorts of stories, I’m reminded that, even though I was a victim, I am still a perpetrator in a way because, again, the issue isn’t that it happens, it’s that people are reminded that it happens and that brings them distress and discomfort, so by embracing a work that acknowledges those experiences itself becomes a sort of aiding and abetting what people consider a moral crime.

    In these conversations, rarely do people who engage in this sort of behavior ever question whether what they’re doing is actually helping or protecting anyone, nor do they ever seem to question what else they could be doing to help survivors of this sort of trauma when, if anyone asked me at least, it would be to allow more room for these sorts of stories to be explored, and for people who are claiming to be trying to protect us to consider maybe not adding more violence and chaos in our lives by, say, forming mobs to harass a voice actor, or the one I almost universally get from people, explaining in graphic detail the violence they would deliver on the people who hurt me if they had the chance.

    I don’t want to be cynical and say that no one who engages with these things in this way actually cares about people still suffering through the aftermath of trauma, but the collective spirit which has shaped these trends in responding to it clearly does not. Trauma survivors, in my experience, have never really been given a meaningful seat at the table of communal discussion on these topics because we are either infantilized or deemed unreliable or untrustworthy because we come to represent the very things that hurt us to other people, and so, in the vacuum that creates in the discourse, people find space to weaponize their discomfort with the belief they are “doing the right thing” without ever really consulting the people they claim to be doing right by.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. YES that last paragraph there especially hits the nail on the head. It does seem like the overall vibe of it becomes more, “I haven’t had to deal with this and I don’t want to be reminded it exists” or at best a very reactionary idea that survivors cannot handle anything themselves. Thank you for reading and for giving such a thoughtful response

      Like

  3. I’ve had to re-read your blog a few times already because there’s so much I want to say, as a response but every time I attempt to type something out my thoughts come out garbled and I scrap it. I want to reply to everything, but to do so would be silly since large in part as another internet user with very manageable PTSD I get it.

    I found your commentary on trigger warnings especially accurate. It’s almost… insulting how a community of people are so vehement about putting labels on things. The assumption being that ‘traumatized’ people need to be protected from damn near everything is irritating. It’s not so much about the action that happened, so much as how it shown in context and reacted to. Something you put so much more nicely and with examples from your own experiance then I ever can.

    There’s so many ways for individuals to figure out if a piece of media is for them. You already know and listed a bunch of examples. And sometimes that comes from trial and error and a few incidents where we might get triggered along the way. That happened before trigger warnings were a thing, and will continue to happen after.

    I really appreciate you putting this into words.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ❤ thank you for reading. yeah I think people forget that some media just…is uncomfortable and is meant to be, but not every feeling of discomfort (even a very extreme reaction) is going to completely ruin your life and snap your brain. weirdly I think it's useful sometimes to discover a trigger – not fun at the time, but it ends up piecing together parts of my hang-ups, if that makes sense?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely my pleasure. ❤ I feel that way too. There's levels of discomfort, and yeah sometimes you find a trigger in an unusual way and that really is more helpful. It's better in my humble opinion, to figure this out through media then discovering it in real life. It's super helpful to work through things.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. This was a very interesting read. I don’t have experience with PTSD myself, so I appreciate seeing a very different perspective on something that I always took for granted.

    I’m a game developer. Specifically one who cares more for their entertainment aspect than their art aspect. Trying to make things that appeal to as many people possible while not hurting anyone is always something I’m concerned with – though I can see how trying too hard not to hurt people can itself be harmful.

    Content warnings were one of those things I always just kinda took for granted. When I make games, I want them to be enjoyable for everyone, and I don’t want to risk some people not enjoying them for some reason that is out of my control – because of this, I always thought content warnings made sense. But I can fully see your reasoning on why they might not.

    I’m wondering what your proposed solution here would be. Just get rid of content warnings entirely? Or structure them differently? Since everyone’s experience with PTSD is different, I feel like there might still be people who expect content warnings in a piece of media, but it’s hard to say. Definitely a complex topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely don’t think we should get rid of them entirely! I think it comes down to structuring them differently, and restructuring our expectations around them. There are people who seem to think that content warnings need to be exhaustive or that they always prevent emotional distress, but that just isn’t the case.

      Basically (in my experiences anyways) simple generalized content warnings seem to work best (quick general stuff like the one I had in the beginning of this post), but even then, there’s a certain point where the creator has to step back and realize that the fate of all the people who engage with their stuff just can’t ever be handled by them.

      Of course I’m only one person though, so your mileage may vary. Definitely definitely complex lol

      Liked by 1 person

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