Leftist commentary from a mouthy bitch

Of Triggers and Media…

Some of you may have heard of the latest kerfuffle surrounding the Penny Arcade webcomic.  I’ve already blogged about it at Geek Girls Rule! and you can read the whole mess over there,* if you are so motivated.  There are links to the comic, the reaction, and the (bad) comic apology, as well as my reaction.  Essentially there’s a whole group of people saying that the comic could be triggering, and is a rape joke.  I disagree, and you can go to GGR to read about that.  But what I’d like to talk about here is something I don’t really get into until the end of my GGR rant.  I’m talking about the expectation that sexual assault survivors are somehow constructed of spun glass and will completely disintegrate upon being “triggered.”

This expectation is, for the most  part, not true, and more than a little patronizing.  The majority of survivors are more than capable of confronting a trigger, dealing with the reaction, dusting themselves off and soldiering on.  Is it particularly pleasant?  No.  It isn’t.  But neither is it world ending.  And the more you do it, the better you get at it.  Trust me, I know.

And while a “trigger free” existence would be nice, I myself am not a fan of panic attacks, regardless of how quickly I’ve learned to shut them down, it just isn’t possible.

Over a year ago an incredible blogger, who has since closed down her blog, covered the whole “trigger” issue.  She pointed out that there is no way you can know what will trigger someone, because triggers aren’t rational, and you shouldn’t be expected to.  One of my triggers, probably the strongest, is ski masks, balaclavas, or really any sort of face occluding mask.  One of that blogger’s triggers was a certain color of ceiling.

Now, does this mean I should expect people around me to develop frostbite in the winter out of concern for my mental well-being? Should that blogger’s friends consult her before doing any sort of interior decorating?

Even the survivor themself isn’t going to know what triggers them, until it does.  And I have to say, the word “rape” is rarely what does it.  It’ll be a smell (the cologne your attacker wore, the laundry soap, fresh cut grass, baking bread), a song, a shirt on a stranger, a random noise, someone making a completely innocuous gesture that you catch at just the right angle.

The only time I’ve ever been triggered by fictional rape was reading a Joyce Carole Oates short story, the one with Arnold Friend in it, because elements of it strongly echoed what had happened to me.  I couldn’t finish the story, or even read to the actual assault, because I had to run from the book and throw up.

Does this mean I think Joyce Carole Oates shouldn’t write stories like that, or that literature professors shouldn’t assign them?  No.  And I’ve since gone on to read other stories of hers, that also address rape.  Although I admit, I’ve never even tried to read that one again.

Trying to protect people from being triggered is a laudable goal, but, as demonstrated above, largely a pointless one.  You can do your damned-est to protect yourself, but seriously, shit will trigger you that you never saw coming.  However, when you try to protect other people from what you think they might be triggered by, that’s more than a little insulting.  It means you don’t trust them to deal with their own shit, you don’t think they can handle it.  And while it comes from a very caring place, I’m sure, for most folks, ultimately it is infantilizing to survivors of sexual assault, and can be downright alienating.

However, there’s one more element to this whole trigger thing I’d  like to address, and this is the class issue.

As someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, I can’t afford to fall apart and come to a crashing halt while I deal with my bullshit.  I can’t afford to break down and hide.  I’m going to lay odds that the majority of other survivors also can’t afford to just lay down and quiver every time they’re triggered.  Being able to just fall apart is a  luxury afforded to people by their economic class and their support networks.  And you’d do well to remember that if you ever even THINK that someone who has survived a sexual assault isn’t “acting like a victim” because they’re going about their life and getting on with the business of living.

I, and plenty of other survivors who have to work, and who risk losing a job with every absence, deal with triggers, panic attacks, flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms as quickly and ruthlessly as we can, and get back to whatever it is we have to do to make a living, because if we don’t, we’re sunk.

*Still under construction.  Mind the dust.

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2010 by in Featured Articles, Feminism, Media, Misogyny, Sexism.

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