Trigger warning?

If you read a lot of feminist websites and blogs like - believe it or not - I do, you'll be familiar with the term "trigger warning" which runs at the head of many articles or posts dealing with sexual abuse.

Trigger warnings are written in bold text so as to give the reader a heads up a sensitive subject is about to be discussed. They are sometimes also used on posts describing self-harm, suicide and eating disorders.

It'll look something like this ... TRIGGER WARNING: This article or section, or pages it links to, contain information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.

If you run a feminist website, or one dealing with any of these issues, I guess you know roughly who's visiting and it's your decision to post whatever warnings or qualifiers you want.

However, lately I've seen "trigger warnings" included on major news sites, including Fairfax, and it's struck me as being just a touch infantile to caution people they might get upset by news and current affairs.

I contacted one well-regarded Fairfax journalist to ask why she'd put a trigger warning on a story she'd written discussing comedians doing rape jokes and she told me it was not her decision; the subeditors had inserted it.

When I asked for her thoughts on the use of trigger warnings, she said: "I am not opposed to their use, per se, but question their necessity on sites that contain a blanket warning already.

"I also think they are a can of worms for the media. Surely most news items, especially those concerning murder, sexual abuse, terminal illness and violence, could 'trigger' negative emotional responses in some readers.

"Everybody has a story, everybody will be offended/emotionally scarred by something. Are we to put trigger warnings on every story? Surely the potential 'trigger' is implied in the headline of most pieces ... maybe don't read that story.

"In the end, however, if a journalist/editor believes strongly that such a warning is necessary, I don't think there's any harm in including one," she said.

I've thought long and hard about this and, while I agree there is no outright "harm" in putting trigger warnings on news stories, I do think it tacitly encourages a mentality that people can't control their reactions in given situations.

I have written extensively about how this kind of abdication of responsibility infects the attitudes of men who use some variant of the "I couldn't help myself, she turned me on" line to justify everything from infidelity to date rape, as well as the "brain snap" excuse blokes use to absolve themselves of acts of violence.

By no means am I attempting to diminish the trauma that women, men and children experience because of sexual abuse, but to cocoon victims from reality doesn't strike me as helpful; it reinforces the model of an external locus of control, which I believe is a large contibutor to feelings of powerlessness.

Another (informed feminist) woman I spoke to about this subject described the entire concept of trigger warnings as "ridiculous".

"Everyone has crappy things that happen to them. Grown-ups know they can control how they react to them. Everyone else needs 'trigger warnings'," she wrote to me in an email.

"If someone is so fragile they can't read a newspaper for fear of being 'triggered', the grown-up thing to do is to not read the newspaper. It's not to ask other people to digest the paper for you and regurgitate it in palatable lumps," she said.

Researching (well, Googling) this post, I came across a quote from feminist author Camille Paglia, that seemed to speak to this infantilisation of women when dealing with confronting issues.

"Let's get rid of Infirmary Feminism, with its bedlam of bellyachers, anorexics, bulimics, depressives, rape victims, and incest survivors. Feminism has become a catch-all vegetable drawer where bunches of clingy sob sisters can store their moldy neuroses," writes Paglia.

Harsh, perhaps, but women deserve equality in all aspects of life, and baldly presuming your readership is too psychologically imbalanced to deal with unvarnished discussions of trauma is probably not a great contributor to the cause.

Your thoughts?

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.