On May 1st, Netflix issued a statement explaining that they will be adding a trigger warning to their hit series 13 Reasons Why, acknowledging the danger of exposing audiences to “graphic content” such as suicide and sexual assault. This decision was in part a result of pressure from mental health advocates, school administrators, and psychologists who fear that the show’s depictions of suicide could result in the contagion effect, in which publicizing suicide increases suicide attempts. Although suicide and sexual assault trigger warnings are guarding against vastly different reactions, as one attempts to prevent a person from taking their life and the other alerts the viewer to potential PTSD reactions, putting them in the same disclaimer is powerful. By putting suicide ideation trigger warnings beside sexual assault trigger warnings, Netflix is taking the PTSD responses of assault survivors seriously, and publically acknowledging that these can have serious physical repercussions.
In a society that constantly delegitimizes the magnitude of sexual assault trauma, seeing a major force in TV voice concern for sexual assault victims is a step to a public recognition of sexual assault as a devastating crime. Just as suicide ideation is dangerous, being unexpectedly triggered is not just emotionally upsetting; it’s physically harmful. Teenagers are the target audience for the show, which arguably makes the call for trigger warnings more pressing. For young people who are susceptible to self-harm, media that triggers suicide ideation could pose a real threat. This is the main reason why Netflix received so much pressure to add trigger warnings to 13 Reasons Why, while much of their triggering content targeted at adults remains trigger warning-free. Although much of Netflix’s content still lacks trigger warnings, placing a warning on 13 Reasons Why is a step in the right direction, as it sets an example for adult television and teaches a new generation to acknowledge that sexual assault has real repercussions.
This conversation is far cry from the adamant rejection of trigger warnings of just a year ago, and marks an important cultural shift. Fox’s Greg Gutfeld’s 2016 article “The Ultimate ‘Safe Space’ is a Coffin,” for example, called calls trigger warnings on college campuses “psychological bubble wrap” and safe spaces “ball pits for babies.” This rhetoric was not just sequestered to right-wing media, as academic institutions classified trigger warnings as the unnecessary coddling of young adults, from American University officially discouraging them to the University of Chicago banning them completely. “We do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” University of Chicago’s Dean of Students John Ellison told the class of 2020 in their admissions letter. “We do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” Here, Ellison is equating trigger warnings with censorship. Safe spaces, to Ellison, are places to retreat and hide from ideas, as opposed to places to find literal bodily security.
Now, Netflix’s decision marks an important turning point in the public conversation about trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are not notices meant to guard against ideological discomfort. Mental health advocate Mark Henick writes in his CNN article “Why 13 Reasons Why Is Dangerous” that although “triggers are not necessarily to be avoided at all costs, if you’re going to pull off a band-aid, you had better be ready to stop the bleeding and help the person to heal.” By using a metaphor of bodily harm and pain to describe trauma, Henick highlights the reality of what trauma sufferers experience when exposed to triggering media. There are physical repercussions, including vomiting, panic attacks, and depression, that are on par with bleeding. This metaphor classifies trigger warnings as safety measures. It’s unsafe to induce bleeding without proper medical instruments in place, just as it’s unsafe to trigger trauma reactions without proper psychological preparation. Henick goes on to discusses his own struggle with suicidal ideation, and ultimately tells us that trigger warnings are not about feelings; they’re about bodies. A review of trauma’s effect on the brain crystallizes this concept. According to Scientific American, exposure to traumatic events can decrease the volume of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s responsible for memory functions. The list of affected brain areas and physical changes go on.
The addition of trigger warnings to 13 Reasons Why is necessary in ensuring the prevention of bodily harm, not only for those at risk for suicide, but for the safety of sexual assault survivors. Marrying warnings about suicide ideation triggers with notices about scenes of sexual assault signals a powerful shift in how we view reactions to trauma. As a victim of sexual assault, I am heartened by the fact that sexual assault trigger warnings are being placed beside suicide ideation resources. Not only are these warnings important for the bodily safety of those who are at risk of experiencing violent panic attacks and other physical manifestations of PTSD, they also sends a message that reactions to violence are not merely hysterics. They are symptoms.
I think back to when I was in college, when trigger warnings would have prevented harm to my own body. I remember sitting in the library reading Ann Quin’s Three for a literature class, and finishing a scene about domestic rape. I felt my stomach churn, put the book down, and barely made it to the bathroom before vomiting the lunch I’d just consumed: a roast beef sandwich, pickle, and cup of coffee. I went home, and didn’t leave my dorm room for two days. It wasn’t my sensitivity to the stimuli itself that kept me indoors, but the fact that it had snuck up on me with no warning. Had I known I would be exposed to scenes of sexual violence, I could have prepared myself. I could have read the book in my room, or with people I trusted around me. I could have, at the very least, chosen to eat something milder for lunch. I resent the idea that I can’t handle material that makes me uncomfortable. Logistically speaking, it’s simply impractical to be exposed to triggering stimuli without warning. I just don’t want to vomit roast beef onto your carpet.
In a political environment that dismisses and silences sexual assault survivors, voices that dispel the physical reality of trauma are dangerous. The backlash against trigger warnings helps create an environment in which young people are told that their desire for safety is misguided and silly. Adding these warnings to a show targeted at teens is vital for raising a new generation that will be empowered to advocate for themselves.
Liz von Klemperer is a writer and succulent fosterer living in Brooklyn. Liz’s work has been featured in The Establishment, The Rumpus, Lambda Literary, and beyond. You can find more at lizvk.com.