A trigger warning, as defined by Oxford dictionary, is a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer that it contains potentially distressing material. The idea is that the content may trigger feelings related to a past trauma, experience, or memory.
There’s a debate about the necessity of these warnings. Do they help those who are sensitive about certain topics or do they shelter people who are trying to grow from something that happened to them? Whether or not you agree that trigger warnings need to exist, I feel strongly that this piece needs one.
When we report on sexual assaults, as we have done this year at Humber Et Cetera, the story tends to focus on the crime, and there is nothing wrong with this. As journalists reporting news, we are taught to report on the facts and more often than not, we have more information on the attack than the victim. It can be challenging to strike a balance and tell both sides. This can be for many reasons; sometimes the victim doesn’t want to be revealed and sometimes they don’t step forward at all. Whatever the personal reasons, they are valid and understandable.
As news reporters, we focus on the crime itself, the charges that could be brought, the reaction of the community. And it’s not that we deliberately forget about the victim, it’s that including the victim’s voice is not always possible.
I was sexually assaulted when I was in university. I say “sexually assaulted” and not “raped” because while the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines rape as “unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will,” I feel that “rape” connotes penetrative intercourse and that was not the case for me.
It was after my assault that I was introduced to the terms slut-shaming and victim blaming. After sharing what had happened with a close friend, he immediately attributed the assault to my dress having been too short or the amount of alcohol I’d consumed. The male who assaulted me was not called into question about his actions and I was told what I should have done differently.
Awareness regarding rape, victim blaming, and slut-shaming has been growing. In this city alone, there is an annual event called the SlutWalkTO that focuses on awareness and education about sexual assault and condemns victim blaming. On a much wider scale, a recent Netflix original series received a lot of praise because of the way it portrays a female character’s history with assault. Jessica Jones, based on a Marvel character, is a story about the aftermath of sexual violence that doesn’t include graphic rape scenes, and depicts sexual violence and emotional abuse without perpetuating harmful clichés. And this is good, a first for a series.
But I’ve noticed in my everyday life, even people who say they understand the seriousness of rape and ostensibly make efforts to be sensitive about it, can at times treat it as a joke. I’ve had friends, even those who know I’m a victim of sexual assault, treat rape as a laughing matter. I’ve had people consistently tell me that it’s okay to make rape jokes. I know I can’t speak for everyone when I say that is unacceptable, but I cannot make light of a traumatic personal experience that made me question if I had done anything wrong that could have changed the outcome of that night, and continues to make me consider the intentions of men at bars and what clothing I decide to wear on a night out.
Respecting sexual assault victims and having sensitivity to their experiences is not something you can do part-time.