There has been a lot of backlash against trigger warnings lately, from an article in the Atlantic calling students “coddled” and selfish, to a self-righteous Slate article declaring a culture of “PC sanctimony.” The fear of trigger warnings and safe spaces has gotten so bad that the University of Chicago actually felt the need to declare they do not support either.
And in parallel, there has been a lot of discussion recently about how complicated consent is, and a lot of handwringing about how affirmative consent will lead to good men being locked away for an innocent mistake.
But I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that we’re talking about both these issues in parallel. These two phenomena have more in common than you might think.
Let me explain.
But guys, nobody accidentally rapes someone. Consent is not actually that complicated. This famous article has an amazing metaphor — if you offer someone a cup of tea and they don’t accept, you don’t make them drink the tea. Pretty much the end. It’s not rocket science.
Why does this sound so idiotically simple applied to tea and yet turn out to be so difficult when applied to sex?
Because rape culture teaches men not to actually care whether women want to have sex with them or not.
Ok, let me back up.
For the most part, everyone thinks of rape as a stranger in a dark alley, not a friend in a dorm room. But by far the majority of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. So why does the dark alley myth persist?
I think in part it is perpetuated by the women who can’t live in constant fear, so they pretend that all of their male friends and relatives and lovers are not a threat. I get that. But it also comes from the men who, if they thought about all those rapes committed by friends and relatives, would have to imagine themselves in the role of rapist. They imagine strangers in dark alleys because if they think too closely about what acquaintance rape really looks like, they will have to acknowledge that it looks like them.
One study found that 31.7% of participants in a survey of college men said they would act on “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if they were confident they could get away with it. When asked whether they would act on “intentions to rape a woman” with the same assurances they wouldn’t face consequences, 13.6% of participants said yes. And it’s not just intentions — a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that 10.8% of male college students reported having committed a rape.
It’s not that these men are afraid they will, with the best intentions, accidentally rape someone. It’s that they know — if the touchstone of consent is whether your partner actually wants to have sex with you, they will be classified as rapists.
They’re not confused at all as to what they’re doing. They just don’t want to get caught. Or, more accurately, they don’t want a change of rules that only lets them have sex with women who really want to have sex with them too.
Let’s acknowledge how radical the idea of affirmative consent actually is. It is the completely novel idea that women should only be having sex when they really want to.
Not when they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, not as a favor, not out of fear or obligation. Only when they really want to.
For too long, we have seen sex as something women give, and men take. Consent has been (as the name suggests) about women allowing men to have sex with them, not actively deciding they want sex too.
If we’re looking for the rotten idea at the heart of rape culture, this is it.
So what does all this have to do with trigger warnings?
It’s the exact same concept.
What’s the worry with trigger warnings, exactly? Academics — and others — are talking a lot about “free speech.” They are concerned that trigger warnings and safe spaces will chill their expression and effectively impose censorship on academic freedom. They fret that what students requesting trigger warnings really want is to be “protected” from offensive or difficult topics, and to silence anyone who isn’t “politically correct.”
These fears have gained quite a lot of ground — not just on college campuses, but on the campaign trail as well. Remember, Trump fans praise him for being the guy who “says what he means” and “isn’t PC.”
But as Sophie Downes recently wrote in the New York Times, a trigger warning is just a heads-up that certain topics will be discussed. It’s not a moratorium on unpopular ideas, nor does it actually lead to students withdrawing from uncomfortable discussions. And, despite the University of Chicago letter confusing the issue, there is nothing in the idea of trigger warnings that encourages cancelling events that make students uncomfortable. To the contrary, the core idea of the trigger warning is to say, “this disturbing thing is going to be discussed, so prepare yourself accordingly.” As my college classmate Marina Weiss wrote in Weird Sister last year, trigger warnings help rather than harm the teaching of critical thinking, because “[s]tudents learn best in environments in which they are treated with respect, and when their experience is honored.”
Requiring trigger warnings doesn’t act as censorship or stifle speech, but it does force people to stop before they speak or write and consider whether a trigger warning is merited. This concept isn’t rocket science — we understand the need for spoiler alerts just fine.
So how is this debate like the one surrounding affirmative consent?
Trigger warnings, like affirmative consent, force people to stop before they act, and engage in critical thinking about what they are about to say or do.
Men are freaking out about affirmative consent because they are afraid that if they really ask whether a woman wants to have sex with them, the answer will be no.
Similarly, I suggest that what really has a lot of panties in a twist is the fear that if people have to stop and consider whether a trigger warning is necessary, they will discover that a huge percentage of what they want to say is hurtful and they really shouldn’t be saying it at all.
Trigger warnings, affirmative consent — it’s all about the same fear.
It’s the fear that if people are forced to look too closely at their own behavior, they may discover something they would have to change in order to be a decent human being.
To me, the existence of that fear is evidence of why we so desperately need policies like affirmative consent and trigger warnings and safe spaces. There is all manner of ugliness lurking under the surface, unspoken and unacknowledged.
We need to force that ugliness into the light, where it will either wither on its own or be firmly uprooted.
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