Monday, March 26, 2012

The Undebateable Undateables

Last week, a poster appeared in London advertising a TV show called The Undateables, which reads "Love is blind, disfisgured, autistic..."  I'm not going to talk about the poster and the programme here; Matthew has already, Sarah has, Lisa has twice, the second time at Liberal Conspiracy. There's also been a timely article at the Guardian on disability and on-line dating. But I wanted to talk about how the discussion of things like "How The Undateables is the most offensive piece of Channel 4 advertising since Bigger, fatter, gypsier." gets stuck when we begin to address the problems of disabled people in finding love.

Being romantically irresistible is part of my impairment. It is embarrassing and it sometimes makes it difficult for me to be with other people. They often swoon, break into song, or tear roses from nearby bushes to make into thorny and often bloody bouquets to give me. As a result, I have been single for precisely four days since I was eighteen and even that can be put down to a particularly painful period.

However, I have had reason to contemplate my place in the mire of dating and romance over the years. Before my impairment was properly diagnosed, back when I thought people were staring because of the wheelchair and that light of my life was just another term of casual affection between strangers like pet or sweetheart, I thought I was likely to spend a big chunk of my life single. My ex-husband often told me that he was going to leave me (my condition is very difficult for any partner) and detailed many unattractive attributes in an attempt to reassure me that I wasn't quite as lovely as medical science seemed to suggest. When I looked towards the future, I imagined that I would probably end up being alone.

In a way, this was a helpful exercise. I knew I couldn't live alone and the obvious solution would be to live with friends. Because I'd talked about this with my friends (in the context of if, not when), I had more than one offer of a place to live when I finally decided to leave. Well, two serious offers, one "There's woodland at the back of my house where we could build a den!"

The other way in which it was helpful was that I thought a lot about the prejudices that get between disabled people, romantic happiness and sexual fulfillment.

Attraction is largely involuntary - no individual can be castigated for who they fancy or fall in love with - but there are very few universals. There are one or two around body-shape, but we only see this in data using responses to images, rather than sexual or romantic behaviour. In general, we learn what attractive men and women are like through culture; how fat or thin, how tall or short, what kind of hair they should have on their heads and bodies and how they should behave. This stuff varies a lot around the globe.

So prejudice like disablism and racism certainly interferes with this stuff. It's just impossible to say how much and in what way. Famously, the Observer Sex Survey in 2008 found that 70% of people questioned said they would not have sex with a person with a physical disability. I've used this figure myself, but personally, I think this expresses more about disabled stereotypes than behaviour. After all, most disabled people I know are partnered. I could be wrong, but I reckon if you showed people flattering images of disabled people with a mixture of physical impairments, smiling and having fun, and then asked the question, the response would have been far more positive. If you got people to have a five minute conversation with a selection of specially-selected extra-charming disabled people and then asked the question, you'd almost certainly get a minority expressing a preference.

As it was, many people may have simply thought, “Would I have a sexual relationship with Stephen Hawking?” and the answer came back the same as my response: Astrophysics has no place in the bedroom.

One of the problems dissecting the issue is the way discussions of disability and romance tend to pan out. When someone complains that they feel they're not getting sexual or romantic interest for almost any other reason, whether it's race, weight or age, something religious or cultural, the job they do or being a prince, then there are almost always people there to argue that they are hot and it's not such a big deal. There are always people who come forward to say, "I'm in the same boat, but I've found love and am living happily ever after." or "Well, you seem lovely so I'm sure you'll find someone soon." or even, "Could this all be down to a lack of confidence/ luck/ opportunity?"

But when say, a wheelchair-user talks publicly about problems finding love, the responses tend to come like this:
"I am also disabled and have given up on love. Everything you say is true. Nobody wants us. Everybody hates us!"

"I am disabled but I am lucky enough to have found a partner who is prepared to put up with me, without once suggesting a romantic weekend in Switzerland. I am so very very very very grateful to them, for without their compassion and no small degree of masochism, I would be entirely unloved and alone like you!"

"I find wheelchair users highly attractive, but you people are always so frosty when I send you e-mails detailing my wheelchair-related sexual fantasies. Then you complain nobody is interested!"

"I'm really sorry to read your experiences, and hope that one day you might meet someone who is prepared to see past your impairment, to see past any equipment you use, to see past any body parts that are at all iffy. In fact, to see past your face, body, brain, any idiosyncrisies of your mind and personality, through to the real, beautiful, non-disabled person who is somewhere trapped behind all that. Good luck!"

"It's much harder for disabled men, as men are supposed to be tough, strong and physically active, and we're supposed to go out and earn a living. Women can be physically weak and not work and still be considered attractive."

"It's much harder for disabled women, as women are supposed to fit a very narrow standard of physical beauty, and we're supposed to be able to have energy for looking after other people. Men can be physically imperfect and need some looking after and still be considered attractive."

"Why don't you think about dating other disabled people? They're bound to be more understanding. Simples!"

"@lastcommenter Why should disabled people date disabled people?  Other disabled people are completely hideous! Just because I'm disabled, why should I be content with someone who looks a bit funny and can't get up stairs?"

"Have you thought about using a sex-worker? When money is involved, it's much more difficult for someone to say no and they're all good at pretending to like you so they can get the whole thing over with quickly. It's your right to have sex!"

"You think you've got it bad? I have only one eye, so not only am I rejected all the time, I have trouble gauging just how far a person has walked away from me. There are loads of examples of sexy wheelchair-users, but when do people with one eye get a look in?"

"Evolution dictates that disabled people just can't get laid. That's why disabled people never ever marry or have children."
And so on.  Of course, most comments will be empathetic, but few people will actually argue with the idea that the disabled person can't find love because they are disabled (unless they launch into complete denial that it makes a difference to anyone apart from a rare and obvious bigot). Sometimes, especially when it is someone I know and like, I get very tempted. But it is very difficult to say the right thing.

The dangers are:
  1. Coming across as patronising. Disabled people are used to being patronised and most disabled people have a very finely-tuned patronimeter. At the best of times, it can be hard to reassure someone that they are sexually attractive without seeming to patronise, even when you mean it (unless you're prepared to make love to them on the spot. Even then, it's not fool-proof.)
  2. Coming across as creepy. Disabled people often encounter creeps of various kinds, some deeply sinister, others simply disconcerting. When someone is lonely and at a low ebb, there's no kind of creepiness, even accidental, that's going to make them feel less than awful.
  3. Coming across as questioning someone's experience. Disabled people are used to having their experiences called into question. A lot of tact is required to help untangle someone's genuine experience of rejection, or statements people have made about their supposed unattractiveness, from whether or not they are fundamentally undesirable. 
  4. Coming across as dismissing social injustice. Which we're also quite used to. There are some political circumstances which really do complicate relationships and potential relationships for disabled people, as Lisa outlines
  5. Coming across as playing Privilege Top Trumps. If I wasn't romantically irresistible, it would be immensely difficult for me to form romantic relationships. I'm rarely able to leave the house, I can't drive or self-propel a wheelchair and I can't use my powerchair for long periods. I couldn't date anybody and very few people would be interested in working round that stuff in order to get to know me. But even if it wasn't for my clinical loveliness, I could never say to anyone, "Well, I found love and I'm a lot worse off than you are." because impairment and prejudice is so complex. I know I do have some advantages over Lisa, for example, (e.g. my impairment had little effect on my physical development and my bisexuality gives me a much larger pool to work with) or the pseudonymous Stefano (e.g. I'm better at avoiding inadvertent innuendo - "apart from one thing, very low maintenance" - he he he).
And yet, this subject is important. Not everyone is interested in sex or romance and many people are happy being single (although usually, happy people feel it's a choice). However, for anyone capable of sexual or romantic feeling - single or attached - to feel undesirable is a terrific blow to one's sense of self-worth. That's not vanity or anything shallow, it is part of our identity which feels damaged, inferior. It makes us more vulnerable to creeps and abusers (experience makes me shudder when I read those comments about the immense gratitude some disabled people feel towards a partner just for not abandoning them). It makes us feel less valuable altogether and makes all the battles we have to fight for survival and social progress so much tougher.

I think I may have to write a second post on how we might combat this, apart from the usual, "Magic some confidence from somewhere, damn it!" 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Graduate

Stephen did his degree with the University of London International Programmes, working entirely at home, taking his exams by himself at the local college. So there was a big question about whether he should even attempt to attend his formal graduation, at the Barbican Centre, in the middle of London.

Stephen in his graduate gear. A very  handsome young man
in black gown and mortar board, looking wistful.
(He was actually watching the parakeets).
Well, last week, we did it and it was great. It's so difficult when you do any kind of work or study from home to get the full warm fuzzy from a job well done. Because of the modular nature of the course, and because he lost a year due to a downturn in his health, only one of Stephen's student friends finished the degree at the same time as he did. When he got his results last summer, we drank a bottle of Welsh champagne, but the enormity of six years work, finally complete, didn't really sink in (unlike the champagne).

You can see the very moment that Stephen graduates if you go here and fast-forward (goodness knows I wished I could have) to 278 minutes. He looks very serious, on account of his gravitas, now he has a BA (Hons) after his name and all. You'll also notice that he got an extra loud clap, on account of how well he did. Or possibly because of the wheelchair. After all, it is notoriously difficult to study Classics if you can't personally re-enact the twelve labours of Heracles.

In order to manage this, we had to get into London, stay over night, then get home after the graduation the next day.  We're in Surrey at the moment, so we paid for a hotel in the middle of London - less than an hour away, in good traffic - with a heavy heart. As it was, the traffic wasn't great and we took a scenic detour (wrong-turning), an experience which reminded us why we couldn't have possibly done the whole thing in a day.

When I was a kid, London was a terrifically romantic and exciting place and when I was a teenager, the city felt like destiny itself. I was going to go to drama school in London. I used to look at the Tube map and street maps of London, planning trips to the important places I should visit. London was at the centre of everything I was interested in, such a lot of creative work going on, so many interesting stories unfolding on every street corner, thousands of creative minds coming together to create the hippocampus of the British cultural hive mind. In Ipswich, where I grew up, a town of over a hundred thousand people, there were few book shops, let alone art galleries and no professional theatre for much of my youth.

Part of me still feels that way. Part of me was silly-excited about going into London, just to see it and be in its midst for twenty-four hours. I often have stretches of weeks or months when I don't leave the house, so in one hour in a car in London, I see more people than I might normally see in a year. What's more, I've always come into London from the North before, so there are all kinds of things I've never seen, coming in from the South West.

But it's massively inaccessible to me. I don't know how sick people cope with living in London at all. I don't know how an otherwise healthy person could survive a cold, if the symptoms started in the middle of the city. Too much is going on, too much noise, too many people moving way too fast - you'd lose all sense of direction, collapse on the pavement and get trodden to death! The only reason the pavements of London aren't strewn with the bodies of people who have died from minor infections or dizzy spells is that there are so many people passing through that the corpses get completely broken down and washed away real quick.

Sinister wheelchair picture! Two wheelchairs,
strewn with ladies' underwear.
I'm also disturbed by the contrast between conspicuous wealth and conspicuous poverty. Goodness knows that rural England and Wales have plenty of both, but when the two sit so physically close together, it makes me nauseous. And the dirtiness of London - far dirtier than any other city I know - exacerbates this contrast. You get these posh shops and hotels with freshly-polished glass doors with gleaming brass handles and immaculate hulking doormen stood outside, but if you look up to the higher floors, or down the side of the building, there's dirty walls, broken windows, rubbish floating about and occasionally far-from-immaculate people sifting through that rubbish.

Being a car passenger, in London, is wearying enough. My back and neck were thoroughly done in by the sudden jolts and halts as other drivers changed their minds. I tried to ignore what other people were doing around me, much as I do when I'm being pushed in a wheelchair through a crowd. I tried to ignore that, in London, there are billboard ads which refer to the fact that the viewer is most likely stuck in traffic. They have slotty ones which change the ad every few minutes, on the basis that you're going to be sat there long enough to take in several adverts.

Anyway, we somehow made it to a Travelodge which was very well placed for us, had a staff who treated us like we were staying in a five star hotel and a lovely big accessible room with soundproofing on the windows, a wet room and a big bed. We had a picnic tea and slept pretty well considering that, despite it being a Monday night and the room overlooking a back street, the traffic and noise of people on the streets outside never quietened down.

Stephen, graduated. The same
handsome young man holding
a glass of champagne and smiling.
The next day, we trundled along to the Barbican, parking just along from Princess Anne's Bentley (she's the chancellor of the university). We had our photos taken and Stephen was fussed over by a small regiment of staff who didn't know quite how or when to get him onto the stage. At one point, in their confusion, they thought we were both graduands, and I almost saved a great deal of time and money by being graduated at the same time. Trouble is, I couldn't make up my mind quite what I wanted a degree in. Divinity sounded like fun.

They planted Stephen and his Dad on the stage and left them sitting up there for about twenty minutes, in front of a full auditorium, entirely by themselves. I've been on the stage at a few theatres, but never anything so grand as the Barbican. I once saw the Royal Shakespeare Company do Romeo & Juliet there. It was dreadful, but even so.

When the graduation did get underway, it was as tedious as I imagine most graduation ceremonies are, except for the bit when Stephen finally got to cross the stage. It was an extremely international affair, being the International Programmes, and it was great to see so many different ideas from around the world of what you wear for a graduation. It was also quite funny to hear the English woman, who announced each person, struggle with names from all corners of the globe. As a result, when she did have an British-type name to work with, she said it with ten times the volume and confidence.
Me, looking tired and proud. A woman
with a glass of champagne and a very
lovely tartan jacket.

On our way out, we pinched the free booze and cupcakes, which Stephen's sister became so enthused about that she planted five on Stephen's lap before escaping to the carpark. Stephen is gluten intolerant and allergic to dairy. I think each of us could write a book about "Things I have had other people place on my lap, when using a wheelchair."  I've certainly had small children, electrical appliances, rolls of wallpaper and important documents. Perhaps one day, I'll have cupcakes.

Oh and Stephen left his walking stick on the stage. He e-mailed the Barbican after to suggest they donated it to the props department, by way of thanks for accommodating him so well.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Five Reasons Why Science Fiction Fans are Better Dressed

Ever wondered why science fiction fans are so extraordinarily well turned out? While crime buffs lurk about in outdated rain macs, romance lovers entangle themselves - and one another - in bows and flounces and action movie addicts ruin perfectly good outfits with mud and blood, it is science fiction types who balance practicality and style.

Not that I prefer science fiction above other genres of fiction and film, but the future and outer space are where I learnt how to dress. One rough night, I came up with the following list:

1. Today could be the day that the Doctor shows up.

When I was a child, I talked as a child, I thought that I could be the Doctor but when I became an adult, I put away childish things and accepted that I wasn't a Timelord. Doctor's companion, however, remains a possibility (although a possibility perhaps fast diminishing with age).

Martha Jones (beautiful young black woman)
in a russet fitted leather jacket.
Some Doctor's companions have been pure eye-candy, others have been complex and powerful characters and one or two have outshone the Doctor himself. But like the different incarnations of the Doctor, part of what makes the different companions memorable is their unique style. Which includes bad style, the epitome of which is the recent Rory, who did up his top button and tried to look like Man from C&A a full decade after that store shut its beige and button-down-doors. 

I have a coat like Martha's. Except mine is longer, has lots of buckles on it and is green.

When I've had days when I can't get dressed, I've sometimes worried that I might hear the familiar whir of an approaching Tardis when I'm still in my nightclothes. However, watching as much science fiction film and television as I have, I know that outer space is simply awash with aliens who wear dressing-gowns all day long.  And Arthur Dent got on all right.

2. Time Travel demands style, not fashion.

If you are going to travel in time, by whatever means and in whichever direction, being well presented is far more important than being on trend. Of course, fashion comes in cycles, and I dare say trouser-bottoms will still be coming in and out millenia from now, collar-widths and skirt-lengths will continue expanding and contracting, much like the universe itself.  But even if you're going back in time and you know where you are going, you have to be careful - I've seen photographs of ordinary people in the 1960s and not everyone looked like Austin Powers. Only the men.

Whether you're heading for the past or the future, you won't want to be seen in a t-shirt with a slogan on it. Written language changes over time sometimes even more dynamically than the spoken word - Chaucer makes no sense written down, which is why they make students read him to stop English Literature being too much fun. Also, I know you might not believe this but few people find those slogans funny even now. In a hundred years time, it'll be a bit like when people alive today watch Last of the Summer Wine.

Modesty is also important (although most Time Travel stories completely ignore this issue). Many people in the past and almost certainly some people in the future will be shocked, offended and/ or inclined towards a lynching, if you turn up in micro-shorts and a bikini top. Especially if you have a lot of chest hair. 

3. Once Bitten, Forever Shamed

There are superb zombie movies (Dawn of the Dead), there are terrible zombie movies (the remake of Dawn of the Dead) and there are zombie movies which manage both awesome and awful in the same undying breath (Chopper Chicks in Zombie Town). But what all zombie movies have in common is the deep pathos they inspire when we see people condemned to shuffle around for eternity in outfits they would never have chosen if they knew they'd never get changed again. 

Whenever I sulked as a child, my Mum would inform me that, "If the wind changes, you'll be stuck like that!"  Now that's just not true. However, when I think about putting on a dress like this, zombie movies taught me that I might live to regret it.  Or at least, might die to regret it.  Or at least, my friends who have to decapitate my reanimated corpse might be doubly embarrassed for me.

On the plus side, in every zombie movie, there's always one lucky zombie bride, literally immortalised in all her glory. Well, some of her glory. Somewhat gory glory.

4. Superheroes teach us the power of accessories.

Superheroes and their enemies (who are often disabled role models) demonstrate the transformative power of costume, make-up and accessories. Ordinary if slightly better than average-looking men and women by day can metamorphise into Christmas Tree decorations with the clever use of primary colours, lycra and a few well chosen hats, shoes, gloves, masks and other accessories.

Consider Clark Kent's glasses. Everyone knew what Superman looked like - Lois Lane more than most. But put those spectacular spectacles on and nobody had a clue.  They were amazing. My Stephen has tried doing the same - taking off his glasses when carrying out superhero activity, but he only flies into things. I reckon Clark Kent wasn't even short-sighted! 

Superheroes can also teach us cautionary tales about the compromises involved in being stream-lined. When I was about ten, I thought this sketch was the funniest thing ever.

These days, of course, it doesn't seem funny at all. Much.

5. In the future, we're all in uniform anyway.

Science fiction has shown one possible future where everyone is dressed by Jean Paul Gautier (Fifth Element), another where everyone wears a lot of yummy green corduroy (Brave New World) and another possible future where alien races have all the great clothing design (Babylon 5). But for the most part, the future seems full of uniforms with very little room for self-expression indeed. So we might as well enjoy choosing our own clothes while we have the chance.

Admittedly, some uniforms are better than others. Obviously, most dystopian futures involve us all wearing boiler suits or shaving our heads, but we're determined to avoid those - the lose of individual style choices being just one among many good reasons to fight tyranny.  Early Star Trek uniforms are at least colourful and let you know your chances of survival, but the skirts are very short. Later Star Trek uniforms are too snug for comfort or flattery. The uniforms of Battlestar Gallactica, Starship Troopers and most of the clothes worn in the Alien films are just jazzed up modern military. It's like some people are determined that the future should be altogether more muted  and utilitarian than the past, rather than more sparkly, which is what it'll be if I have any say.

I was going to say that I could simply stick with my dressing gown and become a Jedi knight but then I realised it was "A long time ago in a galaxy far away." so that's not the future at all. All this time-travel is making me dizzy.  I think I best go back to bed now and watch a DVD. Perhaps a Western or something...

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

What's Wrong - and Right - About Trigger Warnings?

The idea of Trigger Warnings is to provide a heads-up to readers who may experience dramatic mental health symptoms (e.g. flash-backs, panic attacks or the inclination to self-harm) in response to imagery or the discussion of traumatic events, usually intimate violence and self-injury. The word trigger is typically used to describe stimuli which may set off the more dramatic effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (whether diagnosed or not), but is also used to describe things which, for some people, increase the temptation towards self-injurious behaviour (e.g. purging, cutting or even suicide).

There are a lot of problems with Trigger Warnings. Over the years, I have been all for them, dead against them and now I believe that they are a good idea only if they are done properly. For me, that means not using the term Trigger Warning at the top of a post.

The first problem with Trigger Warnings is that they can seem deeply patronising and sometimes even manipulative. Even if you know what happened to them, you don't necessarily have a clue about the triggers of someone with PTSD, although they are likely to include seemingly random and frequently benign things; an innocent turn of phrase, a smell, a harmless noise etc.. Meanwhile, reading about traumatic events similar to their experience can be helpful to recovery, at the right time and in the right circumstances. 

Similarly, someone inclined towards self-harm or unhealthy behaviour around food, is likely to receive challenging messages from all over the place which make it difficult to cope. There are no safe places. Folk are able to make choices about the relative risks they take reading any new material, but no writer can protect their readers. You could write a light-hearted piece about your pet rabbit which, for all kinds of complex reasons, tips a reader over the edge.

This is not to say so throw your readers to the lions. Writers do have responsibilities. 

In an old but memorable post in which she rails against the concept of “Safe Spaces”, Robyn asks
“What makes you qualified to inform me I can’t handle the subject matter? 
Good point if I say so myself. What else? 
It smells like a set up. Are you warning me or priming me? 
And It’s a directive? Trigger warning as a sneaky way to tell me how I should respond to your post. 
And if I ignore the hint? 
This is getting dark. It seems so very well-meaning. You should know about this trigger, dear, it’s attached to my gun. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” 
Sometimes you can feel that Trigger Warnings are there to advertise a post, in the style of old horror movies: "Viewers of a nervous disposition, look away now!" or "My words are so powerful, they just might make you sick."  Other times, it can seem to provide an excuse for unnecessary, sometimes even titillating detail of other people's trauma, as if the author believes that a Trigger Warning relieves them of the responsibility to ask, “Is this really necessary? Am I enjoying this too much? Am I using other people's gruesome experiences as a rhetorical device?"* 

The second problem is that Trigger Warnings are often done very badly.  Examples of bad Trigger Warnings include:
  1. Superfluous Trigger Warnings, or the May Contain Nuts problem. The title of a piece is "Monster Attacks Continue To Terrorise Villagers" then it reads "Trigger Warning: Contains description of monster attacks". This is extremely common. 
  2. Over-specific Warnings/ Teasers. The Trigger Warning reads, "Trigger Warning: This piece describes a green scaly monster with blood dripping off its huge fangs and eyes like pineapples and talks about how the monster strode into the village, crushed houses with its fists and tore the village traffic warden limb from limb." when "Contains description of monster attacks" would do. Again, it's hard to tell whether the writer is over-eager to inform, or merely trying to draw the reader in.
  3. Extremely vague Trigger Warnings. I won't link to them because they were making (some sort of) an effort but I recently saw a post, whose difficult subject matter was evident from the title, whose warning used the exact words "Trigger warning for trauma."
  4. Warnings which use the word trigger which are all about offensive content.
This leads to our third problem.  The language of mental health is frequently absorbed into the language of everyday emotional experience; "Traffic was manic today." ; "I was feeling depressed until I heard Jedward will be back in Eurovision this year." etc..  Perhaps inevitably, people have begun to use the word trigger for things that deeply upset and offend them. 

There's nothing wrong with objecting to and avoiding things which upset and offend you - in fact, it's very important to do so at least some of the time, or you'll make yourself miserable.  And in a way, Trigger Warnings have come about because of an inconsistency between what the media considers potentially upsetting, like swearing, blasphemy, nudity or comic book violence involving lots of blood and gore, and what can be, for some people, so very upsetting it makes them ill. As Louise puts it in n excellent post which explains the benefits of Trigger Warnings at greater length than I have:
All trigger warnings do is acknowledge that there are different sorts of horror, and they're not all measurable by things like age. If a record label is going to warn me that Eminem will use a swear word, why not warn me that he's going to depict a rape scene? If Facebook is going to protect people from breastfeeding images in case we find those offensive, surely they could warn us if we're about to click on a page with vivid rape stories, in case that makes us unwell?
And for this very reason, I'm inclined to drop the Trigger Warning and just warn people of all potentially upsetting subject matter in one go.  It's not like people vulnerable to triggers are inclined to skip disclaimers if it isn't labelled with a mental health term. Meanwhile, who isn't upset by reading about child abuse, domestic violence, eating disorders, self harm or suicide?  What kind of person doesn't feel at least deeply uncomfortable when they hear a rape joke?  

You don't have to belong to the unhappy club of experience to find that stuff far more challenging than two men kissing or whatever's the latest thing to attract the attention of actual censors. We should be working towards a point where intimate violence is assumed to be a sensitive subject for everyone, not just survivors. If it was, maybe there'd be less of it about. 

Otherwise, the word trigger offers power, and inevitably people will abuse that. One recent example was during a discussion I was reading where a straight cis woman stated that she found homophobic slurs "really triggering" and so it was impossible that any of those words could be reclaimed. It may be that she had experienced trauma involving that language (almost all victims of playground bullying are subject to those slurs), but I suspect she meant she found them discomforting and couldn't imagine a time when she wouldn't cringe to hear words like queer or dyke or whatever. However, the problem with homophobic slurs isn't that, for some people, they are associated with massive trauma (which they certainly are). The problem is that homophobic slurs are part of, and help to uphold, a massive social injustice.

Yet the minute someone effectively tells you that language is making them ill, you've kind of got to stop talking about it. Which is fine if you're talking with your friends and you can move swiftly on to this year's Eurovision line-up, but not so much in a public debate. 

So, by now, you'll be wanting my person criteria for the perfect Trigger Warning (You're not? Oh well). 

  1. It isn't there at all if the subject matter is in the title, or in the first few sentences of the piece. Few news items would need Trigger Warnings because headline-writers tend to get to the point (or at least the most extreme point).
  2. It doesn't say "Trigger Warning".  It says "Disclaimer" or "Warning" or simply says "Contains discussion of..." at the top of the post or article.
  3. It sums up the potentially problematic material in as few words as possible, but makes it clear. 
I don't think many writers I read regularly gets this too far wrong - the bad examples, or the ones that feel patronising or manipulative tend to be found in places I visit once and don't return to. However, I think Aliquant sets a particularly good example, because she writes a lot about mental illness, self-harm and the medical abuse of people with self-inflicted injury. Yet you always know where she's heading from the title or the first few lines. She occasionally uses warnings, but in the two examples I can remember, she pitched them just right.

I don't think anyone is capable of crossing the line when talking about their own trauma.