An Ode to the Trigger Warning

 


Founder of Attacked Not Defeated, Phoebe Tansley, is a sexual health practitioner, gender-based violence prevention advocate and survivor. Here she revisits a previous blog and reflects on her experiences over the last five years.


 

By Phoebe Tansley

Unbelievably, it’s been over two years since I last wrote about my personal experience of surviving rape. I suppose as time goes by and workload mounts, self-reflection gets pushed to the bottom of the priority list too often.

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I decided to write this as I recently reached the five year milestone since I was attacked; and in particular wanted to focus on something which has cropped up for me recently; triggers.

In the five years I have been doing this, many survivors have approached me and asked me for advice on how to cope; some reassurance that it gets easier. I know that when survivors who are further along in their journeys than me describe where they are at with it, it has at times comforted me.

In particular I remember reading an account written by a woman who – like me – was strangled, but around 20 years ago. She talked about how she couldn’t wear anything too restrictive around her neck for years because it reminded her of the attack, but that over time she started to wear scarves again and now she can do so without even thinking about it.

To me, in the early days of recovery, that was probably the most comforting thing I read. So next time you see me rocking a turtleneck and looking pretty smug about it, you’ll know why.

turtleneck

source: rifemagazine.co.uk

 

***

The word ‘trigger’ suddenly becomes really present in your life after you’ve experienced sexual violence.

I remember in the immediate aftermath, various professionals kept asking me what ‘triggers’ me or if I had been ‘triggered’, and not really knowing what they meant.

As I wrote in a previous blog, my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) arrived with delayed onset so for about six months after I was raped I felt relatively ‘okay’. It was my first trigger which actually then led to the first signs of PTSD; and that trigger was a pretty catastrophic one as it involved me being mugged by two men carrying machetes.

The sight of two violent men, the feeling of vulnerability, and the very real threat to my life took me right back to the night of the rape, and culminated in a total shut down of logic; I remember a feeling of overwhelming fear, and of utter devastation. It was from that moment on that my hyper-arousal kicked in.

There are plenty of definitions of hyper-arousal online; all I can really say with any authority is my own experience of it, which was a feeling of being constantly under threat.

Every situation was a risk, every day was a mission to avoid being raped or attacked. Every unknown person, and some known people, felt threatening. I had adrenaline constantly pumping through my body which translated into night-terrors as I slept; and so it was rare to have a restful and uninterrupted night’s sleep – even with the addition of a hammer that I kept by my bed.

I remained in this exhausting state of existence for around 18 months; but now, I am pleased to report, it has eased off substantially.

These days I walk home from the tube at night with the regular amount of anxiety that any woman experiences (that in itself is still frustrating but I’ll take putting keys between my fingers over screaming ‘HEELLPPPPP’ and running in the opposite direction when a man smiles at me on the street – this actually happened).

I am also, I think, a better friend and family member than I was back then. I’d put this mostly down to the fact that I don’t conduct an impossible-to-pass risk assessment of every social engagement before I attend in the same way I used to; I’m generally more trusting and can devote more brain space to enjoying people’s company now that it’s not being taken up by holding my bladder for hours on end because I’m convinced an attacker is waiting for me in the toilet.

All joking aside – hyper-arousal is totally debilitating and so if you are currently experiencing it, be gentle with yourself. You’re allowed to drop the ball a bit in other areas of your life while you navigate this horrible, relentless sense of impending doom. If a loved one is experiencing this, let them off the hook if they flake on a few meetups or don’t reply to your messages. They will come back to you and they will be so thankful that you continued to love them and gave them time to find their footing again.

So, remember a few paragraphs ago when I said everything was much better? It is – however, as with most difficult things in life, recovering from trauma is not a smooth ride. Rewind to four months ago, there I was living my life, feeling good about not having to barricade myself into rooms anymore, when the mother of all triggers decided to descend.

It had been so long that I had forgotten how it felt. And yet; the length of time I had felt better for, and the confidence I had developed, somehow made it worse: I wasn’t protected by shock like I was back then; the memories were flooding in with ease and clarity, and I was no longer dissociating with the event like I used to.

This wasn’t a scary movie anymore, it was me. It happened to me. It really happened.

I was watching the TV programme Broadchurch, which came with very clear and robust trigger warnings. Confession: I basically ignore trigger warnings. This is because between working in sexual health, studying sexual violence advocacy, and running AND, I have developed the ability to almost completely separate my personal experience and my professional experience. This ability is what has enabled me to do the job I love for the last five years.

I watch documentaries, films and TV programmes as well as read academic texts, personal accounts and fictional descriptions involving sexual violence all the time. Of course – I am human – it still affects me, but what I rarely do is relate it to my own experience.

I think one of the main reasons I have been able to do this is because what happened to me is a less common form of sexual violence – stranger rape. So, when I tuned into Broadchurch, the only thing going through my mind was that it would be interesting to see sexual violence support services depicted in a drama starring Olivia Coleman and David Tennant. It didn’t even occur to me that it might impact me personally.

And then suddenly, a frightened, injured woman was being taken into a clinical room for examinations – and it was me.

She had bruising on her arms and neck and cuts on her legs – just like me. She even had a cut on the back of her head where it hit the ground when she lost consciousness – just like me. And as the timid remains of her voice attempted to answer the policewoman’s questions while tears involuntarily fell out of her eyes, I remembered: that’s me.

This totally blindsided me and it took some time to feel like myself again. My nearest and dearest will tell you I am pretty in touch with my emotions – I regularly cry watching DIY SOS – but before experiencing this trigger, I can count on one hand the number of times that I remember crying about what happened to me. But this trigger acted like a faucet, and the tears were unyielding for a good five days.

***

I am very lucky in that I am currently being supported by a therapist, so I was able to take this into the therapy room within a week of it happening and do some very intense, challenging, but ultimately hugely restorative work around it. My therapist also gave me a talking to around my wilful ignorance of trigger warnings, and encouraged me to take a bit of a time out from anything which could be upsetting to watch.

But the most profound realisation to come out of this trigger has been this: maybe I don’t have to carry around my experience like a heavy burden whilst simultaneously trying to conceal it. Maybe I don’t need to be so anxious that others might view it as an impediment to my work and other areas of my life.

After watching Broadchurch I got into such a state that I felt an overwhelming urge to run away, because I genuinely didn’t know how I would ever be able to act normal and carry on with the life I had created for myself.

Partially due to aforementioned hyper-arousal, and partially due to my tireless indulgence in self-serve guilt, I decided not to do a runner and instead to bite the bullet and talk to a couple of people in my life about what I was going through.

The response I got wasn’t the one I was expecting. The people I chose to share with were my brother (for the comforting honesty that a sibling will reliably deliver) and two co-workers (because I was demonstrably not coping at work).

Both of these conversations resulted in these people fundamentally (and much more sensitively than this) asking me what on earth would possess me to stifle my human feelings and reactions to something which was not my fault in the first place, when those very feelings and reactions grant me an empathic knowledge which could actually be invaluable to my work?

Oops.

I had been so utterly convinced that my experience of sexual violence and the impact it had on my mental health would be at odds with my professional practice that I had neglected it and starved it of oxygen until it eventually clambered up into my consciousness, gasping for air and begging me to accept it as a part of me.

I am coming to realise that the most important thing I can do to aid my work is to take care of myself – and that means all of myself, not just the parts that are convenient.

Sometimes, admitting that something is hard and asking for help is the hardest part.

These blogs are not easy to write; and they’re even harder to share. But I do so in the hope that – just as that article comforted me five years ago – someone might read it and feel a little bit less alone. So to anybody who can relate to some of the things I have described in this blog, consider that sometimes it takes another person to point out the truth that has been glaringly obvious to everyone else the whole time; that the darkest part of yourself that you have demonised and shamed for so long could actually be cultivated into something wonderful, if you’d only shed a little bit of light onto it.

afterlife

“Afterlife” by Chana Bloch

Brock Turner: How social media remedied court failures

by Soffi James

Brock Turner

Brock Turner. The name now synonymous with sexual aggression, white privilege and denying culpability. The name that the world has come together to condemn.

Brock Turner’s case sparked outrage after receiving a pitiful six month sentence for the brutal rape of a young woman on the Stanford University campus.

Six months in jail is facile. But it’s also more jail time than most rapists will ever receive. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that 97 out of 100 rapists will not even see the inside of a cell for their crimes. It’s abysmal to think in comparison to this, Brock’s sentence seems like a small triumph.

Infogrpahic: Out of every 1,000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free

Image source: rainn.org

We’ve heard the excuses: ‘it was a misunderstanding’, ‘it was a bit of fun’, or a consensual “twenty minutes of action,” as put by Turner’s father. In this context, it’s unsurprising that victims often don’t find justice. All signs point back to a culture that continues to downplay and in turn perpetuate sexual assault.

Outside the constraints of the court room, rapist Brock has simultaneously been subject to trial by social media where furious narratives have played out online.

The 23-year-old victim, referred to in this case as “Emily Doe”, released a statement detailing her harrowing attack, giving her side of the story from the moment she woke up, to the news of Brock’s paltry conviction. Her account is striking, brave and powerful and the outpouring of compassion on her behalf and fury at the system has rippled throughout the world.

Perhaps this is what struck a chord with the public, passively absorbing details of the case through the screens of devices. The victim, who by default is protected by lifetime anonymity, chose to speak out – her voice singing free. Survivor and activist Winnie M Li explains it this way:

“Like the recent Stanford victim, I found myself Googling news stories on my assault, and felt the surreal displacement of reading what complete strangers were saying publicly about something very personal which had happened to me. And yet, nowhere in any of that coverage was there a place for myself, the victim, to speak.”

The 7244-word statement has been read by thousands – bypassing expensive column inches in print and the soundbite reportage of 24/7 broadcast – published in full online. The statement deserves to be read in it’s full unabridged entirety, to allow the victim to take her space in the ether among those discussing her personal suffering.

The 7244-word victim statement has been read and shared by thousands and because of this, Brock Turner’s case has become one of the most talked about rape cases in history.

petition to recall the judge who issued the sentence has gathered more than 1 million signatures, and three top political consultants have now joined the effort. Stanford graduates also protested at the university’s graduation ceremony on Sunday.

Student protesting against campus rape at her graduation, Stanford University

Students have used their graduations to protest the apparent leniancy of Stanford university against rapist pupils. Image source: Sky news

Even US Vice President Joe Biden has written an open letter to the anonymous victim expressing his empathy: “I am filled with furious anger – both that this happened to you and that our culture is still so broken that you were ever put in the position of defending your own worth.

“It must have been wrenching – to relive what he did to you all over again. But you did it anyway, in the hope that your strength might prevent this crime from happening to someone else. Your bravery is breathtaking.”

Twitter user Jez Kemp repurposed the sickening letter written by Brock Turner’s father, shifting the focus from the impact the rape has had on Brock, back the victim he attacked:

Image source: Twitter

Image source: Twitter

For all the good it’s done, social platforms are by nature accessible to all and many have exercised this right to undermine and diminish Emily Doe’s voice in the debate of this case. ‘Meninists’ and rape apologists have taken to their keyboards to wield their unwavering hubris. 

Just take the Brock Turner For 2016 Olympics page, full of rape enablers sharing juvenile sexist jokes, sickening memes and misogynous hatred. The page is littered with offensive and controversial hashtags such as #STANDWITHBROCK and #RIO2016. 

And a post seemingly written from Brock himself, expressed an insidious message inciting victim blaming: “The outpouring of love and supportive emails I continue to receive is amazing and reaffirms my faith in the good people of this country. We MUST continue to teach our girls about the dangers of binge drinking and promiscuity. Keep control of yourselves and don’t dress like sluts and everything will be fine.”

Since viewing these posts, the Facebook page has been shut down. In reality, policing these people won’t stop rape from happening, education will. Free speech is a right we must fight for, even if it does give airtime to individuals who use it to spread hatred and fear. As JK Rowling expressed in a recent speech about Donald Trump:

“He has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine.”

In the Brock Turner case the internet has acted as an aide, helping to shape and inform the public where the proceedings failed. A justice was borne out of the failings of our own legal systems.

I’m moved deeply by the global chorus of voices speaking out for this anonymous woman, showing not only a compelling sense of empathy but also a deep understanding of consent and its violation.

This vile, viral story will inevitably fade into darkness, overtaken by new stories and events grappling for our attention.

And in that darkness, Brock may think about this “Emily Doe’s” generous advice to rewrite his story. “The world is huge, it is so much bigger than Palo Alto and Stanford,” she writes, “and you will make a space for yourself in it where you can be useful and happy.” In the absence of tweets, petitions and blog posts, like mine, maybe Brock can take some time to reflect.

Maybe he will realise why the voice of his victim has carried so strongly – because she’s not speaking for herself. She’s speaking for the 656/1000 girls who couldn’t report the crime. She’s using her suffering to shine as a brilliant beacon for them. Perhaps her letter will move him to admit, apologise and take action to reform himself into a role model for young men, to think twice about how “20 minutes of action” could affect someone else’s life, not theirs.

Book Review: Asking For It by Kate Harding

By Soffi James

Full book title: Asking For It The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It

Rape culture is probably a term you’ve come across. It’s probably also a term that you’re not sure what to make of. You are not alone; author Kate Harding (pictured above) cringed when she first came across the term 10 years ago. In her seminal book Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It, Harding testifies, “it sounds so extreme at first that I confess even I, a proud feminist, initially balked at the term. Rape culture? Isn’t that overstating things just a smidge?”

But as she researched the subject more, she realised that rape culture was the only way to describe what she discovered. Kate Harding decided to create a guidebook of sorts, to explain the phrase, depict potent examples and offer up some solutions. And Harding has managed to deliver one of the most comprehensive, accessible and surprisingly funny feminist texts of the decade with wit and empathy.

‘Asking for it’

Much of Harding’s book is focused on victim blaming, a term that comes hand in hand with rape culture. She describes rape as the ‘perpetratorless crime’ with blame shifted to the victim; be that because of their clothing, attitude, or blood-alcohol levels, ultimately removing responsibility from the perpetrator.

Harding deconstructs the myths surrounding blame culture into seven different categories:

1. She asked for it.

2. It wasn’t really rape.

3. He didn’t mean to.

4. She wanted it.

5. She lied.

6. Rape is a trivial event.

7. Rape is a deviant event.

This book highlights how irresponsible and dangerous these myths are. Our cultural inability to accept that the action of rape is at the hands of a rapist, means that sexual assault has shifted into an “abstract threat for women, the way climate change is a threat to earth.”

Extending that metaphor; blaming the victim of rape is the same as blaming earth for the harm we have caused it. Puts it into perspective, right?

She-was-asking-for-it

The alarming rise of rape culture

Between 2013/14 there were 64,205 reported cases of sexual assault in the UK. These numbers were the highest recorded by the police in 11 years. Whether rapes are happening more often or whether victims are becoming more open to reporting it is hard to say.

Harding explores the role of the media, popular culture and the internet in the facilitation of rape culture and the provocation of sexual assault. Her discussion of #GamerGate, pick-up artists like Neil Strauss and men’s rights activist groups (MRAs) combine to paint a persuasive picture of how the internet has played its role in rape incitement.

What we can do about it

Encouragingly, Harding admits that the internet is also providing a platform for open discussion about sexual assault. The explosion of online feminist discourse, as well as the growth in anti-rape activism on ad-spaces and computer screens, has created a continuous public dialogue.

In the section ‘What We Can Do About it’, Harding offers ideas and suggestions on how we, as a society, can take steps to eradicate rape culture. This is where Harding comes into her own. What is refreshing about this book is that she offers real solutions, including education campaigns, challenging it on social media and confronting rape culture within your own social circles.

The fact Harding’s no-nonsense break-down on rape culture is being noticed, is good news. The downside is that we continue to have a major problem with rape and until we don’t need cultural critics like Kate Harding to unpack the swirling mixture of cultural influences that affect that way we think about assault, Harding has proven herself to be the best person for the job.