When Trump Supporters Mock Sexual Assault Triggering
For the last week, I’ve dreamed of my rape every night. Sometimes I dream about it exactly as it happened — a typical date rape. We were drunk, I said stop, he wouldn’t. Eventually, I turned my face to the side and waited for it to be over. But in my dreams, it often evolves into something much darker: a sexual torture plot worthy of Saw. No matter which version of the nightmare I get, I wake up each morning sweaty, exhausted, and twisted in the covers as if I have been fighting for my life.
This is what it means to be “triggered.”
“Trigger warnings” are used to warn trauma survivors that the content they are about to read or see could have a negative effect on them. It’s often a courtesy women and other assault victims extend to each other, based on an understanding of what it’s like to find yourself suddenly confronted with things you’d rather forget. But a misunderstanding of “trigger warnings” has caused many to push back on what they see as enabling over-sensitive reactions to difficult topics. The University of Chicago, for example — seemingly oblivious to the meaning or purpose of a trigger warning — sent out a letter to incoming freshman in which the school came out strongly against trigger warnings and safe spaces, presenting them as limiting factors of free speech on campus.
Worse than misunderstanding the concept of trigger warnings, however, is their willful misappropriation by those who mimic trauma-informed language to mock survivors. These days, whenever I weigh in on any kind of sexual violence against women on social media, I can guarantee some mouth-breather will pop up with a derisive “Awwww, are you triggered?” It’s become a joke, another way to mock women and liberals.
Jessica Luther, author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape, says trigger warnings aren’t intended to suppress discourse or debate, but to give victims of traumatic experiences a heads up:
“For some people, the topic could actually trigger them, meaning they have a negative emotional or physical reaction to the contact based on their past experiences. Giving them a moment to prepare for that is not some huge conspiracy to completely shelter people from hard things. It’s a kindness for people who have already experienced those hard things.”
A trigger warning seems like such an easy, non-intrusive thing to do for someone who has survived trauma. And yet, the word “trigger,” and its counterpart “safe space,” have been targets of mocking and derision by supporters of Donald Trump, Men’s Rights Advocates, and those who are just general jerks on social media.
Accusations that Trump has an unfortunate and extremely criminal habit of grabbing women by whatever part he deems most convenient has caused many survivors of sexual assault to relive their attacks. With each day, as the story remains front and center in the national narrative, more and more victims find themselves thinking about the time(s) they were sexually violated themselves.
Barbara, 50, found herself reliving a sexual assault from 30 years ago once the allegations against Trump became public. “Especially after the tape and second debate, it was dreadful. I did not sleep for days. I remembered an assault I’d repressed. I couldn’t eat. I was having anxiety attacks all the time, likely not helped by the sleeplessness.”
And Barabara isn’t alone. After putting out a call for assault survivors struggling in the wake of the Trump allegations, I was contacted by so many women, I couldn’t even respond to them all.
Here’s what some of them said about how the allegations have affected their well-being:
“At first it was just the regular sense of unease mixed with exhaustion. The one we always get when we talk about misogyny. But the more people defended him or dismissed it as just ‘locker room talk’ or argued that it was okay, I noticed an increase in my anxiety symptoms — I have had a hard time falling or staying asleep lately, I’m incredibly irritable, I’ve had frequent crying fits for seemingly no reason at all.” — Laura, 33
“I have actually been in an exceptionally bad mood the last couple of weeks . . . I guess I also don’t have any hope that all this talk will really do anything to help stem the violence against women.” — Amy, 41
“Any story that comes up about lack of consent is tough. Primarily because of the reactions that a lot of people have that seem to approve, justify, or minimize the assault. When I try to educate or balance out the denouncers, I feel like I’m defending myself against those who may question my experience.” — Jessica, 27
“I’ve been raped and have spoken out about that before. These comments brought flooding back to me the memories of all the ‘lesser’ assaults I’ve experienced over my life, from groping by strangers at bars and concerts, to the routine coercion I experienced in sexual encounters with hookups and boyfriends. Just getting through life as a woman has required me to suppress all those memories, and Trump’s comments — along with the allegations that women are lying, and the assertion that it was just ‘locker room talk’ — has triggered a flood of memories and anxiety.” — Robyn, 30
Whatever the anti-PC crowd believes, triggering is no joke. My rape happened over 20 years ago. I’ve spent countless hours in therapy talking about it, I’ve written about it at length, and I speak about it openly and often. In short, I’ve dealt with it. And yet, here I am, all these years later, dreading going to sleep because I’m afraid of my dreams.
To date, 11 women have accused Trump of groping or touching them sexually in an unwanted matter, with allegations ranging from unwanted hugging and kissing to forced fondling of women’s genitals. The backlash against Trump’s accusers has been swift and devastating, with at least one accuser contemplating leaving the country out of fear for her family’s safety.
And now, with encouragement from his supporters and right-wing media, Trump is promising to sue all the women who’ve come forward. Whether Trump will make good on his promises remains to be seen, but his threats echo one of sex assault victims’ biggest fears: retaliation by the accused. “It’s shed light on the fact that people don’t believe victims, and how messed up rape culture is in America,” says Melanie, 28. “I now question if my parents even care now, as they’re voting for this monster. That keeps me up at night more than anything.”
It’s not just the allegations against Trump that are so difficult and troubling for victims; it’s the response to the allegations, both by the candidate and by his supporters. “When I see people defend those remarks by Trump and even laugh and, on the other side, blankly defend Bill Clinton, I feel like I’m not being defended,” says Allie, 27, who was raped while in college. “We are having a national conversation about sexual assault but it has nothing to do with actual victims and actually protecting people, and that’s upsetting and frustrating and scary.”
Laura, a digital marketing specialist, agrees. “It’s an aggregate of the examples and incidents, from the shirts people wear at Trump rallies to the constant attempts to paint it as something normal that all men do. I’ve worked very hard on my trust issues and feeling safe around men, and this just sets fire to all of that.”
The coverage of the allegations against Trump has been so ubiquitous, it’s questionable what good trigger warnings would have done for sexual assault survivors struggling to cope. But the response of victims to “triggers” is valid and real and worthy of consideration.
“We know triggers can be used therapeutically in a controlled, structured environment,” says Jesse Freeden, a psychiatry intern at Emory University with advanced degrees in both medicine and brain science. “Outside of that environment though? Triggers aren’t therapy, they’re just worsening victims’ lives. So if trigger warnings can help victims avoid worsening symptoms, that far outweighs anyone who feels trigger warnings are a waste of time because they’re . . . unnecessary? A waste of time? Too politically correct? That’s nonsense.”
Freeden adds that Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) is intricately linked with trigger events, which is how psychiatrists typically become involved in working with rape survivors. In addition to depression and flashbacks, sexual assault often leads to PTSD; one study, for instance, found that 94% of women experienced PTSD symptoms during the two weeks immediately following their rape; nine months later, nearly 30% were still reporting symptoms. During PTSD episodes, triggers can cause rape victims to relive their assault; avoiding such triggers can be a vital coping mechanism.
“The couple of seconds to provide a trigger warning is a small price to play for tangible benefits to mental health. Also, it just seems like a decent and conscientious thing to do,” Freeden says.
It’s certainly a feeling rape survivors share, not just when it comes to campaign coverage, but in society in general. The allegations against Trump and the reaction of his supporters serves as a reminder to many survivors that rape culture in America is alive and well.
“Will I ever be safe? I don’t think so. And that’s an incredible burden to carry day in and day out,” one survivor told me. “I pray to have sons. I do. I know I can raise them right and good but it doesn’t matter how you raise your daughter. The world is still unsafe.”