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  • Harmed or HarmfulThe Discourse of Trigger Warnings, Trauma, and Shelter
  • Mary Maxfield (bio)

In May 2014 University of California–Santa Barbara sophomore Bailey Loverin published a New York Times opinion piece lauding the call to expand the use of “trigger warnings” on college campuses. Loverin had personally advocated for the use of trigger warnings on the university’s syllabi, arguing that “these warnings are less about protection and more about preparation” because they “allow survivors the chance to prepare to face the material” and contribute to the conversation.1

Although hardly the first entry in the trigger warning debate, Loverin’s piece, and her activism at her university, quickly inspired a slew of additional commentary from educators, journalists, and activists.2 “Comedic” trigger warnings—such as columnist Jill Filipovic’s tongue-in-cheek “Trigger Warning: this piece discusses trigger warnings”3 and New York Times national correspondent Jennifer Medina’s “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm”4—illustrate the tendency among many commentators to view requests like Loverin’s as absurd outgrowths of an overprotected generation. Indeed, political blogger Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, asked if “supporters of trigger warnings [are] just hoping to gives kids a few more years of refuge from the outside world,”5 equating college students with children who have yet to face the dangers of “real” (adult) life. McSweeney’s further solidified this link in January 2016, when it published a comedic “millennial think-piece bingo” card, which included “trigger warning culture” as a square.6

In general these responses read Loverin as the hypersensitive offspring of overprotection and entitlement. She became a metonym for the failures of the “millennial” generation and of white feminists, a symbol of hyper-frailty, childish complaint, and political correctness. Capitulating to such a standard, opponents argued, would simply reinforce her generation’s right to victimhood at the expense of free speech and critical thought. In defense of public discourse, trigger warnings could not stand. [End Page 63]

Opponents of trigger warnings represent the practice as an outgrowth and cause of hypersensitivity and victim culture.7 They regularly note that trigger warnings first developed in contexts specific to trauma victims—such as forums for rape and assault survivors—and have now proliferated past the point of usefulness.8 Schools and Web forums, they argue, are not meant to be therapeutic spaces centered on healing, and the shift to re-create them as such can only harm education and public debate. Moreover, the use of trigger warnings promotes avoidance, at the expense of healing. Essentially, campaigns like Loverin’s demand that schools be a therapeutic setting (which they are not), and that they provide a service not recommended for therapeutic purposes. Acquiescing to these demands can only affirm a generation of victims.

The discursive connection of trigger warnings to victimization—and to trauma more broadly—constitutes one of the only areas of overlap between supporters and opponents of the practice. Commentators link trigger warnings to trauma historically—noting that the warnings originate in feminist Web forums and anti-violence activism—and contemporarily, through references to current theoretical and medical models for trauma and trauma treatment. The references to past feminisms and current psychotherapeutic recommendations are rarely considered at length; rather, they are invoked superficially in support of existing points. Thus, I seek in this article to reconsider claims across the safe space debate, by exploring common arguments about trigger warnings in the context of historical and contemporary theorizations of trauma. Through an examination of the shelter movement, critical trauma theories, and psychotherapeutic recommendations, this essay examines claims that trigger warnings are currently “spreading,” that they are necessary for (or antithetical to) healing, and that they create a generation of victims or—conversely—represent a remedy to victimization for a marginalized group of trauma subjects.


In current usage, “safe space” rarely references a specific, bounded area—such as a shelter or sanctuary. Rather, existing spaces are marked as “safe” based on the actions of those within them. The “space” in question is largely figurative, with the spatial metaphor obscuring a primary focus on behavior. Investigating the contemporary discussion of “safe space” in dialogue with a literal safe...


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pp. 63-89
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