Trigger Warnings: Caring or Coddling?

CW: potentially triggering words


A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of taking first half of US History. During one class, my professor used all of these words in some capacity (and I promise they all made sense in context): penis, vagina, uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, obstetrics, gynecology, prostitute/hooker/whore, sex, sexual assault, rape, erection, damn, crap, hell, and ass.

You could argue that his lectures are rather…adult.

Like I said, all of these words made sense in context. All the anatomy was describing how Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female medical doctor in the United States, and began the specialty of obstetrics and gynecology, because up until that point men had not thought it important to study women’s reproductive health. They thought women were defective men, and that their uteruses just floated around their bodies when not pregnant, causing “hysteria.” All the other words had good reasons too, and the last four are just because he likes to mildly swear.

So why is this a problem?

On the surface, it’s not. Not really. This is college, and we’re all adults, and we’re all paying to show up and listen. And I actually appreciate that he covers perspectives many professors don’t; his specialties are women’s history and religious history, so we hear a lot about both. White male rhetoric stays at a minimum. It’s the first history class I’ve not been bored in.

So while I appreciate that, I often find his language startling for a classroom environment, particularly since he’s prone to nearly shouting. As a rape victim, I can find a man shouting the words “rape,” “erection,” and “assault” at me pretty triggering, even now, even as healed as I am.

So what’s the solution?

What about trigger warnings? This has been a topic of debate for a while now. I don’t know about trigger warnings for the classroom. This is US history. It has slavery, war, racism, misogyny, genocide, and all sorts of other ugly shit. If you have issues with violence, expect to be triggered, and take responsibility for your own self-care. Like I said, this is upper education. It’s meant to be adult conversation, it’s meant to make you think and push your boundaries, and you’re showing up voluntarily.

I have developed ways to protect myself. Things like picturing a force field around me that the triggering words can’t penetrate. There are any number of ways to cope with triggers, and this is necessary to do everywhere, not just in the classroom. However, not everyone is at the same stage of healing that I am, and not everyone has the resources to go to therapy. Some people may not even be aware that they have PTSD yet. And some people just need a little warning so they can engage those coping skills. Usually the argument against trigger warnings in college is that the rest of the world doesn’t have them, and that people need to develop a thicker skin instead of being coddled. One could argue, however, that trigger warnings are simply another way of making school an accessible and safe environment for students who have a psychological issue, not unlike having elevators for people who can’t climb stairs. Some people can’t listen to certain lectures. Perhaps educators need to be more sensitive to that.

The truth is, under all that bluster, this professor cares deeply about his students. When he saw the old cutting scars on my arms, he took me aside and asked if we needed to go to the counselor’s office (I thanked him and told him I was good.) He told us on the first day that if he thinks a student is depressed, he will take them to the counselor’s office because he doesn’t play with suicide. I think he doesn’t mince words because we don’t learn anything from history unless we look at as many perspectives as possible– even the ugliest ones.

Everyone has some ugliness in their history. Those of us who have a lot of it may need to be supported more than we currently are.


What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

6 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings: Caring or Coddling?

  1. (Speaking as a university professor, and as someone who spent years as a graduate student.) It’s not about being a student or a cashier or a doctor or a professor. I don’t feel that it is someone else’s responsibility to give me (or anyone) warnings about upsetting material. First of all, that is my responsibility as an adult. Secondly, where do we draw the line? What is triggering for some people won’t be a concern for whole other groups, and vice versa, so how should one professor know what to say to thirty students each and every time a new article or chapter or book is assigned? Not only is it not fair to the professor, but it’s also not fair to everyone else taking the class when the material is compromised for one, or a few, students. As a literature professor, I’d have to warn every single person about every single canonical or contemporary text.


    • If a person has PTSD though, it’s not just about “taking responsibility.” They may be taking responsibility for their illness and still be unable to cope with triggering material. It should, perhaps, be the student’s responsibility to let the professor know at the beginning of the semester what issues they have so the professor could let them know privately that something in class that day might be a potential problem. That might be better than a blanket trigger warning. I don’t feel that warning people compromises material. It just makes the classroom safe and accessible for trauma victims the same way we make classrooms safe and accessible for people with other disabilities. It’s an accommodation that allows trauma victims to empower themselves to make a choice; something they don’t have about being victims of having PTSD.


      • Life doesn’t have trigger warnings, regardless of any type of trauma in a person’s past. We can’t really change day to day events and situations or even avoid all of them. We do get to choose how we react to things that upset us or cause anxiety. Depending on classes each semester, I can have over 100 students in five different sections of the same course, or in three or four different courses reading different texts. And if I have a student say that a certain topic is difficult or triggering, I can have the list of campus resources available, but you can’t skip uncomfortable classes just like I can’t avoid reminders of my own trauma. Not if I want to be in academia I can’t.


        • Of course life doesn’t have trigger warnings. And that’s always the argument that gets raised against this. But schools should be different; schools should be a haven. If I hadn’t had school as a safe place growing up in an environment of chaos and abuse and violence, I wouldn’t have survived. Upper education has been the same way- it’s been an escape. And I believe that students should be able to feel safe in an educational environment, because it’s only then that we feel able to open our minds to new ideas and be challenged. If you don’t feel safe, you shut down. And that is counter to the purpose of a college education. Or at least it should be.


          • I guess I don’t buy the “school is automatically a safe place” line, especially after high school. There is so much in our history and in contemporary society that triggers someone, and not discussing it or reading about it helps no one. And, facing difficult or triggering topics doesn’t make a classroom any less safe than avoiding these topics would. Imagine if people going into medicine didn’t have to discuss physical trauma from sexual abuse. I want my providers–in physical and mental healthcare fields–to be prepared. And I am so thankful that my pastors have all had to take classes in these difficult topics.


            • You’re misunderstanding me. I’m not saying not to cover those topics. I want those topics to be covered, and I’m grateful my professor covered what he did. I just want there to be some forewarning for people who need to engage their coping skills to handle the material. It’s important to cover it. It’s just as important to care for people who have been traumatized by things in that material.


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