Not Just Trigger Warnings: a blog by Lynne Alexander

Not Just Trigger Warnings: Supporting Survivors of Sexual & Domestic Violence in the Classroom

By Lynne Alexander


Sitting here in the aftermath of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and swearing-in ceremony, I feel anguished and drained. Surviving in this fractured and divided nation and being bombarded with imagery and rhetoric from all sides that is potentially triggering and deeply upsetting has been a struggle. The past few weeks were particularly hard for me as a survivor whose life is full of other survivors, both personal and professional.

Lynne M. Alexander is a dual master’s student in the Department of Public Policy focusing on Public Administration and the School of Social Work with a concentration in Practice with Individuals, Groups and Families. They work with the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Instructor. They currently serve on the Board of Directors for the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition (CTAC). Their research interests include queer pedagogy, classroom inclusion and culturally competent clinical social work care for LGBTQIA+ individuals and survivors of gender-based violence.

It is in this time that I sit down to write about supporting survivors of sexual and domestic violence in the classroom, a topic that has always been vital. In the era of #metoo and #cancelkavanaugh, it is even more on our minds as educators.To further contextualize this piece, I must tell you we are in the midst of what is colloquially known as “the red zone.” The red zone is often described as the time between move-in weekend and when students leave for fall break, wherein students, particularly women and other marginalized genders, especially those in their first few semesters of college, are more vulnerable to instances of sexual violence. RAINN statistics present a chilling picture of the timeline of sexual violence on college campuses, revealing that “more than 50% of college sexual assaults occur in either August, September, October, or November” (Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics).

In one of my undergraduate college classes, we read a piece that had a frank depiction of relationship violence. As much as it troubled me, I went to class ready to discuss it–only to be profoundly disappointed by seemingly endless victim-blaming. I was the lone opposition, judged harshly for how I focused less on criticizing and tearing down other problematic elements of the story and more on the brutality shown by the main character towards his wife.

I looked to my professor for some kind of moderation, and his response was to recount an episode from his own personal life that simply added to the victim-blaming atmosphere. This was before I even allowed myself to understand myself as a survivor. I didn’t understand why I suddenly lost interest in the course, which was in an area of study that I loved and majored in. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t find any will to continue reading the class material. When I went to class, I wasn’t really “there” and I certainly didn’t want to be there physically. Where once I had eagerly participated in class discussions, I sat in the back and had nothing to say. I had completely disengaged and checked out. I managed to pass the class with a fairly good grade, but as soon as I was done, I threw out my notebook and quickly sold my books back. I didn’t think about the class until years later, after I had come into my own and more fully understood myself.

In my time doing sexual violence prevention education, many of the survivors I have talked to have avoided a situation where a classroom became openly hostile. But a number of them have recounted situations where faculty allowed discussions to get out of hand, or more commonly, did not properly warn for potentially triggering situations.

This post will assist professors and TAs in structuring discussions and developing their curriculum to be sensitive to the needs of students who are survivors of sexual violence. According to RAINN, “11.2% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (among all graduate and undergraduate students)” (Campus Sexual Violence: Statistics). Additionally, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) states that “one in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted while in college” (Statistics About Sexual Violence). Further statistics from the NSVRC highlight that “one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old” and that “81% of women and 35% of men report significant short-term or long-term impacts such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).” Because of this, it is highly likely that there will be at least one survivor, if not more, in every classroom. Making adjustments to tailor learning to accommodate those students will result in more equitable education as trauma in the classroom can make students withdraw and disengage from the course content.

Konradi (1993) discusses the impact of silence and “silencing experiences” in teaching about sexual assault, and pinpoints three salient issues raised by survivors of sexual violence in the classroom. Konradi notes that to survivors, “class discussions about the subject of sexual assault [are] never exclusively academic or intellectual” (14). First, when sexual assault in the classroom is not properly introduced and seems to just appear as a topic, survivors are mentally unprepared to deal with the subject. Secondly, having the conversation solely focus on the abstract, and without any focus on the point of view of the victim-survivor silences survivors. Third, many survivors are afraid to speak up for fear of being labeled “the sexual assault survivor” or being expected to speak on their personal experiences.

Keeping all this in mind, I have collected what I consider to be key points for supporting survivors in the classroom.

Survivors can be anyone

There is no one way to know whether or not someone is a survivor. A number of survivors are people who self-identify as women. However people of all genders, particularly transgender and non-binary individuals, can be survivors of sexual violence. The Office for Victims of Crime states, “one in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives.” Some reports estimate that transgender survivors may experience rates of sexual assault up to 66 percent, often coupled with physical assaults or abuse. The CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey found that, “46 percent of bisexual women have been raped, compared to 17 percent of heterosexual women and 13 percent of lesbians; 22 percent of bisexual women have been raped by an intimate partner, compared to 9 percent of heterosexual women; 40 percent of gay men and 47 percent of bisexual men have experienced sexual violence other than rape, compared to 21 percent of heterosexual men.”

One of the survivors that I talked to when preparing for this piece mentioned being part of a classroom discussion about rape and feeling as though he could not contribute to the conversation. The tone set by the professor and echoed by the class was that rape is something that only happens to women. As a queer trans man, he felt completely shut down and as though if he attempted to share his story he would be disbelieved or misgendered.

Make clear guidelines for classroom discussions—including yourself as the instructor.

Setting clear guidelines for the conversation can create a space where survivors and non-survivors alike feel empowered to have a conversation. Responses to trauma can take on a number of forms, and even for those students who have not experienced sexual violence personally, there can be secondary survivors (those who are close to someone who has experienced sexual violence) and survivors of other types of violence who can be harmed by unrestrained conversations and in particular, victim-blaming.

It also allows you to have the ability to bring the conversation back using the guidelines if the situation begins to turn hostile.

  • Have the students collaborate with you on a list of guidelines for difficult discussions. This can be built into the first few classes, particularly if you are going to be dealing with difficult material often.
  • Make it clear to your classes that anyone can be a survivor and that as part of the conversation they should keep in mind that there may be survivors in the room.
  • Make it acceptable for students to move out of the classroom if they need to.
  • Make sure the conversation doesn’t exist solely in the abstract.
  • Don’t be afraid to be clear about where you stand.

As two survivors mentioned to me, it is oftentimes the tone set by the personal stance of the professor that can make or break an experience:

“One of the worst experiences I had was with a teacher that insisted on playing devil’s advocate. I had shared part of my story, but of course I pretended that it happened to someone else. I left the class feeling like I couldn’t breathe. It was like my personal experiences didn’t matter. They weren’t real enough to matter in a conversation about abstract concepts.”

Another shared that “The only time I went to a class where I knew we were going to talk about sexual assault was one where my professor had talked about what her personal feelings and experiences were. I felt that she would not tolerate victim-blaming in the discussion, and she didn’t.”

Question whether or not graphic material has value

Sometimes, frank discussions and materials that graphically illustrate sexual and relationship violence are necessary to the learning objectives of the class.  It may seem that it is necessary in order to truly challenge the beliefs of students who have limited experiences, but oftentimes it just creates a limited range of empathy, where students are willing to extend empathy only within a narrow range of extreme situations. Consider whether or not the material you wish to expose students to is absolutely necessary, and try to stagger such material throughout the semester. This will give your students more opportunity to prepare.

Trigger warnings are important—even if it may not seem like it.

There has been a great deal of debate in recent years about whether or not trigger warnings are useful. Some purport that they are an easy way for students to get out of talking about important materials, or to avoid anything that challenges their belief system. To many others, however, trigger warnings are an essential part of preparing their students to talk ethically about difficult topics. A number of survivors that I have talked to are very much in support of trigger warnings, as some illustrate below:

“It’s so much easier for me to handle things if I know they are going to happen. I don’t want to stop these conversations from happening. They’re one of the most important things that can be done to prevent sexual assault! I just want to make sure I can be part of it, and if I’m triggered, I’m not going to be able to.”

“It’s respectful and it allows you to engage material more critically. It’s ethical. It enhances free speech by giving people who might get shut down and unable to engage  It also is a good teaching moment for students who may not need trigger warning.”

“It gives me the opportunity to decide whether or not I can deal with the material, whether it’s just that day or not. On good days, I can handle it. On a bad day, I need to stay home.”

Consider how you might make viewing or reading the material easier for students. Perhaps allow students the opportunity to watch material at home or give students who come to you the opportunity to do equivalent work that will not touch on topics that are harmful for their mental health.

Many faculty do a blanket trigger warning as part of their introduction to the class, and then remind students as material with common triggers approaches. You may also additionally pass around cards the first week of class and ask for students to anonymously make you aware of things that should know, including triggers. Making the disclosure anonymous may allow students to feel more comfortable letting you know, and you can tailor your material accordingly. You may not be able to trigger warn for everything with your students, particularly if they have triggers that are less common. However, students will see this as a commitment to ethical treatment of survivors. As one survivor states:

“I have a trigger that is seemingly random. I don’t expect to be warned for it because I don’t want to tell anyone about it. But when someone actually treats trigger warnings as more than just, like, a joke? It means a lot. Because they are seen as a joke now by some people, and it really just shows how much we don’t care about survivors of violence, people with mental illness, etc., in our society.”

Recognize you will be seen as a resource for students and prepare for it

  • Make sure you are aware of the resources that are available for your students on campus and how you can connect them with it
  • Understand what reporting measures are required of you for your position and how to make students aware of this before they disclose.
  • Value the disclosures that you receive from students either in-person or in academic writing. This shows how much trust you have built with your students!

Believe your students, and show them that you believe. It can be one of the most radical acts of teaching.

More than anything, college classrooms should be about encouraging your students to be the best they can possibly be. Supporting survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence should be part of this not just because it works to provide equity in education but because as teachers, it is the morally right thing for us to do. In a world and a country that does not always value the rights or needs of survivors, and certainly does not prioritize their voices, we owe them that in our classrooms.