Bill Cosby and Triggers

Bill Cosby & Triggers

As someone who is actively engaged with the online community surrounding sexual assault awareness, I am constantly surrounded by news stories on the topic. That means that for the past few months– and especially the past week– my various news feeds have been bombarded with stories about Bill Cosby.

I want to start out by saying how much my heart is going out to all of the survivors who have spoken up against Bill Cosby and to the survivors who have chosen to not go public. My heart is full of support for these individuals and their loved ones, and full of anger towards the justice system that has repeatedly failed them, the media and individuals who have shamed and silenced them, and their assailant. There has been a lot of good, survivor-supporting press on the topic– to view some of that, click here, here, or here.

Each and every time I hear the name “Bill Cosby,” an overwhelming sense of anxiety and fear overtakes my mind and body. And I actually feel badly about my reaction– I should feel content with the fact that this is getting so much press coverage. I should feel all of that anger and disgust towards this man, but not fear or anxiety– after all, he is not my assailant. He does not know me. Statistically speaking, I will never, ever encounter this man.

But then I realized that I might not be the only one feeling this way, and I considered what I would tell someone who came to me with the same thoughts. Your triggers, your thoughts, and your experience is valid. It is yours. If you need to turn off the TV when a news story comes on or avoid specific articles on Twitter, that is okay. If you need to take a step away from a conversation surrounding current events or have a cry or talk though your feelings with a friends, that is okay. Allow yourself to feel and process and take care of yourself in whatever ways you need to. You deserve to feel safe.

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To The Man In The Suit

To the man who told me yesterday that there needed to be less of me,
that I needed to take up less space with the cells making up my skin and my nose and my stomach and my body,
that I needed to consume less to combat the dreaded f-word, the fat word,
I say no.

These are my arms,
my mother’s arms, my grandmother’s arms– strong and proud and glorious–
meant for lifting up others and doing our own damn housework and holding beautiful babies, should we choose to embrace motherhood.

These are my legs,
my father’s legs, my grandfather’s legs– tall and full and solid–
meant for rooting into the ground when the world grows weary and standing up for our beliefs and for holding us up through laborious journeys.

This is my stomach,
the embodiment of the women who have come before me– soft and changing and occasionally a battleground–
meant for taking in the energy that sustains my strength and for deep belly laughs and one day, not now or soon but one day, holding a child.

Sir, this is my body. I could name every part and tell you about its lineage and its purpose. But this body is mine. And that is reason enough to love it.

So, no. I will not take up less space for your eyes and plastic soul.
This is my body.
Not yours.

Trigger and Content Warnings in Academia

trigger & content warnings

Consider most of the objects you use on a typical day.

Almost all of them use cautionary labels in order to avoid liability: pain and sensitivity may occur when using a certain brand of toothpaste, medications have possible side effects and may cause drowsiness or dizziness, alcoholic beverages caution against operating a vehicle under the influence, plastic bags have suffocation warnings, tampon boxes contain a pamphlet on toxic shock syndrome, etc.

All of these labels pertain to circumnavigating bodily harm.

We forget that words and images, as well as objects, have the ability to inflict bodily harm.

No thing, material or not, exists free of consequence.

This does not mean that we do not use these things, only that we make ourselves aware of their possibilities and act with care.

Mental illness and post-traumatic stress trigger physiological responses.

The affect of trauma on our bodies can force us to leave school, jobs, social gatherings, and more, because we may be physically unable to remain in traumatic spaces or have aggressive and persistent physical reactions to stimulus or at random.

For example, my panic disorder causes me to vomit when triggered (something I cannot control even with medication). Sensory experiences, as well as words, can cause me to react this way– a reaction that is chemical as well as emotional.

One of my friends experiences a complete dissociation from their body, one develops heart palpitations that feel like a heart attack, and another becomes completely mute and frozen.

This does not mean I or my friends avoid things that scare or trigger us, only that we develop methods of coping and healing. However, that development is neither quick nor immediate and some days my natural reaction is to avoid and protect myself. Other days I am able to push past and engage myself fully without anxiety.

A trigger warning or content warning does not shield us from scary ideas.

It allows us to ready ourselves before exploring them.

Harry Houdini was famously said to have an “iron stomach.” However to create the illusion that he could take any punch thrown, he had to prepare himself to handle the blow. When he did not prepare himself to take a punch from J. Gordon Whitehead, it led to his death.

Trigger warnings are a way of reckoning not of avoiding. We use them to open discussion not to close. Providing a trigger warning in curriculum does not excuse individuals from participating in challenging material, it acknowledges the presence of violence in our lives and works to restore a sense of justice. Warnings allow us to calm ourselves so we can best engage and participate in a discussion.

When an entire classroom has acknowledged the presence of these events in our daily lives we are better equipped to support those living with trauma as they express their views, rather than having them sit through a conversation in pain or, god forbid, later self harm or end up in the hospital.

Last semester I took a course on Feminist Performance Art taught by visiting dance professor Ariel Osterweis. In the course syllabus was printed the first trigger/content warning I had encountered in academia:

Please Note:
Danger and safety are both integral to education. I invite you to break free from safe thinking: take risks. Try out ways of thinking that feel weird. Approach strange performances with curiosity. Don’t be afraid to sound stupid. Be brave. At the same time, I invite you to commit, with me, to making our classroom a safer space for us to take these risks. Listen to each other. Help each other think a little deeper or differently. Don’t be afraid to disagree with me or with your classmates, but do it with an attitude of respect. Be mindful of the power we have to inflict damage on others. Be aware of the structures of oppression (racism, cissexism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, and ableism) that can make learning environments unsafe for many. If you anticipate that some material might generate more than reasonably expected discomfort for you, let me know early in the term so we can work something out. In other words, as you embark on this class, I encourage you to be both brave and compassionate. (Adapted from Professor Laura Horak of Carlton University)

This note invited the class into difficult thinking and challenging discussions.

It didn’t hide material from the light but trusted us with the maturity to be able to act discerningly and in our own interest.

As a class we watched many explicit, violent, and upsetting performances that oftentimes left me feeling sick. Yet I still went home and wrote a paper about performances that upset me and was able to determine when a subject matter was one I did not want to engage further with.

After one particularly racist performance piece was shown, many students called the professor out for not providing a trigger warning for that particular video and some were angered at her for not inserting her opinion as a preface to the piece and agreeing that, yes, it was heinously racist. Two students expressed concern and contacted the professor.

Osterweis responded immediately, writing:

“In doing my work, I have identified Ann Liv Young as an anti-racist artist who uses a strategy of deliberately offending her audience in a very self-conscious way. But she does so without revealing her knowledge of the subject at hand. In other words, as many of you astutely observed, she just may be always performing, even when she comes to speak to us in class. She allows us to feel disgust toward her as part of her strategy. It is our job as scholars to try to ascertain some of the strategies she calls upon and some of the socio-cultural issues she is identifying by using offensive spectacles as part of her strategy. As you may have noticed, she rarely mentions the fact that she is Native American (and only did so in an intentionally arbitrary way during her performance); I believe this is also a strategy of staging (white) privilege.

Nevertheless, by no means would I ever attempt to defend her; it is entirely up to you to make an informed analysis of her work, work that leeches emotion from its viewer. Your reactions are valid and I validate them.

I always strive to foster a safe environment amidst an ethic of intellectual risk-taking. Thus, material in my courses (especially this one) will be challenging on many levels, and will be differently challenging for different individuals. Each person has an individual threshold for what could be triggering.

I respect you and want you to remember that you have agency here. Your education is your right and your responsibility, and I encourage you to take advantage of scanning the syllabus and/or Blackboard (or class discussion) for material that could be triggering for you and to come to me if you want to check ahead of time (even though I have been clear about content). In taking responsibility for your education, I encourage you to take the time to come speak with me anytime.

The professor validated student’s experiences while simultaneously justifying her personal opinions and beliefs. She supported and cared for students while also educating and challenging them by delving into and questioning the intent of the piece and its will to provoke as a means to expose.

While her response was by no means perfect and many were still upset by the video, it allowed us to move forward from the experience with the knowledge of how the piece could cause harm and how we may support our peers in the instance when triggering material is shown. Some students went to Osterweis during office hours to engage in conversation about the piece further and others wished to move on from and forget the piece completely. Either way, the professor encouraged the conversation to continue while still attempting to protect those who were triggered from further harm.

There is no way to avoid triggering material in daily life. A wolf whistle, fireworks, a motorcycle that sounds like the crack of a gun, someone’s voice which resembles that of an abuser or someone who resembles an abuser, articles, books, newspaper headlines– all have the ability to grab and potentially harm.

We cannot sensor and protect everyone from re-experiencing trauma. It is, unfortunately, inevitable.

However, in classrooms, where learning remains paramount– why not work to provide a space where all can learn optimally. One where we can engage with these issues that seep into our lives in a myriad of ways with respect, support, and understanding.

This is not an oversensitive request.

It’s a request to better connect and empower student to seek justice and employ “an ethic of love” (as Bell Hooks writes) in all areas of our lives.

I Need Trigger Warnings: A Response to Skidmore News

trigger warnings

Each day since the horrifying Skidmore News article was released deeming trigger warnings as unnecessary and “intellectually lazy,” I have sat down and attempted to write a response letter to the editorial board. But, each time, I cannot get past the first paragraph without letting my anger get the best of me and needing to take a step back.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. I need trigger warnings. Notice that I use the word “need”– not want, not favor, but need. In order to be a student who is actively able to contribute to the classroom environment, in order to be a productive member of a workplace, in order to function socially. When a professor or coworker or friend prefaces something they’re about to say with the words “trigger warning” or some sort of preface that we’re going to be discussing a sensitive topic, I am able to brace myself in order to fully engage in this interaction.

The words of this article further enforces the damaging stigma surrounding survivors of sexual assault, mental illness, and other types of life experiences. While I should have been prepared to see this kind of language from Skidmore News considering their previous coverage on sexual assault and gender equality on campus, I truly expected more of the Editorial Board when it came to this topic.

I am not intellectually lazy. I have a good GPA, I have consistently taken 18-credit course-loads while simultaneously working three part-time jobs and running my own organization. I am strong, I am smart– and it has taken me years to be able to see this within myself. If memory serves me correctly, I have stepped out of a class only twice in my entire college career to compose myself– and this was not due to a trigger warning giving me permission to. This was because a professor did not use a trigger warning before launching into a discussion on graphic depictions of sexual assault– something that I was not mentally prepared to handle, but that I could have had there been a warning that this was where the conversation was headed.

If needing a trigger warning to be able to feel safe and able to engage in this community makes me intellectually lazy, than goddamnit, I guess I’m intellectually lazy. But if Skidmore News and other members of this supposedly warm and open community decide to stigmatize and create an unsafe environment for individuals who also need trigger warnings, then they are willingly ignorant and rude.

Please note that I have chosen not to respond to the Skidmore News article on their own website, as I do not want to give them any more publicity or traffic than I already have by addressing their horrifying remarks.

#ICYMI: Feminist News Round-Up (September 14 – September 20, 2015)

9.20 ICYMI

Photo: Andrew Burton

US House of Representatives Votes to Defund Planned Parenthood
On Friday, the US House of Representatives voted to block all federal funding of Planned Parenthood. While this bill has little-to-no chance of actually going into effect due to opposition from President Obama and the Democratic party, this sheds light on an important political issue– a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body– which we thought was set in stone with the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Needless to say, we will keep fighting until bodily autonomy is assured for all women. We Stand with Survivors, and we #StandwithPP. For more information on the vote, click here.


Photo: Vevo

Photo: Vevo

Lady Gaga Teams Up with The Hunting Ground to Raise Awareness for Campus Sexual Assault
In her haunting new music video “Til It Happens to You,” released in partnership with The Hunting Ground, Lady Gaga reveals the realities of rape taking place each and every day on college campuses. Dianne Warren, the composer of the song, stated in an interview, “I want [people] to know that they’re not alone and they’re not victims, but they’re survivors.” Part of the proceeds from the song and music video will be donated to organizations that support survivors of sexual assault. To watch the video, click here.


Tyra Banks and Chrissy Teigen

Photo: Startracks

Chrissy Teigen and Tyra Banks Shed Light on Fertility Issues
On a recent episode of their new talk show FABLife, models Chrissy Teigen and Tyra Banks disclose their personal struggles with infertility and discuss the pain that societal expectations have on them in this regard. Teigen stated, “I can’t imagine being that nosy to be like, ‘So, when are the kids coming?’ Because who knows what somebody’s going through? Who knows if somebody’s struggling to have children?” So many people are unaware that the expectation for women to be mother’s can be very emotionally and personally detrimental– we are so grateful that Teigen and Banks decided to speak out on the issue. To watch the full clip, click here.

#ICYMI: Feminist News Round-Up (September 7 – September 13, 2015)

 #ICYMI (September 7 - September 13, 2015)
Safe Campus Act Protests

Photo: Huffington Post

Controversy Surrounding the Safe Campus Act

For some horrifying reason, a bill (the Safe Campus Act) is being considered in the House which would limit colleges’ abilities to punish students found in violation of their sexual misconduct policy. If passed, this policy would only allow colleges to sanction perpetrators if survivors also file a complaint with police. This is in direct violation of Title IX, the gender equity law that allows survivors the option of of choosing to whom they want to report. For more information on the bill, click here.


Joe Biden Rape Kit Backlog

Photo: REX/REX USA

Lawmakers Pledge $80 Million to Help End the Rape Kit Backlog

This week, Vice President Joe Biden was joined by US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance to announce a new plan to process the estimated 70,000 untested rape kits in the United States– a pledge of $80 million worth of federal funds. This marks a huge step for the government towards the prosecution of rapists and protection of survivors. For more information about the announcement, click here.


Reshma Quereshi

Photo: Make Love Not Scars

Woman Highlight’s India’s Acid Attack Problem via YouTube “Beauty Tutorials”

Reshma Bano Quershi, Indian acid attack survivor and activist, has garnered a great deal of attention this week for her beauty tutorial on YouTube, spreading awareness for India’s rampant acid attack problem. In her video “How to get perfect red lips”Qureshi discusses that it is just as easy, and occasionally cheaper, for attackers to purchase concentrated acid as it is for her to buy a tube of lipstick. For more information on Quershi and the Make Love Not Scars campaign, click here.


Beverly Gooden and #WhyIStayed

Photo: ABC News

#WhyIStayed Celebrates One Year of Viral Fame

One year ago last week, Beverly Gooden responded to the massive Ray Rice domestic violence scandal from a different perspective. She created the revolutionary hashtag #WhyIStayed in order to combat the shaming and demoralization of women who choose to stay with their abusive partners. To read Gooden’s one year reflection on #WhyIStayed, click here.

SAME STORY, DIFFERENT POLITICIAN: Donald Trump and Rape Culture

Same Story, Different Politician: Donald Trump and Rape Culture

Photo Courtesy of Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump has certainly been taking over the internet and television with his, uh, interesting run for the Republican presidential nomination. Known for his accusatory and crude remarks about everyone from Jeb Bush to Rosie O’Donnell, it has been almost impossible to go a day without hearing someone talking about his latest offensive statement.

A few days ago, I was sitting in an airport terminal, checking my Twitter and getting ready to board my flight, when I see these tweets of his from 2013:

Donald Trump 2013 Tweets on Rape Culture

I’m sorry- what? This epidemic of military sexual assault is expected because the government decided to treat men and women as equals and allow both to fight in the military?

I could probably write thousands of blog posts about what is wrong and horrible about these statements, and maybe one day I will. But right now, I want to shed light on something equally as appalling: Donald Trump is not the first politician to make such horrifying remarks that perpetuate the cycle of rape culture. In fact, he is a part of a long line of politicians and members of the legal community who have made such remarks. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

  1. “[Rape is] simply, like, nobody plans to have an accident in a car accident, nobody plans to have their homes flooded. You have to buy extra insurance for those.” -Barbara Listing, president of the Michigan Right to Life on why abortion coverage should be purchased as its own individual policy, including for victims of sexual assault or incest
  2. “[The sexual assault victim] was as much in control of the situation [as the perpetrator, and was] older than her chronological age.” -Montana Judge G. Todd Baugh on his decision to sentence a 54-year-old teacher to only 30 days in prison after being convicted of raping a 14-year old student
  3. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” -Republican Representative Todd Akin responding to a local news interviewer’s question about whether he believes abortion is justified in cases of rape
  4. “If [sexual assault] is inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” -1990 Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee Clayton Williams during to reporters and press while holding a cattle roundup on his ranch

Same story, different politician, still not okay. It is up to us to continue fighting this battle and raging against the rape culture so prominent in our society today. We’re glad to be fighting and raging with you.