Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Trigger Me This, Trigger Me That

Trigger Warning: Just a heads up I'm talking about triggers and I share some of my experiences. Just a heads up, do as you will.

So I've backspaced over the opening paragraphs to this post about 8 times in the last few hours. I've been working through some thoughts on triggers and redemptive suffering. I've blogged the last couple of days on a particular internet conflict, which you can find at "Elbow Room" and "Kissing Girls & Other Playground Games".

As I've been thinking through those posts, my thoughts turned toward triggers, and the way in which many of us women are navigating masculine spaces (and if there was ever a vague term that deserves unpacking, it would be "masculine spaces").

A lot of us women have had some downright terrifying experiences of sexual/spiritual/physical violence in our lives, most often perpetrated by men. I'm pretty uncomfortable with this generalization, seeing as how gender is a very flexible concept, but I've been pondering the idea of triggers in the context of male-identified bloggers asking where the women are.

Sometimes in my youth ministry work, people ask me, "Katie, why don't the youth come to Church/Potlucks/SewingCircles/CommitteeMeetings?" Actually, I was asked that today. I have a standard set of answers based on the 20 years I've been working with youth and families and the bunches of books and articles I've read. I usually spout those answers off. Sometimes I suggest a meeting with the youth to ask them. Those meetings usually suck.

I think my new response to people is going to be, "I'm not sure. Why do you think they aren't coming?" And then I'm going to hold us on point until we really examine what it is about our adult behavior that is closing the doors on relationship.

Why aren't the women present in larger numbers in Emergent circles? Why aren't women present in
larger numbers in say, sports bars? Why aren't women more present in political office? WHERE ARE THE WIMMENZ??

I think I'm starting to believe it's a rhetorical question, because very well-educated and experienced men are asking it. And there's a ton of documentation out there about women, safe spaces, etc. Nevertheless, when people ask this question, some brave women actually try to answer the question. And somewhere in the explanation comes a discussion of being triggered. And then the inevitable frustration (mostly on the part of men) that they don't want to be responsible for triggering people--after all, they aren't the ones who caused the damage in the first place.

What is a trigger, you ask? Besides being a word that seems to shut down conversation with men who don't wish to be called triggers?  I guess at its most basic, a trigger is something that prompts a reaction.  A trigger could be a word or phrase, or a smell, or picture. It could be an accent, certain clothing, certain behavior, a look, a movement. A trigger could be just about anything--and therein lies the problem. 

I do better with examples.

1. Once I sat down in a seminary class. A male colleague sat down next to me. He smelled exactly like a man who raped me. He wasn't the man who raped me. Nevertheless, images, thoughts, and feelings popped into my mind. I had been triggered.

2. Once I was sitting in my car in a parking lot at a public park. I was working on a math puzzle. I was focused and did not notice the man who walked next to my car until he was next to me. He did not notice me focused with death-like stillness on my math puzzle. I heard a noise and looked up, startled. The man, totally oblivious, unzipped his pants and urinated. I utterly panicked. His body type was similar to my rapist. I hadn't planned on seeing that much of anybody that day. My brain went into overdrive--if he would break a boundary about public urination, WHAT ELSE WOULD HE DO?? I had been triggered.

3. I was on a date, and smooching a little (sue me). I decided I was done and pulled away. My date's hands tightened around my wrists reflexively for just a moment. I have been down this road a few times and it usually ends badly for me--as soon as his hands tightened, I thought, "NOT AGAIN! I CAN'T GET THIS PERSON OFF ME, THEY ARE TOO STRONG. HOW BOUT IF I SCREAM LIKE HELL!!??" My date let go. We talked it through. It took a long time for me to trust my friend again, fairly or not. I had been triggered.

4. I've experienced flashbacks while with a partner. This was devastating for both of us. For me, scared out of my mind. For my partner, who really did not want to be identified as a stand-in for a rapist. I think that's all I can say about that. But I had been triggered.

Some triggers are really and truly not the fault of the person who triggers me. How would my seminary colleague have known that this particular cologne would set me off? Frankly, it was the combination of the guy's cologne and his particular body that triggered me. A lot of us work hard to learn the skill of observing that we have been triggered by something that ought to be benign, sitting still with the fear, and letting it pass. Most of us recognize that those benign triggers are keeping us from living life fully, and that there isn't a lot of logic to somebody's body odor being a predictor of assault.

"Aha!" you say. "Women don't come onto into our blogs/bars/men's spaces because we can't help how we smell. So they should work harder to deal with the triggers. Because we can't help how we are." Hmm. Not exactly.

Some triggers are a combination of cultural differences, benign circumstances, and a bit of boundary crossing. Dude who urinated outside my car didn't even know I was there. I think he figured he'd found a fairly private place to pee, although why he didn't think of the public bathroom 100 feet away, I'm not sure. I went to my therapist who laughed gently at me. He said, "You're Christian, right? Where do you think Jesus urinated?" So, I mean, I really don't know where Jesus did his business, but it wasn't flush toilets. In that moment I was able to relax about the whole thing. Lots of people pee outside, and he had no malicious intent. 

"Aha haha!" you say. "Women are triggered by things that are natural and not our fault! Perhaps we could have changed our tone a bit or peed in a more private spot, but if we'd known you were standing there, or if we'd know you would be triggered by that, it would have been helpful. Perhaps you should consider speaking up more, in a nice way, about what bothers you, but consider that maybe you just shouldn't watch us urinate in parking lots if that bothers you."


Some triggers are the result of bad behavior. And when I say bad behavior, I don't mean Hitler. I mean a person ought not hold tight to my wrists when I'm pulling away. I mean a person ought not follow you into another room when you've asked for space. I mean if I have said, "I don't like it when you stand behind me," then a person ought not stand behind me. And it doesn't really matter if you feel like holding my wrists or talking when I don't want to or standing behind me; a person just ought not do that. And if you do, and I'm triggered, well that's on you.

"I see, I see!" you cry. "Women think we're too insensitive to understand and so they don't come around! If they would just give us a try and take a risk, they'd see that we are the different kind of men."

Except women do come around, and do give it a chance, and they do take the risk. And very often they get trounced for it. And when we see it happen one time to our sisters, we are more reluctant to try it again. We are even reluctant to try it on a different blog--the next guy does not get the same chance the first guy got. The next guy inherits the bad rep that last guy created. Unfair? Ok. Safer, though.

Finally, there are some triggers that are really not the fault or responsibility of men-in-general (as opposed to a specific perpetrator). Sometimes we are just triggered beyond our ability to cope. Sometimes the memories of what has happened to our bodies (and often more than once) come flooding back. And in those moments, there's really nothing you can do about it except give space. 

And you can read. And try to get it. You can put yourself in a woman's shoes and imagine what terror she is carrying. You can try. And you can damn sure respect that it takes strength and commitment to get out of bed everyday, much less step foot in men's spaces.

Tomorrow I think I will blather on about redemptive suffering. Cuz that's where this post is leading me.


  1. Beautiful post Katie. You're on a roll lately.

    Earnest question: trigger warnings are everywhere these days, are they helpful?

  2. Trigger warnings are helpful for a couple of different reasons.

    1. A trigger warning reveals that you have actually thought about how your words might impact others. I appreciate that.

    2. A trigger warning sometimes warns me off a post on a day when I don't feel up to it. If that morning a colleague ran his hands down my butt (last month, actually), maybe I don't have the capacity for reading through a blog on intimate violence, complete with photos and the 9-1-1 audio.

    3. A trigger warning offers you a bit of protection from people accusing you of triggering them. If at least you've offered the warning, you can reasonably point out that you did say something from the get go.

    All that being said, sometimes a trigger warning isn't specific enough (like mine above, probably). And sometimes something will get me that I thought wouldn't. I'm pretty good at shutting down something that is triggering me if I can't deal, but I've done a lot of work and desensitization around my usual triggers.

    And in all honesty, the things that get me are often things you wouldn't be reasonably expected to know. I can't tell you the brand of that cologne that hits me about once every 5 years. I can't describe it either. But man, I know it when I smell it.

    Maybe as important or more is people's reaction when they realize they've triggered someone. I'll blog more on that tomorrow.

  3. I found this very enlightening. Do you know of any peer-reviewed studies that I could use to when sharing this insight with others?

    1. Larry, I would look for information in studies that look at PTSD, either for intimate violence victims or soldiers in war. If you find something useful, feel free to post it here. Blessings!

  4. A friend posted your blog on FB. So glad to have read it.


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