In March of 2012, I donned my grey-and-red Rutgers Law School hoodie for the million hoodie march in Union Square, after Trayvon Martin’s murder. I was caught up in the emotion and energy of the protest until I casually glanced over my left shoulder and saw the man who had sexually assaulted me in 2007.
Immediately, I was paralyzed. I began to hyperventilate and overheat: The person who had attacked me was only 15 feet away—wearing a hoodie! Panic turned into fury, and I struggled to catch my breath. I was stupefied.
What actually happened was this: I was triggered. Survivors of sexual assault, many of whom are formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, can flash back to the trauma of their sexual assaults by all sorts of things in the world around them. The problem is getting more attention than ever right now as universities struggle to amend sexual-assault policies that often protect perpetrators and harm victims who continue to see them around. But in the broader world, how can we deal with this problem? What are common triggers for survivors of sexual assault, and how as a compassionate society can we avoid them?
“Based on my experience working directly with survivors, triggers are anything in the most literal sense that is a reminder of the sexual assault,” says Monika Johnson Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “A person, a location, or even something as subtle and nuanced as a smell. While, an obvious trigger would be seeing the person who committed the assault, sometimes seeing a person who looks like the person can be a trigger. Sometimes a survivor may not be able to eat a type of food, if it was what they ate the night of attack, or a certain drink. Our bodies hold trauma and this can be even more hypersensitive in survivors of sexual assault. Sometimes these triggers manifest in nightmares, physical sweating, and emotional responses.”
And despite the misconception that triggers are always paralyzing, Hostler says, “Some triggers manifest where [a survivor’s] body remembers the trauma for a moment, and then it passes. One of the most difficult things is when survivors are assaulted in their homes”—within a one-mile radius of which 50 percent of rapes occur—“and being in your own home and bed is a trigger.” In those cases, she tries to get them released from their leases.
In some cases—triggers like smell and location—there’s little policymakers or the rest of us can do to prevent harming survivors. UC Santa Barbara students must return to class, after all. But there are still plenty of ways to make the world a more forgiving place for people who have endured sexual assault.
When a “compliment” is too much
Catcalling or street harassment is a trigger for many survivors of sexual assault. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 women will survive an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. When women and members of the LGBTQ community who have survived assaults go out on the street and are sexually objectified, that can be triggering and painful. That means that the woman you are yelling at on her morning commute could be having painful flashbacks to her rape when you “compliment” her. According to iHollaback, an organization that launched a movement to end street harassment all over the globe, 70-99 percent of women report experiencing street harassment at some point during their lives.
That small remark about her legs or her outfit can be triggering because sexual assault results in the loss of a survivor’s bodily autonomy. A survivor is forever hyper aware that they are vulnerable in every situation, especially when they are on the street.
Check your sense of humor
Annie Clark, a campus activist and co-founder of End Rape on Campus, says “Rape jokes are simply not funny. What about having something intimately taken from you or having a violent felony committed against you is hilarious? Absolutely nothing.”
Comedian and rape joke enthusiast Daniel Tosh came under fire in 2012, after a woman in his audience who was upset by his material yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” To which Tosh responded, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her.” Tosh eventually apologized, claiming that the woman took the joke out of context but the context of the rape joke isn’t the point, it’s who the rape joke is making fun of.
In the aftermath of the Tosh controversy, Jezebel writer Lindy West sparked a huge online debate regarding rape jokes. Not all rape jokes are off limits, she argued in her post, but, “[T]his doesn’t mean that everyone is obligated to be the savior of mankind. You can be edgy and creepy and offensive and trivial and, yes, you can talk about rape. Doing comedy in front of a silent room is scary, and shocking people is a really easy way to get a reaction. But if you want people to not hate you (and wanting to not be hated is not the same thing as wanting to be liked), you should probably try and do it in a responsible, thoughtful way. Easy shortcut: DO NOT MAKE RAPE VICTIMS THE BUTT OF THE JOKE.” The moral of the story is that rape jokes that make fun of rape culture can be okay, but jokes that minimize rape, joke about threatening to rape someone, or make fun of survivors of rape should be avoided.
Don’t be an Internet jerk
One of the most persistent triggers for many survivors is the rape and death threats they receive online. Many women (including me) have received a barrage of hate and violence and have experienced deep emotional responses. And in a raft of high-profile cases in recent years, bullied or assaulted women have committed suicide. “While I recognize most threats I receive on social media are trolls, it nonetheless impacts me. As a survivor of sexual violence, those death threats and rape threats, even behind the wall of a computer screen, have the potential to really be scary, and there is absolutely nothing funny about that,” says Clark.
A rape or death threat can be upsetting to anyone, even if they haven’t survived assault but they are even more potentially damaging to someone who has actually survived what’s being threatened.
Enough already: It’s not the victim’s fault!
Victim-blaming, which commonly manifests as well-meaning questions about the survivor’s actions, can also trigger many survivors. Last year, the small town of Steubenville, Ohio, made headlines when two high school football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl at a series of parties in front of dozens of bystanders.
Tennis superstar Serena Williams fell into the victim-blaming question trap when she asked all of the wrong questions about the survivors in the Steubenville rape case. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Williams said:
Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.
Williams later apologized for asking what the victim could have done differently to prevent their own assault.
If you haven’t survived sexual assault, it may be difficult to see how well meaning questions about the survivors’ actions (as opposed to, say, the perpetrators’) can be triggering. When a sentence starts out with, “I’m not blaming the victim but…” it’s usually headed off track. Certainly if someone confides in you, ask whether she is okay and offer to help them recover. Do not ask them about what they could have done differently. That can trigger survivors.
Not all survivors are triggered by the same things, but avoiding these behaviors can be a great start in becoming a more compassionate society and one that does not re-victimize survivors by our words and actions. Learning to identify the kinds of things that can bring up really painful experiences—this is one of the first steps in combating rape culture.
Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst, speaker, and contributing writer for EBONY, PolicyMic.com and RHRealitycheck.org. She writes about national politics, candidates, and specific policy and culture issues including domestic violence, sexual assault, victim blaming and gender inequality. She has a law degree from Rutgers Law School and a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University.