Rape Traumas and Triggers

This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here.

If you read much around FtB, you’ve heard about “The Amazing Atheist”, a ragey vlogger who turned his rage on a rape victim. If you need to catch up and are up for some real ugliness, Kazim brought us the news here, PZ had a few choice words about consent and oppression, Natalie noted some strange places she’s seen this guy cited, and DanielCrommunist, Jason, Jen, and Greg have all suggested their readers unsubscribe and shun. So, yes, if you’re subscribed to this guy’s YouTube channel, please fix that now.

I’d like to add a brief note about PTSD and triggers. You see, this whole thing started with TAA declaring on Reddit that he doesn’t believe in triggering. He then went on to attempt to trigger the rape victim in question and claimed it proved his point when no triggering occurred. One little note, then, for TAA: Triggering is part of the definition of PTSD, you self-blindered ass.

Seriously, right there in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) definition for post-traumatic stress disorder is a section on intrusive memory. If you don’t meet at least one of the criteria in that section, you are not considered to have PTSD. The last two of those criteria?

4.  Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
5.  Physiologic reactivity upon exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event

“[I]nternal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.” That would be the definition of a trigger. Triggers exist, whether one whiny misogynist believes in them or not.

Perhaps, however, that isn’t what TAA means. Maybe he’s fine with the idea that some people experience PTSD triggers. Perhaps he means he doesn’t really believe that people who are raped experience PTSD. Well, in addition to being an inhumane jerk, TAA is almost 40 years behind the times in the scientific literature.

It was way back in 1974 that Ann Burgess and Lynda Holmstrom identified rape trauma syndrome, a form of PTSD with some characteristics that are specific to the nature of the trauma. None of those special characteristics are an immunity to triggers. Findings of rape trauma syndrome have been replicated over and over, in studies that attempt to determine what worsens the trauma (most consistently? lack of social support after a rape–thanks, TAA!) and what kinds of treatment are most effective.

The reality of rape trauma is so well documented in the literature that the existence of the trauma in an alleged victim of rape can be used as corroborating evidence in rape trials. Expert evidence can also be given to attest to the commonness of some features of rape trauma that are frequently used to undermine the credibility of victims (confusion, delay in reporting, etc.).

Does that mean every victim of rape experiences rape trauma syndrome? No, though it’s quite common. Nor does it mean that rape victims are more prone to being triggered than others dealing with PTSD. What it does mean, however, is that many rape victims can be triggered. That, in turn, means that while you may not be able to trigger intrusive thoughts and emotions in any individual rape victim (so much for TAA’s “proof”), if your audience is significantly large enough, the chances of having several rape victims in the audience is almost 100% and the chances of having someone in that audience who can be triggered by discussions of rape–particularly nonsympathetic discussions–is pretty good.

What anyone does with that information is up to them. How we judge their use of that information, though, is entirely up to us. Denying it while simultaneously trying to use it against an opponent, as was done in this case, will not be judged lightly.

Rape Traumas and Triggers

6 thoughts on “Rape Traumas and Triggers

  1. 2

    Triggers aren’t always as simple as talking specifically about the trauma. Many PTSD sufferers are triggered be related events either unique to the trauma, or otherwise linked by memory. Specific scents, sounds, actions and environments can be triggering in unexpected ways. Just because the common tiger isn’t applicable, doesn’t mean that other less obvious ones aren’t in play.

    Regardless, I see these kinds of warnings useful. Even if discussing emotionally charged and personal subjects aren’t necessarily triggering, they are usually upsetting. Even folks without PTSD could find themselves disturbed if they walked into a thread unprepared for the content.

  2. 3

    The Amazing Atheist lost me a long time ago.

    And yes, I sometimes see people making fun of the whole trigger warning concept. Why? Sure, I have seen quite a few trigger warnings that seemed unnecessary since the title and above the fold part of the post were probably warning enough, but what’s the harm in trying to be a little more considerate and clear? And other times the presence of triggers might not be so obvious, and a trigger warning could be quite useful for some.

    Warnings don’t hurt and might help, so why make fun of them? Oh, yeah, some people are juvenile harassing assholes. I never realized how many until around the time of Elevatorgate.

    I really do wish Elevator Guy would go public. Here’s what I wish he would say:

    I can’t believe the controversy I started. Sure, I was a little clueless, and Rebbecca called me out on that in an appropriate way. I don’t think what I did that night was particularly creepy, but these last 16 months have been quite an education for me and I now understand that on a few other occasions I was a bit of a creep. And to all of you who rail against Watson: Well, that’s your right, but almost all of you don’t even seem to be addressing anything she said. So go back and watch the original video. You will see a rather mild rebuke tagged on at the end of a much longer video. She was pretty much right, and I should know. I’m the guy she was talking about.

    BTW. I am not the Elevator Guy. I would have gone public a couple of weeks after the shitstorm started if I had been. And yes, in my earlier years I have done things just as clueless, and have even passed well into the zone of creepiness. Alicia, I am sorry about what happened that night on the way to IHOP. That was a little too gropey and while you seemed to be enjoying it at first I could tell that at some point it was a little much, and I noticed that you weren’t your usual talkative self while we all ate our late night dinner. Please note that I understood what I did. That’s why I was so adamant about calling shotgun for the front seat on the way back and lied and said my hairline tibia fracture was acting up so I couldn’t sit in the back seat. I didn’t want to be back there again after I saw how what I did affected you. Still, I probably should have said something.

    TAA is a jerk. I unsubscribed to The Living Dinosaur because he favorited aomw TAA vids and a lot of anti-Jen McCreight videos. And why the fuck were there videos like this in the first place? Seriously, I have never been more disgusted by any YT vids in my life.

  3. 4

    I have PTSD.
    It’s not like in the movies. I don’t lose touch with reality and think I’m back at the scene of the trauma. (I DO have recurring nightmares though.)

    What I am is hypervigilant. On rare occasions that means overreacting to and scaring the crap out of some poor unfortunate person who I took to be threatening or “getting in my face.”

    And in other cases it involves reckless behavior in the face of a possible real threat – I can’t turn my back on a threat anymore. I can’t run from it, I walk slowly TOWARD it. My whole instinct seems to have been reprogrammed to “do NOT turn your back on a threat.”

    I’m standing in line with family at a fast food joint and while they’re deciding on what to order, I’m eying the belligerent buffed up guy threatening the skinny guy way on the other side of the plaza parking lot, waiting to see if I need to yell “call the cops!” as I rush out the door and across the plaza to tackle to big guy (who’ll likely hurt me severely) if he goes ahead and hits the skinny guy. Meanwhile nobody else sees a thing or has a clue.

    Or in our crime-ridden neighborhood where a college kid was shot last year because he was incorrectly assumed to be wearing the wrong gang colors… two weeks ago a young guy started following me mouthing insults so I had to turn to walk up to him – you do NOT follow me EVER. He started demanding to know my gang allegiance and when I was not threatened he moved repeatedly to imply that he had a hidden gun.

    How did my PTSD-fucked mind react? It made me fucking HAPPY. I thought to myself “oh, this one is getting GOOD and interesting!”

    I didn’t end up getting shot, I ended up causing the guy to run fast away from the neighborhood. But this is NOT a “tough guy” story. (I’m pretty sure he was all bluff in the end).

    I am NOT a tough guy. I just have quick reflexes and WAY too much adrenaline. It could have gotten me killed, and might just get me killed one day.

    It caused me to laugh in the face of a cop who assaulted me and threatened to arrest me at a protest. Caused me to laugh and smile at the secret service officer at a Cheney fundraiser who was poking his rifle in my chest.

    Caused me to react to a sadistic mental health professional (charge nurse) who had threatened me with violence by plotting my own suicide to occur during his shift with materials I’d stolen from his desk simply to fuck up his career.

    I dunno if these are proper triggers in the sense people think of them, but they definitely were because of my PTSD, were not thing’s I’d have done before what happened to me, and they definitely were not things I had been planning until the moment someone fucked with me (at least as I experienced it.)

    The only conscious pre-acknowledged part of it is that I know I will NEVER let anyone hurt me again. But the screwed up part is that when I’m set off, “hurt me” doesn’t seem to include me getting hurt or killed in the process of “not allowing someone to hurt me.”

    Are these legitimate “triggers?” I dunno. All I can say is, I wasn’t like this before (far from it, I considered it something to be PROUD of when I ran from a fight, “didn’t lower myself to their level etc.”) and that it seems maladaptive.

    It also means that apart from the once or twice a year at best when I get this adrenaline rush and an hour or two afterward, the rest of the time I’m fucking miserable. And that being hypervigilant when there is no threat makes life damn near impossible.

    I dunno. Whatever it is, whatever you call it, it sure seems to exist for me. And things seem to trigger it.

  4. 5

    (Oh and being confined, being locked up, having control taken from me, having someone presume to control my freedom, my movement – MAJOR trigger. MAJOR. Which is why hospitalization for mental health issues is counterproductive for me, to say the least.)

  5. 6

    My PTSD is… different.

    Most of the time, I’m somewhere near “okay” or “coping”. Then… out of nowhere, it all comes crashing back down on me, and I feel small and scared and defenseless all over again. And if someone yells at me? I freeze. No “fight”. No “flight”. Just freeze. And hope that maybe, if I’m quiet and still, the big loud scary person will ignore me and go away.

    The every-day stuff isn’t pleasant, either. I’m jumpy. Always aware. I had sleep problems before all this, and now… now I’m lucky if I get 6 hours a night.

    It’s like there’s a wall in my head, and all the bad stuff, all the shit I’ve been through, it’s all crammed behind that wall. And the wall sometimes cracks and lets stuff out. Or in. Or something.

    All I want is to forget. Forget my abuser. Forget what he did to me. Forget how he made me feel. Forget I ever met him. And I want to feel normal again. I want to feel something — anything — other than fear and sadness and anger and despair and pain.

    And I hate myself for feeling this way.

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