• allieyohn

On Trigger Warnings & Writing Responsibly about Sexual Assault or Rape

Updated: Sep 8

Trigger warning: This post contains discussion regarding sexual assault and rape.


There’s a book that I bought a few years ago which is the only book I can ever remember throwing directly in the trash after reading the first chapter.


Why did I throw it in the trash? Based on the back cover I was expecting a mystery. Instead, the first chapter starts with a wife and mother running on the beach. With barely a sentence of warning she’s grabbed and brutally gang raped. The scene ends with the haunting image of a police officer coaxing her to come out of the ocean because she’s washing away all the evidence.


I had nightmares about that scene for weeks. Every time I saw the book on the shelf I felt like vomiting, my hands shook if I tried to touch the spine. After about a week I was finally able to pick it up again and I threw it directly in the trash bin, took the trash out and breathed a sigh of relief as I threw the bag into the dumpster. A couple of years later I bought another copy of the book by accident from a used book store. The second I came to the first sentence of the scene, I did the same thing with the second copy. My only comfort is no other survivor will be triggered by those two specific copies of the book. I swore I'd never buy another book by the author.


There is a lot of negative talk about trigger warnings in writing. One camp recognizes the harm that can come from not including them- survivors can sometimes be retraumatized by reading something related to a dark time they’ve gone through. Its not only rape and sexual assault that trigger people. Anyone affected can have PTSD type flashbacks about gun violence, domestic violence, or child abuse.


In the other camp is the writers who think trigger warnings are useless and limits their audience. Their argument is people should read the short story or book first and then decide if it’s too much for them. These writers do not think about the potential harm they’re causing by denying this request from the broader audience to do the bare minimum to preserve their mental health. You don’t gain fans by causing your audience to feel sick and experience flashbacks.


I’ve never been much of a non-fiction reader, so when I choose to read books which responsibly talk about sexual violence, I choose fiction.


An example of a well-written book about a sexual violence is “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson. In the book, high school freshman Melinda is raped at an end of the year party. In shock, she calls the police to report the rape but can’t bring herself to explain what happened. Her peers shun her for getting the party shut down. She retreats into herself. The arc of the novel shows the initial aftermath of the rape and the healing journey that the main character goes through as she tries to bring herself to tell others about what happened.


Speak is a novel the author wrote to deal with her own trauma related to a rape she experienced when she was a teen. Writers often use their own trauma to handle difficult subjects. Rape is no different than any other topic in that way. However, writers need to understand that their reaction to sexual violence is solely their own. Everyone reacts differently- so think about how your character would react to the situation. Are they a shy timid person who suddenly becomes a spitfire? What kind of signs were laid down beforehand to show that tendency? Are they the opposite- a spitfire who suddenly freezes? Why do they freeze? If they do, how does that reaction affect them?


While there are some books (ok, maybe a lot of books) written by male writers that handle sexual violence poorly, there is one which handles it extremely well. It’s written by one of my favorite writers, (and a man I’m proud to call a friend- even if its more of an acquaintance relationship), Jonathan Maberry. He taught women’s self-defense at Temple University for 14 years and taught women’s self-defense for 35 years. He also volunteered at rape crisis call centers (though he didn’t take incoming calls). His commitment to taking violence against women seriously is evident in his debut fiction novel “Ghost Road Blues.”


In the book, a naïve and sheltered character is violently attacked and nearly raped by a madman in front of her tied-up and defenseless husband. Even though she isn’t raped, Connie experiences a breakdown and ends up catatonic. Her husband struggles to deal with what happened. Other men in the book find they can relate to what the husband (who watched what happened) felt rather than the pain of Connie (who was attacked).


One of the things I liked about the way the assault is handled in the book is that it shows the trauma that even an attempted rape brings to survivors. It shows a reaction that we don’t often see in media- the assault doesn’t change who Connie is as a person. The assault doesn’t make Connie a stronger person. It doesn’t redeem her and cause her to make amends with anyone she’s ever harmed. Her reaction is to retreat into herself to deal with the trauma.


For some reason all kinds of media have defaulted to the idea of rape/sexual assault survivors falling into one of two camps. They’re either the changed woman who becomes a new and stronger/better person (think Sansa Stark from “Game of Thrones”). Or they’re the vengeful spirit taking down men who might wrong them or others (think Jennifer Hill from “I Spit on Your Grave,” or Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). What few in the media fail to comprehend or adequately show in their work is all the other ways survivors process trauma.


I’m going to talk about some really bad stuff that happened to me in high school. This is where my trigger warnings come in- so if reading those will distress you, please CLICK HERE to skip to my conclusions about writing about rape and sexual assault.


Nearly one in five women will be raped in their lifetime. I’m part of the one.


When I was a sophomore in high school, I was raped by my first girlfriend. Alcohol was involved. I became that lame student who didn’t touch a single drop the rest of my time in high school. At the time of the rape, I didn’t have the language necessary to describe what happened- I’d never heard that women could rape other women. The few times I tried to mention it, I called it "this thing that happened." A super descriptive phrase that, of course, told no one anything about what I'd gone through.


One of the things writers often get wrong when writing about rape or sexual assault is the assumption that the victim will consider what happened rape or sexual assault automatically. That isn't always the case. Depending on where you grew up, how you grew up, and your knowledge of the laws in your state, victims might not have the words to describe what happened to them. That can have catastrophic consequences for them and is not explored nearly enough when people write about sexual assault or rape.


For me, I grew depressed, anxious, and suicidal. 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide, and 13% go as far as attempting suicide.


I told no one about what happened and spent 10 days in a mental health hospital getting stable. I ended up moving in with my grandparents several towns away. It was the first time since the rape that I felt safe, but I couldn’t bring myself to shower (I stood in the shower and scrubbed my skin until it bled after the rape) or sleep.


I will never forget my grandmother sitting me down on the bed about a week into living with them. She said “you don’t have to tell me what happened. But do you need a pregnancy test or an STD test?” All I could do in response was cry.


I spent the rest of the year doped up on every anti-depressant my doctors could throw at me. But I wasn’t depressed because of a chemical imbalance- I was depressed because I couldn’t process something I couldn’t name. Many survivors find themselves dependent on drugs or alcohol to function and handle what happened to them. Mine were just the legal version.


By my junior year I’d managed to find healthier ways to process what happened to me. I tried to forget about it. That worked well… until I was sexually assaulted by a male in my friend group the summer before my senior year. Statistics on what is called “revictimization” vary, but they all agree that you’re more likely to become a victim of sexual assault or rape again if you’ve been a victim previously. No one can determine the exact reason why.


The guy who assaulted me spent the summer groping me (which all my male friends laughed off- he was harmless and a joke to them). It’s important to imagine the people who hang around the assaulter/rapist- what do they think of this person? What warning signals did they ignore, what warning signs did they scream from the rooftops that were ignored?


On the day this person escalated to assault, he did so with my then partner and another friend in the room- something which made the situation even more horrific. The other people in the room had their backs turned and saw nothing because I froze while the assault happened. At the time I’d only heard of fight or flight. Turns out there are four main reactions to something like this happening: fight, flight, fawn, and freeze. I froze like a statue and couldn’t even scream.


When what he was doing crossed a certain threshold, my fight instinct took over and I was able to get away. In fact, I started beating the snot out of him. It took both the other people in the room (who outweighed me by at least 100 pounds) to pull me off him. I did not make it easy for them to do so.


Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and remember the feeling of his throat pressed between my hands as I squeezed. If they hadn’t pulled me off him could I have stopped squeezing? It’s a question that keeps me awake.


Once they got my hands off his throat, I had a panic attack and left without explaining anything. I went straight to the police station. I can still remember how it felt to sit in front of the police station for half an hour. I spent the time crying and willing myself to go inside and make a report. 2 out of 3 rape victims do not report the crime to the police.


In the end, I didn’t feel the police would believe me. Frankly, I couldn’t face everyone in our small town knowing what happened and possibly judging me. I went home without making a report. I scrubbed my skin until it bled again. Then I cried myself to sleep. I told no one what happened- if the two people in the room with us hadn’t done anything or noticed anything other than me attacking him, who would believe me?


The next day I got up and went to work like usual. I still hung out with my friends (though I avoided the bed where I was assaulted and refused to have anything to do with my assaulter). I still kissed my partner. I ate food. I took my dog for walks. I read and wrote stories and poems.


Only late at night could anyone know anything was wrong. I had nightmares every single night that often left me screaming into my pillow. By the end of the summer I could barely bring myself to go to sleep. I started living on one to two hours a night.


The person who assaulted me later forcibly kissed me and again I froze. He was bigger than me and I was terrified. This broke up not one, but two relationships (the second of which absolutely wrecked me for months). It got me labeled a cheating slut by boys who were supposed to be my friends.


I’ll never forget my then partner screaming at me the day after the forced kiss that if I didn’t want this guy to kiss me, why hadn’t I shoved him away? It’s a question I didn’t have the language to answer. Its a question many survivors get from their friends and family members- if you didn't want this, why didn't you do x?


I started blaming myself for the assault.


How different could life have been had I known how to explain what happened?


I’ll never know because the language I needed to describe what happened was not common parlance then. If you’re writing about rape or sexual assault, you need to consider the time period you’re writing in and what information would be known by the average person living in the area about which you’re writing.


My bipolar grew worse due to stress. I spent most of the year in a manic state that almost destroyed me.


I ended up relapsing on my eating disorder because it gave me a sense of control. Per RAINN this isn’t an unheard of reaction- making decisions about what or whether you eat can give you that feeling of control. By the end of the year I’d let my eating disorder get so severe that I subsisted on 300-600 calories a day. I was having chest/heart pain, had stopped getting my period, and several times I passed out. I wore baggy clothes to hide my body. I pretended to eat in front of people by moving the food around on my plate and distracting them with conversation. I did everything possible to hide the fact I wasn’t eating as it slowly killed me.


I don’t say anything above for shock value but to illustrate a point. My reaction to being assaulted isn’t an uncommon one. Even though he didn’t cross the technical threshold for rape in the state of Kansas, he violated my sense of safety. The violence he inflicted ran through my world like kudzu vines, choking the life out of everything.


The most common initial reaction to sexual violence is shock. Victims can block out or deny the experience. They resist the desire to talk about what happened. They can even engage in “routine, unrelated conversation.” This was the case for me, but it isn’t something you often see in books or media. It’s certainly not something seen on shows like Law & Order: SVU where the survivors are often behaving in extremely traumatized ways (crying, screaming, injured and defenseless).


But no matter how hard you deny what happens, it always comes back to haunt you.


I spent 20+ years hiding the truth about what happened from everyone I know because I felt ashamed. Even though intellectually I knew what I was wearing (a backless green plaid shirt that tied in the back, mid-thigh shorts with wide legs) wasn’t to blame, I blamed myself for it anyway. I blamed myself for sitting on the sofa bed. I blamed myself for being at a house with no adult which allowed the initial assault to happen.


If you’re going to write about rape or sexual assault, you need to understand that even if your character is a well-balanced feminist, they can have a reaction to sexual violence similar to the one I had.


Society tells you that if you do everything right you’ll be safe. Society lies to you and then tells you to blame yourself if something goes wrong.


I finally realized that the shame of what happened to me does not belong to me. It belongs to those who harmed me, no matter their reasons. When I felt ready, I started telling a few friends and family what happened. It was terrifying, it was cathartic, and I cried each time.


Of all the reactions I assumed I would get, what I didn’t expect was for all of them to believe me without question.


We’ve come a long way in the decades since my assault when it comes to believing sexual violence victims. I’d love to say that every survivor will get the same reaction from their friends and family that I received, but I’d be a liar if I did so. Reactions from friends and family can be unexpected and surprising, and in writing they are often tied to the time period in which the assault and disclosure happens. If I’d said something to my friends about what happened at the time would they have believed me? I’ll never know. I don’t think I want to know.

When writing about assaults and rapes, it’s important to be responsible. Graphic depictions are traumatizing- even for people who’ve never been assaulted. It’s easy for readers to see who is trying to say something about rape and healing and those who are using it for shock value.


If you’re going to include a rape or sexual assault in your writing, for the love of God do your research. Read accounts that victims have written about what happened. Read posts by any number of rape crisis intervention sites. And above all else, make sure that the rape or sexual assault is actually needed in your work. Don't trivialize the experience by inserting it solely to titillate or horrify your readers.


Be responsible when you write about sexual violence. You do a disservice to victims when you don’t- it feeds into stigmas that organizations like RAINN have spent decades trying to change. Use trigger warnings when needed and pare down the sexual violence in your work if it isn’t absolutely necessary. You’ll never know how many readers you alienate when you don’t use care when discussing something which fundamentally changed the course of their life.


If you, or a loved one, have experienced sexual violence and need someone to talk to, please call 800-656-HOPE (4673) to talk to someone at RAINN.


Sources:

https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf


https://www.rainn.org/statistics/victims-sexual-violence


https://www.rainn.org/articles/eating-disorders


https://www.tipnational.org/pdf/tRape_Reactions_of_the_Victim.pdf


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