The value of trigger warnings

Oh dear, Vagenda. This week, one of the authors has come out against trigger warnings. Her reasoning? She had PTSD, and doesn’t like them because she prefers to confront her problems, and also the internet isn’t a safe space.

For the first point, good for her. Seriously, good for Rhiannon, and I’m glad that she’s fairly on top of her mental health problems and has found a way to live with them and deal with them. She’s one of the fortunate ones: many others are not in this position. There are many who would rather avoid seeing things which remind them of trauma, many who would like to be able to close the tab and get on with their day, instead of inadvertently reliving horrors.

And it’s these people who I’m thinking about when I put trigger warnings at the top of things I have written. If I’ve helped even one person avoid pain, then I am glad. It’s a little thing for me to do, which can make the all the difference for some people.

Trigger warnings are not for yourself; they’re for others. And if Rhiannon from Vagenda prefers not to avoid things, she can use the trigger warnings to seek out content to expose herself to as part of her own personal healing.

Rhiannon uses the metaphor of epilepsy to illustrate her point that the internet isn’t a safe space: that, for all the warnings about strobe lights, epilepsy can be triggered by light flickering through the trees. It’s worth noting here only a very small fraction of people with epilepsy are triggered by strobing effects. I’m not, and I’ve had several hours of being hooked up to gooey electrodes staring into a flashing light to prove it. When I was younger and newly-diagnosed, I used to hate that they would put the “epilepsy warning” up before films and plays and so forth, because I had epilepsy and didn’t have a problem with flashing lights. It annoyed the fuck out of me. Then I started thinking of other people, and I realised these warnings weren’t for me, but were hugely valuable for others. The same is true of trigger warnings.

And yes, they’re imperfect. Everything is, at the moment. I’ve sat in meetings riddled with manarchists complaining about the need for safer spaces policies, because there’s no such thing as a safe space.

No. There isn’t. But that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse to stop trying and stop using these interim measures which do help.

If you read the comments on the Vagenda piece, you will see people who find trigger warnings a vastly helpful resource in mitigating effects of mental health problems and being able to make decisions. These are the people I am thinking about when I defend trigger warnings, even as my own personal abuse triggers are never covered in trigger warnings.

The Vagenda piece begins with a dog-whistle complaint about people being mean to Julie Bindel and Suzanne Moore, who joked about trigger warnings after both of them exhibited startling levels of transphobia. In the last paragraph is another point:

 Often, it is coupled with a sense of passive aggressive glee (“um. You should have put a trigger warning on that”).

This, perhaps, betrays more of the backlash from the privileged over being called out, and I do wonder how much of it was the motivating factor behind the commissioning, writing and existence of the piece. Trigger warnings are hardly complicated. Think of common scenarios that might fuck someone up, and if you write about it, stick a line at the top that you’ll be talking about this. If you’ve missed something which is triggering and someone says so, you lose nothing by doing popping in that simple little line.

It astounds me that people are kicking and screaming against something so simple which can make the difference between suffering and being all right. It astounds me that some are being flippant about it, laughing and joking over something which is easy, yet so important.

Yes, trigger warnings aren’t the magic bullet. But they’re an interim demand which can help make many feel ever so slightly safer in a fundamentally unsafe world.

Please, media, separate kink (and its problems) from 50 Shades of Grey

I wrote a while back about how the media have got all excited over 50 Shades Of Grey because it portrays a view of sexuality which is not too far removed from the patriarchal norm, yet is a little bit titillatingly different. With the book having sold approximately 19 billion copies, and it having been read by everyone who has ever lived or died, from the smallest amoebae to sentient gas nebulae, this media dribbling is showing no sign of abating.

This week, I have seen two stories about legal cases, where the words 50 SHADES OF GREY have been breathily splashed in a headline-grabbing bonanza.

First, there is the case of Steven Lock, who was cleared in court of actual bodily harm for whipping a sex partner. From what information is available about his defence, it seems that he and his partner read the book, and decided to play in a Master/slave relationship. In the incident brought to court, he beat the woman with a rope, and she did not safeword, saying:

“I knew there would be pain involved and I knew I wasn’t going to like it but I’d agreed to it and had to follow it through.”

Two problems spring to mind here, neither of which is being discussed at all by the mainstream press as they’re a little too excited by throwing in pop cultural references wherever they can. First and foremost is a possible issue surrounding safewords: sometimes people don’t feel able to use them. Of course, sometimes people don’t want to use them, and playing without a safeword can be very fun with a trusted partner. However, it’s also very important to build an environment where the bottom can choose to end the encounter if they want to, when they want to. That consent can be withdrawn whenever a person wants to withdraw consent. Anything other than this is abusive.

The second issue here is that it has not been reported who brought the complaint. Unfortunately, apart from that one quote, it’s not been possible to discern the woman’s side, with much of the information being provided coming from Lock and his legal team. As I understand it, the charges don’t have to be brought by the survivor of actual bodily harm, but by someone else. The implications of whether the woman or someone else brought the charges are stark: were it the woman, it’s a fucking travesty that this guy got off. Were it someone else, it’s entirely possible that this is a problem faced by the kink community: criminalisation of consensual sexual behaviour. Even consensual bruises can be criminal if someone chooses to police it. [EDIT: comment from jemima101 provides more information, which suggests that this is a plain old abuse case, and not the latter. So it’s a fucking travesty of justice that the state thing someone asked for due to not understanding the issues at hand.]

It would be far easier to formulate an opinion on this case were the media bothering to ask these questions and address these issues rather than focus on a popular book.

Still, at least that case was actually tangentially related to 50 Shades of Grey, unlike this horrible thing which happened in Sweden, where a woman died during an SM session. From her diary, it appears that the play that she and the man accused participated in was not consensual on her part. At no point in the story is that popular book mentioned, yet this is inexplicably the headline, the first line and the picture of the report on the story in the Independent.

Abuse in kink is an issue which needs to be addressed, just as abuse in any community needs to be addressed. By the looks of it, this woman’s death was an instance of abuse which had nothing to do with 50 Shades of Grey and everything to do with plain old abuse that doesn’t sell newspapers.

Unfortunately, to the media, kink and that fucking book are inextricably linked which means that an opportunity for honest discussion of issues within a community in the mainstream is sacrificed at the expense of a desperate attempt to be relevant. They ignore the diversity of sexual experiences–both positive and negative–at the expense of something which they know will grab attention.

It’s only on the fringes that the discussion of experience, unclouded by sensationalism can take place. This is hardly just true of kink, it’s an entrenched problem as the traditional media becomes increasingly irrelevant to many. To save itself, the media must catch up and try to listen to the voices of those who have greater knowledge of the issues at hand.

Things I read this week that I found interesting

It’s that time again where I round up the stuff I bookmarked this week because I read it and it was good, even though some of it might not have actually been published this week. Drop by and recommend me more stuff in the comments, O lovely readers.

Labiaplasty, parts 1 and 2 (Guernica)- a two part series on labiaplasty, featuring interviews with labiaplasty surgeons. Introduced me to a procedure known as the “Barbie” which involves the complete removal of the inner labia. All the surgeons were male, and none of them believed there is any sensitivity in the inner labia. It made me think a lot about bodily autonomy, patriachy, and what happens when men design cunts.

What is a hottentot apron? (Lippy Girl)- A really interesting post on vulvas and colonialism.

The dinosaurs never expected extinction either (itsjustahobby)- the last thing, I hope, that needs to be said on the recent media transphobia frenzy. See also, their other post on the fine art of the apology.

Silent no more and “manning up” to online abuse (sian and crooked rib)- Sian provides an anatomy of misogynistic abuse online.

Do men really have higher sex drives than women? (io9)- an accessible look at what evidence there is, and what that actually means. Could further explore neglect of female sexuality in science, throughout history, though.

The Men’s Rights Movement: much less popular than horse porn (manboobz)- A compelling analysis of google trends. The title is indeed correct.

And finally, a little situationist lol. Yes, I’ve descended into being amused by shops with funny names and I’d like to thank @renatus84 for bringing this to my attention.


In which the police do nothing but endanger a survivor

The police have been watching Youtube, and spotted a video of a young man being homophobically abused by a self-styled “Muslim patrol”. In their keenness to prosecute, they have done something unforgivably awful. The man who received the abuse has not come forward, so the police have released his picture in an attempt to get him to do so.

This is vile behaviour on a number of levels. There is absolutely no respect for the man’s decision not to come forward, a decision which many survivors of many crimes of structural violence make. These decisions are often made for good reasons: the police are pretty fucking awful on taking such crimes seriously for the most part, and as a result, many people who experience oppression mistrust the police. Maybe the man who has had his picture out there did not trust the police to treat what happened to him sensitively or effectively, and the benefits of engaging with the police vastly outweighed the costs.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that the police actively harm and harass people who are already on the receiving end of a whole heap of structural violence. The police are just another gang of oppressors, albeit worse-dressed. I doubt putting this man’s pictures everywhere is going to endear the police to him, when it strikes me that this is nothing more than another form of using their power to harass.

And what if the man was not out? What if he wanted to remain anonymous for the simple fact that nobody knew of his sexual orientation and he preferred it that way? What if he has good reasons for not being out–such as not wanting to be on the receiving end of further violence? What if the police just outed someone because they felt that whatever they’re trying to do is more important than respecting this person’s privacy?

What the police have done here is betray a staggering lack of respect for the private life of an individual they are disingenuously pretending to be helping. A part of me hopes that this was simply that they didn’t think things through, because the alternative is too grim to consider. Did they do this, knowing how dangerous it would be for the man in the picture, in the hope of ratcheting up the abuse and forcing him to come forward?

What they have done here is demonstrate, once again, whose side they are on. It is not the side of survivors, but their own side, and they’ll shit all over survivors to get what they want.

The shit I get and how I deal with it

I get a lot of shit. A lot of abuse, often misogynistic, sometimes heterosexist and once or twice, a smattering of ableist nonsense. It comes with the territory of being a woman with an opinion who is present on the internet.

Once upon a time, I kept a folder on my computer of screencaps, titled “Misogyny and abuse”. Almost daily, I’d have to update it. I gave up. It was sapping my time and resources, and I realised how uniform it was. There was nothing I could learn from the reboant chorus of cunts who couldn’t stop wishing they could cut my bitchdyke pussy out.

If you google my real name–which my haters seem to think is some sort of state-guarded secret and utter it with the delight of a schoolchild upon having discovered their teacher has a first name–you’ll find several hate-sites, at least two of which are specially created just for me. They feel like they’re so clever, having discovered the link between the Zoe Stavri who sometimes writes articles in the mainstream press, and the @stavvers who tweets “look at this article written by me”. They like to post unflattering pictures of me, and hurl abuse over every single thing I say, making sure to tweet at anyone I follow to let them know “the truth” about me. The truth being, that I’m a woman with an opinion, who sometimes doesn’t photograph particularly well.

The interesting thing is how followers of my dedicated hate-Twitter all seem to be misogynists who I’ve called out. Birds of a feather flock together, and the particular strobilating dingleberry who runs my hate-Twitter seems to be the standard around which they can rally.

Then there’s the time I had a death threat. It was qualitatively different from various haters saying “I wish she’d die” “I could kill her” “I could rape her” &c &c (all of which as happened countlessly tedious times). They’re not threats. Let me tell you what a death threat is. I once pissed off a particularly prolific misogynist and all-round scumbag. He decided to tweet what he thought was my address, followed by an announcement that he’d like to break my neck. The good news is, it wasn’t my address, or that of anybody I knew. As far as I know, none of those people had their necks broken. As I understand it, the shitbowl in question got into trouble with the cops for trying to pull similar shit with other people.

And that’s the common-or-garden misogynists, but let it be known that I also get a fair bit of trouble from another group of bigots: the TERFs. They don’t like me much, because I’m a vocal ally of trans people and speak out against transphobia. The only thing distinguishing them and their methods–attempted doxxings, timeline-stalkings, outright hate speech–from the misogynists I spoke about before is that this lot hate on a specific group of women. While Suzanne Moore may not be a TERF herself, her attempted scapegoating of trans people for “abuse” is a hair’s breadth away from the out-and-out hate speech the TERFs perpetrate.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had heaps of abuse levelled on me in the past that helps me see, clear as day, the difference between abuse and criticism. Yes, even rude criticism. Abuse comes from above, from a person with privilege, desperate to cling on to it. Criticism so often comes from below, rudeness returning fire from a war I had inadvertently declared. In these instances, I step back. I educate myself. I don’t make the same mistake twice, and I become better. If I did anything else, it would make me the bully, not the person I’d harmed.

As for the rest of it, that sort of shit, as I said, comes with the territory of being a woman with an opinion on the internet. At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Then I came to an epiphany: they are doing this because I, as a woman with an opinion on the internet, am a threat to them. They want me to shut the fuck up and stop making life as a misogynist harder for them. They feel their ability to dominate slipping away, and it scares the fuck out of them.

Oderint dum metuant, fuckers.

I feel a little frisson of glee from knowing they are scared of me, then I hit the block button, because I actually don’t want to hear any of their shit. I keep my comments moderated on my blog, because it’s my space, and I can do what the fuck I want with it. I don’t read below the line on things I’ve written that I have no control over.

They’re frightened because I’m right, and that’s all I need to know.

Things I read this week that I found interesting

I’ve been on holiday this week, so might have missed a lot of things that weren’t related to the week of reckoning for transphobic columnists. Or, more likely, that’s mostly what we’ve been talking about as it’s singularly awful. Anyway, here’s some things I read this week that I found interesting. If there’s anything else you think I’d like, point it my way.

Julie Burchill has ended up bullying the trans community (Roz Kaveney)- Coldly angry piece from trans activist Roz, with a lot of wise words on how thoroughly awful Burchill’s piece was (also, read Roz’s book, Rituals, the first part of the Rhapsody of Blood series. It’s awesome queer feminist fantasy, and I’ll stop plugging it when you all read it).

The Julie Burchill transphobia scandal (CN Lester)- CN talks about how to channel rage at Burchill/Moore to improve conditions for trans people and bring about change for the better.

Burchill’s attack follows the same pattern – trans stories are only of interest if we star as villains (Jane Fae)- Jane discusses the role of trans women as “whipping girls” in the media, and how the community won’t take this any more.

“Nasty Idiotic Tripe”: stand against Julie Burchill’s years of transphobia (The Quietus)- Excellent summary of the whole Moore/Burchill disaster, including why what they said was wrong. Good for beginners. Bonus appearance by Suzanne Moore in the comments.

Please, no Moore: a snapshot of transphobia in Britain’s broadsheets (Media Darlings)- Another good summary of events, featuring a very good cartoon on trans oppression, and the phrase “farting privilege in all directions like some sort of collapsing cis Hindenburg”, of which I thoroughly approve.

On anger, privilege and power (Ally Fogg)- Ally explains the difference between the effect of anger of a newspaper columnist and the anger of those who they have offended, very reasonably.

Take the chip off my shoulder? Fuck you, Burchill! (Scriptonite)- The title summarises content rather nicely 🙂

And finally, something which isn’t about Observergeddon:

Structural inequality of an invisible minority (The Stroppy Rabbit)- Thought-provoking piece about handedness, which left me wondering where the problems of left-handedness fall as an oppression. Perhaps related no non-neurotypical issues?

Suzanne Moore, freedom of speech and uneven platforms

Trigger warnings for discussion of transphobia

Suzanne Moore doesn’t appear to have learned anything from being called out on her transphobic comments last week. She’s returned to Twitter, all guns blazing, and written another piece in the Guardian, entitled “It saddens me that supporting freedom makes me an opponent of equality” (clean version, with no clickthroughs to the Graun here, courtesy of @helen_bop). The article is problematic through and through.

Moore argues that freedom of speech must be preserved, in the light of the debacle surrounding Julie Burchill’s slur-riddled extension of things which Moore herself had said (I collated a lot of Suzanne Moore’s comments here). Indeed, rather than distance herself from what Burchill said, Moore defends her in a paragraph which would be better suited to Spiked magazine:

And I am serious about freedom of speech. If Lynne Featherstone can call for a journalist and an editor to be sacked, this does not bode well for having politicians and lawyers running the press, does it? Do you actually want to be governed by humourless, authoritarian morons? Don’t answer that, I may be offended. You don’t commission someone like Julie Burchill to launch an Exocet missile and then say: “Oh dear, we only really wanted a sparkler.” You cannot unpublish something any more because of the internet, something that Lord Justice Leveson failed to get his considerable head round.

Furthermore, according to Moore, “people died for my right to offend you”. Here, she ignores the fact that the beliefs of hers and Julie Burchill’s she has been defending have led to the deaths of a lot of trans people. At the beginning of her latest article, Moore complains:

The wrath of the transgender community has been insane. They say I haven’t apologised enough and I probably haven’t. No one has apologised to me for saying that I should be decapitated and I support the English Defence League.

Here, she clearly implies that these insults came from the trans community. Maybe some of it did, but it is a complete lie to suggest that the comment about the EDL came from trans people or allies: here’s the tweet. One trans activist pointed this fact out to Suzanne Moore and promptly got blocked.

It’s not acceptable to scapegoat a vulnerable minority for something which was nothing to do with them. It’s downright fucking dangerous.

Tonight, there was a demo at the Guardian and Observer HQ to protest the publication of hateful, bigoted, transphobic articles, with particular focus on Burchill’s piece. Later that evening, Suzanne Moore would be speaking at a publicly event which had been heavily promoted on the social media, which those attending an already-organised protest may have been interested in picketing. I promoted the Guardian demo, and someone else tweeted about the Soho Skeptics event. Moore decided to RT these as an example of some sort of “bullying”:


Following this, my mentions were inundated with Moore’s supporters lambasting me for being “threatening” by promoting a vigil against transphobia, or attempting to ridicule me for having nothing better to do with my time. As a matter of fact, I had plenty of things I’d rather be doing that evening, like rewatching Battlestar Galactica or fucking or something, but nothing more important than standing in solidarity with trans people harmed by mainstream columnists engaging in hate speech. I’m cis, and I have the luxury of being able to walk away from this at any time I like, as it does not affect me personally. I do not feel it’s right to take this route, though (if however, my trans comrades feel it would be better if I stopped engaging in this, I will respect these wishes).

I went to the demo at the Guardian offices, and nobody picketed the Soho Skeptics event, because protest is a cold, tiring business. As far as I’m aware, the Soho Skeptics event went smoothly, uninterrupted by any mention of the psychological harms inflicted by Suzanne Moore and the imaginary trans cabal never did make good on the imaginary threats they imaginarily made. The demo was attended by a mixed bunch–trans people, radical queers, allies. It was angry and sad all at once, as speeches reflected on trans oppression. One trans activist took to the megaphone and delivered a beautiful, eloquent speech on the inequality of platforms.

She spoke about how cis columnists and journalists have the platform and the power to spread dangerous myths and lies about trans people. Meanwhile, the trans community does not have the same opportunity to rebut this misinformation. They do not have the platform, while those with it abuse it. She spoke of how the demo was an expression of free speech.

Which is exactly what it was. Those same people who died for Moore’s right to offend also died for our right to offend Suzanne Moore by holding demos. It was an attempt to address this inequality of platform. Far from being threatening, it was a public attempt at holding people and institutions accountable for the wrongs they have committed. They probably do find this somewhat threatening, many being used to not having to hear criticism, particularly not as instantaneously as in the digital age. Yet it is a different threat entirely to the mainstream media closing ranks against an oppressed minority: this is where the harm came from, and it will continue to do so until they change.

It’s mighty disingenous of Suzanne Moore to claim to believe in free speech, yet continue to play the victim when those she upset hold her accountable. This, too, is free speech, it’s just words she doesn’t want to hear. She has the platform and the power to obfuscate the truth, while those she has harmed cannot so readily make their voices heard.

It’s a ghastly imbalance, and I cannot see it being righted any time soon. There’s too much structural bullshit to tear down. It’s not an unreasonable request to ask those with the power and the platform to use this responsibly, to try to avoid contributing further to this oppressive system. It’s not an infringement of free speech to try to hold those who do express harmful views to account. It’s a way of chipping away at a crack and letting the light get in.

I’m furious that in 2013, rather than living in cloud cities with our robot friends, we’re not even fighting to gain ground, but to hold the measly little patch that we’ve got.