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Updated: Aug 23, 2022

Talking about “triggers” and starting posts and group discussions with “trigger warnings” is now de riguer in the kink community. It has been lifted from colleges and poetry readings and incorporated into kink. I hate it. Here’s why…

Triggers are actually important to talk about before play. Triggers- not stuff that you are not totally comfortable with, not stuff that is awkward, not things you might have some trepidation about. ACTUAL TRIGGERS. The thing is, a lot of folks, especially TNG people classify everything as a trigger.

What is a Trigger

A trigger is anything- music, smell, taste, words, and so on- tied to a trauma someone has experienced. When the trigger is present, a person experiences anxiety, panic attacks, and emotional trauma again. Let’s be clear, this isn’t crying when you hear about someone’s suicide attempt or cutting. This isn’t getting mad when someone talks about rape. That is normal. This is hearing the music that was playing when you are raped, being pulled back into that emotional state, and starting to panic. BIG DIFFERENCE.

Why Talking About Triggers Is Important

Kinky people do all sorts of stuff in play. We need to communicate with our partners about things that present dangers. This includes emotional dangers, which includes triggers. Some of us know some of our triggers. Most of us are not aware of all of our triggers.

Take me for example. I was raped while George Strait was playing. It is one of the few things I remember of that night. Now, anything that sounds remotely like Strait comes on and I am pulled right back into that emotional state of when it was happening. It takes a great amount of mental work to stop a panic attack and sobbing. That is a trigger. I let my partners know because I don’t want to get pulled into that state during a scene. The upside is I don’t have to listen to crappy new country western music.

This is different than things I am uncomfortable with or hard limits. I don’t do race play. I hate it, find it offensive and won’t do it. Race play is not a trigger for me. But it is a hard limit.

Triggers are also different than things I am unsure or uneasy about. I was a cutter. When I tried knife play for the first time, I let the Dom know that I had been a cutter and didn’t know how I would respond. Turns out I love it! (Thanks to Knottie Boy for that, btw).

How Trigger and Trigger Warning Gets Used Now

In the past couple of years, I have found that kink groups spend more and more time giving trigger warnings and talking about triggers. I take umbrage with this for a couple of reasons.

I. Most people misuse the idea of “trigger.” Like any psychological term that is widely adopted by people, it is not understood and used improperly. I know to many subs who tell their D-types something is a “trigger” when what they mean is something scares them or makes them uncomfortable. Calling something a “trigger” so that you never have to expand your boundaries or explore something is a horrible way to top from the bottom. Step up and be honest. Tell your D-type that something scares you. That it makes you uncomfortable. That you simply don’t want to do it. But don’t call it a trigger so you never have to grow.

II. A trigger is rarely talking about a topic. Sub groups especially are bad about this abuse. I have seen too many subs say, “Oh, rape is trigger for me” as a way of not talking about rape in the community. Bad things can happen in the community: rape, boundary violations, abuse disguised as D/s. We need to talk about these things as a community. Just because you have one or more of these things in your past does not exempt you from the conversation of how to stop these things. In fact, your voice is important in these discussions. Its okay to be uncomfortable during a conversation. Stop opting out of working through community issues because the topic upsets you.

III. Most of us don’t really know all of our triggers. In play, something can happen- a phrase is used, music comes on, someone does something, that causes a major emotional trauma. All of the sudden one of the play partners is overcome with anxiety or sobbing or panic and needs to stop. That is when you know you have discovered a trigger. If you do not distinguish between “things that make me uncomfortable,” “hard limits” and triggers, having a coherent conversation about what happened during a scene is much more difficult. Clarifying the discussion of triggers helps with understanding your own play.

Are Trigger Warnings Ever Useful?

Yes. There are certain things that can be consistent triggers for many folks. Face slapping is a big trigger for a lot of people, especially people who have been in abusive relationships. Even in the kink community where impact play is common, face slapping is a hard limit for many and a trigger for some.

I did a burlesque number to “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benetar. I start the number with my partner hitting me hard in the face. I performed this number at a kink show and did not issue a trigger warning because kink folks were there, it was in the headquarters, and I knew the audience would be fine with it in that context.

When I performed it again in a vanilla venue, I gave the emcee specific wording for my intro because I knew in a large crowd of vanilla folks, there would be very few expecting a number with face slapping and other hitting. The emcee did not do the warning thinking she was being cute about it, and the number triggered a woman in the crowd (Midtown Moxies, I am putting you on blast for being dumb about this). Had the emcee done the intro I sent, women who are triggered by such things could have stepped out for a minute.

So yes, there are a few times when trigger warnings can be useful. But honestly, no coffee/munch/group leader can be fully aware of what triggers someone. Letting folks know that something controversial (rape, boundary violations, race play, etc.) will be the topic of the evening is enough to let individuals decide if they want to participate. We don’t need to do these gyrations of “Oh, and we will be talking about safe word violations today. I know that is upsetting and may have happened to some of you. Please feel free to leave or let us know we shouldn’t talk about something if it triggers you.” We are adults. We can make a judgement to leave a space.

More importantly, for those of us who have experienced a trauma, we need to add our voice. While the kink community is less rape-y than most groups in America (thanks to UNC and their researchers who showed that in a recent study) bad things still happen. It is our responsibility to keep each other safe. We need the community open to talking about these things. Trigger warnings tend to shut this down.

Bottom Line

Get clear about what a trigger really is. If you know you have one that sends you into a panic or anxiety attack or other emotional break, let your partner know. Otherwise, be honest about limits and things your are uncomfortable with. And stop mollycoddling people. It is the community that needs to protect one another and that starts with talking about things.

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