Trigger Warning?

I was recently asked to provide trigger warnings for some images and links we posted on the SexGenderBody Tumblr and Twitter feeds.

This is a topic that I have struggled with since we started the site.  We don’t get many requests for this, but when we do – I take stock of what we are doing, how it might impact people, where we are accountable (or want to be) and what choices we make as we go forward.  So, I thought I would share my thoughts and open it up for discussion.

I take such requests very seriously.  SGB is designed to honor the terms of our individual identities and that is no easy thing to do.

We cover a lot of ground at SGB: anything to do with sex, gender, body.  This includes not only the first things you might consider regarding these topics, but everything else.  Including but not limited to: sexuality, asexuality, age, gender, queer, body mods, tattoos, kink, vanilla, celibacy, non-monogamy, relationships, family, friendship, politics, feminism, rights, advocacy, activism and a zillion other expressions and conversations about the human body.

Every person on the planet has their own definition and terms that they use to define their own sex, gender & body.  Some of these are common and some are less so, making for a very large (almost 7 billion) sample of variations.  Additionally, we each have our own ideas of what we like / don’t like / are attracted to / offended by.  These too come in common and uncommon variations.

Many of us are survivors of assault and when we read about such things it can be very difficult for us.  We may wish to avoid such things or at least know that they’re coming, so that we can manage it in some way.  Even if someone is not a survivor per se, they may simply wish to avoid such topics for some other reason.  Certainly, the desire for such advance notice is a reasonable request.  So, on one hand I would like to honor that request.  That’s one element of this issue.

The elusive standard.

My struggle is in addressing a pair of considerations.

One problem is: what is offensive? What words or image qualify as “offensive” in their mere existence?

The next issue is: What is it to cause offense? What actions does a writer take that are by definition – an offense?

Do we give a trigger warning for “likely”  or “possible” offense?  What determines “likely” or even “majority“?

Not to be callous in any way, but I have yet to find something that deals with sex, gender, body that does not run the risk of offending someone, somewhere.  With so many people, so many cultures, histories, languages, conventions and beliefs – finding a majority view of “offensive” or “inoffensive” worldwide, is a very hard thing to do (much less actually prove).  It seems to my untrained eye that location and language determine whether something is considered “offensive” more than content or anything else.

A picture of Charles Atlas on a beach with no shirt will not get many people fired…

but a picture of a “topless” woman on her vacation could very easily do so.

Even the word “topless” is more slanted toward the meaning of a woman with no shirt.  If a man goes topless in many places, it is of no concern to anyone but him.  He might be called “shirt less”, but not very often “topless”.  While at the same time, a woman would be arrested for doing so.  Again, this varies from one culture to the next.

We have readers and contributors from across the globe, so the question of what is “offensive” becomes even more difficult to answer.  In each of our own personal lives and the communities we touch, we get a sense of what we think is a generally accepted definition of “offensive”.

That said, it seems like a “no-brainer” that some things should come with a warning: murder, rape, torture.  But, a “no-brainer” it is not.

The newspapers are full of murder stories daily.  If murder is offensive, then the NY Times should have a trigger warning on the top of the front page.  But, that would be silly because we are used to reading about murder, mass murder, genocide, starvation, disease, famine, queer bashing, kidnapping and a slew of awful things done by humans to other humans.

When it comes to rape, that’s in the papers, too.  Rape is as foul a thing as there is on this planet.  There are very few absolutes and rape is not one of them.  Some people have healthy sexual fantasy and role play that involves consenting adults in a rape scenario.  Their voices are no less valid than the rape survivor who cannot stand the mention of the word.  They are just different people with different identities.  The site will deny neither identity nor the expression of those identities.  They are not the same thing and neither one is better or worse.

In a very similar comparison, torture and kink can have vastly different expressions of identity and reactions.  The key distinction is the presence or absence of consent.

The issue at hand is that however any one person identifies themselves, they are welcome to share their identity here.

Is a warning just a warning?

When someone places a “NSFW” tag on a picture of a naked human, what is communicated?  It seems to mean “if your job will fire you for looking at naked people, then don’t look at this”.  This usually includes pictures of sex or genitals, but some companies have different levels of acceptable flesh that they are interested in their employees looking at.

But, that’s not all it means.  Some companies apply that directive at such topics as politics, (competing) religion, workers’ organizing, education, media, human rights and many more.  Depending on the culture of any websurfer, the list of “NSFW” can include a wide selection.

Language and images are not neutral – they carry a great deal of meaning besides the initial, immediate usage would indicate.  For example, when “NSFW” is used concerning nudity or sex, it also reinforces messages regarding the value of people based on their gender, sex and race.  So, when we throw “NSFW” up, we run the very real risk of reinforcing a truckload of patriarchal value statements on whether or not

Do we consider the impact of our content?

Yes.  We think about it – a lot.  We consider whether or not we are reinforcing value statements about someone’s body being devalued based on some gender, sex, body term of devaluation as well as whether or not it may be “offensive”.  We think about  a great number of considerations.  Hopefully, we find voices that are less frequently heard, perspectives that are unique and assumptions that are largely ignored to be examined.

Are we responsible for people’s emotions?

No.  This is not a flippant or dismissive response.  It’s a fact.  The only person’s emotions that any of us are responsible for are our own.  Many cultures and individuals believe and agree with each other that they are either responsible for other people’s emotions or that others are responsible for theirs.  I am not talking about a physical contact, actions, drugging / poisoning or some physical act that leads to an emotional / physical response.  I am talking about words and images.  In this case, all the agreement in the world is nothing more than agreement and it is still not a fact.  A person may believe that other people are responsible for zie’s emotions, but zie still chooses zie’s emotions inside the context of those beliefs and not because of any actual causality between one human and the next via words or images.

We are responsible for our own words and if we are preaching hatred, intolerance, lies, cruelty and encouraging the rights of others, then there are laws to protect society from such cruelties.  That having been said, I also know from personal experience that words can be very upsetting.  In the case of blogs, we have a simple recourse – close the browser window.

What is “acting with responsibility?”.

This can also be defined from person to person, based on their values.  The values of this site are to foster an open discussion on sex, gender, body that allows people to articulate the terms of their own identity and to hear / accept others as they articulate theirs.

In the end, I suggest that when people read something upsetting (here or elsewhere) – don’t read that site again, or for a while, etc.  Put some space between one’s self  and that information / image that caused the upset.  That is good, rational behavior.  The world is full of things that will upset each and every one of us.  We share this world together and it is unreasonable to think that we can ask the world to stop talking about things that upset us or to label them on our behalf.  We need to find a way to accept that by moving about in the world (and on the Internet), we will bump into things we don’t like very much.

If we don’t like what we see, we can move away from it.  I completely understand that.  It’s a smart thing to do.  I don’t want anyone to be upset and I don’t want anyone to think that we are deliberately ignoring their concerns.  To the contrary, but we are also hosting conversations about the entirety of human corporeal form and identity and nobody is going to like or be comfortable with all aspects of those conversations.

If you don’t like something that you see here or on our other outlets, I apologize.  I wish that it was not so.  If you need to leave our site and never return for any reason, then I completely understand and honestly, sincerely wish you to be happy.  If you have to tell everyone you know that you think our site is the worst possible thing on the planet, I fully support your right to say and believe that.  I won’t agree with you of course, but you won’t get any argument from me about  you doing what you choose.  I am with Voltaire on this one:

I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.

If you are at work and you could get in trouble for looking at nekkid humans, then don’t surf sites with the name “SexGenderBody” in the title.  Even if it’s not ours, I could win most bets by guessing that you’d see some flesh.  Do your spreadsheets and check us out when you get home.  That is a good, responsible thing to do on your part and only you control which pages you view.  We don’t have pop-ups, spam or any of that stuff.  You can only see our site by coming here of your own volition.

So, to conclude: I leave it up the each contributor on the site to include or omit trigger warnings.  I will not be adding very many trigger warnings.  I don’t want to say never, but I am having a hard time figuring out just exactly where.  Other writers on the site may include them on every post and that is fine with me.  It is their choice, and I am very proud to support that.


The Long, Dark Night of My Sex-Positive Soul

So first, a little background on sex-positive.

There is no organized sex-positive movement.  It is a discussion that has grown over the recent years, starting in the 1930’s. It can mean a great many things to just about everybody and that is kind of the point, really.  The basic idea is that sex is a natural part of human, mammalian existence and that we can embrace it in its variety as a part of normal life.

People in many groups organized around specific aspects of sex and identity often participate in sex-positive conversations and find the ideals and values of their individual and group identities overlapping sex-positive thoughts and goals.  Some of the more frequent of such groups and individuals identify in terms of Sex work, BDSM & Kink, LGBTQI “Pink” , disability, feminism, genderqueer, transhuman and many, many more.

If you want to read some good primers on sex-positivity, try this post by Clarisse Thorn, The Center for Sex-Positive Culture or any of the links on our blogroll listed under ‘sex-positive’.

Note: I spend a good portion of this post, talking about my own experience.  This is not because I’m particularly enamored with myself, but rather to offer my recent thoughts as one person’s reactions to something that may echo in your life someplace.  It may not.  I won’t pretend to know how anyone else should feel or react and I won’t dictate to others the terms of their identity.

I have been having a crisis of faith lately.  This is of course funny because I am not religious and the faith in crisis is more about my own identity than how I feel about invisible beings.  In the larger sense it is about what it means to be ‘sex-positive’ but it really is about how to deal with privilege.

In the span of a week or so, I attended several Sex-Positive events.  One was the showing of a documentary film with discussion afterward, the second was a discussion on sex-positive at a BDSM social club and the last was an invitation to join a group of sex-positive activists.  I suddenly realized how very privileged the conversations and these groups were.  At one event, there were some people of color but at the others, it was all white, professional, educated, middle to upper class and english speaking US citizens.  I like everyone in these groups and this post is not about them but about my experiences and thoughts about privilege.

I have been involved in a great many sex-positive conversations for a couple of years now.  I identify with a lot of the ideas this topic centers around.  Self-identity, consent, acceptance of each other as human and sex as an aspect of our humanity that varies from one person to the next.  It is a very liberal and progressive conversation and I certainly have no problem with any of that.

I am drawn to many open, respectful conversations around identity expression and the myriad of human sexual experiences.  In retrospect, I didn’t see the privilege for a very long time.  I didn’t see it because I am  privileged and I did not want to see the privilege in these circles that I did not want to see privilege in myself. My vanity and insecurity blinded me from seeing what was there all the time.  Now, it was everywhere and I was suddenly very self-conscious.  More on that, below.

So, a couple of things got my attention on all this.  First, I noticed the extreme lack of diversity and the privileged groups of people participating in these conversations – including my own membership in the ranks of the privileged.  Second, I had some conversations about diversity within these groups.

I really started thinking about Privilege.  It is a fact of human social structure.  It will never go away.  So, there is no point where we say “that’s handled, let’s move on now”.  I think that liberals and conservatives deal with privilege in two different ways.  Conservatives embrace privilege and seek it, hoping to hold onto it forever.  Liberals seek to eliminate privilege by rising above it.  Both are wrong, in my view.


Privilege is sort of like Samara Morgan in The Ring - it never sleeps.

Privilege is sort of like Samara Morgan in The Ring - it never sleeps.


I am a liberal / progressive…whatever, but I am a white, cis-gendered, male, middle-class, from christian families.  In short, I’m the goddamn poster child of privilege.

There is a difference between an advantage and privilege.  An advantage is some preferrable skill or condition that one person has in comparison to another.  A faster runner, quicker thinker, wealthier and so on.  Privilege is when someone gains at the loss of another.  At the heart of privilege is the choice to prosper at the expense of other person(s).

My initial reaction as I noticed the privilege I perceived in these sex-positive conversations was to be frank – revulsion.  I was suddenly taken by the urge to flee from these (I surmised) “bourgeois sex-positive pretensions”, never to return.  I’m old enough now to recognize vanity when I see it  – even my own.

It occurred to me that the conversations about sex-positivity and the people involved in them are not the reasons why I was in those social gatherings.  Those groups and talks don’t define me: my actions and choices define me.  To be honest, I had not really been thinking about why I participate in these sex-positive conversations for some time.  I had been on auto-pilot, managing tasks and basically just showing up.  So, I took a step back and thought about what brought me into these sex-positive conversations to begin with.

I am a rights activist, focused on finding ways for individuals to live together in a group in ways that support both the individual and the group.  I participate in sex-positive conversations to that end.  Along the way, I am challenging myself as well as others to look where I and we can make choices that will benefit us as individuals, us as a group and the generations of individuals and groups to follow.

So, I won’t stop being part of a privileged class of people, but I can choose to act in ways that apply any advantages I have in ways that benefit myself, my family and the communities around me.  For me, it seems the goal is to balance selfishness and selflessness by being aware and acting intentionally.

As I surmised all this, I climbed in off the ledge of the sex-positive skyscraper, dusted my pant legs and poured a fresh cup of coffee.  This is not about sex-positivity, but about vanity, denial and awareness.  It is about dealing with challenges, even when – especially when we are working on something we care about.

So, all of this kinda means very little unless some action comes out of it…or so it seems to me. It became clear to me that I would not be serving my commitments to equality and diversity by participating in two of those groups I mentioned above.  There are a lot of communities and voices in the world where I can engage in conversations about equality, rights, identity, acceptance and even sex-positivity.  Really, my greatest gifts to and from people come in the moments when I am listening.  If I have any advantages I can bring to bear on making contributions to my own life and the lives of others, then I can happily do just that.



Jaded16’s Note: Who can say that was short of awesome? Remember that Pesky Open Guest Posting Policy I bring up every other day? Use it people of the Olde Interwebes so you may spew awesome too!


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