Advance knowledge is power: A strange hill to die on

This is the final piece in a short series on engagement, avoidance and trigger warnings.
Part 1: A trip to the dentist
Part 2: The banality of trigger warnings
Part 3: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy

Content note: this post mentions food and eating disorders.

I’ve gone on, for thousands of words, about trigger warnings, but I have not yet addressed a very salient point: that I am a massive raging hypocrite.

I often don’t put trigger warnings where they’re necessary.

I want to say it’s because I forget, and at least in part, that is completely true. But there’s a reason I forget: because I am not thinking about my audience, only about myself.

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A few months ago, I baked some cuntroversial bread for the first time (yes, I’m still doing it; the starter’s still alive and well, and I have a batch in the oven as I write). This provoked rather a strong outpouring of the entire internet telling me I’m disgusting, and so, for my part, I got a little bit defensive. Not really thinking of anything but my own emotional defences, I went off on one about food hygiene generally.

I probably should have included some content warnings somewhere along the way.

I did lose a fair few followers over that, and it was only from some kind pal doing something they needn’t have done and asking me to please pop up content warnings on the various food rants I was off on that I realised I was being a bit of a dick.

I’d been thinking about myself rather than thinking about other people. And because of that, a bunch of people who had been previously engaged with me on a personal and a political level, disengaged.

I had not been considerate of people with eating disorders, and therefore I had lost some of my audience.

And that was nobody’s fault but my own.

*

I had, once upon a time, been of the school of thought that trigger warnings might perhaps reduce engagement. I didn’t use them at all. For the most part, I didn’t see much of a necessity: I myself seldom needed them, and only under very specific circumstances.

I only began using trigger warnings because people asked me to, and I like a quiet life.

It was close to zero effort on my part to include a little warning at the top of a post. Just typing a couple of key words, briefly summarising content.

Incidentally, having looked at my own stats, I haven’t lost any traffic on posts that include a trigger warning: in fact, if anything, engagement goes up. 

Here’s a funny thing that happened as I started to incorporate trigger warnings onto my own writing: I myself became more conscious. I thought more about how my writing would be received by certain groups of people, I thought more about people who previously had barely been on my radar.

I had sleepwalked along for much of my life, and the doors opened up and I began to think of other people who have historically been swept under the carpet.

Perhaps this is what those who resist trigger warnings fear most: ending up shifting, ever so slightly, away from dominant narratives centring people who were born lucky and stayed lucky.

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You may have noticed I tend to use “content note” or “content warning” rather than “trigger warning” on my own writing. This is once again due to my desire for a quiet life.

A lot of tedious bores just love to weigh in when they even see a trigger warning: no wonder they think people disengage at trigger warnings, they themselves tend to use it as their excuse not to bother.

There are also legitimate criticisms of the term “trigger warning”: it’s loaded in assumptions, specifically about PTSD. “Content note” is both more neutral and more inclusive: it encompasses the many things which people might wish to engage with on their own terms, such as other mental illnesses, spoilers, and just generally things people might not want to deal without being forewarned.

A trigger warning, though, is another part of this family of textual warnings, and one where I simply find it bizarre that so many people are working themselves up into such a frenzy over.

*

Trigger warnings seem like a strange hill to die on: doing something which takes all of fifteen seconds, probably won’t harm anyone and saves you a bit of strife. Even as I built a model for why one may resist trigger warnings, I still struggle to understand the visceral dislike of something so utterly banal.

When I adopted trigger warnings, I expected little to change, and for the most part the only thing that changed was within me: I became a slightly better writer and–I hope–a slightly better person.

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This series was made possible by my patrons on Patreon, who give me the motivation to keep on writing. If you found this series helpful, please consider becoming a patron.


Advance knowledge is power: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy

This is the third in a short series on engagement and trigger warnings.
Part 1: A trip to the dentist
Part 2: The banality of trigger warnings
Part 4: A strange hill to die on

Content note: this post discusses mental illness and psychiatry, PTSD, phobias and snakes, mentions rape.

A daytime chat show:  the topic is phobias. The host promises that his guest therapists will cure these phobias, right in front of our eyes, using exposure therapy. A guest, a young woman, talks about her phobia of snakes, and how it prevents her going outside.

The host then calls a man to the stage. He enters from the back, walking up the aisle between the audience for maximum effect. They whoop and cheer, because he is carrying a large snake on his shoulders. The woman on stage pales and begins to shake as she sees him coming towards her. As he gets closer, she vibrates more and more.

The man plonks the snake around her shoulders and she screams and cries, because she has a phobia of snakes. The audience is delighted by this spectacle. Their whooping intensifies with her screaming: there is something almost medieval about it. She screams until she can scream no longer. I turn off the TV, disgusted.

*

The scene described above is what too many people think is meant by the term “exposure therapy”, which is usually the justification given to lend a scientific veneer to the argument against trigger warnings.

Trigger warnings, it is argued, are unhealthy. The main source for this argument is the infamous Atlantic article, which was written by a psychologist. Which, yes, it was written by a psychologist, but not one who specialises in anything clinical–or even one who fully understands the behavioural model on which exposure therapy is based. He’s a “moral psychologist”, who naturally therefore views these things throw a moral lens, rather than anything else. As the old saying goes, when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Exposure therapy forms the core of the supposedly scientific argument against trigger warnings, but everyone putting this across is wrong. 

Exposure therapy isn’t simply randomly exposing people with anxiety disorders to their anxiety triggers, and assuming they’ll eventually get better and grow some resilience. Exposure therapy is a wide term for a number of different approaches which all involve exposing the client to the thing that causes their anxiety under controlled circumstances. In some approaches, the person might be trained in coping mechanisms before being exposed to their trigger in a safe space. In others, there might be a stepped exposure to the trigger with the support of the therapist–using the example of snakes, that might be first looking at a picture of a snake, then touching a bit of snake skin, eventually working up to holding a snake over the course of the therapy. Some approaches might even use virtual reality or visualising the trigger, and so forth. Crucially, though, exposure therapy isn’t just exposing someone to their trigger and assuming they’ll just get over it and become a stronger person: the exposure happens in controlled circumstances–and usually in a manner which the person controls (indeed, in PTSD, exposure therapy is more effective when it’s self-controlled rather than therapist-controlled).

Exposure therapy is more commonly-used in treating phobias: when used for PTSD, the most common form involves a combination of visualising and processing traumatic memories with the help of a therapist, and taking a hierarchical approach to exposing oneself to triggers in real life. Again, trigger warnings are not at odds with this: hell, providing information about content could help someone undergoing exposure therapy undertake their week’s task of, say, watching a rape scene in a film, by having been told in advance that the rape scene is there!

The fundamental lack of understanding of exposure therapy is perhaps a driving force in the peculiar belief that not allowing survivors control over their engagement with triggering material is somehow for their own good.

Far from being at odds with various therapeutic models, trigger warnings can be congruent. It means that exposure occurs in circumstances which are controlled by the person rather than just at random. Exposure therapy is hardly the only model for treating PTSD, and may not necessarily be the best: however, I have not managed to identify a treatment for PTSD which is incompatible with trigger warnings.

Of course, the other primary conjecture used against trigger warnings is that they cause avoidance. The only attempt to systematically research it I’ve found is an abstract for an unpublished undergraduate dissertation with a tiny sample size of twenty and rather a lot of tests run on that very small data set (including dividing it into subsets!).  If there’s any evidence of the effect of trigger warnings on avoidant behaviour, I’d love to see it. Note exactly what I asked for. I am not asking for you to leave a screed in the comments about how your feelings suggest this is so (you can call it “common sense” if you like, but it isn’t).

If warnings about content were actually harmful, we would expect to see psychologists coming out against the banal, everyday content warnings that you see on TV, or before films. We don’t.

*

So, trigger warnings aren’t going to harm anyone. Are they actually helping anyone?

Sadly, we don’t know, because there is an unwillingness to provide the data which could identify whether they’re effective. Given how politically-charged the issue is though, there sadly aren’t any large-scale studies on the impact of using trigger warnings in higher education, which is a primary battleground in this debate. There don’t seem to be any quality studies at all.

This is likely because very few institutions have tried, despite it being fairly easy to pilot. What we do know is that dropping out of college happens more if you’ve experienced violence. We also know that a frighteningly large portion of the population has experienced sexual violence. With this happening, what exactly do lecturers have to lose by piloting whether trigger warnings improve retention rates?

Of course, some may wonder how this all fits into practice, while teaching traumatic content. An article in The Criminologist, the American Society of Criminology’s newsletter offers some evidence-based suggestions. Criminology, of course, necessarily features teaching subject matter which can be heavily traumatic. Trigger warnings are recommended as one aspect in teaching about victimisation:

Warning early and often via multiple mediums provides students maximum opportunity to engage in informed decision-making and feel that they are in control. The first trigger warning should be on the first day of any course that includes information with the potential to emotionally trigger students. Trigger warnings should be given in at least the two classes before the presentation of potentially triggering material (or engagement with it outside of class, if that is the case), as well as at the beginning of the day when the material is presented. If an assignment is going to be shared with others, include that detail ahead of time (e.g., Hollander, 2000), so students can control how much of their experiences they share. These steps allow students time to think about what they need to do for self-care (see below) and give them an opportunity to talk to the instructor about their concerns and possible alternate arrangements.

Meanwhile, an article in the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, suggests the following guidance, emphasising the point about how trigger warnings actually involve taking responsibility on the part of those who require trigger warnings:

Some professors, including Zurbriggen, encourage their psychology students to start doing so by taking responsibility for their reactions at the beginning of a course. She asks students to create a list of coping practices and people they can consult if they are affected by course material.

“The way the story is framed [in the media] sometimes is that students are so vulnerable or that they need to toughen up, and that’s not the issue,” says Zurbriggen. “Most trauma survivors have a lot of resilience. Providing information to students always makes the class a better experience and prepares them to dive into the material in a way that promotes learning.”

Despite all this, the evidence is sparse: the question becomes political, and therefore the objections, too, are political, and largely driven by emotion. It’s therefore only fitting that tomorrow’s conclusion to this series will also be political and largely driven by emotion and my own experiences.

Part 4: A strange hill to die on

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This series was made possible by my patrons on Patreon, who give me the motivation to keep on writing. If you found this series helpful, please consider becoming a patron.


Advance knowledge is power: The banality of trigger warnings

This is the second in a short series on engagement and trigger warnings.
Part 1: A trip to the dentist
Part 3: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy
Part 4: A strange hill to die on

Content note: this post discusses mental illness and mentions potentially-triggering material including rape scenes, war, blood and violence.

I’m watching TV, and the announcer warns that in the upcoming show, there will be scenes of graphic violence of a sexual nature. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

I’m at the cinema, and just before the film starts, a little card comes up saying that the film will include blood and violence. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

Just before I click through to a website, a little message pops up saying there will be nudity. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

I’m loading up a video game for the first time. It gives me an epilepsy warning. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

I’m a kid, visiting my great-uncle who had nearly died during the Second World War. My mum frantically tells me not to make loud noises or sudden movements near him. I don’t go off on one, screeching about censorship or coddled millennials.

*

It would be deeply unreasonable in any of the above scenarios for me–or anyone else–to start loudly grinding axes over something perfectly mundane, everyday. And yet, it’s considered a perfectly normal response if you put the name “trigger warning” in front of these trivial messages.

These messages have been there, though, for a very long time. Often, they’re ignored, but sometimes people appreciate them.

I cannot emphasise enough how this is all that a trigger warning is. Unfortunately, the meaning has been twisted for political ends, conflated with all sorts of other things, with a big old heap of straw men tossed on top.

A trigger warning, or content note is simply a note about content which may provoke a strong negative response in some people: just like when the TV announcer says there’s going to be a rape scene in EastEnders.

How did something so neutral become so politically-charged and maligned? I suspect a number of factors which combine and interact to produce a distaste for a common practice under a different name.

Disablism and mental health: Mental health concerns, compared to physical health concerns, are often dismissed. They’re dismissed because people cannot see them, so they assume some sort of fakery must be involved. It is often just about comprehensible that someone who cannot hear will need a sign language interpreter, for example. However, the notion that someone with PTSD might appreciate an advance warning about something which could potentially trigger a flashback so they can prepare themselves is harder to understand in a society wherein the disablism levelled at people with mental illness is so often rooted in the assumption of faking.

I introduced this blog series with a story about a physical procedure I had done on an observable part of my body because of how differently mental and physical health problems are treated.

This is not to say that disablism does not exist in the realms of physical disability: god knows, it does. And the presence of disablism in the “trigger warnings” debate stinks strongly.

Privilege projection: The thing about a lot of the people weighing in about trigger warnings is that they’ve seldom encountered much difficult in their lives. They’ve been kept, all tucked away, in comfortable lives. It might come as no surprise, then, that they have very little understanding of what it’s like to experience a strong negative reaction to a traumatic stimulus. At worst, perhaps they’ll feel uncomfortable.

And then they go and project that feeling of discomfort onto those who appreciate a heads-up about content. They assume because that’s the thing they feel, surely that’s what everyone else feels. And as this combines with disablism and the trivialisation of disability, we end up with a ridiculous “feeling uncomfortable” narrative, neatly eliding the true purpose of trigger warnings.

I also wonder whether the immediate assumption that people will disengage from material if they’re given a trigger warning is a form of projection. For example, some parents, upon seeing a content warning on a film, won’t let their kids watch it. Other parents will watch with their children, addressing and answering any questions their kids have. Do those who object to trigger warnings fall into the former category?

Anti-feminism: It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that perhaps the most vocal proponents of trigger warnings often come from a feminist background and are therefore not men. This is not a coincidence. Patriarchy likes for us to not be taken seriously. Distaste for feminist demands is as old as feminism itself. Ridicule of feminist demands is as old as feminism itself. Outright disgust at anything suggested by a feminist is as old as feminism itself. Same large floating turd, but this time the stench is eggy rather than cabbagey.

Rape culture: There are certain types of PTSD which are dismissed more readily than others. Many of the narratives against trigger warnings focus in particular on rape survivors, and these commentators would never say similar things about military veterans. This is likely due to rape culture, the way society is set up to enable rape. If rape itself isn’t real, then neither can be the resulting trauma.

The power struggle: The context to the trigger warning debate is that a bunch of historically-privileged folk are really keen to cling on to the luxuries they didn’t earn. They don’t like it when the boat is rocked. They don’t like it when marginalised people organise together, and make a perfectly reasonable demand. Requesting trigger warnings (and the much-derided-but-also-pretty-innocuous things they’re conflated with, such as safer spaces or no-platforms) feels like a threat.

This is particularly apparent in one of the key battlegrounds, higher education. Traditionally, education has been fairly didactic: the lecturer lectures, and the students listen. This is fortunately changing–although in some quarters there’s resistance: most notably from those who have held the power and like it.

The thing about trigger warnings is they put some control into the hands of the survivor. They get to choose how they engage. This scares the absolute shit out of those who’d prefer things to stay the same, and they fall back on their own defence mechanisms: the sneering intellectual mask.

Imposing particular readings: I read an article by a lecturer who tried to use trigger warnings, and one part stuck out in particular. The students were shown the film 9 1/2 Weeks, a film where the lecturer believed a sex scene to be consensual:

When conversation began in class, a white male student started talking about the scene as one of consent. Four hands shot up. One said, “no—it is clearly not consensual.” Other students concurred. They argued that if someone is in an abusive relationship, they can never consent to sex because they are being manipulated…

What these students were essentially doing was stripping every person in an abusive relationship of all their agency. They were telling every survivor that they were raped, even when the survivor may have wanted to have sex with their abuser. They were claiming god like knowledge of every sexual encounter. And they were only 20. If that. Their frontal lobes haven’t even fully developed.

The lecturer had a particular reading of the text, a debate happened, and the lecturer responds with utmost contempt at students’ readings of the texts because it conflicted with her own. Note, also, that in this anecdote the students had had a trigger warning and were engaging with the text. Somehow, nonetheless, the anecdote shows that trigger warnings are bad.

One of the key issues raised against trigger warnings is that they reduce the impact of, say, a rape scene in a book, which is supposed to be shocking. 

In other words, you should be having the emotional reaction (they think) the author wanted you to have.

That is an absurd demand to make. It’s impossible. Some people might have that emotional response. Some will merely be bored, some will find it mawkishly hilarious, and, of course, some people will experience a PTSD response.

Basically, if popping a trigger warning on a text spoils what you think is the surprise then you should probably just whack off to M. Night Shyamalan films because if that’ll fit your main criteria for engaging with the text perfectly.

Ignorance: I saved this till last, because I often feel like “ignorance” is a lazy opt-out answer. However, there are still a lot of people who do exist in ignorance. If you don’t say “trigger warning” but put across the principles of it, they’ll agree. However, they’ve only heard of trigger warnings as some sort of issue on which they are required to have a hot-take, and the media does like to conflate it with other things they’re scared of.

I suspect a lot of people who think they’re against trigger warnings aren’t really, it’s just they don’t know what these warnings actually are.

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Factors combine to create a hostile climate against what is essentially something perfectly neutral. And then out comes the pop psychology and everyone thinks they’re an expert in anxiety disorders. Unfortunately, here’s another place where misunderstandings are rife. Tomorrow, we’ll be delving into what evidence actually exists.

Part 3: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy

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This series was made possible by my patrons on Patreon, who give me the motivation to keep on writing. If you found this series helpful, please consider becoming a patron.


Advance knowledge is power: A trip to the dentist

This is the first post in a short series on engagement and trigger warnings/content notes.
Part 2: The banality of trigger warnings
Part 3: Exposing the true nature of exposure therapy
Part 4: A strange hill to die on

Content note: this post talks about dentists and dental procedures in detail, as well as PTSD and rape.

“It’s going to have to come out,” the dentist said, and my brain squawked fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.

One of my wisdom teeth had done what wisdom teeth tend to do, and grown in at a decidedly funny angle, meaning that whenever I chewed, talked or smiled, it would scrape against the inside of my mouth, causing regular mouth ulcers. I’d sucked it up and dealt with the pain, because, to be quite blunt, I was quite terrified of having to have the thing taken out. I’d heard horror stories about wisdom tooth extractions, and had hoped against hope that maybe my own gob would behave itself.

The dentist couldn’t just yank it there and then, because he didn’t have his instruments of torture to hand, so I had a week to prepare myself.

I read everything I could on wisdom tooth extraction in that week. I learned about exactly what the procedure would entail, what each step would feel like. I swotted up on aftercare, and what I might end up doing wrong and how to do it right. I looked at pictures of all the tools that would be used and where exactly they would be rammed into my poor fucked-up mouth, because I knew there was no way I’d be able to ask the questions I had during the procedure itself.

When the day came, I was prepared, and I went through with something I’d thought I might not be able to. I wasn’t even particularly scared. It all went exactly to the script. Afterwards, it healed perfectly, because I knew what I needed to do–and more importantly, why.

It’s not an experience I’d care to repeat, and I hope anything else that decides to grow in my mouth has the decency to point in the right direction. But it wasn’t traumatic.

*

When I was old enough to have my adult teeth, but still young enough to think strange things, I had my first scale and polish at the dentist. I’d had no idea he was going to do that to me, and I assumed it was some sort of punishment for me not flossing diligently enough.

The scale and polish was a huge factor in me going to the dentist as infrequently as possible, just about often enough to maintain my NHS patient status.

A few years ago, my old dentist–the uncommunicative grump who pulled my wonky wisdom tooth–retired and I got a new one. He was about my age, so must have been quite recently-qualified, with his patient sensitivity training still fresh in his mind. Every single thing he did throughout the dental checkup, he told me in advance what he was going to do, and how it might feel. He told me that if I wanted him to stop, I should raise my hand.

Just the knowledge that I could ask him to stop if it hurt, and knowing what he was going to do and when, was enough. I’m a little less dentist-avoidant now. It’s not exactly something I relish, but it’s not traumatic.

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I’ve spent 500 words talking about dentists because people find the principles of giving a warning in advance far easier to agree with when one talks about matters of the body–even the body as it interacts with the mind. There’s no objections when you talk about getting a week to prepare yourself before you have a tooth pulled. So why are there objections over giving people who have survived trauma a little bit of a heads-up so they can better ready themselves?

Ultimately, that is all the trigger warning/content note is. It’s a flag which says, be prepared. There’s an asteroid field ahead, captain, engage coping mechanisms!

For me, when I see a trigger warning, sometimes it’s not particularly relevant to me, so I ignore it. Sometimes it is relevant to me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll disengage completely: I’ll make sure I’m in a place to engage. For me, this involves making sure I’m not caffeinated, because a kick of anxiety in combination with caffeine easily translates into a full-blown panic response. If I’ve had a coffee, I might wait an hour before engaging.

That’s the thing with trigger warnings: most survivors don’t simply avoid–they have the advance knowledge to do what they have to do. One survivor might open up a tab with a game they find distracting to play after they’ve read a blog post with a trigger warning. Another survivor might make sure she watches a television show in the strong, comforting arms of her girlfriend after hearing it contains a rape scene. One survivor might start practicing the resilience building affirmations he learned in therapy on a daily basis once again before throwing himself into the rape scene in the set text. Another survivor might steel zerself by taking a beta blocker before ze goes to a class that ze has been warned will be discussing rape.

Each survivor has a unique set of coping mechanisms, but each can only do these things with a bit of advance knowledge. It’s more than a simple choice of engaging or disengaging: it empowers people to choose how they engage.

The debate on trigger warnings has been absent of decent evidence: this is because there’s little to show they’re either helpful or harmful–instead, what we mostly have is anecdotes. Therefore, the question becomes mostly a political one.

Over the next few days, I’ll be looking a little bit more at both the politics and the extant evidence with trigger warnings, particularly looking at the conflation of random exposure with controlled exposure. Tomorrow, we’ll be looking at if it’s really so simple, why does everyone lose their shit?

Part 2: The banality of trigger warnings

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This series was made possible by my patrons on Patreon, who give me the motivation to keep on writing. If you found this series helpful, please consider becoming a patron.


Things I read recently that I found interesting

It’s the links round-up again. Hopefully this one will be the last one with Pigfucky McTaxDodger as Prime Minister. We can hope, anyway.

Jean Charles de Menezes and the limits of human rights (Gracie Mae Bradley)- Exploring the limits of human rights law, and how it allowed the killing of an innocent person.

I am not a good rape victim (Priyanka Poddar)- Examining the demands put upon rape survivors.

Being a dark-skinned woman and the prejudices we face (Bridget Minamore)- Shadeism faced by black women and growing up “too dark”, and the beauty in dark skin.

Interview with Judith Butler (Sara Ahmed)- Two faves sit down together and thrash issues out.

Mr Cynicism goes to Panama (piercepenniless)- On the importance of the Panama papers.

Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem (Latining)- A look at the issues within the tabletop gaming community perpetrated by white men.

Why it’s okay to be angry (Lola Phoenix)- How anger can be useful, and how it is maligned.

‘Her nose was straight with a soft tip at the end’ — Writing Race at School (Clare Warner)- The very real impact of mostly-white set texts which are required reading in schools.

And finally, the robot uprising is beginning to affect cats. I for one welcome our new feline robot overlords.


An open letter to the Belfast abortion snitches

Content warning: this post discusses abortion and police, and mentions domestic violence and suicide.

Dear snitches,

I read your piece of remarkable self-justification for the unforgivable in the Belfast Telegraph and I am shaking with fury. Your housemate was just 19 years old, so young and in a difficult situation. She was forced to buy pills from the internet to induce an abortion, because she couldn’t afford to hop on a boat or plane across to the rest of the country, where she could have accessed the medical care she needed. Because of your actions, she is a convicted criminal who could be sent to prison on a whim of any old judge with an axe to grind.

You know this, of course, and you chose to do this to punish her, because you are horrible people.

There, I said it.

Sorry, there’s nothing about this situation that doesn’t make you horrible people. In trying to explain why you did it, you’ve just made it even more obvious that you are horrible people, outright admitting that you did it because she didn’t show adequate remorse, and you have feelings about abortion which basically translate to you don’t think access medical care is something which should always be available to someone with a uterus.

You go on in sensationalist detail about how very traumatic you found your housemate’s abortion. Maybe that’s true. Abortion is not always a tidy business. However, I suspect your account is at least part fictitious: your description of the foetus does not match with what the physical evidence found was a 10-12 week foetus. Unless you have frankly microscopic eyesight you’re not going to be seeing it in the detail you describe. And furthermore, in another statement, one of you said that it was about four inches long: more than twice the length of a foetus at that point of gestation.

I’m not saying you’re lying maliciously (although you’re such horrible people, maybe you are). Human memory is a funny thing. It can be very easily modified without you ever knowing it’s happened. If you’re the sort of person who hates other people having control over their own uteruses, you’re probably quite a fan of anti-choice propaganda, where they like to show pictures of foetuses far later in gestation. Those little pieces of misdirection probably wormed their way into your subconscious and you thought that was what you’d seen on the night your housemate was driven to take drastic action and end her own pregnancy due to archaic laws in your part of the country. And I don’t know, maybe your boyfriend is a small-dicked liar which is why you said four inches when in reality it should be no more than two.

Anyway, because of the excesses in your descriptions of what you saw, I don’t believe a word you say about what happened that night.

Maybe you really were traumatised. It can be traumatic when someone you’re close to has a health emergency. I have epilepsy and I am achingly aware of how much worse my seizures are for other people who witness them than they are for me, because at least I have the luxury of being unconscious at the time. Thing is, your situation is different. You have absolutely no empathy for your housemate. None whatsoever. You didn’t help her in her time of need, because you felt she was to blame for what was happening. However traumatised you are about what you think you saw, it would have been much more traumatic for her: desperate and unable to seek medical help for something which needs to be done under medical supervision. If you’re traumatised by what you think you saw, imagine how much more traumatic it must be when that is happening to your own body. Oh wait, you can’t. Because you have no empathy. Because you’re horrible people.

What you did next is beyond cruel. You called the police on your housemate, because you didn’t like something you saw in the bin. Once, a (thankfully former) housemate of mine put some gone-off taramasalata in the bin. When I took the bag out, it split and pungent off-pink fish goo went all over my bare feet. It was gross and upsetting, and I cursed her name and that of all of her ancestors. I was absolutely furious. I didn’t call the fucking cops over it though.

No matter how pissed off you are at something someone else has done, no matter how much you disagree with it, you do not call the police on people. (There may be exceptions to this rule, e.g. in a domestic violence situation or if someone is about to kill themselves. Many people find police intervention even in these situations to be somewhere between useless to actively harmful, and a lot of the time an ambulance is a better bet)

Calling the police shows exactly what you are: horrible people with a desire to punish.

Your housemate made a terrible mistake. Not in self-inducing her abortion, but in trusting you enough to tell you what she was doing. Perhaps she was reaching out, and she didn’t want to suffer alone. Perhaps you had a good relationship before it. I don’t know why she would have trusted you enough to let you know, but I know if she hadn’t, she would not be considered a convicted criminal. Her options were essentially to go through the whole thing alone, or to trust others enough to talk to them. You betrayed her trust, her confidence. You threw it back in her face.

You know that in your part of the country, abortion is illegal and those who need it can face imprisonment. You know that your part of the country has laws which contravene basic human rights–and indeed, basic human decency. You know that Northern Ireland abortion laws are not designed to help, but rather to punish. Rather than feeling disgusted by that, you decided to take advantage of that fact and use this state of affairs to get revenge on a young woman who who made a dire decision.

There are no other words for it. You’re horrible people.

Seeing the anger within and outside your part of the country at what you set in motion gives me hope that perhaps soon these laws will not exist. And perhaps, up and down Northern Ireland, people realise just how important it is to not betray their friends. If someone has an abortion, they’ll show basic solidarity and keep their fucking gobs shut, no matter how much they disagree with a pal’s decision. Maybe they’ll go beyond that and offer help, support and empathy until your horrific abortion laws disintegrate. I hope you are the only people who are as nasty as to dob someone in to the police over something that in no way concerns them.

I wrote a much longer letter to you than I thought I would, but I am furious. I am angry at you, I am angry at your part of the country’s laws and I am absolutely livid that you would choose to throw someone at the mercy of those laws.

You, dear Belfast abortion snitches, are horrible people.

Fuck you,

stavvers

P.S. Anyone reading this may want to donate to Abortion Support Network’s Cover Her Costs campaign, giving people who need abortions in Northern Ireland the financial means to travel to where it’s legal for their care.

__

Note, added approximately an hour after publication: A friend has pointed out that a lack of empathy doesn’t always equal horrible person. I’d just like to echo and elevate this point, and apologise to neurodiverse people for the implication in my phrasing. What I used “empathy” to mean here was “compassion” or “kindness” or “caring about another human being’s welfare”–“empathy” is a loaded term and not necessarily the appropriate one. However, these Belfast abortion snitches are horrible people.


Shit I cannot believe needs to be said: trans women are not shutting down discussion of vagina

Content warning: this post discusses transmisogyny and genitals

Today, I would like to talk about a particular transmisogynyistic trope which shows up with alarming frequency: apparently, trans women are trying to prevent cis women from talking about our genitalia.

As a cis woman, I’d like to take a moment to say it’s complete and patent bollocks. I have no idea of the origin of this meme, but it seems to be spouted mostly by transmisogynists–for example, non-Lambda-Award-nominee Alice Dreger perpetuated the trope while saying how one could be an ally to cis women (!).

Apparently, cis women are unable to talk about vulvas, vaginas, periods and so forth without being shut down by trans women. Except, er, no.

I initiated a project of writing to an anti-abortion MP with gory details about reproductive systems. If it were true that trans women were silencing fanny-talk, presumably they’d’ve sided with Nadine Dorries and declared the whole thing evil. Actually, trans women participated. And boys with wombs. And basically, women with all genital configurations and men with uteruses all kind of have a vested interest in reproductive health because the struggles of reproductive justice, bodily autonomy and transgender struggles are intrinsically related.

I have a tattoo, at the top of my spine, of an anatomically-correct, roughly life-sized clitoris. To me, it signifies two things. The first is that that’s a really sweet spot on me. The second is that medical science really fucking sucks, in that they didn’t discover that the clit was bloody enormous and pretty much anatomically indistinguishable from the penis under the skin–that they wanted to believe there was some sort of big difference between whether your genitals were an inny or an outy, beyond whether they were an inny or an outy. There’s a bonus third thing: it looks fucking cool, it’s a really nice shape.

Guess what? No trans woman has ever tried to flay that tattoo off my skin.

I livetweeted a fanny injury on twitter, and not a single trans woman told me to stfu. Instead, I got nothing but sympathy because ultimately any woman who’s had SRS, or is considering it, will have nothing but sympathy for a sore pussy.

Oh, and then there’s the whole bread thing. You know what I mean. If the TRANS WOMEN ARE SHUTTING DOWN FANNY TALK thing were true, one would expect that trans women would’ve been leading the charge in the bizarre anti-stavvers-bread fandom which seems to have sprung up. Except they… didn’t. There might have been an eyeroll or two, but to be quite honest, I’m pretty inured to eyerolls (especially regarding that) and it was nothing–nothing–compared to the outright hate and disgust which poured mostly from cis men, with a supporting wave of cis women.

I actually got a lot of support from trans women, and the demographic of people who have actually eaten the goddamn bread has included trans women and transfeminine people represented at way above population level (around 40% of people who have eaten it).

One can also add that if there is this huge conspiracy against cis women being able to talk about their minges, I should’ve had a lot of support from the cisterhood, and yet bizarrely there were precisely no lucrative New Statesman opportunities for me to talk about how silenced I’d been. To be honest, I expect that the cis media feminists were wholly grossed out, and not expressing how squicked they were was about as supportive as they’d get. They should probably get over their internalised misogyny there 😇

So, basically, I’ve blathered on about my cunt and never once been silenced by trans women. There’s a chance, maybe, that it’s because I’ve surrounded myself with trans women who are sycophants, although I doubt that it’s possible that literally every trans woman I have ever spoken to has received some memo to allow stavvers. Instead, I suggest that what’s going on here is that there is no grand pussy-censorship conspiracy. It’s just that those who perpetuate the meme are intellectually dishonest transmisogynists.

Actually, scratch that. They’re plain old misogynists, viewing women as just vaginas.

I talk about my cunt in purely personal terms because ultimately it’s purely personal to me. It might resonate with other women: some things do, some things don’t. That was probably the most important thing the Dear Nadine Dorries project taught me: that no two experiences are alike, that we’re diverse as people. Talking about a vaginal experience as though it would apply to everyone is an absolute nonsense. If you do that, I’ll fucking shout you down, too.

There’s no trans conspiracy to shut down general fanny talk, just acting as though owning a vagina is a universal experience of womanhood. Just acting as though having periods is a universal experience of womanhood. Just acting as though getting pregnant is a universal experience of womanhood.

Is it uncomfortable talking about your genitalia as your own genitalia, rather than a generalisable thing that all women share? Absofuckinglutely.  But it’s also the only honest way to do it. It’s so much easier if you pretend it’s a general thing that all women share that your cunt kind of smells like feet around your period, or that your pubes can grow to easily over two inches long is a universal female experience, or that one of your flaps is a different colour to the other and about three times bigger is totally something all women have: hell, it was easier typing these sentences with “your” rather than “my”. However, none of this is universal, generalisable or in any way pertinent to all, most, or even some women.

Talking about vaginas has its place, but let’s not pretend that experiences are generalisable across women or that the fanny itself if a thing which all women share.

So please, please, fellow cis women, let’s shout down the trans-women-are-shutting-down-pussy-talk meme wherever we see it. It does nobody any favours.


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