NPR did a segment on trigger warnings for All Things Considered recently, "Half Of Professors In NPR Ed Survey Have Used 'Trigger Warnings'"' They sent out a survey and received 800 responses back (last fall); so it's not randomized or anything, nor is it super representative. But it is interesting, in part because they concentrated on public universities, the sorts of schools most students attend.
I tend not to give specific trigger warnings, more because I'm forgetful than because I think they're problematic. I do spend some time at the beginning of literature type courses asking students to think about the making of art using violence, and I'm pretty up front that the literature I teach often represents violence in a variety of ways. And it represents non-consensual sex. And those are things we need to think hard about, including asking ourselves why it is that we humans seem to enjoy aesthetic representations of violence (including non-consensual sexual violence).
My local public library has electronic lending now, and I've started "taking out" audio books. The other day, I loaded one up based on the title (which was something to do with a leopard or ocelot or something), and without carefully reading whatever blurb was available.
I listen to these at night, to help me fall asleep. So I tend to start them as I'm in the final stages of getting ready, taking out my contacts, stretching, changing for bed. (Sometimes it takes me a few minutes to go back to find where I remember from the night before.)
Anyway, this one started with a scene of torture. And I found myself simultaneously horrified and weirdly captivated. And then I turned it off. I didn't want to go on. (Instead, I found what's turning out to be a very good book by Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth.)
As you can probably guess, the character being tortured was female, and the torture was somewhat sexualized. (Less sexualized than, say, in the tattoo books. Though, I think this one, when I looked later, was also set in Scandinavia.)
It seems to me that (and maybe this is based on the popularity of the tattoo books, which I listened to on CD while driving) we've gotten a lot more interested in the past few years on really graphic representations of torturing female characters, especially in highly sexualized ways. We're taking more pleasure in graphic representations of specific violence towards women.
And I think about the representations of violence in, say, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Spenser, etc, and there's certainly a fair bit of glee to causing characters' bodies pain (think Titus or "The Prioress's Tale"), the enjoyment of causing characters' bodies pain seems way more of late.
So, there I was, wishing I'd realized that the audio book was going to be so violent, and knowing that I wouldn't willingly listen to that violence. In other words, I'd have liked a trigger warning, and would have avoided the audiobook altogether if I'd had one.
I think for me, I'm less comfortable with really explicit, graphic representations, less comfortable with sexualized torture, especially aimed at female characters, and relatively more comfortable with direct violence in battle. I get teary during the Hotspur death scene, but I don't turn away. I can manage through the Gloucester blinding, even on stage.
(I don't go to scary movies, and don't watch TV that's scary; I have a pretty low tolerance for scary, and have since I was a little kid and wouldn't stay in the room while my cousins watched monster movies from the 50s. I can recognize that Breaking Bad was artistically amazing, but I gave up watching it pretty quickly. Yet, I've read quite detailed accounts of torture of POWs in Vietnam, and so forth. I think I'm less tolerant of torture as I get older.)
What I wonder is how we (as teachers) decide what we'll teach and why? How we as consumers of culture decide what we'll consume (and thus support)? How do we help students think productively about their own decisions?