I am a professional college advocate/educator with Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and SAPARS staff will be writing guest columns in the Sun Journal on the topic of sexual assault every Sunday.

This piece serves as an explanation of trigger warnings, why they are important and a trigger warning itself of pieces to come.

If something you read triggers something during the next weeks and you need to talk to someone, please, take care of yourself and call our confidential 24/7 hotline at 1-800-871-4471. Whether you were assaulted or it happened to someone you love, and whether it was recent or not, please know we listen, we believe and we care.

When I go into college classrooms, the very first thing I talk about is class guidelines. I want to know what students are already doing — raising hands, being respectful etc. — in order to make the classroom a safe space for conversation and questions. Students know I’m there to talk about sexual assault, supporting survivors, healthy relationships and similar topics. Whether someone is aware of it or not, this can sometimes be difficult content to engage with.

A huge part of learning involves discussing ideas, works of literature, visual culture and theories that are different from what a person thinks or what a person would regularly encounter. This includes engaging with content that can be uncomfortable, even painful. That’s why making the classroom a safe space to think, to share and to feel is important.

Trigger warnings are verbal or written messages that let an audience know that what they are about to see or hear may bring up trauma related to sexual assault, intimate partner violence, racism, misogyny, among other subjects. Trigger warnings let a student decide whether they can or cannot stay in the classroom.

In academia and higher education there is much debate on trigger warnings — and whether professors should implement them or be required to.

The argument against the use of warnings is two-fold. First, there are many subjects that may trigger trauma, so it is difficult to cover all the basis or predict what could be triggering. Second, content is not required to be non-offensive. However, it is my professional opinion that when discussing sexual violence, it is important for me to anticipate there are students in the class who may have experienced trauma. Be up front about it, and give them options.

However, trigger warnings allow people who have experienced trauma time to tune into their coping skills and take care of themselves.

Trigger warnings emerged from feminist spaces, texts and online, which acknowledged that the folks engaging with content maybe have experienced sexual assault or intimate partner violence. The purpose of the warning is to give people the opportunity to avoid graphic content that may trigger flashbacks, panic attacks or other body responses.

When triggered, people may use breathing and other grounding techniques, or need to leave the room. They may know afterwards that they need to call their friend, parent, counselor, partner, etc., to talk openly and honestly about how the content affected them and what it brings up.

In written form, a trigger warning can simply look like: “Trigger Warning: (Subject).” In the classroom, I say something such as, “We’ll be talking about sexual assault and violence. I anticipate that someone in this space may have experienced this crime or is close to someone who has. If any of the content is triggering, please do what you need to do to take care of yourself. I’m available after the presentation to talk and you can call our hotline anytime.”

SAPARS staff will be writing about vulnerable populations and victims of sexual assault during the coming weeks. Topics include Parents In The Know, a primary prevention educational program about addressing childhood sexual abuse; the Androscoggin Child Advocacy Center, which supports the treatment and healing of sexually abused children and their families; and LGBTQIA+ survivors and the work being done at Outright L-A. I hope that these articles provide meaningful dialogues about sexual violence and its many intersections.

And if you read something triggering and want support, please get in touch with us. You are not alone and help is available.

Hannah Johnson is college advocate/educator at Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Services.