Trigger warning: Sexual assault, rape
For survivors of sexual violence, school can be a danger zone of potential re-traumatization–an emotional relapse into the initial trauma caused by the assault. Re-experiencing trauma is also a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which almost one in every three victims of sexual assault develop. Incoming SJSU undergraduate and graduate students are required to complete two online courses developed by Haven, one on alcohol and the other on sexual assault. From there on, throughout students’ college career, professors may choose to discuss sexual assault in the classroom at their own discretion. Good intentions to prevent or raise awareness about sexual assault can still strike a blow against survivors’ mental health by exposing them to triggering content.
This problem first came to my attention when my fellow SJSU student and MOSAIC Diversity Advocate Intern, Charlotte Theriault, told me that their partner completed the course on sexual assault for them.
“Being Hard of Hearing and a sexual assault survivor, I didn’t feel as though I had adequate resources to help me through the program,” Theriault said. “My boyfriend did the course for me because there was a threat of having a hold on your classes if you didn’t finish the courses.”
On a separate occasion, during a lecture on rape in one of my classes, a female student (who would like to be kept anonymous) told me, “As a raped victim, this lecture is hitting me hard.” Students also had to take a quiz on Canvas based on the in-class presentation.
In both situations, there was an absence of explicit options for survivors to not participate due to trauma. When options are not made easily available and accessible, the burden is placed on sexual assault victims to go out of their way to find solutions. Victims may also consider whether they have to come forth as a survivor of sexual assault and divulge details to a faculty member–and that in itself can be re-traumatizing. The idea of going to this trouble is enough to stop survivors from trying to seek help.
When I spoke to our school’s Title IX Officer, Natalie Potts, about these two incidents,* she found that Haven developed an alternative for sexual assault victims that allows them to opt out of the online training. Potts told me that students should contact the Wellness Center in order to access the alternative, but I am unsure as to how they would know to do so in the first place.
“There wasn’t a clear opt-out [in the Haven course], although there were hotlines listed in case I needed to talk to someone,” Theriault said.
I asked Theriault, my classmate, and another student, Madelynn Smith,** for their suggestions for professors and faculty who want to navigate conversations around sexual assault.
My classmate recommended not making triggering lectures mandatory to attend, while both Theriault and Smith suggested giving trigger warnings. However, Smith has had challenges with professors who refuse to provide warnings.
“I’ve had three of my professors this semester say that they’re against using trigger warnings in their syllabi because they feel that, if you’re entering a place of education, you should be aware that you’re going to be discussing content that may be triggering, especially within my department, which is Sociology…” Smith said. “So I understand that on an academic level, but on a personal level, as a survivor, I feel that it’s very dismissive of the mental health aspect of the situation… I’m not saying that the professors are feeding into the rape culture, but definitely feeding into the stigmatization of mental health, which does nothing to empower or support survivors.”
Smith also mentioned that the impact of re-traumatization on mental wellbeing is a hindrance to academic success.
“Professors need to become more educated about re-traumatization, which can really impact a student’s ability to perform well in a class. And when you are re-traumatized, sometimes it takes several weeks to recover from it, if you recover from it at all. So it can affect you just that class period or it can ripple through the rest of the semester,” she said. “Instead of being concerned about feeding into [politically correct] culture, as I’ve heard one of my professors refer to trigger warnings as, I think that it’s important to be mindful of mental health and support your students as best as possible.”
I urge SJSU faculty to approach programs and discussions about sexual assault with a trauma-informed lens. Sexual assault survivors should not have to compromise their mental health for the sake of their academic performance. This problem at SJSU reflects larger issues in U.S. society, particularly the stigmatization of mental illness and the desensitization to sexual violence.
Giving trigger warnings and providing clear, painless ways to opt out of triggering situations are just a couple of ways to support survivors. Here are additional suggestions to prevent re-traumatization, given my own perspective and the input of the survivors I spoke to, directed toward faculty who want to talk about sexual assault:
- Provide counselors from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), if you are planning to do a complete presentation on sexual assault or to discuss sexual assault at length. Counselors can emotionally support anyone who becomes triggered by the content.
- Acknowledge that there’s a good chance there are survivors in the classroom. For example, I gave a workshop on rape culture and prefaced the content by stating, “Given how common sexual assault is, it’s important for everyone to keep in mind that there may be survivors in this room.” This reminds students that survivors are people we interact with on a daily basis and, whether we realize it or not, we all probably know a sexual assault victim. If students keep that in mind, they may be less likely to say something triggering or re-traumatizing during discussions.
- Mention on-campus and off-campus services and resources for sexual assault victims, including our Survivor Advocate, Amada Montelongo. Her office is on the third floor of the Wellness Center, her number is (408)-924-7300, and her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Get certified in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), a free 8-hour program that includes how to respond effectively to trauma. You can take MHFA at SJSU, courtesy of CAPS, or at a nearby location.
- Just be mindful. Don’t rush through a lecture or discussion about sexual assault; take your time and be wary of any students who seem visibly uncomfortable. Correct participants who perpetuate notions of rape culture.
* In reference to the lecture on rape, Potts explained that professors have academic freedom, protected by their union. Trigger warnings before lecturing on sexual assault or other traumatic experiences would be immensely helpful, but a proposal to make them mandatory for professors to use would also receive major pushback.
** Name has been changed to protect privacy
If you have experienced similar problems as a survivor of sexual assault or any traumatic experience, feel free to fill out this form. Responses are confidential to me, Jenna Edra, and your information will not be shared without your consent. My intent is to continue to raise awareness about this problem by collecting more evidence that re-traumatization has been impacting the SJSU community.
If you’d like to be interviewed in person instead or to connect with me for any reason, you can reach me at email@example.com or via Facebook.