On Trigger Warnings

triggerwarningsI’ve felt a bit apprehensive criticising trigger warnings. The thing is, I believe the requests for trigger warnings come from a genuine desire to make the world a safer, more welcoming place for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I don’t believe for a second that those in favour of trigger warnings want to be protected from negative feelings or wish to censor what we can freely discuss, as some writers have argued. I don’t agree that it’s just a way of avoiding discomfort. Instead, I think it’s genuine kindness and a commitment to changing our world to be more inclusive to everyone that’s motivating trigger warning requests. I think trigger warnings are a bad idea, and I’ll explain why later, but I don’t believe they come from anything other than kind, helpful intentions. I’d recommend reading the above articles if you think trigger warnings are just content indications for the sensitive, or all about avoiding feeling the feels. I will not be arguing against that straw man.

The reasoning behind trigger warnings is that people who have experienced certain types of trauma (specifically assault and sexual violence, although trigger warnings for racism and sexism are becoming more common) can be ‘triggered‘ by mentions of that violence. When a person is triggered they can experience flashbacks, intrusive memories, severe anxiety and self-destructive behaviour. So it follows that person would benefit from a warning about the content of a text, movie, etc. if it includes discussions of violence. This makes it easier for the person with that trauma to navigate what they want to be confronted with, for example by not reading a text that discusses rape. Trigger warnings can even be understood as a way of navigating consent, I let that person know beforehand what I intend to do (discuss rape) so they can make an informed decision whether they want to read my text or not.

As a therapist who has worked with people suffering from PTSD I really understand where this is coming from. Being confronted with a ‘trigger’ can send a sufferer into flashbacks, which can disrupt their life for hours, days, sometimes weeks. In severe cases, being triggered can cause the person with PTSD to harm themselves or become suicidal. It’s heartbreaking and honestly I completely understand why, as a society and inside our communities, we want to do what we can to support people who are going through this. A trigger warning, in that context, just seems like such a small and effortless thing to do, right? A small bit of kindness that can prevent so much misery.

And I am so in favour of changing our world to become more inclusive and welcoming, and sometimes it’s seemingly small or effortless things that can make all the difference. For example, I make a conscious effort to use inclusive language when it comes to gender. Not everyone identifies as male or female, not everyone has gender-norms confirming bodies, and reflecting that in our language costs us literally nothing. It has no negative effects at all, while at the same time making the world a kinder place for everyone. I think we should do more things like this, and I think trigger warnings come from a desire to do exactly that: a small, harmless thing that makes the world a bit kinder.

The thing is though, I don’t believe trigger warnings are harmless. Let me start with a related example. Some people with an eating disorder become deeply triggered when they are confronted with a situation that includes public eating. They report panic and self-harming behaviour, not unlike what some sufferers of PTSD report when they are confronted with triggers. Still, it would be a truly bad idea to give a ‘content warning’ for each event that would include public eating. Yes, it would prevent a lot of pain for those few people with eating disorders who are triggered by public eating. But it reinforces an unhealthy idea that eating is a dangerous thing. If we start giving content warnings when an event will include a meal, if we start behaving in an eating disordered manner as a society, unhealthy attitudes towards food will only flourish.

Now I want to stress that if someone is suffering from a mental illness, they should do what they have to do to get through whatever they are going through. I don’t believe in policing how people deal with what life has handed them, and good or healthy coping with psychological problems is an individual thing. If you’re dealing with an eating disorder and you need to avoid public eating, then you go and do that. It is completely fine to ask people around you to give you a warning so you can avoid things that trigger you, so you can take care of yourself. But it would not be a good idea for all of us, as a habit, to start warning each other when we intend to eat food.

One of the more common triggers is, actually, depictions of ‘normal’ sex. Because sexual violence so often doesn’t ‘look violent’, watching a scene where two people have tender sex can be the worst trigger in the world. Still, I think we all intuitively feel that ‘trigger warning: vanilla sex between two consenting adults’ would not be a good idea. And that’s not because we don’t take people who are triggered by depictions of sex seriously, of course we do. And it’s not because nobody it triggered by regular sex: many people are, and it might even be a more common trigger than depictions of rape. So why is nobody arguing for trigger warnings for ‘normal’ sex? I think it’s because we all feel that sex is not dangerous. But it’s gotten in our heads that depictions of violence are.

Some people who oppose trigger warnings argue that trigger warnings discourage exposure, and therefore are bad for people with PTSD. This is nonsense. Simple exposure to triggers does not do anyone any good, and it shows a great misunderstanding of exposure therapy to think unwanted exposure to things that scare or deeply upset us has anything to do with effective exposure in PTSD-treatment. It’s belittling and incorrect to think refusing the use of trigger warnings would be better for their mental health, that we’re just triggering them ‘for their own good’. This is not how exposure therapy works.

People who oppose trigger warnings have argued that people just want to avoid negative feelings, that we’re becoming too sensitive, that we can’t even handle being confronted with views different from our own. I could not disagree more. If anything, we should become more sensitive. Sensitive of our own emotions, our own needs. We should become more accommodating, more empathic, more willing to change. Our society needs changing. We need to become more aware of the ways we can make our spaces more safe and welcoming to people of colour, people with non-normative gender identities, people with disabilities, women. I’m constantly figuring out how to stop the subtle ways we hinder and harm each other, the ways we make each other invisible, and finding opportunities to make this world a kinder place. Opposing trigger warnings might be one way to do that.

In an individual’s case, trigger warnings may simply be a way of coping. I don’t care if it reinforces or violates dysfunctional associations, the world is not a therapy setting. People need to do what they need to do to kind of deal with everything, and I think we should be supporting each other instead of policing how each of us copes.

So I do not claim that people who suffer from certain experiences do not know best what they need in order to manage that. I’d actually argue the complete opposite: people know best, we should not police how people cope, we are not each other’s therapists, we should not demand ‘perfect’ coping, we need to be each other’s support and respect people’s own insights into what works for them. Avoiding certain triggers and asking people around you to give you a trigger warning for things that are particularly triggering to you is fine.

But I have big reservations about using trigger warnings in a general sense, not because it’s bad for individual people with PTSD, but because of the modelling effect it has. For example, if my mom is afraid of spiders and I see her become afraid, this models the fearful expectancy and increases my chances of becoming phobic myself.

Say trigger warnings become customary. Before scenes including sexual violence on Netflix they show a trigger warning. Before discussing sexual violence in class there’s a trigger warning. When there’s a rape scene in a book, they put a trigger warning on the back. A sort of cultural understanding develops that depictions of sexual violence is not the sort of thing that a person should be exposed to without a warning. Because those depictions can be so triggering to a person who has experienced trauma that it becomes harmful.

This models an expectancy that depictions of violence could trigger to such an extent that it should be avoided.

And say I then got raped.

The groundwork for the dysfunctional expectancy has been planted, there’s this sort of half-truth that people who have experienced rape will often be triggered by depictions of violence (even though that wasn’t really the case, it’s usually other stuff). Will this increase my chances of experiencing that dysfunctional expectancy myself? Have my chances of being triggered by such depictions increased? Have we modeled a harmful association?

We don’t know. But considering how anxiety disorders work, we are sure environmental factors have effects. And we know anxiety symptoms and disorders feed of modelling, quite strongly.

So if you use trigger warnings, I don’t think you’re an over-sensitive PC-policing free-speech hater. I really don’t. I think you’re wrong, and I think we should be having a conversation about this, but I thank you for being kind.

Some comments to further clarify my point:

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Talking Dirty Like A Brit

In school we were taught to use British English, spelling words like ‘favourite’ instead of ‘favorite’, although later on both American English and British English were accepted, as long as you used them consistently. But honestly I still get them mixed. Almost all of the English I consume is in American English, so it often feels the most natural to me. But I learned, learnt, learned most of my English in Ireland (where my mom’s from) so there’s loads of British English, or rather Irish English, mixed in there as well. It’s like my accent really, a horrible mismatched mix of British, Dutch, Irish and American. My English is still better than your Dutch, though ;).

This isn’t me, but isn’t this vlogger awesome?

Butts, butts, butts

I’m not a fan of Anita Sarkeesian. I mean, obviously I was on her side when her discussion of sexist stereotypes in computer games resulted in people sending her rape threats. It’s crazy that even talking about feminist issues can still be so dangerous, and in the grand scheme of things I’m on her team. But she calls sex workers ‘prostituted women’, a degrading term used by radical feminists to deny their agency. And as far as I know she has not yet responded to the many sex workers who have let her know that term is offensive and hurtful, which is such a crappy but typical thing to do for radfems.. Talk about sex workers, claim you want to help them, but do everything you can to ignore them and not give a damn about their wishes. Meh.

Anyway, her latest video is about butts. I thought it was good.

It’s ‘SEX WORKER’, Anita! Get with the program so I can be your fangirl!

Why I Won’t Diagnose

A madhouse in Vienna. It's not a prison at all, oh no. For their own good!

A madhouse in Vienna. It’s not a prison at all, oh no. For their own good!

We have a terrible history of using diagnoses of mental illnesses to oppress minorities and silence people with little political power. Everything that was considered undesirable or threatening could be called ‘crazy’, and once you’re considered crazy you lose it all. Your credibility, your voice, your rights. Obviously some people are so disturbed that they need intervention, people who become a threat to others or need to be protected from themselves. But as psychologists and psychiatrists we have this huge power, the power to label someone unwell, to hold them in psychiatric hospitals against their will and without a trial. Historically, this power has been abused greatly. And when I say greatly I mean terribly and on such a huge scale it will take your breath away. Psychiatry has often been a tool of social control, medicalising unwanted behaviours like going against the existing establishment. Label a political prisoner a mental patient and you can keep them against their will in a psychiatric hospital indefinitely.

I’m not against psychiatry at all. I believe mental disorders are a real thing and that therapy can provide real help. But I recognise the dangerous position we’ve placed psychiatry in, with too much power and too little restrictions. And I recognise the complicated and unfair position of people suffering from a mental illness.

One of the big problems is that psychological disorders are not treated the same as a physical disorder. Saying someone has a broken leg is non-judgemental, but calling a person crazy invalidates them. If a person is crazy it means what they say is of no importance at all, that we don’t have to listen to them, that their experiences can be ignored. We see this with sex workers a lot, anti-prostitution activists will accuse prostitutes of being victims of violence. They will accuse sex workers of being psychologically unwell, of suffering from PTSD, accuse them of needing help. They use this accusation to argue that sex workers do not need to be listened to. They might say they want rights, but they’re crazy, what do they know. They might say they chose this work, but they’re traumatised, so what they think they know about themselves is irrelevant.

Sex workers often counter this by stating (correctly) that sex work does not necessarily correlate with psychological problems, but that is beside the point. People who have experienced trauma, who are suffering from PTSD or are battling some mental illness should simply not be reduced to objects that can be done to. The fact that someone is traumatised does not mean it is okay to rob them of their agency, rob them of their voice, rob them of their power and do with them as you wish. We should not use psychiatric diagnoses as a form of violence.

In some situations, criminals have more rights and credibility than psychiatric patients do. I mean, let that sink in.

A nice long soak, that should calm him down! Yay psychiatry!

A nice long soak, that should calm him down! Yay psychiatry!

Accusing someone of being crazy is the ultimate way of silencing them. Obviously this is harmful to sex workers and other groups with little political power, as they’re on the receiving end of the insult. But it’s harmful to people suffering from a mental disorder as well. The underlying argument of prohibitionists (people with a mental disorder do not need to be listened to) is prevalent still, and it’s exclusively harmful. It does no good at all.

I understand the desire to lash out, to use their own nasty tricks against them, so I understand when sex workers and their allies accuse prohibitionists of being crazy. More than once I’ve been asked to confirm that prohibitionists are often traumatised, that they have a sexual disorder or something wrong with their personality, as if that would be of any relevance at all. I’ve always declined because I believe people who have suffered trauma are not automatically wrong. Even if you were raped by half the world does not mean you’re not right. Doesn’t mean you’re not wrong either, it’s just not relevant. Perhaps some prohibitionists do suffer from some mental illness, some probably do, and some might suffer from diabetes as well. It changes nothing.

The wonderful Maggie McNeill argued that some beliefs are so obviously untrue, it’s easy to conclude that person is either lying or mentally ill. She mentioned someone who believed penis-in-vagina penetrative sex is unnatural, so obviously that person must have lost contact with reality somehow. But I disagree. The thing is, the healthy human mind is very capable of making an ass of itself. Our healthy brains can hold contradictory beliefs, ignore obvious facts, believe in things that logically cannot be true. A healthy mind can be a nasty, mean-spirited mind. A horrible person with crappy ideas might be genuinely unwell, as can a lovely and logical person. It changes nothing about their arguments.

So I will not diagnose your opposition. As immoral and disgusting I believe some people are, that does not mean I will label them with a mental illness. And just because someone is suffering from a mental illness, does not mean we get to ignore them, silence them or speak for them. A mental illness is not an insult. And being wrong or mean is not an illness.

Interview with the partner of a sex worker

Marijke: Hey Tim, thanks for doing this interview! You’re the partner of a sex worker. So what exactly does your girlfriend do?partner of a sex worker
Tim: Well, I can’t tell you exactly, for privacy reasons. But she’s been working as a prostitute for almost a decade. Her work is fully legal and licenced, she pays her taxes like everyone else. We’ve been living together for a few years and I’ve always been fully aware of her profession.

Did you ever find it difficult?
Well, honestly, yes. When we started dating and she told me, there was a lot I had to work
through. We’re brought up with this idea that there’s something wrong with prostitution, that something must be wrong with a woman if she wants to do such a thing. I really liked her, but is this someone I can introduce to my parents, start a family with? And it made me feel insecure, what does it say about me if I end up with someone who will sleep with anyone, what’s wrong with me? And also that, as a man, it’s humiliating if your partner slept with more people than you did, it’s a masculinity thing, I guess. I came into the relationship with a lot of hang-ups about sex work. If she did it only because she liked it than okay, maybe, but if she had sex just for the money it felt like it devalued her as a person. Looking back, I don’t know how she put up with me and all my bullshit!

I take it you’ve changed your mind?
Oh yes. I think the biggest change is that I’ve realised that sex workers are just people, you know? And I began to understand that the value of your relationship isn’t about how many people you have or have not slept with, but that it’s about having a healthy relationship with someone you love. And I think I’ve changed my perspective on sex, it doesn’t make a person cheap or less than. In fact, I think it’s admirable when people have the courage to follow their own dreams, make sexual choices that are good for them. When we were just together I didn’t really want to tell my friends, what if they don’t approve or think badly of her? Now I’m proud of it and I want them to know. Not just because I’m proud, but also in order to be able to be honest about my secret to somebody.

That sounds really great. But it’s not only your own feelings you have to deal with – the rest of the world isn’t always accepting of sex work. Are you worried about that?
Yes. There’s so much to be worried about, actually. I’m worried that when we have children, we’ll get child services on our back. You hear so much about full-on discrimination of prostitutes, it’s scary. It’s easy to forget partners of sex workers are just as vulnerable too. And with the current human trafficking hype my rights are even further limited, there are even laws being proposed that would make it legal for police to go into my/our house whenever they want, without as much as a warrant. I, as a male partner, also have to be so careful, even with the current laws I could easily be prosecuted for human trafficking. Even though I am in no way involved in her work, I always have to be on guard.

Yeah, I think in the sex workers’ rights movement we talk a lot about why decriminalisation is important for the safety of sex workers, and there’s some attention to the rights and wellbeing of clients. But I think we don’t always realise how dangerous it can be for people involved in a sex worker’s life, such as their partners. Even giving her a ride to work could get you in trouble.
Exactly, I have to be careful about picking her up from work. That’s crazy, right? If she had any other type of job it would be no problem. You have to be careful, if she has a booking in Germany or Belgium and I drive her I am literally, according to the law, trafficking her.

Does it help that you’re white? I know that sounds horrible when I put it that way, but the system in the Netherlands is deeply classist and racist, they go after people who are poor and/or black. Our idea of a pimp or trafficker is a black or Eastern European guy, not a university educated white man.
Yes, I think that it definitely helps that I’m white, I have a good job and I actually make more money than she does. My partner and I are both university educated, if child services ever investigate us we talk and act in a way that won’t set off all of their triggers. I’ll get to defend myself and I think I have the advantage that I am able to, people are willing to listen.

You don’t look like a loverboy.mansuit
Right. But I am still careful. I’m good with numbers but she does her own bookkeeping, it’s little things like that, you have to make sure you don’t create any wrong impressions.

Are you ever worried about her safety?
At work? No.

Why not?
There’s not much to worry about. After a few years of hearing about her work, how she protects her safety, hearing her stories, both positive and negative, I have a pretty clear idea of what risks are involved. Compared to many other jobs it’s relatively low-risk, actually.

And her clients?
No, I’m not worried about them. Of course there’s the occasional bad guy, the thing I’m most worried about is idiots who try to pull the condom off. But my partner handles things like that very well, she’s responsible and knows what to do in such situations. I trust her.

What about STD’s?
No, we have reasonable safer sex practices. She practices safer sex at work, we get tested regularly, her work environment prioritises her safety. Accidents can happen, and assholes like the ones I mentioned before can happen, but all in all I think we’re managing this well. From what I understand we’re actually at a below-average risk of catching an STD.

All of that sounds really good and positive. Is there anything you struggle with regarding your partner’s work?
Yeah, I think what’s difficult is that, as a male partner of a sex worker, there’s not really a place for you. It’s not a very male-friendly business, unless they know you well you’re often regarded with suspicion. It’s different when your partner works in one place and people get to know you, but in general, managers really don’t want you in their establishment, you don’t have a role, you know? If I have a company barbecue I take my girlfriend, even if they don’t know her well she can walk into my office, as a society we sort of know what to do and expect with an employee’s partner. But when you’re the partner of a sex worker, you don’t really have a place in the whole thing.
I think people underestimate the burden it can place on a partner. I live with a secret too. I have to lie about my girlfriends profession everywhere. The question, what does your girlfriend do, sounds casual, but for me this is where my “double life” starts. If people find out it could be a problem at my work place, I could even be arrested, it’s as much my secret as her secret. But she has a whole community around her, other sex workers she can talk to, she has peers at her work who are in the same situation. I don’t, I’m kind of on my own with this. There are not many people I can talk to. And I’m, in a sense, in the most vulnerable position. If my partner had bad intentions she could truly wreck my life, if she wants to divorce me and ruin me in the process, she can accuse me of forcing her and even if it’s not true and there’s no evidence I stand pretty much powerless. I trust her completely, but I think people don’t realise this, how vulnerable you are as a sex worker’s partner. When I look back to my struggles with sex work when we just met, about my girlfriend having sex with other people, I didn’t realise the real issues with being in a relationship with a sex worker. About the vulnerable position I’d be in. When I told one of my friends he asked me “are you okay with this?” and he didn’t mean in an emotional sense. He meant, are you okay with the impact this will have on your life?

What do you think would happen if people found out?
I don’t know. Most of our friends know and that’s not been a problem, they don’t always agree with it but I experience support in my friendships. Sex work is so stigmatised, I don’t know how it would affect my career. I’m not too worried about most of my direct colleagues, people who know me and I can explain and defend myself to, but people higher up the ladder or clients can be very important in the future of my career and I don’t know if they’d give me the benefit of the doubt if they knew my partner was a prostitute. I don’t know what would happen. I don’t think I’d lose my job directly but it could seriously hinder my career.

Is that a reason for you to want her to stop doing sex work?
No, that’s really up to her. The thing is, I’m really proud of her and her work, she’s independent, she likes what she does. I think I’d have a bigger problem with it if my partner worked somewhere she would be exploited, say she worked in health care, where people work ridiculous hours for terrible pay. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with people wanting to work in health care, but honestly, I’d rather my partner worked somewhere she feels appreciated, decides her own hours, receives a good income and is happy.

So you don’t want to end demand for nurses then, for their own good?
Haha, no.

What do you like about her work?
I love the stories she comes home with. She’ll tell me about a client who might be nervous or insecure and then they have the time of their life with her, and I love hearing about that, imagining how it must have been for them and what a great experience they had. It’s just fun to hear how she made their day brighter, had fun. I can see that makes her really happy too. She usually comes home in a good mood, she’s enthusiastic and proud about her work. She talks with interesting people too, I think people underestimate how much quality time prostitutes spend with clients.

Do you get the impression she likes most of her bookings?
Yes. Well, most are just routine I think, it’s simply her work. Like in any job at the end of the day it was just a day’s work, but most days she comes home with some interesting story, or met someone she had a great connection with. From what I understand she doesn’t always have sex that is satisfying to her, but she usually finds something to like in a person and have a pleasant interaction with her client.

You make it sound perfect.
Well no, it’s not. Sometimes she doesn’t like a client, they’re exhausting or pushy, it’s like any job, sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s just work. But, overall you can do worse I think.

Does her work influence your sex life?
Yes, when she works a lot it does. It’s not that she wants less sex, we have a normal sex life, but it’s mainly that her desire for physical contact becomes less, she doesn’t want to cuddle as much. I think that’s because she already had that need met, she’s been physically close to people, while I didn’t and still desire it. When that happens we talk about it, and see what we can do to meet my needs without cuddle-overloading her.

What do you think needs to change in the Netherlands regarding sex work?
We need a reasonable, fair system that would facilitate sex workers to work legally, independently and without fear of police and government interruption. The current system is so vague and unclear, if the government wants to hinder you they can. We need a clear system in which sex workers are seen as workers, with clear and consistent rules, so sex workers can run their business as a business. I think that the current solutions offered by the government are ineffective and unnecessary limiting sex workers personal freedom, and also endangering the legal position of their spouse.

What do you want people to know about being a sex workers’ partner?
Well, the image I get from the media and the government is that partners of female sex workers cpiplekissact as pimps or loverboys. I think that this image wrong and does not really exist. In the same way you can’t recognise a sex worker in normal life, you can’t recognise their partners either. I
think most sex workers’ partners are supportive people with ordinary lives, we live in normal houses, have careers.

Any last words?
That sex work is just a job, and sex workers are just people. I love my partner, she loves me, we have a normal relationship and a normal life. The real harms come from discrimination and stigma, not from sex work itself.

Counting down..

Just six more days before we’re heading home after travelling the world for almost a year. Time has flown by, honestly. We’ve visited Australia, Thailand, Myanmar, Nepal and India and although I am looking forward to seeing the Netherlands again, I’m going to miss the freedom of travelling.

The last week I’ve spent in the hospital though :(. Food in India is simply amazing, but somewhere I ingested something bad and my body was so busy getting rid of it that I got severe dehydration and had to be admitted for 7 days. The bug that’s causing it is resistant to most antibiotics so I’m still walking around with a drip-thingy in my hand, but at least they let me out of the hospital and I get to hang out in the beautiful city of Udaipur. By the 9th I’ll be done with my antibiotics course and we’ll do a flash-visit to the Taj Mahal before rushing to Delhi.

And then.. BACK TO THE COLD!

Why you should learn bondage with Twisted Monk

Good bondage tutorials can be hard to find, so I’m happy I can always feel confident referringTW people to Twisted Monk. Not only is he one of the most popular and well-known sellers of rope (in different colours too, check it out!), his how-to video’s on bondage are really good.

  • Amazing stills. Seriously, pause at any moment and Twisted Monk will have some cool expression or funny gesture. I’ve used his video’s a lot when I was learning bondage and I’ve cried laughing. His wife always looks beautiful and collected though, no idea how she does that.
  • The video’s are easy to follow, well made and as safe for work as bondage videos can be. Just people in clothes and a cool guy explaining how you can tie your babe up so you can do the naughty.
  • All the basics you need to get started. You honestly won’t need much more than the single column tie, double column tie, chest harness and hair tie. Combine them and you can tie almost anything you can think of. If you really want to learn more you can always buy the dvd or visit a bondage class in your area (search Fetlife for events!).

Hi From Nepal!

2015-11-13 13.28.16We’ve had an amazing trip through Myanmar (Burma), it was simply amazing. Such a gorgeous country, the people were friendly and generous, there is so much to see and we just had a blast. You can read about it on my travel blog if you want, there’s loads of pictures there too. After Myanmar we spent a week at a super touristy part of Thailand, in a bungalow right at the beach. I’m currently translating the book Natya and I wrote on BDSM into English, so I had plenty of time to work on that which was great. We’re hoping to publish it in English in the future. And now we’re in Kathmandu, Nepal! I love it here. The smells, the sights, it’s so busy and hectic and there is so much to see. Well probably do some shorter hike and visit a few cities before we cross the border into India.