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Feb 09 2012

Rape Trauma and Triggers

If you read much around FtB, you’ve heard about “The Amazing Atheist”, a ragey vlogger who turned his rage on a rape victim. If you need to catch up and are up for some real ugliness, Kazim brought us the news here, PZ had a few choice words about consent and oppression, Natalie noted some strange places she’s seen this guy cited, and DanielCrommunist, Jason, Jen, and Greg have all suggested their readers unsubscribe and shun. So, yes, if you’re subscribed to this guy’s YouTube channel, please fix that now.

I’d like to add a brief note about PTSD and triggers. You see, this whole thing started with TAA declaring on Reddit that he doesn’t believe in triggering. He then went on to attempt to trigger the rape victim in question and claimed it proved his point when no triggering occurred. One little note, then, for TAA: Triggering is part of the definition of PTSD, you self-blindered ass.

Seriously, right there in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) definition for post-traumatic stress disorder is a section on intrusive memory. If you don’t meet at least one of the criteria in that section, you are not considered to have PTSD. The last two of those criteria?

4.  Intense psychological distress at exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.
5.  Physiologic reactivity upon exposure to internal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event

“[I]nternal or external cues that symbolize or resemble an aspect of the traumatic event.” That would be the definition of a trigger. Triggers exist, whether one whiny misogynist believes in them or not.

Perhaps, however, that isn’t what TAA means. Maybe he’s fine with the idea that some people experience PTSD triggers. Perhaps he means he doesn’t really believe that people who are raped experience PTSD. Well, in addition to being an inhumane jerk, TAA is almost 40 years behind the times in the scientific literature.

It was way back in 1974 that Ann Burgess and Lynda Holmstrom identified rape trauma syndrome, a form of PTSD with some characteristics that are specific to the nature of the trauma. None of those special characteristics are an immunity to triggers. Findings of rape trauma syndrome have been replicated over and over, in studies that attempt to determine what worsens the trauma (most consistently? lack of social support after a rape–thanks, TAA!) and what kinds of treatment are most effective.

The reality of rape trauma is so well documented in the literature that the existence of the trauma in an alleged victim of rape can be used as corroborating evidence in rape trials. Expert evidence can also be given to attest to the commonness of some features of rape trauma that are frequently used to undermine the credibility of victims (confusion, delay in reporting, etc.).

Does that mean every victim of rape experiences rape trauma syndrome? No, though it’s quite common. Nor does it mean that rape victims are more prone to being triggered than others dealing with PTSD. What it does mean, however, is that many rape victims can be triggered. That, in turn, means that while you may not be able to trigger intrusive thoughts and emotions in any individual rape victim (so much for TAA’s “proof”), if your audience is significantly large enough, the chances of having several rape victims in the audience is almost 100% and the chances of having someone in that audience who can be triggered by discussions of rape–particularly nonsympathetic discussions–is pretty good.

What anyone does with that information is up to them. How we judge their use of that information, though, is entirely up to us. Denying it while simultaneously trying to use it against an opponent, as was done in this case, will not be judged lightly.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Ace of Sevens

    You don’t understand. He’s just skeptical of rape trauma and was trying to conduct an experiment.

  2. 2
    d cwilson

    Sounds like a stupid experiment to me.

  3. 3
    karmakin

    He was acting on pure rage, and simply wanted to hurt people as much as he could. Now, my take is that this is someone who enjoys this rage too much, and seeks it out. As such, he, like most others like him, are poking at the spots where they think are the most vulnerable. That’s what they do.

  4. 4
    HighDudgeonAZ

    @#1: A public experiment with one test subject, no control group, no established protocol, no references of prior research, no informed consent on the part of the participant, and no post-experiment follow-up or counseling is not a legitimate experiment, it’s abuse.

  5. 5
    KathyO

    I’m reading The Psychopath Test right now, so maybe that’s coloring my view, but deliberately provoking someone in an extremely cruel manner just to observe her reaction does not seem normal. Why on Earth would someone take it upon himself to do such a thing? Of course, it’s abuse, as HighDudgeonAZ says. But is TAA just being an asshole, or is there really something wrong with him?

  6. 6
    jamessweet

    Well, if one positive thing comes out of this, I think a lot of people will learn what a “trigger warning” is who may not have heard of it before. I include myself in that group.

    I value open dialogue to the extent that I am not inclined to self-censor (or ask others to self-censor) if the sole reason for the self-censorship is the chance that the discussion could potentially trigger someone’s PTSD. But I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with an upfront warning about the content in question. And I guess “trigger warning” is a succinct way of communicating that which sufferers of PTSD will typically understand? If so, that’s a good thing and I am happy to know it, should I find myself addressing topics which would fall into that category.

  7. 7
    Ace of Sevens

    @4. Presumably, it’s a preliminary study. If the results are promising, he’ll do a larger study where he threatens a larger group of people with rape, and will refer to his control groups as sticks with big tits and blowjob lips and compare the results.

    I wish I were kidding more than I am. That’s more or less a quote and this is hardly the first time he’s been dismissive of rape victims.

  8. 8
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Denying it while simultaneously trying to use it against an opponent

    The amazing asshole seems to play that game often, not just with the incredibly objectionable use of trigger-talk as attack. His defense club does as well.

    God help TAA if he pulls that crap in person with someone who has a PTSD flashback or or other reaction which expresses itself violently or ends up with a call to the police.

  9. 9
    mtlskeptic

    I think this guy might be running for asshole of the year. He’s got a good chance at winning. It’s always lovely to see someone being dismissive of someone else’s experience. He hasn’t been raped but he knows exactly how rape victims do and don’t respond in certain situations? That would be the equivalent of me, someone who’s never been to war, telling soldiers that they should just stop complaining because there’s no such thing as PTSD. This guy is unbelievable.

  10. 10
    dale

    Thanks for adding some good data points about the existence of triggers in PTSD. Most of blog postings were about how big a jerk TAA was for even trying to set off a trigger but very few provided any data as to whether the concept of triggers was valid.

    Yours was one of the more useful blogs on the subject.

  11. 11
    Ace of Sevens

    @mtlskeptic. He actually has been raped, presuming he didn’t make it up to score points in an argument. He just walked it off and anyone who doesn’t is a wuss, apparently. See this video.

  12. 12
    amavra

    I’ve had to stay away from most all of these discussions about him and MRA types in general because I personally do get triggered pretty easily. I am sensitive, I know, but I think in that sensitivity I am able to be more at peace with myself – I am letting myself have feelings. Cutting off those feelings isn’t really coping or healing imo. But our society, and certain aspects of society -especially patriarchal ones, don’t allow for men to do that. So that makes me sad, not pitying TAA (he doesn’t want it) just for men in general who feel like they aren’t allowed to process “girly” feelings about anything, even or especially sexual trauma.

    Anyway, I was commenting to thank you for giving this a clinical explanation because I think a lot of people think trigger warnings are stupid or unnecessary but I for one really do appreciate them. It lets me read more of websites like this instead of knowing I have to avoid them entirely.

  13. 13
    mtlskeptic

    @Ace of Sevens Thanks for the link. Apparently, this guy thinks that his reaction to a situation is the right one and no one else can have different feelings and still be right. I think we should just all stop giving him so much attention.

  14. 14
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    jamessweet

    Well, if one positive thing comes out of this, I think a lot of people will learn what a “trigger warning” is who may not have heard of it before. I include myself in that group.

    Aren’t we lucky people? I don’t mean that sarcastically. I mean that we (you and me and other people who don’t suffer from PTSD) are lucky that we don’t have to deal with that shit.

    And I guess “trigger warning” is a succinct way of communicating that which sufferers of PTSD will typically understand?

    To my knowledge, yes.
    Sometimes, it might be apropriate to use simething like Rot 13 as a code, if words read at glancing could cause it.

  15. 15
    peicurmudgeon

    I too find this guy disgusting, but this discussion as well as that following Elevatorgate demonstrates what is best about atheist and skeptical groups. We are not afraid to call out anyone who associates with the group who is an asshole. Even the debate about the gnu-atheists vs accomodationists is open in the community.

    This is something that is not done nearly often enough in the right wing. We see the republican canditates making the most absurd extreme comments and they are still have support. It is as if any criticism will break the entire group.

  16. 16
    sidneyia

    Just a quick note: “trigger” doesn’t mean the same type of thing to everyone. Some people on some parts of the internet misuse “trigger” to mean “anything that makes me upset”, essentially taking something that’s supposed to be an accessibility aid for people with emotional disabilities and using it to manipulate a conversation and complain about stuff they don’t like. Like you will literally see “trigger warning: fanfiction about a character I don’t like” and so on. So some people (not TAA – he’s just an ass) who profess to be “skeptical” about triggers, may have only experienced this usage of the term.

    Which is to say – I think this is part of why it’s important to talk openly about what “trigger” really means, and let MRAs and other clueless types know that it really is something serious.

  17. 17
    twooffour

    When he said “I don’t even believe you were raped”, I assumed that he’d convinced himself that the person was making it up, so he could feel better about smack-talking away.

    I doubt that he actually said “I don’t believe you” in order to make an actual victim feel worse.

    But hey, it’s possible.
    Other douchebags do that all the time, I just didn’t think it matched the character of this guy, judging from his videos. But his character seems to be extremely dissonant, so what the hell.

  1. 18
    Solidarity with survivors: Quit hurting your allies - The Pulse

    [...] of all, familiarize yourself with the following commonly-used terms2: trigger, flashback, victim-blaming. Get to know some of the key statistics as well: according to the [...]

  2. 19
    Shouting Apes » Life, Liberty, and Rape Jokes

    [...] laugh.  But for some rape survivors, rape jokes aren’t so much “funny” as “triggering“.  And a PTSD-related panic attack is about as far from laughing as one can possibly get. [...]

  3. 20
    Rape Traumas and Triggers | Almost Diamonds

    [...] This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here. [...]

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