Content Warning

It’s cropped up before.

I went to give a talk on autobiography at La Trobe university a few years ago and spent some time rehearsing with my daughter, who warned me I needed to offer trigger warnings to the students before speaking about my encounters with a paedophile in the park or about my experience of my father stalking the house at night in search of sexual comfort with his daughters.

It puzzled me then. It puzzles me less now, only I have trouble knowing when I need to introduce such warnings. Maybe it’s best to do so most of the time, if not simply as a warning to people who might be triggered, but more as a way of protecting myself from the criticisms that follow. Namely that I have added to someone’s load of trauma in speaking about my own experience.

It’s a troubling one. The place today where – over forty years ago I encountered a paedophile.

We’re urged to tell our stories and at the same time to find ways of talking about them that do not stream into the consciousness of another and stir up their memories of hideous experience. A visceral sensation that runs through their veins, as if it’s all happening again. Like a flash back.

At my other writing group last week, we workshopped a piece about my time as a university student when the then renowned Delys Sargeant took us for Social biology, a subject requirement of the social work course.

A few years later she ran a week-long workshop on sex. I was drawn to it like an animal to a water hole in drought, out of curiosity, not because I needed to know about the mechanics of sex – I was twenty-three years old by then and sexually active – but because I wanted to get a deeper understanding of the things behind sex, the stuff about desire.

I won’t repeat the story here other than to say my writing friends in the group were struck by the absence of specificity and detail about what it was like to live through those days of so-called sexual liberation, during the fading glory of the hippy era.

One woman suggested I do a poll within my online writing circles to help ‘jog my memory’.  So, I put up a post within a closed group telling people that I was writing memoir and had been thinking of some of the misogynistic expressions used in my day, the 1970s and 1980s, and how much we then took them for granted.

I asked if others had thoughts about such aphorisms and included two, one an expression used in relation to a woman who had not yet formed a relationship with a man: ‘She needs a good hosing out’.  And the other:‘Turn women upside down, and they all look the same.’

Comments and quotes from other women writers came in thick and fast with other examples. Some protested at the very post itself. That it was distressing to read these words. In the end the moderator, in her wisdom, took the post down because it had been triggering to some who had already been traumatised.

I can understand this, though a pattern emerges for me. One in which I find myself speaking about my experience and many people resonate, while a few others are distressed to the point, they ask me to stop, and then I become unsettled.

Like I’m back at school and have been caught out doing something bad, stealing from someone’s locker. Not that I ever did anything like this though in my primary years I shop lifted lollies from the milk bar and maybe that’s a better analogy.

I begin to feel as though I’ve been caught doing something bad even as I’m talking about the things that people said, not did, thirty, forty years ago, most typically men when I took such comments as givens.

There is a notion in psychoanalysis called après coup, or in German Nachtraglichkeit, meaning ‘afterwardness’, the notion that something can happen to you in childhood or adolescence, at a time when you have not fully grasped the significance of sexuality. For instance, your father can look at your body as you begin to develop breasts and a fuller body, with a particular expression and it means little to you though you register it and you feel uncomfortable. It’s only later in adulthood when something else happens, when someone approaches you in a sexual way and the memory flashes back to you, the leer on your father’s face. In childhood you could not receive or understand the message but in adulthood it makes more sense because by now you know about sex, and you’ve been on the receiving end of men’s sexual desire. Now it can seem all wrong, the thing that happened to you years ago, which you then slid into the box of forgettable events only to have it rear up again triggered by another event or words. Your body feels the effects even when at the time your mind could not comprehend.

So, it has been for me in recent years when my memories of the many aphorisms that men, even good friends, trotted out regularly throughout my teens and early adulthood, even into my thirties, expressions which I now recognise as objectifying and misogynistic.

‘She’s as dry as a nun’s nasty’. Dated now but still in my mind an expression that insults women who, for whatever reason, elect to keep themselves chaste.  And that is somehow seen to be depriving of the men who might lust after such women.

Writing this, the same shudder sweeps over me. Is it okay to be saying these things? These expressions from the past that were once commonplace, and these days are recognised as ‘rape talk’ and part of a culture that feeds the idea that sexual violence and predation is okay.

Perhaps that’s the essence of my struggle.

In raising the spectre of these memories. In writing the words that rattle around in my consciousness and memory like so many loose marbles, I stir up disturbance for people from more recent generations, including my own daughter, who sees things differently. Who recognise misogyny when they see it and call it out.

I’m too late to call it out now after thirty years even as it only now dawns on me, weighed down with the burden of decades of experience in which what was once considered normal is now recognised as anything but.

These things are commonplace and apply in lots of instances. People no longer talk about belting their children for misbehaviour like they might once have done, but men are still killing their women, at least one a week in Australia and still certain attitudes prevail that a man’s wounded pride or hurt feelings are enough to warrant the brutal murder of the woman who has offended him.

To imagine that I’m tarred with the same brush for speaking about the way it was in those days when we did not keep records of how many men killed their women because it was considered an unfortunate incident of domestic violence that couldn’t be stopped, is distressing.

These things can be stopped but only if we talk about them. But how do we talk about them without people feeling we’re doing the very thing they rail against?

Give a content warning, my daughter advises.

In future, I’ll try to remember.


6 thoughts on “Content Warning”

  1. I say no. Don’t give a content warning if you are talking to mature teenagers or older. People need to hear things raw. Haha, I had forgotten the ‘dry as a nun’s nasty’. To be used only in historical context, for sure. In my young formative years as a gay boy, I remember a footballer who I think was perfectly hetero, just dressed a bit better than the local yokel. When he played a less than perfect game, I heard him described as, well he squats when he pisses. Sexist, homophobic and just nasty. My mind generally blocks bad things from back then, but not always. But hey Elisabeth, society has come a long way since then. Our past cannot be undone, but how good are things now and how much better they will be in future. I think our phone obsessed young ones will do great things for world, albeit if they have 5G.

    1. Yes indeed, Andrew, the world continues to change and by and large it improves though perhaps not for some. I suppose it depends on where you’re from and where you are now. I think of progress as like the graphs people put out when they discuss the stock market. They show an upward trend from a low point and although the line dips and goes up, the dips never go below that lowest point. And so it is with civilisation. We have our dips, as in America at the moment under Trump, but in time we’ll rise above that. At least I hope so. Thanks, Andrew.

  2. I believe that speaking your truth is never “bad” – and content warnings (amongst adults) are not necessary. Going through life feeling responsible for how someone else interprets your words is an unfair burden. If someone is triggered, that person needs to seek help and/or stop listening. Or reading. Feeling uncomfortable can be the first step to dealing with past trauma.
    I also think it is important to remember all the readers/listeners who are helped by words such as yours. Realizing you are not alone is a powerful healer. Thank you for your candor and bravery in sharing your story.
    And I totally agree… the speech and behaviors you describe can only be stopped by first talking about them.

    1. I’d have taken that position, not to issue content warnings to adults but I’ve been thinking of late, maybe it’s not so terrible warning people beforehand, Oneletterup. Still it ruins the element of surprise, though today many people have had too many surprises particularly in the online world. Hence their sensitivities. Thanks for your kind words here, Oneletterup.

  3. The first thing that came to my mind as I was reading through this was political correctness and how it’s gotten completely out of hand; we’re terrified of offending anyone these days. I don’t get it. I suspect it’s because I’m a Scot and we come across as an aggressive bunch even when we’re being affectionate. We slag each other off constantly especially if anyone looks as if they might be rising above their station. Lift one foot out of the gutter and your mates’ll be queuing up to kick your supporting leg from under you. That’s just our way. So I really don’t understand thin-skinned people at all. In fact they annoy the hell out of me. It’s all to do with intent. If I don’t set out to offend you why are you offended by me? Should I want to take you down a peg or two there will be NO MISTAKING my intent. I hate, for example, when films or TV shows whitewash the past. If you’re going to present white people in the American South in the first half of the last century they’re going to be using one of other of the n-words constantly and, as often enough, not even disparagingly. You can’t pretend it didn’t happen. It would be wrong to pretend it didn’t happen.

    1. I agree up to a point, Jim. But I reckon we can’t really represent the past as it happened we can only imagine it and we imagine it on the basis of what we know now. so it stands to reason there are things we’ll water down, for good or ill. Though I agree it’s not one bit helpful to whitewash and political correctness has knobs on it. Thanks, Jim.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *