in which emily practices reflective self-compassion

[TW discussion of sexual violence] This email came through my blog this week (details edited like this […] for privacy)

I just came across your post on anti-sex positive feminism […]. I think that the woman who wrote Ethical Prude is right on. Sex positive feminism does not protect rape survivors. I learned that when you didn’t trigger warn for rape at a training I went to this past summer […]. I had to rush out of the room with a panic attack because you said to a group of women “For those of you out there who have been raped, I am so sorry. I am so sorry no one was there to help you.” A lovely sentiment, but singling us out is really wrong and there’s no way that statement would not be triggering to a rape survivor. I am repulsed by sex because I am a survivor of rape and the trauma of prostitution, and I can’t be at any of your lectures or workshops because they are really upsetting and are too focused on women who love sex and how they’re the only good feminists.

 

I believe is this is the blog post they’re referring to.

The email was submitted anonymously, so there’s nothing I can say or do directly about it, but it feels both inappropriate and uncomfortable to do nothing about such an important comment, so I’m writing this blog post. Feel free to read or not.

There are four things that I’d like to share, as a way to pull back the curtain on what it’s like to be a sex positive, trauma-informed, pleasure-oriented sex educator.

 

1. I “didn’t trigger warn”? Ouch ouch ouch.

The talk the person is referring to is the second year of this talk, about which I wrote last year:

The talk starts with a careful, thorough trigger warning, requesting sincerely that students take care of themselves – step outside or tune out or fall asleep or whatever they need to do in order to stay safe.

[…]

Several students did take care of themselves by stepping out, which I consider a good sign. It’s not possible to talk frankly about sexual violence without triggering some survivors in a group that large, and the fact that they left shows me that they felt empowered to take care of themselves.

I actually increased the trigger warning this year, including specifics of some of the things a person might notice that would indicate they’ve been triggered, and specific things they can do to allow their bodies to move through it, as well as radical permission to tune out, fall asleep, leave the room, or otherwise disengage.

So it surprises and grieves me that the person feels I  ”didn’t trigger warn,” when I spent more than 5 minutes of a 60 minute talk on a comprehensive trigger warning, plus referred back to that warning on four separate occasions throughout the talk.

It leaves me feeling rather hopeless; if THAT wasn’t enough of a trigger warning for everyone to feel prepared to take care of themselves – especially when they’ve come into the talk 100% voluntarily, knowing ahead of time that it’s the sexual violence prevention talk – then I really don’t know what else I can do to make it any safer.

If even the very best I can do is not enough – and I say without bias that *my* very best is close to *the* very best that any sex educator can do; other sex educators give me standing ovations – then what do I do with this feedback?

 

2. It doesn’t at all surprise me that a student felt triggered. Not triggering students isn’t my goal – it can’t be my goal, since, as I wrote last year, it isn’t possible to talk frankly about sexual violence in a way that doesn’t carry some risk of triggering survivors, and it is essential that we talk frankly about sexual violence sometimes, so that we can learn to recognize it, prevent it, and respond to it. And being triggered is very, very uncomfortable, but it isn’t inherently dangerous – emotions themselves are not dangerous.

My goal with trigger warnings is not to prevent survivors from ever being triggered, but to support them in experiencing the self-efficacy and autonomy that their perpetrator tried to steal from them.

 

3. I know I am not the cause of this person’s suffering. This person’s perpetrator is the cause of their suffering. My talk gestured in the direction of their injury in a way that drew their attention to how much they were suffering. That is not the same as inflicting the injury.

In a way, it’s a compliment to be the target of a survivor’s grief, fear, or rage. It means that I’m a safe person for them to aim their suffering toward. They know I won’t hurl it back at them, I won’t judge or shame or blame.

And I know that it is untrue – demonstrably untrue – that I teach that “women who love sex [are] the only good feminists.” I know that it’s untrue, too, that I didn’t provide a comprehensive, evidence-based trigger warning both at the start of my talk and periodically throughout. I know that I consistently work to be more and more inclusive, more trauma informed in my practice of sex education, just as I work to be more evidence-based and more informed about the science.

And I also know that when people are healing, they suffer; and sometimes they blame their suffering on a person who is helping them to heal. I know that there is no “perfect” sex education that will feel safe and inclusive for 100% of the people, 100% of the time. I can’t congratulate myself for my efforts to be inclusive, nor can I ever feel that I’ve done enough. It’s an ongoing process.

But I admit that it sucks, it sucks a LOT, to be perceived as a source of someone else’s suffering. To be the safe person for someone to blame is necessarily to be perceived as something I am not. And it hurts to be misperceived so thoroughly, to be perceived as something antithetical to the work I do. The idea that this person might see me on campus or around town and view me in this way, fills me with grief; and since I don’t know who they are, there is nothing I can do about it.

For days, this one email completely obliterated from my mind the twenty students who approached me after that same talk to tell me it was awesome, it was helpful, it was important, it was empowering, thank you so much for doing it. It wasn’t until after I sat in the bathtub and cried for an hour, grieving for the suffering this student was experiencing, and for the ways I felt blamed for something that was the opposite of my intention and my choices, that I remembered those other voices, those faces.

 

4. In the long run, this is a person whose wellbeing I feel very hopeful about. They’re unlocking from freeze enough to be able to have panic attacks and, furthermore, to choose to leave places that don’t feel safe. They even feel safe enough to get angry and lash out. These are all really good signs that healing is happening. They’re not there yet, and the road is long and often uncomfortable, but they’re on their way. I’m glad about that.

 

I was lucky enough to be at a conference of other educators when the email arrived, so that I could process it with them. We’re talking about having a pre-con session next year that focuses on self-care for those who work with trauma survivors. I think that ultimately good things will come of this.

It’s an honor to do this work. My purpose in writing this post was to be transparent about some of the costs that come with it, the complexities and inevitable failures that come with it.

We are all doing our best. Sometimes even our best is not enough. So we grow and we learn and we forgive ourselves and each other.