I’m not ‘triggered,’ I’m angry: Against the medicalization of women’s rage

trump clinton

Last night I was talking to a male friend about porn. Over the course of our friendship, he has been made quite aware of my political opposition to porn as an exploitative and socially harmful industry. But last night he said to me, “Can I ask you a personal question?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“Why are you triggered by porn?” he asked.

For a moment I was dumbstruck. I had never considered my opposition to the pornography industry as being rooted in feeling “triggered.” Then my rage came rushing in. As if my hatred for the industry and the filmed violence inflicted on the bodies of women and girls is nothing more than personal pathology! As if my anger, discomfort, and sorrow at the injustice of porn and its ideological role in constructing women as subordinate sexual objects that exist for male pleasure is actually only due to some personal history of trauma — my feminist position merely an indication of me being “damaged goods.”

“How could you suggest that!?” I replied. “When your African American friends talk to you about the Black Lives Matter movement, do you also ask them what happened to make them triggered by police officers?”

His comment made me angry because men have been doing this to feminists for generations — trying to construe our opposition to male violence as merely the result of being women who are broken or defective in some way. This question felt no different than claims that, “Feminists just hate men because they’re ugly and can’t get a boyfriend!” or “They don’t like sex because they’re uptight prudes!”

But later, while reflecting on our talk, I realized the kicker: For all intents and purposes, I am triggered by porn. I do not watch porn. But in general online browsing and image searching, it is not uncommon for an image to appear on your screen of a close-up shot of a woman being brutally penetrated by a penis. Nooooo! I just wanted to find Cats of Vhamster, not xHamster! (and no, “safe search” doesn’t work for me, because it also removes feminist articles critical of porn, prostitution, etc.)

When this unexpected assault happens, my heart skips a beat. Flames of adrenaline course over my body as I scream internally with rage. I close the image as fast as possible and need to take a moment to collect myself. It’s an experience that is upsetting, and, if I examine it, I suppose I could say it also conjures feelings attached to some personal history of an instance of an unkind touch or trauma of being sexually objectified.

Now, wouldn’t it be convenient for patriarchy if I decided my objection to porn was rooted in my past experiences and, so, were merely a result of my personal psychology? I could cease my pesky feminist writing and organizing, because golly, it’s not that the porn industry is objectively wrong, I just happen to have this thing that makes me perceive it that way.

After it was revealed that Donald Trump bragged on tape in 2005 about getting away with sexually assaulting women because he’s such a big “star,” many American women said that Trump’s callous dismissal of his actions were “locker room talk,” and that Sunday night’s debate, felt “triggering.” As described in a reader letter to The Atlantic:

“Last night’s debate was a triggering event for pretty much every woman I know. That also seems to be the general reaction online amongst women I don’t know. Whether we were raped, assaulted, harassed, or in an abusive relationship, Trump last night embodied everything we have had to deal with throughout our lives.”

Women began sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault online in order to condemn Trump’s words and actions. It’s as if we hoped that if we made our pronouncements of personal psychological suffering loud enough through collective amplification, someone would finally give a damn. The entire performance underscores a sad truth of our world: Women are not allowed to define reality.

There is a reason women are tying their outrage and heartbreak at Trump’s sexism to personal trauma from the past (which the media demands they share in lascivious detail) — the white cotton panties she was wearing on the carnival ride during her first “grab to the p—-” moment at age twelve, where exactly the man’s fingers were when he assaulted her, etc. As women writers harshly criticize Trumps actions, it seems they are also compelled to explain that his misogyny made them physically ill, in order for their critique to pack more punch. Because what else could we, as women, do? Dare to declare Trump’s actions to simply be objectively wrong? How much weight would that really carry?

Philosopher René Descartes claims we can sufficiently know the material world as it is provided through our senses. However, our perceptions can be altered if we are sick — our senses deceive us and relay a reality specific to our state of being ill, rather than what is objectively true. As the idea of being “triggered” has becoming popularized, PTSD now seems to be the primary mediator through which women are allowed to define male supremacist reality. Women are allowed to denounce the horror they see and live with only by adding a disclaimer about being gripped by fever dreams, which colour the perception they share.

The medicalization of women’s rage and sorrow at the injustice of male supremacy has a long history. Within psychoanalysis, when women desired to work outside of the home or generally have a social station in life greater than the subhuman status they experienced as women, they were given the incredibly insulting diagnosis of exhibiting “penis envy.” When women disliked having sex with their husbands, they were diagnosed as being “frigid.” It wasn’t that sex was unappealing because it was a “wifely duty” to which women were forced to submit by their husbands… No, said Freud. It was just that some women had this psychological problem that made them “frigid.” Similarly, lesbians were said to be retarded in their psychosexual development.

Today, girls who exhibit a healthy objection to social pressure that demands they perform for the male gaze are medicalized, too — called “non binary” or said to perhaps really be a man “on the inside.” Women who find sex with men unappealing according to the current norms of porn culture are said to be “demisexual” or “asexual.” “Demisexual,” by the way, means that a person likes to get to know someone and be emotionally attached to them before having sex. Women’s refusal to have sex entirely (asexual), is construed also as a medicalized anomaly. How convenient for patriarchy to be able to claim, “You know that discomfort and dissatisfaction you feel? Well, it’s not me, it’s you!” While in the past it was “hysteria,” today it is “triggered,” and the legacy of Freud continues (having himself originated the conceptual framework for PTSD).

This is being carried out in a wider cultural milieu where the self is increasingly being described through a medicalized rubric of innate dispositions/psychological conditions. The ancient maxim inscribed on The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, “Know thyself,” would today be more aptly written as “Know thy diagnosis” — with the route towards self-actualization considered to be through finding one’s specific psychological dispositions expressed in medicalized terminology: “It’s not that I’m an unfeeling jerk, I’m just a sexual aromantic.” “It’s just that I’m an introvert.” “I’m a submissive.” “I was born this way.” Even the experience of deriving pleasure from listening to sound has been hilariously conceived as a neurological “condition” of sorts: “I have this special thing called ASMR.”

When social reality appears as a set of individual “conditions” or dispositions, wherein each person is “born this way,” we lose the ability to use political analysis  as a means to explain social trends or patterns. For example, if BDSM is just another sexual “orientation,” feminism loses the ability to critique the sexualization of dominance and submission in the cultural maintenance of male supremacy.

Imagine if we applied this version of social reality to the Marxist analysis of class. Marxism says individuals are “alienated” by a capitalist system that turns their labour into a commodity. People feel dissatisfied because they spend their vital energy doing jobs they hate for the benefit of wealthy capitalists rather than for the community they live in and are too tired at the end of the day to pursue more fulfilling activities. Now imagine if we attributed this dissatisfaction of alienation to an individual pathology, rather than a politicized experience common to a certain social class of people: “Oh, I just have this special thing called alien-syndrome.” Now the problem is no longer systemic, but just a personal psychological state of being. All the while the injustices of capitalism are able to continue unchallenged.

Feminism must resist pressure to recast female discontent as an individual pathology or psychological condition. As far back as centuries — even millennia — ago, women defiant to patriarchal norms were pathologized as having been possessed by demons. For a long time, men have tried to convince us that if we don’t like the order of things, it’s a problem with us and not the world. But the truth is plain as day. Patriarchy is a grotesque circus of horrors constantly whirling before us. It is only natural that it would make us tremble with disgust, despair, and white-hot rage.

Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.