In the Blood: Trigger warnings and survivors of sexual assault

At the end of the Macalester production of In the Blood, the main character Hester is brutally raped on stage.

It was shocking. It was provocative. It made you uncomfortable and it made you think—all good things that might have been exactly what you wanted from theatre.

Except, perhaps, if you’re a sexual assault survivor.

Sexual violence is often a specifically traumatic event. It affects as many as one in three women and one in six men in their lifetimes, which means all of us know people who have been sexually assaulted. People who have experienced sexual violence may develop post-traumatic stress disorder, but even those who are not clinically diagnosed with PTSD can experience severe feelings of fear, anxiety and stress related to the assault.

These feelings can be triggered by anything that reminds a victim of the event. Some triggers are particular and specific, like a certain word or object, while others are more generalized and applicable to a wider group of people.

An explicit rape scene is an obvious trigger.

The script that playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wrote is provocative and unsettling, illuminating issues of homelessness, poverty, racism, sexism and more, as well as sexual assault. But the directing choices made for Macalester’s production shifted the focus away from those topics in favor of more sexualized scenes. There was an explicit sex scene between Hester and her ex-boyfriend Chilli that isn’t expressly written into the script.
There’s also the rape, which Parks didn’t write either. The stage directions for that scene are simply: “They struggle as he tries to shake her loose. Then, in a swift motion, she raises her club to strike him. He is much stronger than she. He brutally twists her hand. She recoils in pain and falls to the ground.”

Although the production intended to highlight the issues of eugenics and homelessness, the directing choices shifted the focus away from these topics. In producing the play with sexuality as such an overt theme, the cast and everybody involved in the production must realize they sacrificed attention to the subtle themes of Parks’ text in favor of sexual spectacle and sensationalism.

There was little warning of the rape scene. When I went to see the show on Thursday, April 10, there was no announcement made to the audience before the performance or in the program. There was just a sign posted next to the box office, which I would have easily missed if I hadn’t gotten up and walked around during intermission. There was no way I could have prepared myself for the sexually violent content, even if I had read the play beforehand.

Actor Stephen Straub ’14 was quoted in the April 25 issue of The Mac Weekly as saying, jokingly, “How do you make a typical Macalester student uncomfortable? Tell them the truth.”

The truth about what—rape? And at what expense? Survivors already know. This inherently vulnerable population is not exactly the demographic that needs to be antagonized by a truth they have already experienced.
In the same issue of the Mac Weekly, actor Christine Ohenewah ’15 was quoted as saying: “If [the lack of trigger warnings] is all you got from this play, you’re missing something.”

But for people who have experienced sexual violence, triggers can result in flashbacks, where they feel like they’re reliving the original traumatic event; emotional numbness, guilt and depression; or other symptoms. This kind of reaction is not beneficial to anybody. It can debilitate survivors, and it’s not conducive to discussions about other topics either.

I would have loved to talk about the mélange of societal problems that the show sought to highlight. I would have loved to be able to think about anything other than the trauma trigger. But I couldn’t even go to class the next day, let alone participate in an abstract discussion about the play’s themes.

I can’t say the experience was the same for every person. Even among sexual assault survivors in general, nobody goes through exactly the same thing. Factors like race and socioeconomic status can definitely affect people’s experiences differently, including experiences with sexual violence. Sexual assault affects all populations, people of all genders, races, socioeconomic backgrounds, geographical origins and sexual identities, and these identities are all interconnected.

As Straub said in last week’s issue of The Mac Weekly, a black woman experiencing rape may not be the same as a white woman experiencing rape. But something isn’t good just because something else is worse. Not talking about the problems of sexual violence, especially when it was such a prominent theme in Macalester’s production, doesn’t make it easier to talk about other problems. Ultimately, showing this traumatic level of violence on stage without appropriate warning does nothing to direct discussion about larger topics at hand.

We can’t fix a society’s problems overnight. What we can do, with minimal effort and cost, is be considerate of vulnerable populations like sexual assault victims. A trigger warning does nothing to the people who don’t need them, but makes a world of difference to the people who do.
This play was an act of bravery, and the actors were phenomenal in handling the material. I understand that the actors want to encourage conversation around all the themes that have been close to them throughout the process of the play and beyond. I want that, too. But that doesn’t have to be in opposition with the health of sexual assault survivors.