Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Rape
We all make trivial comparisons every single day. We compare the angles of our selfies and debate with our families over which restaurant we should order dinner from. But in the era of “pics or it didn’t happen,” the word “comparison” takes on a whole new meaning. Of course, comparison culture can be detrimental to the way we view beauty; we compare ourselves to Instagram models each and every day. But comparison culture in the age of social media can also lead to comparing many other things — beauty, wealth, happiness, and sometimes, trauma.
The Curse of Comparison
Don’t get me wrong — I believe social media is infinitely valuable in terms of positive societal change. For example, the #MeToo movement greatly shaped the way we think about sexual assault. Plus, many right-wingers say that young, liberal individuals are “snowflakes,” and that people exaggerate public accounts of trauma. By telling their story to the world (only when they’re comfortable, of course), those who have experienced trauma can, in a sense, reclaim that narrative for themselves. They can prove the validity of their experience. While the #MeToo movement by no means put an end to sexual assault and harassment, it did indicate a positive shift in our culture.
However, simultaneously, something else has been creeping along the channels of the internet: trauma porn. Specifically, Black trauma porn. According to the Women’s Media Center, Black trauma porn is “any type of media — be it written, photographed or filmed — which exploits traumatic moments of adversity to generate buzz, notoriety or social media attention”. This “porn” is wrong. And it’s also often triggering and painful to those in the images, along with their families and loved ones.
Experiencing Trauma Differently
Seeing those images circulating on social media can be harmful from many different angles. For starters, they are unnecessarily damaging to the survivor and their families. Further, this could be triggering to those who experienced similar types of trauma. These images can also spur graphic comparisons of trauma, which can negatively alter the way we think about our own trauma. So, it seems like the obvious solution is to remove all mention of trauma from the internet, right?
Obviously, things aren’t that simple. Every traumatic experience is different. They impact us in different ways and we all take different steps to heal. Some experience PTSD. Some go through severe sadness and anxiety. And while some people need to heal from trauma on their own, some need to heal by connecting with others.
Cultural Trauma vs. Individual Trauma
For some, trauma can manifest itself in a multitude of ways, including cultural trauma. According to Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity by Jefferey Alexander, cultural trauma “occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness”. This inevitably influences individuals’ future identities and the way they view the world.
Individual trauma is not less valid because of the existence of cultural trauma. We should also be careful not to undermine the effects of cultural trauma just because it is more difficult to comprehend than individual occasions of trauma. It’s a fine line, and it’s a tough line to walk. There may be no “right way” to navigate the complexities of cultural versus individual trauma, but perhaps the best way to start is to stop thinking about it in terms of the word “versus” altogether.
Navigating My Own Experience
I am a white, cis-woman who grew up in a safe household with a loving parent. At the age of 17, I was sexually assaulted by a 21-year-old. I wasn’t raped, and it wasn’t the “stereotypical, Hollywood experience” of a man from a dark alley using brute force to restrain me. I knew him. He assaulted me through manipulation and by invoking fear and coercion.
For months after it happened, I kept my experience locked tight inside me. I believed that because it wasn’t “all that bad” there was no reason for it to have affected me the way it did. This made my frustration, fear, and anger grow since I didn’t understand why I felt the way I did. Until recently, I even refused to use the word “assault” to describe that night. It took years of healing to get me to where I am now.
Those biases are still with me, even today, after having spent so much energy convincing myself of the validity of my feelings. For a while, I even considered not including my own story in this piece. When I asked myself, “Why is that?” This wasn’t because I wasn’t ready to share it or because I was worried about backlash or anything of that nature. Instead, I think a little part of me wondered if by sharing my story, which in no way represents the “worst” of trauma, I would be disregarding those who have seen the worst sides of it. It wasn’t until after some reflecting that I realized trauma does not have to be the “fullest extent” of what it can be to be valid. Living with the ghosts of my own trauma does not negate the hauntings of anyone else.