By Tegan Evans
CW- This article contains references to sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
Content warnings have taken on a place in the popular consciousness as symptomatic of generational weakness. I’m fully aware of the bile in various publications, aimed squarely at those who have apparently aged out of empathy, about snowflakes and the rest. We’re all doughy little toddlers, stamping our feet when confronted with something unpalatable.
Setting aside the absurdity of this backlash, I am aware that I am not the imagined audience for these warnings. Things that prompt strong, sudden emotions in me are not what many might think of as ‘triggers’. It almost feels silly to call them that. ‘Triggering’ has been so successfully co-opted as a term by bored young men, smarting from the subconscious awareness that all of their advantages in life have been insufficient to award them success.
These days, I am in almost complete control over my responses to triggers. Years of therapy and distance mean I only occasionally leave shops or get off trams to avoid people of a certain build, height and hair colour. I can sit through almost any film or TV show and it takes me only a few minutes longer than most to be comfortable undressing to shower afterwards.
When I hear content warnings now, I am not concerned with how I will react emotionally. I know full well that my primary emotion, at that moment and for some minutes after, will be of fury. It has been for years.
I too enjoy law school’s intellectual challenge, the very moderate prestige, and regular access to a dog in a bandana. But my motivation for studying law comes primarily from a place of anger.
The law is so centred on the illusion of neutrality, of lawyers as sophisticated androids, and I know that I could never maintain that. I was that Angry Feminist girl at school whose friends would send boys over with sexist jokes, ‘just to see what I’d do’. I was so predictably easy to rile up, so furious in a way that stretched social propriety, that I became the perfect parody. The shrill girl who can’t take a joke. I couldn’t have articulated it, but I knew in my gut that young women are made mockeries of themselves for their passion and unhappiness in ways young men never are.
For women and queer people, in particular, experiences of harassment and assault are common. Normal, even. We’ve been numbed to the regular messaging on the topic across university initiatives, tragically frequent news stories, well-intentioned social media posts. I don’t know anybody under any illusions about the ubiquity of sexual violence, or anyone who doesn’t feel passionately and declare openly that it’s unacceptable. My friends’ experiences, though, are disclosed quietly. Slipped from one to another, hidden in a joke, or a text message, or the noise of a party through the bathroom door.
The clearest path now would be for me to study criminal law. I could help people report where I didn’t, to prosecute, maybe to vicariously feel something of that satisfaction that I daydream about. What would it be like, to feel the soft clunk of a key turning in a lock, as a court passes judgement? I could help someone else stay on a tram, safe in the knowledge that it’s just a passing resemblance. It can’t be anything more. The door is locked.
Law school necessarily trains us to strive for objectivity, for neutrality, for discipline and emotional distance from the facts of the case. We begin to believe the myth that true objectivity is possible. For people with these experiences though, such detachment may be impossible to achieve and difficult to fake. I’m not sure I could it if I wanted to, and I know I’m not alone.
I refuse to believe that my experience makes me unfit for any kind of legal practice. My past has made me very angry, and a little odd, and occasionally quite unwell. On a good day, the usual clichés about being strengthened by adversity apply. I refuse to lack the agency, or skill, or energy to look after myself and to help others where I can, and I know that my anger has strengthened me do this. I feel fury like hot copper in my veins. I work hard, and I heal, and I try very hard to channel my anger into becoming unassailably capable. Very slowly, I get a little better.
Far from being excluded by my history, I often feel that people like me are uniquely qualified to represent a client with a similar claim. The law does not value subjective knowledge or emotion born of understanding, but might I not work harder than a ‘neutral’ solicitor? Might I not gain such a person’s trust, make them feel comfortable, help them feel safe? I would like to think so, but I don’t know yet.
As the legal profession very slowly opens its doors to greater numbers of women, queer people, people of colour, neurodivergent people, and those struggling financially, I imagine the numbers of people like me will grow. Marginalised people are disproportionately more likely to have been a victim of a crime, and I cannot be the only one who eventually felt drawn to notions of justice. Of crime being followed by punishment.
Sharing this experience with so many of my classmates, and its presence in our course materials, feels like an elephant in the room. The madwoman in the attic. The same event can be in my memory, and the memories of half the class, as well as in the textbook and on the whiteboard. We all pretend to hold the concept in our minds as a series of facts or dot points. Instead, a maelstrom of emotions and images must be pushed to one side, shoved in the back of a drawer until the assessment is done. There must be a better way. At least, I assume that’s how other people feel. I have no idea, because no-one talks about it. Please consider this an open invitation.