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Does “Trauma Porn” Really Exist?

Trauma porn — it is as distasteful as it sounds.  Referring to the “perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune,” trauma porn is a term coined from the darkest bowels of the media, representative of the effects of mass-circulation. Gifted, or perhaps cursed, with the sophisticated networks of communication that cast themselves around the globe, images have become a sort of currency: Posted, shared, re-posted and screenshot, they can never be fully retracted, and, once established, rapidly diffuse throughout the media.

Courtesy of NeONBRAND

Most images are mundane, such as the usual selfie or prom-posal, the squeal-eliciting puppy accounts, the breathtaking views of travelers that provide a vicarious experience for those holed up at home, etc. There are the memes, the feminism posts, the skin-care threads. But then, scrolling, there are images of gaunt, starving children in a third-world country. Fallen migrants, drowned at sea. Toddlers being torn away from their parents at the Mexican border, or reuniting with them only to shy away in fright.  Graphic depictions of violence and cruelty inflicted on human beings by other human beings.

These photos are posted, shared and re-posted by those who claim to raise awareness by shedding light on the suffering of victims. But how effective is this advocacy, truly? From my personal experience, when I first waded into the depths of social media, such illustrations of misery jarred me to the core. I was enraged, devastated, ready to bounce to the balls of my feet and confront the oppressor. Yet, as I was dragged deeper and deeper, and the waves became a part of my life, defeat became prominent. As it is for most of us. What can we do, burdened by all these issues and unable to enact any sort of reform?

Hindered by geography, financial means, and other factors, we resign ourselves to posting, sharing, and re-posting.

But the media is overwhelmed, now. Congested with gruesome portrayals of human agony, as problems are consistently left unresolved, content is multiplying at a rate that people can’t digest properly — the result? Desensitization. With the fatigue of being constantly bombarded with pain, many people can only muster a flare of empathy, a bleak sense of hopelessness, before forcing themselves to scroll past and continue on their day.

The emotional overload has lead to a diminishing return of responsiveness to news of human suffering. For example, whenever an instance of gun violence occurs in the US, comments are mostly battle-weary and unsurprised: “What did you expect?” they ask, with the air of people well-acquainted with pain, having accepted their helplessness.

Courtesy of camilo jimenez

Trauma porn comes into play, however, when apathy translates into a dangerous search for the evocative. Where the victims of images are dehumanized as they are, over and over again, recycled through the system as a statistic, unnamed and unidentified in captions. Ethics come into play, the major one being consent, especially when photos show up on informal accounts rather than professional ones dedicated to journalism. Horror decays into a sort of depraved fixation, which is, for the most part, unintentional, yet an inevitability given the consumeristic culture of the media.

And, just like all addictions, these photos become the new normal. As people adjust to the equilibrium, it takes more — more bloodshed, more calamity — to provoke strong emotion. The phenomenon of trauma porn is inching disturbingly close to something of an exploitative nature, where users capitalize on the shock factor of visual pain for attention. The innocent motivation of raising awareness may simply be a delusion to assuage people’s guilt — a diversion to distract them from their own complicity. That way, they can convince themselves that they’ve done all they can. No one can accuse them of indifference. They’ve spread the word.

Courtesy of Austin Distel

But awareness is an instrument for action, not the endgame. The word will be spread and spread, but how many will truly manifest their thoughts into the physical world and make change? In the end, perhaps the philosophy of “spreading awareness” only feeds into those — who, don’t get me wrong, are the minority — capitalizing on graphic images for recognition.  That is what trauma porn is: Well-intentioned actions distorted into the obscene and selfishness masquerading as selflessness.

For those still skeptical or disbelieving, the Netflix documentary Don’t F*ck With Cats is a prime example of what happens if the internet is manipulated to broadcast the grotesque. The chilling truth is that people are capable of weaponizing the media for their own purposes. Once those with sinister motives realize that, the avid consumption of human pain will be the first thing they take advantage of. Trauma porn does exist, and it festers in plain sight.

That being said, issue advocacy and activism are not to be discouraged. The issue isn’t the mass circulation of haunting photographs, it’s the dehumanizing of those in the photos that inevitably happen — but, if taken ethically, and treated with the gravity and empathy that they deserve, photos can be immensely impactful.

Photo Courtesy of Chermiti Mohamed 

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Written By

Phyllis Feng is an Ohio-based writer who loves venturing into a diverse array of topics, from literature and music to mental health. She always seeks to emphasize honesty and empathy in her work. In her free time, you'll usually find her with a book and a mug of tea in her hands.

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