The Re-traumatizing Nature of Compulsive Curiosity

Compulsive Curiosity aka Trauma Porn.

It’s a harsh phrase. It probably makes you wince a little bit. Maybe you even don’t want to read the rest of this post because you wonder what you’ll find. And maybe it doesn’t apply to you. Or if it does, maybe you didn’t know. I certainly didn’t.

It starts small, slowing down on the interstate to look at a car accident. It’s curiosity mostly, wondering what happened, trying to figure out who is injured, taking a guess at who was most at fault in the situation. It’s usually accompanied by a whisper of gratitude for not having been in an accident oneself, before speeding up past the traffic and moving on.

Then there’s a mass shooting on the news. You see the replays over and over again, on TV, on Facebook. You hear people talking about it at work, at your kids’ little league games, even while you’re waiting in line at Starbucks. Curiosity strikes again, and you’re searching the internet for more information, more 911 calls, more details about the victims’ last moments.

Then before you know it, you hear a story about a refugee fleeing a war zone, an abused child in foster care, or perhaps even a victim of human trafficking. You don’t notice at first, but your interest is piqued and you can’t help but wonder about the details of the experience.

Welcome to Trauma Porn, defined by a voyeuristic desire to be a spectator to traumatic events and/or stories. This phenomenon is widely encouraged by our media, the 24-hour news cycle, and rapid and unfiltered access to the internet. We are inundated with trauma, so it only makes sense that our insatiable need to know would generate unhealthy practices.

Our responses to trauma can be triggers from past trauma we ourselves have endured; avoidance, because it’s just too painful to deal with; or immersion as a way of bathing ourselves in the trauma to avoid action. Many times our exposure to trauma in media is at its core a basic drive to be the judge and jury in the situation, determining who was “right” or “wrong.”

This mentality is damaging to us. It stifles our ability to empathize and advocate for survivors of trauma because our focus is on the particulars of the event rather than a strengths-based narrative that might enable survivors to begin to grieve and move forward. Best case scenario, trauma porn causes us to be only desensitized to the seriousness of violence and trauma. Worst case scenario, we inflict serious damage on others.

This mentality is devastating to a survivor of trauma. Imagine you are a person who has endured countless horrors, being sold 40 times a day, experiencing mental, sexual, and physical abuses day in and day out for years. Now imagine people only want to be your friend so they can hear your story, so you can relive your trauma for them. Do you feel how dismissive, belittling, and even traumatizing that would be?

I get it. We don’t mean to do it. We’re naturally curious as humans. But we have a responsibility to stop the violence of trauma porn. Jean Baudrillard, a French postmodern philosopher, warned in his book Simulation & Simulacra that our media would create our future reality rather than reflect what has already happened. The danger of engaging in trauma porn is, according to Baudrillard, that we perpetuate the cycle of trauma in our world.

Our compassion and empathy depend on releasing our curiosity for details in exchange for sincere, kind relationships built on trust and acceptance. Becoming comfortable with not knowing is a challenge in a world where we respond to conversations with “I need to Google that.” But letting go of the minutiae is important if we hope to be of help to others. And really, building a kinder, more compassionate, free world is what we all truly desire.


This post was written by Amanda Arwe. Amanda is currently an intern with CCAHT studying social work at the University of Tennessee. You can read all about Amanda here