I have never been comfortable with the phrase “trauma porn.” People use it in so many different ways with so many tones of voice—critical, aesthetic, descriptive or dismayed—and I can’t pinpoint its proper usage, or even decide whether it has one. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since the beginning of the era of police violence (usually targeting Black persons) recorded on cellphones: The killing of Walter Scott and Eric Garner, the harassment of Sandra Bland, the 8-minute and 46-second suffocation of George Floyd. The phrase became more commonplace while these quick, impromptu and raw videos enumerated. It supposedly began to epitomize a cultural shift or an aesthetic.

I’ve seen it defined as media that showcases a group’s pain and suffering for the sake of entertainment and created around the exploitation of marginalized people. “Media” is a porous word suffusing all the technological phenomena the five senses can experience, including movies, TV, music, contemporary art exhibitions, documentaries, raw footage. I’ll focus on the shadings of the term trauma porn I’ve gathered anecdotally.

Most often, the term is cited to critique movies or music videos presenting gratuitous images that marry Blackness and violence, and it’s specifically used to critique white, cisgender or able-bodied audiences who happily consume such fodder. Trauma porn is also used to critique works that may appear to be enlightened, but that actually traffic in feel-good tropes that don’t give Blacks and marginalized identities humanity and agency. In the first case, Black bodies are sites of cool and freakish violence; in the second, Blacks are magical beings, impervious to harm—and always forgiving.

Some of the works I’ve heard named in critiques include Tarantino movies, Childish Gambino’s music video for “This is America,” the 2011 film The Help or Jeanine Cummins’ 2020 novel American Dirt. A common criticism is that while certain imagery may make viewers salivate or feel indignant, like a Pavlovian response, they don’t inspire them to do anything corrective about the horrors depicted. I haven’t seen all the popular works that earn the label, but when the critique has merit, I have no problem comparing the fictionalized fetishization to porn. It’s not real. Or educational. Like porn, it’s fantasy that cheapens reality, and when it’s addictive, it tends towards the unpalatable.

But I’ve also seen trauma porn used in a less directly accusatory manner (perhaps by writers who have accepted it as a daily reality?) and more like a description of an increasingly common cinematic style. In Maya Gurantz’s recent essay In the Los Angeles Book Review “Close Reading Trauma Porn,” it’s less a damnation than an examination of what Gurantz calls “abuse documentaries:” TV documentary exposés of sexual predators like R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein that combine serious reportage with cheesy background music and sensationalism. Overall, Gurantz admits she quite enjoys them.

But this brings me back to my initial reference, and perhaps the scariest one: Media depicting violence perpetrated on Black people is the most significant to me, a Black person, living in a world in which Black lives are jeopardized. I have never been comfortable calling real documentary evidence of Black humiliation, subjugation, and, yes, not infrequently, murder by law enforcement “porn.” These videos still have real value. They prove these events happened and still happen. There couldn’t be criminal cases, or the rare conviction of a homicidal police officer (like Derek Chauvin) without them.

On the other hand, I see the undeniable truth in the claim that trauma porn has created a hopeless, vulgar spectacle. It’s the bombardment of the images, or the sheer ease of clicking on a link to see another Black person getting killed, that’s cynical. No wonder critics compare the sedentary majority who consume the imagery to crowds at a lynching, comfortably seated while the show goes on.

I feel ambivalent when I parse what trauma porn is and isn’t. Is it any ritualistic spectacle of Black death? Is the video of 12-year-old Tamir Rice being shot reducible to trauma porn? Are images of Palestinians suffering under Israeli occupation also trauma porn? Or is it our attitude towards the images that makes the difference? I’ve had several confused conversations, because when I have heard someone say “I don’t watch trauma porn,” I don’t know whether they mean they avoid watching videotaped brutality for their own psychological well-being (and still follow the news), or whether they mean they have given up on protest. Do they mean they simply don’t want to know?

“Take care of yourself,” I reply. “Don’t watch the videos. But still read the headlines.”

My ambivalence finally comes down to the question of inaction versus action. It’s probably why I tend to steer away from the phrase. Porn is by its very nature passive, whether you enjoy watching it or not. It’s a substitute for passionate engagement, and comparing real oppression to porn suggests it can or, worse, should be watched passively. If you find you regularly look at the exploitation of marginalized groups without wanting to take corrective action, or you avoid news of that exploitation so you won’t feel guilty for not taking action, the problem isn’t with media as seductive as porn. The problem is with you.

By every definition I’ve read, the George Floyd footage would not be considered trauma porn. Why? It encouraged hundreds of thousands to hit the streets in protest. A police officer stood trial and was convicted. The real question isn’t whether you should or shouldn’t watch Blacks wrongfully dying or Palestinians suffering—the question is whether or not you decide to do something. Conscientious collective movement and action isn’t prurience, and it certainly isn’t porn.