In Defence of Trigger Warnings in Books

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Warning: Rape is mentioned in this article very briefly.

I’ve had panic attacks.

Only a few, but that was enough. They’re not nice. To be more precise, they’re pretty horrifying. Even though the ones I suffered with were pretty mild in comparison to many others, and I haven’t had one in about 7 months or so, there’s always this niggling little voice in the back of my head warning me that it could happen again one day. It’s a strange sensation, to be honest. I’m lucky enough to not be triggered by anything outside of very stressful situations (and the job centre, but that’s a story for another day), but my experience does leave me hyper-aware of others and what they go through on a daily basis.

I like trigger warnings. They’re just a few words that can make the world of difference. If I write an article about a particularly sexist book I read and put a quick “Trigger Warning: This piece discusses misogyny/rape/abuse/etc; proceed with caution” before it, it allows a potential reader to make a conscious choice as to whether they wish to continue reading.

That’s what this is all about – it’s about choice. It’s about giving someone back the power they thought they had had taken away from them, and to do so at their own pace in a self-controlled manner.

I’ve seen a lot of misinformation spread about trigger warnings lately, and most of it seems to be coming from people or outlets that should really know better. Jen Doll, writing for the Guardian, complains that trigger warnings in literature are a step closer towards censorship, and that real life doesn’t come with a warning so neither should the media we consume. Oddly, she seems to equate evoking emotions through reading a book to being triggered. It’s a disingenuous and sloppy argument at best, one that doesn’t understand what it means to be triggered – when something triggers a traumatic memory in someone who has experienced that trauma. Being shocked by a rape scene in Speak is not the same as having a horrific flashback of being raped. It’s also nowhere near comparable to censorship since the act of removing or deleting a particular text is pretty much directly contradictory to a warning pointing out that said content exists.

Author Patrick Ness argued against trigger warnings on his Twitter account, drawing similar comparisons to censorship (in less words) and claiming adding such warnings would lead to more removals of books with challenging content from schools. He also claims that adding warnings would put off young people who have experienced trauma from reading books with such content, with the implication being that said readers should be “surprised” by depictions or rape, abuse, suicide, etc. One tweet in particular seemed especially cold and misunderstanding of the issues:

“I understand the concern about trauma to readers, but I’m sorry, I’m more concerned about a gay teen not getting a chance to read at all.” (Source)

By positioning this issue as an either/or situation, Ness does more harm than good, the exact thing he claims trigger warnings do. The implication here is that some teenagers are more worthy of respect than others. Every reader deserves respect.

First of all, people who ban or challenge books have been doing it for literally centuries without the justification of trigger warnings. They seldom use logic to back up their decisions, so claiming that trigger warnings will lead to a rise in the banning of books is faulty logic at best. By that train of thought, one may as well argue that books shouldn’t contain the kind of content that gets them censored. Books have been banned for the most ludicrous of reasons, and each and every one of those reasons is stupid because book banning is stupid. Trigger warnings aren’t a tool for people like that, but if they choose to use it as justification for their very explicit brand of censorship then that doesn’t render the entire concept null and void.

Second, the idea that traumatised readers should have the choice removed from them as to whether or not to proceed with a book is dangerous. They may decide not to read the book if they know what’s in it, but they may also decide to go ahead, once they’ve prepared themselves accordingly for what could be a difficult experience. Once again, this is about choice. Trigger warnings don’t say “This book contains rape so you can’t read it”. They don’t force books out of hands. They just make things a bit easier for those who need a bit of help now and then. This isn’t a slippery slope to any kind of totalitarianism or censorship, and claims that it is aren’t just stupid, they’re creating a mountain from a molehill.

I don’t see any of these people, like Doll or Ness, complaining about content notes on the news before disturbing or upsetting segments, or the notes on the back of food packaging warning that the product contains nuts or milk. Trigger warnings aren’t limiting; for many, they are liberating. They open up the world in a big way because they give readers or viewers or players access in a way they would have been worried about before. Readers shouldn’t have to approach every book with fear that there might be something in it that will leave them traumatised. Survivors of trauma work so hard day to day to make sure they can live regular lives. Is it so big an issue to lend a helping hand now and then?

Giving a heads up now and then can change so much for some people. It’s not infantilising them or tip-toeing around them. It’s simply being a responsible adult, it’s giving informed consent. There’s a lot of terrible stuff in this world, and it’s right that our art and culture can reflect that to give us a chance to tackle it, but that shouldn’t be forced on anyone, especially those who have suffered enough as it is.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Amen to all of this. Giving readers the power to choose to read or not read a book should be common place based on common human decency, not a controversy to rile up the masses. All I want is a heads up, which is what a trigger warning does; I am not looking for a play by play of the plot. Honestly, this is the type of “issue” that makes me want to stop reading; authors need to get a damn grip on reality.

  2. “real life doesn’t come with a warning ”
    Sometimes I get the feeling people make this argument because they don’t realize how much real life sucks, and if they’d encountered it they would be on the side of trigger warnings.

  3. I’m really confused why this is such a difficult notion for people to wrap their heads around. Books don’t have ratings the way movies or video games do, yet books can be so much more intrusive. Wintergirls was a very hard read for me, but I knew what I was going into based on the synopsis. That made it easier. If I hadn’t known, if I opened a book that featured self-harm or ED and I didn’t have time to prepare myself, it would be so much harder and more triggering.

    It’s not censorship. It’s consideration for what people do and don’t want to read, or whether someone needs more time to prepare themselves for the read. Sadly, consideration is something our society is sorely lacking.

  4. I’m in favour of trigger warnings. I was unexpectedly triggered by a book recently. I went into the book thinking it would be about one thing, and it turned out to completely be another – another that sparked me.

  5. Great article!

    I’m in favour of trigger warnings and wouldn’t even object to books being labeled with age ratings the same way films are. Even CDs (do people still buy CDs?) come with explicit lyric warnings. This isn’t censorship at all. In fact, it’s the exact opposite, helping people make informed decisions about the content they want to expose themselves to.

    I really wish there had been content warnings on a few books I’ve read! I think I’ll start putting trigger warnings on my own titles from now on.

  6. Thank you for this article. It totally hits the nail on the head regarding trigger warning not being censorship.

    I despair when I see educators saying that they won’t be “mollycoddling” their students with trigger warnings. It takes very little time and effort to explain to a class of students that any text (book, poem, film, play) contains depictions of things that may trigger trauma. I think a good analogy is the use of flashing images in media for those with photo sensitive epilepsy. It would be (rightly) considered ableist, cruel and damaging not to do so. Content trigger warnings are exactly the same.

    I thought your examples of graphic images in the news and food product warnings were spot on too.

  7. You’ve cherry-picked a bit from my twitter feed, and all I can ask is folks read everything I wrote about my concerns for trigger warnings on books (and the way that I believe they’d be used to keep certain books, like mine, out of school libraries and out of the hands of teenager who might desperately need them). I worked very hard to be even-handed and respectful in my discussion, even retweeting opposing arguments because I didn’t want to misrepresent them. All I’d ask is that you do the same. We might disagree, but I don’t doubt your motives as good (and said so repeatedly). Would be great if you could return the favor. We’re all arguing from positions we feel best serve the most readers. I fight for my teen readers tenaciously! And with great warmth and respect. All best, Patrick Ness

    • Hi Patrick (sorry this reply took so long – I work from home most evenings).

      The one tweet I quoted was put there specifically because I felt that the implications behind it were particularly troubling, although I do discuss the rest of your points above. The issue with that quote is, as I mention, that it draws a fault either/or comparison that doesn’t really exist. It’s not a case of either we help prevent trauma triggers or we give queer teens the chance to read books important to them. It’s possible to do both.

      I don’t doubt your intentions, nor do I doubt those of many who agree with you (the ones who didn’t spend several comments throwing slurs around at us, which we have no intention of approving), but I felt your argument had a lot of holes in it, which I hope I’ve addressed. If people try to co-opt the entire principle of trigger warnings to use it to justify their censorship of school libraries and the like, that doesn’t make trigger warnings as a whole a bad thing. By that logic, anything used to justify censorship is bad and should be done away with, from religion to politics to everything in between. People will use anything at their disposal to try and reassert their deep seated ignorance. If they wanted to use trigger warnings then they would, even though they’ve been trying to push censorship for centuries without it. We fight censors and we oppose ignorance like that as we always have. Trigger warnings aren’t really part of that issue.

  8. So since this latest pushback from the anti-trigger warning crowd is based on trigger warnings in an academic environment, I will recount a tale of The Classics Lecturer Who Used Trigger Warnings.

    (TW: Mentions of rape and violence.)

    If you know anything about Greek mythology, you will know a good chunk of it involves, somehow, Zeus raping someone. And if not Zeus, someone else. So one lecture Classics Lecturer began by announcing that this lecture would include discussion/description of rape/sexual violence, and if this makes you uncomfortable you are welcome to leave now or at any time you feel the need – I do not want to make you feel upset/traumatised because you did not know this was coming and/or felt compelled to sit through this.

    He then went on to explain why he did this: a few years before he had been taking this sort of lecture and a woman was visibly upset about it, and after the lecture he asked her if she was okay and she lashed out violently. He made it very clear that she was not in any way to blame for shoving him against the wall, because she had experienced a trauma much like the one discussed and this had set back her recovery. So from then on he made sure to warn for content like that.

    It didn’t interfere with our learning at all, and even those who hadn’t felt the need for trigger warnings were pleased that they had been warned. Because it was a very difficult lecture even for them.

    (And for those who complain it is only about liberal sensibilities, he also warned that he would be discussing Christianity in the same context as the rest of the course – as a myth to compare to the Greek. This was because a woman became very disruptive when he did this once and stormed out of the lecture theatre with an “HOW DARE YOU?!” . But she had not been triggered.)

  9. Not to sound completely insensitive, because I really mean no disrespect, but how is it decided what is a trigger? I can understand rape being easily assessed as worthy of a trigger warning, but there are many things that can be a trigger for different people. Is there a point in which trigger warnings actually become spoilers in some instances? And yes, slightly spoiling a book seems like a small sacrifice when it comes to preventing trauma to certain readers. However, if a book is labeled as containing potential triggers for rape, then that book can become labeled as the book “about the girl that was raped” instead of the book “about a girl that survived and overcame and healed”. Does that makes sense? What if the book itself was not labeled, but every book was able to be looked up in database where reader audience and potential triggers are listed, instead of directly labeling the book. That way, concerned parents could look into the book’s rating (much like a movie rating) and readers wishing to know if a book might contain certain triggers could look it up? Would this be sufficient?

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