Brittany the Book Guru wrote the thought-provoking piece below and has graciously agreed to have it republished on the Go Dog Go Cafe.
I apologize in advance for how long this post may end up being, but I think it’s an extremely important topic and one that has many facets and areas to discuss. I want to talk about trigger and content warnings in books & book reviews, but I also want to talk about them in general. How are they looked at or viewed by others? Why are they not being taken seriously enough? Why are they being left out of books that contain heavy content?
I also want to say that while I tried to include many important aspects of this topic, it’s of course possible that I missed some things. I know how important content & trigger warnings are to so many readers and I hope that if you have anything to add to on this subject, you’ll comment and add to the discussion!
Warning: As this post discusses TW & CW, I do briefly use examples of homophobic hate crimes, transphobic hate crimes, racial hate crimes, suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, domestic and sexual violence, abortion, and PTSD brought on from military service. None of these are dived into deeply but they are briefly mentioned. Please only continue reading if you feel that you are in a healthy place to. Always put yourself & your health first!
The Debate on Trigger Warnings: Unnecessary vs. Necessary
We’ve gotten to a kind of odd place in our society when it comes to trigger and content warnings. For the most part, it has become widely acknowledged why trigger warnings are needed, but there are still some people who find the idea of needing trigger warnings to be ludicrous. These tend to be the same people who think ‘safe spaces’ are a waste of… well, space. For whatever reason, these people find it completely enraging that other people in the world are trying to give people warnings before they dive into something. I don’t really know why anyone who doesn’t feel that they need a trigger warning would care so much about someone else needing one, but it’s where we are. Like I said, it’s odd.
But on the opposite side of that are the people who not only want to help others by including trigger warnings but who also appreciate TW for themselves as well. I scouted the internet to give you an idea of how the public defines trigger warnings and came by two completely different definitions on Urban Dictionary, both of which highlight the two sides of the debate.
The first is from a person who clearly not only finds trigger warnings to be unnecessary but also appears to have some deep hatred for them and the people who use them:
A phrase posted at the beginning of various posts, articles, or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit. Popular on reddit SRS or other places that social justice warriors like to hang out.
Trigger warnings are unnecessary 100% of the time due to the fact that people who are easily offended have no business randomly browsing the internet anyways. As a result of the phrases irrelevance, most opinions that start out with this phrase tend to be simplistic and dull since they were made by people ridiculous enough to think that the internet is supposed to cater to people who can’t take a joke.
Trigger Warning, posted by user ‘pottskiller’, Urban Dictionary
That’s… so completely wrong that I don’t even really know where to start. First and foremost, trigger warnings are not about avoiding ‘offense’. They are about warning people who suffer from PTSD about content that may induce PTSD symptoms due to trauma. There has never and will never be a time when I consider sexual assault jokes funny. They shouldn’t even exist as jokes, frankly. Additionally, trigger warnings are not unnecessary! Everyone has experienced trauma in their lives and taking in content, whether it be a blog post, a book, a TV show, an article, etc., should not make those things worse! Let’s look at the actual definition from The Oxford English Dictionary:
a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).
Trigger Warning, Oxford English Dictionary
The thing is, though, that the type of traumas that can trigger some are important topics that need to be discussed and brought to light, so it’s still important that there are books, articles, movies, etc. that show the truth of such issues. Since the content is going to exist, people need to know what they are getting into before they dive in. That way, people who are comfortable reading/watching/talking about these topics can, and those who aren’t can choose to opt out before it’s too late.
Here’s the other Urban Dictionary definition, this time written by someone who appears to favor the proper usage of trigger warnings:
A warning before showing something that could cause a PTSD reaction. Commonly used as a joke, its meaning has unfortunately depreciated, drawing more stigma to mental illness.
Trigger Warning, posted by user Dogmom5678, Urban Dictionary
It’s important to remember that PTSD can stem from a multitude of things. Many who experience it are victims of domestic and sexual violence, homophobic and transphobic hate crimes, racial hate crimes, etc., but trauma can come from many more things as well. For example, many of the men and women who come back from time spent in the military experience extreme PTSD. Someone who is experiencing major depression and has suicidal ideations may feel their urges strengthen or grow more persistent after reading content heavily focused on depression and suicide. Someone who lived through a house fire or had a loved one perish in one may experience PTSD and find a book about arson or a pyromaniac character distressing (and I have personally read a book with a pyromaniac main character, so they do exist). Being involuntarily outed as queer and being estranged from your family because of it can cause PTSD and make some LGBTQ+ content unsettling.
All trauma is valid. Other people do not get to tell you that what you experienced or went through is not traumatic enough. Other people do not get to make your trauma smaller because someone else’s seems larger. If you experienced trauma and have PTSD symptoms, including but certainly not limited to: trauma-induced anxiety, nightmares, or insomnia, then it matters. You don’t owe other people an explanation for why something makes you uncomfortable. You don’t have to watch movies or read books that put you in a bad mental space and it is not ridiculous to want to know whether content will be distressing to you beforehand.
Trigger Warnings in Books & Book Reviews
Now, the book community is an extremely supportive, diverse, and inclusive place. I am sometimes overwhelmed by how loving and welcoming the people are whom I’ve met through a shared love of books. Many seem to agree that trigger and content warnings are an important part of what books they choose to read.
Someone who is already handling a bad depressive episode may not be up for a book with mental health rep. Someone who is struggling with an abusive home situation may struggle to read a book with similar abuse. This all sounds pretty self-explanatory, but the issue there is that without a content warning, they may not know that these books are going to have trauma-related content.
I think that the publishing business has been too easily ignoring this issue. There are a ton of books that have seemingly fluffy, easy storylines. However, even the most casual books can end up including something heavy and triggering. Books that are already advertised as having heavy content are much easier to avoid, but there are many stories I’ve personally come across that I expected to be light but have ended up having unforeseen dark content that I was not prepared for. For example, the topic of abortion pops up a lot in YA novels with sexually active characters. In many of these books, it’s an unexpected topic that the reader wouldn’t have foreseen just from the book blurb. It’s not a triggering topic for me but can most certainly be one for many other readers.
I personally have experienced few triggers from reading books, but that is mostly because I try to avoid content that may negatively impact me. Before I ever start reading a book, I look up the reviews on it. I know that may sound odd to some, but I really like to be aware of what I’m getting into before I decide whether or not I’m going to start it. Trigger and content warnings are one of the first things I always look for. Some reviewers include them and some don’t, so it can take a while for me to find them for each read, but it’s an important part of choosing what to read next for me. However, there have been a couple of books that have caught me entirely off guard with heavy content that I was not expecting and put me in a less than healthy state of mind. I can only imagine how many books have done the same to others.
Because so many publishers are unwilling to include content & trigger warnings in their books, the responsibility has heavily fallen onto the shoulders’ of reviewers. Some reviewers may not intentionally be leaving out CW & TW; they may not have even considered the necessity for them. I myself have been guilty in the past of leaving out seemingly small triggers from generally light or fluffy books. I’ve always tried to bring attention to TW & CW when they are blatant and could be disturbing or upsetting to other readers, but the truth is, I’ve realized that I need to make more of an effort in this area because, as I stated earlier, no person’s trauma is smaller or less important than another’s.
By stating TW & CW in your reviews, you’re giving other people a chance to decide if they are ready for that read. If you’ve ever been caught off guard by heavy or disturbing content in a book, then you know how important it is to have the knowledge of what to expect upfront. I know that there are people who argue that some plots and twists can be ruined by CW, but I’ve personally never felt like a story was ruined for me just because I knew about some of the more heavy content beforehand.
We are a society hugely impacted by mental illnesses. The importance of mental health continues to be stigmatized and made into a joke, but it’s not one. As someone who has been diagnosed with PTSD and PTSD related anxiety, I can honestly say that trigger warnings have saved me from multiple reads that could have been very hard for me. If you’re a person who doesn’t find trigger & content warnings to be necessary, I hope that you try to look it at from a different perspective. It is not about avoiding ‘offending the weak-minded’. I’d actually like to contradict that greatly by saying that someone who is avidly trying to avoid their triggers and stay in a healthy state of mind is actually quite strong-minded. Trust me, it can be a hard thing to do. Additionally, it’s far less about being offensive than it is about being intentionally hurtful, negative, or harmful.
There is truly no reason to not include content & trigger warnings. I’m unsure of why anyone finds TW & CW so offensive or arbitrary, but I am glad to be a part of a community that is so willing to put forth the effort to fix this issue that so many publishers continue to ignore. Thanks to so many book reviewers, fellow readers, and book lovers have been able to know what books to avoid and which are safe. I’ve benefited from this and I know that many of you have as well. As more (important) books continue to be published that broach heavy topics and start vital discussions that we need to have, I hope that this community continues to include content and trigger warnings in their reviews.
Just because you’re ready for a discussion does not mean that someone else is!
You can read more of Brittany’s writing here.