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Trigger Warnings: Should We Include Them?

Over the past few years, trigger warnings have become a pervasive topic of discussion in higher education and pop culture; and as I’ve worked to finish revisions on my novel, Pieces of Pink, the question of their efficacy has crossed my mind more than once.

trig·ger warn·ing
noun: trigger warning; plural noun: trigger warnings
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).

Oxford English Dictionary

Why do I care?

Moment of truth: for the most part, I don’t really care about trigger warnings. It’s not that I don’t care about people, trigger warnings just aren’t something that’s on my radar. In other words, I’m not someone who has ever needed a trigger warning before having a discussion about topics that are difficult or traumatic for me. And some of that just boils down to my own personal experiences and personality type.

However, I can recognize and appreciate that there are people who aren’t comfortable opening up, who aren’t ready to open up, or who just need a heads up before they dive face first into an issue that they struggle with.

For a tame example, around this time of year, YouTube loves to promote the latest trailers for upcoming horror movies, and having “The Woman in Black” or “The Grudge” motif sprung on me when I’m not expecting it can literally ruin my day. It’s inevitable that before October is over, I’ll be watching a video about baby goats in pajamas when a sudden commercial interruption will flash the face of a mutilated, murderous ghost across my screen, and I’ll shit my pants and cry.

Because of this, I can certainly understand the value of considering peoples’ preferences and experiences, and giving them fair warning before forcing them to engage in a topic that is traumatic or upsetting for them. However, I struggle with the idea of including trigger warnings on or in books.

Current Industry Standard

Right now, the industry standard is that publishers do not include trigger warnings for their books. In a 2015 opinion piece, “Life doesn’t come with trigger warnings. Why should books?” Lori Harovitz, a professor of literature, creative writing, and gender studies discusses the struggles of trying to include trigger warnings (and even exclude books with traumatic scenes from the curriculum) without entirely sweeping difficult–but important–discussions under the rug.

I want to scream: “I care! This is why I have chosen to teach difficult material, about the oppression of women and minorities, in the first place.”

Lori Harovitz

In her writing, she further cites the American Association for University Professors and their own stance against trigger warnings in the classroom: “The classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD, which is a medical condition that requires serious medical treatment.”

Of course, the bookstore is not exactly the same as the classroom, is it? In a bookstore, or on a website, readers are free to peruse whichever books they’re interested in. Reading outside of the classroom is generally a leisure activity, and it’s completely reasonable for people suffering from traumas to avoid those topics when they’re just trying to relax and unwind.

Additionally, as self-sufficient adults, individuals perusing the shelves are more than capable of doing a quick internet search if they’re unsure about the contents of a particular book. Without giving away spoilers, there are numerous websites, like this crowdsourced Book Trigger List by blogger Lauren Hannah, which can help readers avoid books that might trigger a negative emotional response.

Not only that, but a well-written book blurb (you know, that little hook on the back cover or inside jacket) can easily serve as a warning of what’s to come without going into too much detail.

For example, in my own book blurb, I try to make a few triggering plot points very clear, without being graphically explicit.

1. There are traumatic deaths: “Grey Alcott kneels before the executioner . . . ”

2. There is a rigid and oppressive social structure: “Having broken the Color Code to marry outside of her caste . . . “

3. There is nonconsensual sex: “. . . she is condemned to live out the rest of her life as a Pinkcap, a prostitute of Citoyen.”

Pieces of Pink: Book Blurb

Grey Alcott kneels before the executioner in a pool of her husband’s blood. Having broken the Color Code to marry outside of her caste, Grey is a fugitive, and the penalty is death. But when a figure from her husband’s past chances upon her, a twist of fate finds her pardoned. Instead of facing execution, Grey is conscripted into the lowest caste of her society, where she is condemned to live out the rest of her life as a Pinkcap, a prostitute of Citoyen. Relocated to a brothel in the heart of the capital, Grey is confronted with a choice: flee the country, or stay and dismantle the system that destroyed her life.

What’s the takeaway?

Ultimately, because I’m writing in a genre that will be marketed to adults, and because my book blurb contains a reasonable warning of the events that will take place in the novel, I don’t feel that I need to include a trigger warning on the book itself.

That being said, if the need ever presented itself, I would be more than willing to identify a list of triggering topics, if it meant helping those who need a trigger warning.

How do you feel about trigger warnings?
Please feel free to comment below.

3 thoughts on “Trigger Warnings: Should We Include Them?”

  1. This isn’t an easy topic, is it? As a reader, I’d appreciate a warning for any kind of animal abuse. As a writer, how do we know what to warn about? A few things are obvious, but there will always be something we won’t think about. And then there’s the spoiler aspect of warnings. I think databases are a good idea, although it would be almost impossible for them to be comprehensive. Unfortunately some of the onus will probably always be on the reader to be careful what they choose to read, and to have coping mechanisms ready just in case.

    Liked by 1 person

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