When I was earning a degree in Women’s Studies in the early 2000s, “trigger warning” was not in the feminist vocabulary. Some years later the phrase started to gain traction in feminist circles, though by dint of my profession I only ever saw it in conjunction with books. “Trigger warning: this novel contains a rape scene” would precede a review, for instance.
Trigger warnings are a caveat emptor: proceed at your own risk, because something violent awaits. Often the violence is sexual, but it might be purely physical, or emotional, or psychological. Trigger warnings are most commonly applied to books and movies, but they can show up in lots of places. A haunted house at Halloween might come with a trigger warning.
The aim of trigger warnings is to protect people. They serve to alert people in general that violence is on the horizon, but in particular they exist to warn people who are particularly sensitive to violent imagery. Survivors of war, combat, rape, assault, and other traumas are the ones who most need to be on guard.
I don’t much care for trigger warnings.
A few disclaimers: I’m a feminist. I’ve been raped. I am speaking for myself, not for all feminists, certainly not for all survivors of sexual violence. And I have deliberately not read a lot on the topic. I very much want to have an informed opinion, but for right now, I want my opinion to be informed by my own perspective, not by other people’s. This is one of those times where I want to reach my own conclusion before integrating any dogma. I read this New Yorker piece and then stopped.
I will happily modify my opinions as I learn more. This is just my starting point.
We’ll start with the trigger warnings I do applaud. If you as a creator want to apply a trigger warning to your own work, fantastic. It’s your intellectual property. You can do what you want. If you want to risk losing potential sales out of respect for other people’s demons, you are demonstrating courage and selflessness. Bravo.
I’m less enthusiastic about trigger warnings in reviews, but I suppose I still basically support them. I’m not wild about having a third party interpret, and potentially condemn, a creative work. One book reviewer’s trigger is another person’s salvation. But it’s the only workable solution I can see for people who are trying to research a book before reading it. Let’s say a reader is eager to try a new series but is wary of mention of suicide. Her choice is not to read the book at all – which is a really lousy option—or to consult sources that will give her reliable information about what to expect.
I do not like the idea of labeling all books, de rigeur, in a classroom setting, or in a bookstore, or in a library. For one thing, it’s impossible to accurately identify every conceivable trigger. A rape scene, sure, that’s pretty clear. But what about something less obvious? If you’re a parent who has lost a child, you might fall to pieces if you read about another parent’s loss. But you might also fall to pieces if you read about a parent who hasn’t lost a child.
Know what’s dicey for me? Reading about happy, healthy relationships. They’re not full-onslaught triggers for me, don’t get me wrong, but I get extremely uncomfortable when I read about normal happy people. Feels like an indictment of my own shortcomings. No way can anyone warn me about all of my triggers.
Here’s the thing: maybe you’ve been raped. Maybe you’re a combat vet. Maybe you’ve suffered from something less overtly violent, like a divorce or the death of a loved one. Know what sucks? The world doesn’t owe you.
Just because something awful has happened to you doesn’t mean the world will change to accommodate your psychological damage. You don’t get a free pass. Artists will continue to create content that will disturb you, and the fact that you have suffered does not give you the right to condemn them for it. The fact that you have suffered does not afford you further protection.
I know that.
You have endured something awful. I am so sorry for that. I’ve lived through way more violence than anyone deserves (and a lot less than some people get), so I mean that from the bottom of my heart. But that still doesn’t mean that censorship is right—and that’s what labelling usually becomes. At the very least, if you slap a giant yellow “Trigger warning: rape” sticker on a book, you’re going to stigmatize it.
Lev Grossman wrote a book called The Magicians, which I liked quite a lot, and then he wrote a book called The Magician King, which blew me away. The main character is my spiritual twin. Julia has endured worse violence than I have, and she is smarter than I am, which is not especially easy for me to admit, even about a fictional person. She is me, only moreso. The only explanation is that Grossman spied on me to create Julia’s character. I mean the man peered into my head.
The scene where she is raped is described in very graphic detail, and the whole book haunted me for months. I am profoundly glad to have read it. I hate to think of it getting labeled as inappropriate. It is inappropriate, for some people. For me it is indispensable.
For people who are sensitive to triggers, help is out there. You can ask a trusted friend to read through a book or preview a movie. You can go to a public library and ask about a specific title, or you can ask the librarian to pull together a list of materials that are safe for your needs. (Not all librarians are created equal, so if the first one seems stumped, try another librarian. Or just send me a message.)
And there are positive ways of creating change. Have you suffered violence? You can leave it at that. No one owes you anything… but you don’t owe them, either. You don’t have to become an advocate. You can choose to talk. You can choose to stay silent. Ain’t nobody’s business but your own.
But if you have the strength and the energy, you can speak up. Did a scene in a book upset you? Again, I emphasize that it is the author’s prerogative to write things that bother you, just as it is your prerogative to read it, or not read it. But you might consider communicating with the author, through twitter or the author’s website or, failing those, the author’s publisher. Being petulant will probably get you sweet nowhere. Being open and honest might get you some meaningful dialogue. (“Hey, I read your book, and it caught me by surprise on p. 123. It stirred up some really painful memories. Just thought you should know.”)
And you can do things like this. Myke Cole is the author of some fantasy novels with a really fun concept: American military plus magic. (Start with Control Point). He also has triggers of his own, which come into play at fan conventions, where people wave around toy guns. He’s doing something good with his experience, offering free lessons in basic weapon safety.
By the way, an author friend of mine has made noise about going to a firing range. Well – he mentioned it once, and that’s good enough for me. I’m going to keep pestering until he does something about it. I don’t particularly see myself joining the NRA anytime soon, but I’ll try anything once. Plus I’m fairly sure I’d look hot with a gun. Which is my main motivation for doing things. Vanity, you know.
So what did I get wrong about trigger warnings? Like I said, this is a starting point. Let’s hear it. I’m prepared to issue mea culpas.