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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.

It sucks.

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.

magician_kingLev 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.”)

control_pointAnd 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.

8 responses »

  1. Well said, Jessica. As always. I totally agree with you. Sometimes life sucks. Often it’s unfair. But no one should expect the rest of the world to tip-toe delicately around her own personal “triggers.” I could say that “The Scarlet Letter” is a trigger for me, as it’s about a woman who has a child out of wedlock. That would be preposterous. Besides, this is one of my favorite novels. I won’t go to horror movies, because I know they would gross me out. That decision is on me. I don’t like torture scenes, so I don’t watch “Twenty-four” or the ending of “Braveheart.” I suppose there are limits to what should be shown or said, but that’s another argument for another day. Under normal circumstances, if you have a particular sensitivity or aversion, then it’s up to you to avoid “triggers”; it’s not up to everyone else to consult you before they do something.

  2. Thanks. 🙂 And forgive me for thinking that Hester Prynne would be a fantastic Halloween costume for you, in the vein of being sassy and defiant.
    My author friend got flack from a reader for a trigger. I was appalled. First, there was really nothing that looked triggerish to me. Second, even if there had been, the criticism is still out of line. I understand how difficult it is to adjust after trauma, but lashing out at innocent people is not constructive for anyone.

  3. Thanks for the non-non-fiction reading suggestions Jess… A more well thought out reply will indeed follow per e-mail… Would that there were more this correspondent could do to provide some balm for the unholy wounds you’ve got to deal with in the overall picture. You’re brilliant and brave. Will get something composed ASAP.. best regards…out-4-the nonce..

    • Thanks Tom. Don’t know if you’d enjoy Control Point, but if nothing else, you’d appreciate the military+magic blend. The author is military and knows what he’s talking about. As for the Grossman books, you might not get all the fantasy references, but they’re still worth your time. Start with The Magicians.

  4. Thank you. No mea culpas needed.

    There is quite a bit of food for thought in this post. I would not have wanted trigger warnings 25-plus years ago when I was a Lit major, nor can I imagine how something like that could have been implemented across the breadth of an English lit or history or art history program (I was once silly enough to think I was capable of triple majoring). What I do remember were the friends who were adamant that they would not see the movie Dangerous Liaisons with me. Let’s just say there had been a situation, and these friends were trying to act in my best interests. When I finally read the book, I was stunned and helped at the same time. Perhaps we were all melodramatic college students, but I did not have the perspective of my late 40s back then, nor did any of us. All these years later, The Magician King hit a similar spot for a very different situation and reason. I am not sure where I intended to go with this comment, but will remain anonymous out of certain kinds of fear despite the time that passed.

    • NoTrace: Right: how do you implement that across a liberal arts curriculum? Or performing arts or visual arts? At this stage in my thinking — and this is subject to change! — I feel like trigger warnings are a great idea in theory but impossible to implement objectively. And thank you for commenting here, and discussing a painful topic.

  5. I don’t think this is a totally fair analysis of trigger warnings. TV, movies, even the news use content warnings all the time and (MPAA craziness aside), are doing fine. HBO runs what are essentially vague trigger warnings before every show, and no one claims they’re censored or stigmatized. So why is this different?

    When the choice is between making PTSD-sufferers embark on research expeditions every time they want to check out a new piece of media, or having publishes simply add two sentences to the inside cover of a book to make them aware of the presence of some commonly triggering things, I don’t understand why anyone would be against the latter. Publishers pour millions of dollars into making their products more desirable to people, but for some reason the ~8% of Americans who suffer from PTSD at some point in their loves don’t count as consumers whose needs deserve to be met?

    I dunno if the anti-trigger warning fervor in the mainstream from people who are fine with movie/TV ratings but resistant to trigger warnings because of the specificity of trigger warnings, their feminist origins, or just plain ol being wary of new things, but what I do know is that the conversation about trigger warnings is filled with many distortions and bad faith arguments. Anyway, these two pieces analyze the whole thing a lot better than I can, so if you do want to start checking out stuff I highly recommend them. And thank you for opening the conversation on such a sensitive subject.

  6. CHRL: It probably isn’t a totally fair analysis — like I said, I’m trying to start with my own raw feelings. There’s a lot of research I haven’t done, though I did look at the two links you posted.

    I’m trying to pinpoint why the idea of trigger warnings on books bothers me, when I’ve never objected to warnings in other media. Maybe it’s just that I’ve had those my whole life and never thought about them.

    My thoughts are still in the formative stages, but here’s part of my problem: labels often exclude rather than include. They can be useful shorthand, but labels often drive away people rather than inviting them in. Here’s a much less contentious example: if you label the book The Time-Traveler’s Wife as Science Fiction, a lot of folks won’t bother with it, since they normally avoid SF. And that’s a shame, because many of them would like the book if they gave it a chance.

    Another problem: who creates the label? I’m uncomfortable with third parties assigning labels. (And you’re right, I have no such qualms about movies. I’m not being consistent.) What criteria are they using? What biases do they have? Is there an objective way to identify the book? And a section of queer lit in a feminist bookstore would be a different creature entirely from a section featuring exactly the same titles in a public library. In that context, it might come across as “here are the gay books, and we’ve ghettoized them into this little corner here so they don’t interfere with your regular browsing.”

    That’s not a made-up example, by the way. I’ve worked in libraries that have considered exactly that course of action.

    I don’t trust publishers to do it, that’s for sure. They mislabel books by genre all the time. Nor do I want to create an atmosphere where authors feel like they have to label their own works with warning signs.

    Possibly what I’m getting at is that regulation doesn’t seem like a good answer in this case. I think I’d be willing to go so far as agreeing with a warning label for rape, at least — except that people can’t even agree on what rape is. That Game of Thrones episode from a few weeks back, in which Jaime raped Cersei, was not unusually acknowledged as rape.

    Thanks for commenting.


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