A few thoughts about trigger warnings

My colleagues over in NIWA are having a discussion about trigger warnings on our Facebook group tonight. I’ve added a little bit to that discussion at the level I thought appropriate, and would now like to come over here into my own space to go into a bit more detail about my stance on the idea in general.

I have seen a lot of sturm and drang about what trigger warnings actually are and what purpose they serve. There are a lot of folks out there who have negative opinions about them, but I don’t want to get into that; I already got into that in 2015, and do not need to do so again. The point of this post is to just talk about what I believe trigger warnings to be and what purpose I find them to serve.

There are two ways I can talk about this: as a reader, and as a writer.

As a reader, there are certain things that cause me to actually appreciate a thoughtfully worded trigger warning. For example, anything warning about sexual violence as a plot point. Due to my own history and that of more than one of my loved ones, the vast majority of the time, I’m really not going to want to engage with any story that involves sexual violence.

I would be overstating the matter to claim that such a story would trigger me; it probably wouldn’t, not in the way that I understand that word to be used when people talk about being triggered by things. But at the same time, I want to know before I actually start to engage with a story if there’s going to be rape involved or any other kind of sexual abuse–because if there are other aspects to that story that might counterbalance that and make me want to engage with it anyway, I want to be able to factor that in when I’m making my decision about whether to read or view that story.

Here’s a specific example. While I’m a big Marvel fangirl and have happily watched all the various Marvel movies, both seasons of Daredevil, and some of Luke Cage, I have specifically avoided watching Jessica Jones on the general grounds that I know that story’s about a woman dealing with having been sexually abused. And while I rationally understand that it’s a very powerful story and that in fact David Tennant by all reports does a brilliant job of portraying the bad guy, I also know that I would really not enjoy being a viewer of that story.

Again, it would be overstating the matter to say that it would actively trigger me, and I don’t want to disrespect the term by claiming it would. But I also will not dismiss my own less potent reactions. I know I wouldn’t want to engage with that specific story, so I won’t.

Also, let me emphasize that if I know a story has sexual violence in it beforehand, this doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not going to engage with that story at all. What it does mean is that I’ll probably go to greater lengths to find out whether it has other aspects to it that might counterbalance my distaste for that kind of plot and make me want to take that story in anyway. In the case of Jessica Jones, I read several reviews and recaps of episodes just to see whether the plot sounded like something I could deal with anyway, and to get a sense of what the fandom felt about the material over all.

With a book, I’d do much the same. If I’m looking up a book on Goodreads and I see a mention in the reviews on it that there’s sexual violence in the story, if there are other things about that book I may want to engage with anyway, I’ll take greater care before deciding whether I want to buy it. I might check it out from the library instead. And I’d go over the reviews for it in more detail, just to see what people have to say about it.

In short, a thoughtfully written trigger warning about sexual violence in a story is something I feel would let me make an informed decision about whether I want to deal with a particular story. And the key phrase here is “informed decision”.

I also don’t feel as though a trigger warning about some other thing (e.g., graphic non-sexual violence, e.g. a car crash, or whatever) would annoy me. The presence of a trigger warning on a story in general is not going to make me specifically not want to read it. It’d be a neutral piece of information for me, one that would not be immediately relevant to my own decision about whether to engage with a story. But I am totally fine with it being there for someone else to make that same informed decision.

Now let me talk about this as a writer.

To date, I haven’t written anything that I feel really warrants a trigger warning. As you might guess from the first part of this post, it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll ever write sexual violence into one of my plots. I’m not saying I never will, if a story presented itself that legitimately required it, but the bar for that story to clear would be very, very high. (In fact, as a younger writer, I actually tried working a rape plot into a draft of one of my earliest novels. It… did not work. And that’s a decision I do not feel I would make lightly now that I’m an older and more experienced writer.)

If I were to write something that would warrant it, though, I’d be thinking about how to present a trigger warning in a thoughtful way. I don’t feel like I’d make it hugely complicated or blatant–just a little note at the beginning of a story, to alert potential readers that “hey, this story has potentially sensitive items X, Y, and Z in it”. I also don’t feel like it’d be appropriate to go into too much detail, because spoilers are not a thing I want to throw out willy-nilly, but I could see myself inviting readers who do in fact need to know more to contact me directly.

Because really, at the end of the day, it’s all about that aforementioned informed decision. It might cost me a reader, who might say “well shit, I guess that story isn’t for me”. But on the other hand, it might also gain me a reader, who might say “oh dear, well, this one bit of the story sounds like it’ll be a problem, but I like these other bits so I want to read it anyway, and by the way, Anna, thank you for actually warning me in advance”.

‘Cause really, sticking a trigger warning on a story is going to cost me at most a few sentences worth of effort. Which, if you’re a writer writing a 100,000 word novel, really isn’t that much effort at all.

And if it happens to make a potential reader’s life a little easier, I certainly can’t see the harm in that.

Given the world we live in, I think we need all the little gestures of compassion we can get.

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  • Reply Stephanie A. Cain December 8, 2016 at 5:58 am

    I’m not opposed to trigger warnings, but I also have difficulty knowing what sorts of things would require a trigger warning, and what sort of expectations people should have going into a story. For instance, I write fantasy about pirates and assassins; I hope the reader will realize that the nature of their careers means there will be violence involved. Now, if I were writing about sexual violence (which I don’t think I ever will), or if the violence were particularly graphic, I could see giving a trigger warning. But to me, if you read the back of the book and see assassins are involved, you should probably realize there’s going to be some violence.

    Then that makes me wonder if reading the back of the book and seeing that a character is described as a survivor of sexual assault, do you assume there will be discussion of said assault? Or does that merit a separate trigger warning?

    I’m not asking these questions to be a jerk–I’m trying to get a good grasp of where the lines are. (With the acknowledgment that the line may be in a different place for two different readers.)

    It’s a complicated issue, and speaking as someone who’s never experienced any real kind of trauma, it’s hard to know what things might merit trigger warnings. Does that make sense?

    • Reply Angela Korra'ti December 8, 2016 at 7:31 am

      That question absolutely makes sense, and it’s not one I have easy answers for, myself.

      I agree that there are some levels of expectation that any reader of any given genre should have. If you’re a romance reader, you should be expecting a love story (and, based on what I see on the romance blogs I follow, a very high expectation that there should be a Happy Ever After or at least a Happy For Now). If you’re a mystery reader, you should be expecting a very high likelihood that somebody has in fact gotten killed, maybe even on camera, and that your protagonist is going to be solving the crime. Urban fantasy, ditto, only with paranormal elements (though of course not all urban fantasy is of the ‘supernatural detective’ vein). Horror, you should expect to have your socks scared off. Etc.

      For me, the best guess I can make is based on how I’ve listened to people over the years as they describe their life experiences and talk about what does actively trigger them. And then, if I happen to write a story that might incorporate one of those elements, decide whether I should offer some sort of warning about it.

      I think that would be something above and beyond the general expectations of a genre, though. I mean, I wrote an epic fantasy trilogy that involves an active rebellion and a magical entity that cuts a brutal swath through the countryside, so that’s going to come part and parcel with an expectation of on-camera violence. The Rebels books are, accordingly, more violent than my Free Court books. I had a conversation with one of my friends and readers along those lines–she personally has a strong distaste for violence of a certain degree in a story and was worried about whether she’d be able to read the Rebels books. But I didn’t slap a trigger warning for violence on those books. Just because yeah, just given the genre I’m writing in, some level of expectation is already there.

      But I did have that conversation with my friend, which I guess could count less as a trigger warning per se and more as a general content advisory.

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