Musings and Ramblings on Trigger Warnings

Just when you think people are finally starting to accept that trigger warnings are necessary, somebody has to come and ruin it. On Friday, those of us in the book community that take trigger warnings seriously had to speak up when Erika L. Sanchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, began to say some very hurtful and problematic things regarding this subject.

I have long been a proponent of trigger warnings, and it confuses me when I’m reminded that there are those out there who don’t agree. During this post, I’ll be breaking down Sanchez’s statement and going over each individual sentence. My hope is that people who are still against trigger warnings or on the fence about them will understand why they are needed, people who use them to stay safe will know they aren’t alone, and when this conversation comes up again (because unfortunately, we all know it will) that this post can be used to educate others.

Please note – because this is a post on trigger warnings, there may be content included that will be harmful to you. If you choose to continue reading, please proceed with caution and take care of yourself and your mental health.

“I don’t believe in trigger warnings for books [because] literature is almost always triggering.”

She is right about one thing, literature really is almost always triggering. Somebody could read a book and not bat an eye at any of the content while their neighbor, reading the exact same story, heavily struggles with a part of the content. Triggers are deeply personal, and while it will never be possible to know every single thing that will potentially hurt every single person, there are common themes that affect a lot of people. Some of the more common triggers include:

  • suicide
  • self-harm
  • sexual assault
  • abuse
  • violence

These aren’t things that you can just choose not to believe in. Realistically, every book probably contains subject matter of some sort that will cause distress to at least one reader.

And before we get too far, let me clarify – when somebody is triggered it doesn’t simply mean they are upset or uncomfortable; instead, triggers actually trigger feelings of trauma. They can cause you to relive memories emotionally, lead you to self-harm, cause suicidal thoughts or addiction relapse, and more.

You wouldn’t take your struggling alcoholic friend to hang out at the bar, would you? No, because it wouldn’t be safe for them. If trigger warnings were available at the beginning of books, readers would be able to better choose what is safe for them to read.

“That’s part of it’s job, in my opinion.”

Sure, we’re all entitled to our opinions, but this one is wrong. Books are not created to trigger people. Let me say it again, just in case the people in the back didn’t hear me. Books are not created to trigger people. Got it? Good.

There are a lot of books out there that deal with some very serious issues that were written with the intent to make the reader uncomfortable in hopes that it would incite change. But again, this is not what a trigger is. Books that make us uncomfortable are at times necessary, but if an author ever writes a book with the specific intent of triggering their readers then they need to be called out and kicked out of the publishing world. Intentionally triggering somebody is one of the worst things you could ever do to a person, and I guarantee you that is not what books are for.

“When we decide to read a book, I feel like we’re entering this agreement.”

No agreement is made by somebody deciding to pick a book up. If a reader encounters triggering content in a book, they have every right to choose not to finish the story. Authors not being willing to inform their readers of possible harmful content show that they don’t actually care about those reading their words. Books have the ability to impact people in big ways, and because of this, writers should care about their readers. Writers should especially care when they are writing for children and young adults. These age groups are even more susceptible to being harmed by triggering content, and authors have some responsibility to protect them.

“Also, as I’ve said before, the world we live in is one giant-ass trigger.”

In a way, yes, the world is a giant trigger, but as we go through life, we learn what’s harmful to us. Somebody that struggles with alcohol is going to know that it probably isn’t a good idea to attend a frat party. Somebody that struggles with self-harm has probably figured out what situations give them the urge to hurt themselves and will try to stay away. Somebody that’s been abused is probably going to try everything they can to avoid their abuser.

When a reader who deals with PTSD picks up a book expecting a meet-cute they aren’t prepared or necessarily expecting to read something that will cause them to experience a PTSD episode. The only way they have of knowing that this content is included in the book is if it’s mentioned in the synopsis, trigger warnings are included at the beginning, or they happen to see another reader mention the potentially harmful subject matter.

As an author, what can you do?

First, understand the importance of trigger warnings and understand that as the writer of the story they aren’t for you but for your readers. The next time somebody speaks out against trigger warnings, let your readers know that you stand with them. Then, work to make trigger warnings a more universal practice.

Second, realize that trigger warnings are not spoilers. If you are under the impression that letting readers know ahead of time that, for example, sexual assault will come up is going to spoil the story, then you’re doing something wrong. Your audience’s trauma should not be used as a plot device with the intent of creating a shocking twist.

Third, if your book is already out, that’s okay. It would be so easy and such a service to your readers if you added trigger and content warnings to an easily accessible area of your website. You can even hire somebody to do this for you. For future books, mention to your publishing team that it’s important for trigger warnings to be included at the beginning of the book. Utilize beta readers from all types of backgrounds to help you know what content in your story is potentially triggering.

But, authors, here’s what you don’t do. Never make a reader feel bad for being unable to read your book due to content that is harmful to them. Also, don’t expect bloggers to do all of this work for you. Yes, we should be looking out for triggering content and mentioning it in our reviews (I talk more about it down below), but this responsibility does not fall only on our shoulders. You owe this to your readers and I promise they will appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.

As bloggers, what can we do?

Every time we read a book we should be looking out for possible triggers. These warnings should then be included in our review of the book. When recommending books to readers, we also have a responsibility to do what we can to protect their safety. Like I said earlier, it’s impossible to know exactly what content will trigger a certain reader, but utilize the list up above and look for the major things. You can also be making note of any parts that are triggers for you specifically because I guarantee you aren’t the only one that struggles with it. Thankfully, it looks like a lot of us do this already, but there is always room for improvement.

If you see another blogger include trigger warnings in any of their posts then thank them! Sometimes there are things I do that, due to a lack of response, feel insignificant. Any time this happens I tend to stop doing whatever the thing was. If it isn’t being appreciated or making a difference, then why continue? We can’t let this happen with trigger warnings. Make sure those that are including them realize their work to keep others safe is being seen.

It’s especially important that any time you see authors informing their readers of trigger warnings that we thank them as well. If we want the sharing of these warnings to be normalized, then we have to let the authors who are listening to us and working to be better know that we are noticing. Hopefully some day this will all be such a common practice that nobody will think twice about it, but until it is we need to make our appreciation known.

To my readers, please know that I try my best to make my blog a safe space for all of you. I include trigger warnings in my reviews when possible. If I ever miss one or do anything else that makes you uncomfortable, please tell me. My blog comments are always available, my DMs on Twitter are open, or if you prefer anonymity you can utilize my contact form and put anonymous in the name section. I vow to always take your opinions seriously and do what I can to fix anything that has caused you harm.

Want to learn more?

I believe in boosting the voices of other bloggers, especially when it comes to important topics such as this. We are all going to have different, but still valid, feelings on why trigger warnings are important and how we can work to provide the safest environments possible. If you are interested in continuing to learn about trigger warnings, the below resources are a great place to start.

Do you have any suggestions for how we can further the conversation on trigger warnings? What are you actively doing to keep your readers safe? Let me know in the comments and let’s chat!

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14 thoughts on “Musings and Ramblings on Trigger Warnings”

  1. Love this post and honestly find what that author said to very frustrating to say the least. As someone with PTSD, I appreciate getting a heads-up for what I’m about to walk into and it’s such a simple request. It honestly blows my mind that people would still begrudge others this when it could save a lot of heart attack. Also, thank you for mentioning that it is not a spoiler, if it is then you are probably using something pretty problematic as your twist.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I mostly review horror books and I haven’t included trigger warnings but I think I will consider adding them from now on.

    Like

  3. CW: i’m describing being triggered by a book…

    When I read More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera I didn’t know about any of the triggering material. Even after years of hearing about it I hadn’t come accross anyone mentioning just how bad the homophobia was or how self-harm and suicide were such big parts of the plot. The original cover is based on scars so how the fuck did no onw ever mention it. This one pisses me off because I was expecting a nice coming of age story but I ended up being triggered, big time. If I had known about what I was getting into I could have prepared myself and waited for a school break before reading it.

    Instead I had a breakdown where I was ugly crying and I felt like ants were stuck in my arms and the only way to get them out would be to take a burning shower and take a skin gratter to my skin.

    Sure, real life can affect me like that too, but it’s something I like to avoid. Nothing good comes out of it. Sure, the world is ”one giant ass trigger”, but going though my day I can except not to come accross explicit images of self-injury.

    On top of it being a shitty experience, being triggered while reading makes it almost impossible to interact with the book on any other level. Did the book make me think? Nah, man, I was too busy trying to keep myself out of the hospital to analyze it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this with me and I am so sorry that you were triggered by More Happy Than Not. I hate that so much. People just don’t understand how much reading certain things really can affect people like in your circumstance.

      I completely understand what you went through though.

      TW: being triggered and self-harm

      A version of the same thing happened to me too when I read Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louse Gornall. It’s an excellent book, and I knew the main character had OCD and other mental health issues, but I was not expecting her to self-harm. I used to cut myself, and normally reading about it doesn’t bother me, but for some reason the night I read this book it did. Thankfully I had somebody to talk to and I stayed safe, but if I hadn’t there’s no telling what would have happened.

      Trigger warnings really are so important. I definitely think we’re moving in the right direction and they’re becoming more widely used, but we still have a long way to go.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I want a warning as there are tropes I do not enjoy reading and don’t want to be subjected to, I don’t want those images in my head

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  5. I agree that trigger warnings can be helpful, and I don’t agree with Ms. Sanchez’s dismissal of them. That said, it can be very difficult to offer trigger warnings without them turning into spoilers for readers who neither need or want them. Since there are some topics that I personally find disturbing (though they are not “triggering” in the sense of bringing up a specific past trauma for me, they can trigger or exacerbate my anxiety), I appreciate a heads-up. But then, I’m also known to read the ending of a book before committing to the book—not always, but in certain cases.

    I recently had to come up with a solution to this for a book I was reviewing. I discussed the fact that I found certain things in the main character’s past disturbing, without clarifying what they were. After the the review, I offered a trigger warning, but put the actual content (the specific potential triggers) in a hidden spoiler box. Readers who don’t want spoilers don’t have to click the box. People who need to know can click the icon and the trigger warnings will appear. It’s the first time I’ve used this device, and the post will go live tomorrow (Monday, Apr. 15.)

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    1. Trigger warnings are not spoilers. A reader’s trauma should not be used as a plot device with the intent of creating a shocking twist. Trigger warnings are also so easy to ignore if you don’t need them though. If there isn’t any content you need to watch out for in order to protect yourself, you are under no obligation to read the trigger warnings. Just skip that part, move on, and realize that they aren’t there for you but for somebody else that needs them.

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  6. I think trigger warnings are absolutely necessary. My grandmother has dementia and I picked up a YA book under the premise of being a fun romantic comedy. A large part of the book focused on the dementia and eventual death of one of the grandparents. For someone like me, who is still working at dealing with my grandmother’s illness, that was a trigger. Had I known a large chunk of the book contained this, I would definitely have steered clear of it.

    Great post! Thanks so much for sharing this 🙂

    Like

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