The Importance of Content/Trigger Warnings in Books & Book Reviews (& More)

I apologize in advance for how long this post may end up being, but I think it’s an extremely important topic and one that has many facets and areas to discuss. I want to talk about trigger and content warnings in books & book reviews, but I also want to talk about them in general. How are they looked at or viewed by others? Why are they not being taken seriously enough? Why are they being left out of books that contain heavy content?

I also want to say that while I tried to include many important aspects of this topic, it’s of course possible that I missed some things. I know how important content & trigger warnings are to so many readers and I hope that if you have anything to add to on this subject, you’ll comment and add to the discussion!

Warning: As this post discusses TW & CW, I do briefly use examples of homophobic hate crimes, transphobic hate crimes, racial hate crimes, suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, domestic and sexual violence, abortion, and PTSD brought on from military service. None of these are dived into deeply but they are briefly mentioned. Please only continue reading if you feel that you are in a healthy place to. Always put yourself & your health first!

The Debate on Trigger Warnings: Unnecessary vs. Necessary

We’ve gotten to a kind of odd place in our society when it comes to trigger and content warnings. For the most part, it has become widely acknowledged why trigger warnings are needed, but there are still some people who find the idea of needing trigger warnings to be ludicrous. These tend to be the same people who think ‘safe spaces’ are a waste of… well, space. For whatever reason, these people find it completely enraging that other people in the world are trying to give people warnings before they dive into something. I don’t really know why anyone who doesn’t feel that they need a trigger warning would care so much about someone else needing one, but it’s where we are. Like I said, it’s odd.

But on the opposite side of that are the people who not only want to help others by including trigger warnings but who also appreciate TW for themselves as well. I scouted the internet to give you an idea of how the public defines trigger warnings, and came by two completely different definitions on Urban Dictionary, both of which highlight the two sides of the debate.

The first is from a person who clearly not only finds trigger warnings to be unnecessary, but also appears to have some deep hatred for them and the people who use them:

Trigger Warning 

A phrase posted at the beginning of various posts, articles, or blogs. Its purpose is to warn weak minded people who are easily offended that they might find what is being posted offensive in some way due to its content, causing them to overreact or otherwise start acting like a dipshit. Popular on reddit SRS or other places that social justice warriors like to hang out.

Trigger warnings are unnecessary 100% of the time due to the fact that people who are easily offended have no business randomly browsing the internet anyways. As a result of the phrases irrelevance, most opinions that start out with this phrase tend to be simplistic and dull since they were made by people ridiculous enough to think that the internet is supposed to cater to people who can’t take a joke.

Trigger Warning, posted by user ‘pottskiller’, Urban Dictionary

That’s… so completely wrong that I don’t even really know where to start. First and foremost, trigger warnings are not about avoiding ‘offense’. They are about warning people who suffer from PTSD about content that may induce PTSD symptoms due to trauma. There has never and will never be a time when I consider sexual assault jokes funny. They shouldn’t even exist as jokes, frankly. Additionally, trigger warnings are not unnecessary! Everyone has experienced trauma in their lives, and taking in content, whether it be a blog post, a book, a TV show, an article, etc., should not make those things worse! Let’s look at the actual definition from The Oxford English Dictionary:

Trigger Warning

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).

Trigger Warning, Oxford English Dictionary

The thing is, though, that the type of traumas that can trigger some are important topics that need to be discussed and brought to light, so it’s still important that there are books, articles, movies, etc. that show the truth of such issues. Since the content is going to exist, people need to know what they are getting into before they dive in. That way, people who are comfortable reading/watching/talking about these topics can, and those who aren’t can choose to opt out before it’s too late.

Here’s the other Urban Dictionary definition, this time written by someone who appears to favor the proper usage of trigger warnings:

Trigger Warning 

A warning before showing something that could cause a PTSD reaction. Commonly used as a joke, its meaning has unfortunately depreciated, drawing more stigma to mental illness.

Trigger Warning, posted by user Dogmom5678, Urban Dictionary

It’s important to remember that PTSD can stem from a multitude of things. Many who experience it are victims of domestic and sexual violence, homophobic and transphobic hate crimes, racial hate crimes, etc., but trauma can come from many more things as well. For example, many of the men and women who come back from time spent in the military experience extreme PTSD. Someone who is experiencing major depression and has suicidal ideations may feel their urges strengthen or grow more persistent after reading content heavily focused on depression and suicide. Someone who lived through a house fire or had a loved one perish in one may experience PTSD and find a book about arson or a pyromaniac character distressing (and I have personally read a book with a pyromaniac main character, so they do exist). Being involuntarily outed as queer and being estranged from your family because of it can cause PTSD and make some LGBTQ+ content unsettling.

All trauma is valid. Other people do not get to tell you that what you experienced or went through is not traumatic enough. Other people do not get to make your trauma smaller because someone else’s seems larger. If you experienced trauma and have PTSD symptoms, including but certainly not limited to: trauma induced anxiety, nightmares, or insomnia, then it matters. You don’t owe other people an explanation for why something makes you uncomfortable. You don’t have to watch movies or read books that put you in a bad mental space and it is not ridiculous to want to know whether content will be distressing to you beforehand. 

Trigger Warnings in Books & Book Reviews

Now, the book community is an extremely supportive, diverse, and inclusive place. I am sometimes overwhelmed by how loving and welcoming the people are whom I’ve met through a shared love of books. Many seem to agree that trigger and content warnings are an important part of what books they choose to read.

Someone who is already handling a bad depressive episode may not be up for a book with mental health rep. Someone who is struggling with an abusive home situation may struggle to read a book with similar abuse. This all sounds pretty self explanatory, but the issue there is that without a content warning, they may not know that these books are going to have trauma related content.

I think that the publishing business has been too easily ignoring this issue. There are a ton of books that have seemingly fluffy, easy story lines. However, even the most casual books can end up including something heavy and triggering. Books that are already advertised as having heavy content are much easier to avoid, but there are many stories I’ve personally come across that I expected to be light but have ended up having unforeseen dark content that I was not prepared for. For example, the topic of abortion pops up a lot in YA novels with sexually active characters. In many of these books, it’s an unexpected topic that the reader wouldn’t have foreseen just from the book blurb. It’s not a triggering topic for me but can most certainly be one for many other readers.

I personally have experienced few triggers from reading books, but that is mostly because I try to avoid content that may negatively impact me. Before I ever start reading a book, I look up the reviews on it. I know that may sound odd to some, but I really like to be aware of what I’m getting into before I decide whether or not I’m going to start it. Trigger and content warnings are one of the first things I always look for. Some reviewers include them and some don’t, so it can take a while for me to find them for each read, but it’s an important part of choosing what to read next for me. However, there have been a couple of books that have caught me entirely off guard with heavy content that I was not expecting and put me in a less than healthy state of mind. I can only imagine how many books have done the same to others.

Because so many publishers are unwilling to include content & trigger warnings in their books, the responsibility has heavily fallen onto the shoulders’ of reviewers. Some reviewers may not intentionally be leaving out CW & TW; they may not have even considered the necessity for them. I myself have been guilty in the past of leaving out seemingly small triggers from generally light or fluffy books. I’ve always tried to bring attention to TW & CW when they are blatant and could be disturbing or upsetting to other readers, but the truth is, I’ve realized that I need to make more of an effort in this area because, as I stated earlier, no person’s trauma is smaller or less important than another’s.

By stating TW & CW in your reviews, you’re giving other people a chance to decide if they are ready for that read. If you’ve ever been caught off guard by heavy or disturbing content in a book, then you know how important it is to have the knowledge of what to expect upfront. I know that there are people who argue that some plots and twists can be ruined by CW, but I’ve personally never felt like a story was ruined for me just because I knew about some of the more heavy content beforehand.

We are a society hugely impacted by mental illnesses. The importance of mental health continues to be stigmatized and made into a joke, but it’s not one. As someone who has been diagnosed with PTSD and PTSD related anxiety, I can honestly say that trigger warnings have saved me from multiple reads that could have been very hard for me. If you’re a person who doesn’t find trigger & content warnings to be necessary, I hope that you try to look it at from a different perspective. It is not about avoiding ‘offending the weak minded’. I’d actually like to contradict that greatly by saying that someone who is avidly trying to avoid their triggers and stay in a healthy state of mind is actually quite strong minded. Trust me, it can be a  hard thing to do. Additionally, it’s far less about being offensive than it is about being intentionally hurtful, negative, or harmful.

There is truly no reason to not include content & trigger warnings. I’m unsure of why anyone finds TW & CW so offensive or arbitrary,  but I am glad to be a part of a community that is so willing to put forth the effort to fix this issue that so many publishers continue to ignore. Thanks to so many book reviewers, fellow readers and book lovers have been able to know what books to avoid and which are safe. I’ve benefited from this and I know that many of you have as well. As more (important) books continue to be published that broach heavy topics and start vital discussions that we need to have, I hope that this community continues to include content and trigger warnings in their reviews.

Just because you’re ready for a discussion does not mean that someone else is! 

 

 

 

37 thoughts on “The Importance of Content/Trigger Warnings in Books & Book Reviews (& More)

  1. Just because you’re ready for a discussion does not mean that someone else is!

    THAT PART. THAT PART OMG. Thank you so much for writing this and scouring the internet for some definitions. I’m so irritated at the first one that you found because that was such an asshole response?! Like geez.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I felt like that was the best way to wrap it all up, because it’s really the whole point behind trigger & content warnings! Other people should not have to be a part of conversations that they are not yet ready for! Or if they’re never ready for it, that’s fine too! And I honestly found the first definition from Urban Dictionary to be amusingly ironic because the poster was going on about how offended “social justice warriors” get yet he or she took the time to write multiple paragraphs about how much trigger warnings bother them 😂 Like, who is REALLY offended buddy!? Lmao.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like trigger warnings too as some days I am not strong. Then I start unraveling. Worst are the nightmares and then lack of sleep affects health and I go into a vicious cycle.
    I too agree that more publishers should have trigger and content warnings.
    Great post

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shalini,
      I am so sorry that you experience those things! I struggle with insomnia & nightmares as well, so I understand completely. It can be really daunting to experience and if I’m up for reading during those times, I prefer something light and happy, or at least not something that will make it worse. I hope that more and more publishers will start to recognize the need for trigger warnings and start including them in the front of books. I know many readers would really appreciate and benefit from it! Thank you dear!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re welcome! I think writing about those topics can be very therapeutic (I’ve written about my about my history with both as well) and it can be really helpful to put the words, thoughts, and feelings down on paper. I think it’s very courageous to share your writing on such hard topics and I’m glad that you are comfortable doing so! I struggle with sharing my own writing but when I have, I always precede with some serious trigger warnings since I know how dark and heavy it can be. It’s therapeutic for me to write it down but could be triggering and harmful for someone to read it if they are not in the right place for it. I’m really glad you came across this and have been really thinking about it in regards to your own writing!! Thank you for sharing my post! I’m happy that it is reaching your audiences as well so that more and more people can consider working trigger warnings into their content!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. When we published We Will Not Be Silenced, the content of the Anthology was quite clear from the subtitle: The Lived Experience of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Told Powerfully Through Poetry, Prose, Essay, and Art. In publishing my personal collections, Composition of a Woman and The Myths of Girlhood I relied on my reputation as a writer and the review excerpts on the back cover as my ‘warnings’ which may not have been explicit enough for more sensitive readers

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I think that books explicitly titled or advertised as containing heavy content are much easier to gauge for readers! The subtitle of We Will Not Be Silenced is truly a trigger warning all on its own as it highlights that the content inside surrounds sexual harassment and assault! Readers newly discovering your personal work and collection may certainly benefit from an additional warning in the beginning; it could even be included in an author’s note or letter to the reader! Those who are already familiar with your work and reputation, however, will definitely know what to expect and be aware of the type of content you may include and write about!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Brittany, I have no idea why this post didn’t show up in my reader! Good thing I didn’t miss it because it was AMAZING. you hit the nail on the head with this topic! Personally, I haven’t been triggered a lot too, but I know that so many people could potentially be, and I try to include CWs in my reviews as much as possible. Sometimes I wonder if they’re even useful to anyone, but reading this post showed my exactly why.

    I hadn’t know that trigger warnings were defined like that in Urban Dictionary?? That is just wrong on so many levels. Trigger warnings will never be about who gets offended and who’s not. I think part of the reason why trigger warnings still have a bad reputation is because they are seen as spoilers. Actually, it’s not. That’s like letting someone be shot just because if you told them that they’d be shot, you’d spoil them. Like, no, this isn’t a mild spoiler–it’s a life or death situation, or at least a situation that could bring real harm to a person.

    You explained that in this discussion beautifully, and I can’t wait to share this post to everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I noticed that the post didn’t show on my reader either; that happens to my posts occasionally when I’ve been working on the draft for a while? I’m not sure why but it’s very frustrating lol. I’m so glad you didn’t miss it though! I’ve thought the same things in the past about trigger warnings- were they even helping anyone? But I realized through my own experiences with checking for trigger warnings that if they helped me avoid triggering books then they likely help some others, too!

      The Urban Dictionary definitions were really interesting to me. I was originally only going to include the definition from The Oxford Dictionary, since that’s the official one, but I wanted to highlight how the public looks at them, too. I’ve seen so many people refer to trigger warnings as unnecessary and for the easily offended and it’s really showed me that most people don’t seem to understand what trigger warnings are actually meant to do!? It’s crazy to me that people get so upset or bothered by people who want a warning about the content they are about to take in. I don’t understand how it is even construed as a bad thing???

      I’m so glad you liked this post Caitlin!! Thank you so much for sharing it ♥

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very good point. I’m listening to “A Very Large Expanse Of Sea” by Tahereh Mafi. While I’m ready to hear the crimeful hate phobias in this book, others may not. This one would be hard to discuss in a book club.
    Nice job of tackling this topic. Next job for you should be a journalist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That book is a PERFECT example! I’m so glad you brought it up. The book is great and important and brings up vital conversations that need to be had, but not everyone is ready for those topics. Some people may never be, and that’s perfectly OK. It would definitely be a hard book for book clubs or group reads. Everyone would need to be aware of the content/trigger warnings beforehand because of how heavy it can be at times.
      Thank you so much! I wanted to be a journalist when I was younger and would love to do it now, too! I enjoy writing about these types of things and bringing attention or awareness to overlooked areas.

      Like

  5. A couple reviewers have left trigger warnings in their review of my book, and I definitely thought that was fair. It’s a gritty story, and I could see how some readers might want to know ahead of time what they’re getting into.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I checked out your book on Goodreads and noted the trigger warnings from a couple of reviewers and think you’re right! Your book blurb already gives readers the idea that they are going into a more gritty story, which is good, but the noted CW/TW for the sexual scenes gives someone looking to read the book a fair warning of what else is in the book!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This is such an important post, Brittany! I think a big reason that people almost… mock? trigger warnings is because of the way media spun it when it first started being discussed. I remember a lot of shaming going on when it was a discussion in higher ed.

    The thing that gets me is we have MPAA ratings and the television equivalent, which call out sexual content, violence, etc. Those do the same thing? At the bare minimum can we at least have something like that for books?

    But honestly, I’ve been horrified by content I wasn’t expecting in a book; topics I would actively avoid if I had the ability to do so. Honestly, if an author has trigger warnings on their website, I am 150% more likely to want to boost and possibly read their book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Kal! think you’re definitely right about the media’s influence in this case! It’s so wild to me that it’s even a topic that people feel like is worthy of shaming or bashing… I don’t get it?? I always go to that same thought about the ratings & warnings in movies and TV shows, too, because no one EVER mocks those? Yet when someone says they want a warning before reading something, it’s all of a sudden something that makes them “weak minded” somehow. It will truly never make sense to me. I hate that you have been horrified by some content that you’ve come across in books! It should be common practice for authors and publishers to clearly state trigger warnings. I’m slowly seeing it more and more, so maybe one day soon it will be!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. To be fair, I remember quite the uproar when tv shows were making the change to include ratings (and the same with MPAA for movies!). But the thing is, it’s normal now.

        People underestimate our ability to adapt and get over things. It won’t hurt anyone, but it can help a lot of people.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I think trigger warnings are important and should not be ignored. There’re are people who might get affected by any sexual content, assault, and so many other things.

    I personally feel horrified by the crimes against children and such books leave a lasting mark on me.

    Like

  8. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I truly don’t understand the deep hatred of trigger/content warnings by some. They’re only there to help those in need of them. If you don’t need them or they don’t apply to you, just ignore them and keep it moving!

    Liked by 1 person

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