Trigger Warnings/Content Warnings in Books

Woo, revisiting the topic, especially now that I have a book out, and more coming out, that will feature trigger warnings.

I already wrote about this but I don’t mind writing again about it. It’s a good topic.

Since I’m an indie publisher/writer, I designed my own content warning page.

I try to keep it short and sweet

I have this in here because I have two trauma disorders – in other words, I’m part of the very population these warnings serve. I personally don’t see them any different than if my box of candy says it contains nuts. I personally don’t have a nut allergy but I do know people who do. I’m not going to demand Reese Pieces take the warning off just because I personally don’t need it and “people should know there’s peanuts in there”. It also doesn’t bug me when a movie is ranked either PG or R. (I do know there are some issues with the rating system but I personally see it as it comes from the people doing the rating – not the rating system itself. Being told that there’s drugs and violence isn’t problematic. Being told “this movie should be rated R because two queer teenagers are just having a plain relationship, no sex whatsoever but that movie where there’s hetero sexual violence should be rated PG-13 because ‘it’s for laughs’” is a big problem.) A rating system, to me, doesn’t subtract from the product itself. Just help people make informed choices.

As I’ve said prior, I feel like my content warning page allows me to be as graphic and holy-sh*t-what-the-f*ck as I want to be in my works. Hey, I warned you. My works get dark and bloody, I know it. I don’t need that to be a gut-punch surprise for anyone who sincerely doesn’t need it. If someone doesn’t want to read my “What is wrong with you?” books, they at least know in advance and could make a choice that they did or didn’t want to see that. Which I’m 100% okay with.

I have found some pretty decent sites about trigger warnings. I try to err on the side of “keep it short and simple” so not to overwhelm people. I don’t say “[method of death] happens”. I try to lump in the general themes that would help, such as “Severe Blood/Violence”. Two or three words, simple. “Reference to Sexual Violence” or “Brief reference to sexual violence”. “Brief mention of racism”. Something short, sweet and descriptive. I know I may not cover everything but as someone who has two trauma disorders stacked on top of each other, I think I have a good idea how to cover the major ones. Triggers can be very varied but the usual ones are around sex, death, violence and vices (drugs, alcohol, etc). Cover those and you’re fairly golden.

I have zipped through books, barely reading them, just so I can “early trigger” (really bad idea, don’t do it. It’s like testing the hardness of a wall by slamming your face against it. Repeatedly.) and figure out if I need to quickly return the book before I’m stuck with it. That janks up an author’s royalty sheet, as well as my day. I have ducked getting books because I have to worry if my trigger is going to pop up and in full, decorated force. I can handle sex, I can handle violence, I can even handle sexual violence but I have triggers that I have to be cautious looking out for. I rather a nice, hopefully short list (they can be made short, it’s a trigger list, not the DSM-V itself) that I can look over and go, “Oh, it has that. I’ll skip” or “today is not a good day for me to be consuming this, I’ll do it tomorrow or when my head stops making Serj Tankian noises.”

Storygraph allows people – including the author – to add content warnings. I personally have contacted Storygraph about Dreamer, which has content warnings, so that the book’s content warnings are correctly depicted. Due to that, it says “From the author”. If someone adds something that isn’t there, (such as “animal death”, that never happens in Dreamer once), I can contact Storygraph and get that sorted and have it taken off.

The sample version of every book I have made so far shows the content warning page if there is one. I rather let people know what they’re about to get into. I guess it’s so if they fuss about it later, I can reply, “Yeap, I warned you at the front of the book.” I’m not going to remove any facet of what I write because someone might have a problem with it. It’s literature, there’s going to be a lot of problematic things – But! That’s also part of why I rather have a content warning at the front. Will there be books that I may slap a Content Warning on that I personally may think is a bit much? Yeah, I don’t think an upcoming fantasy book, Butterfly, should have a content warning because, in comparison to my other books, just about nothing awful happens. Note: In comparison to. I’m a horror writer, if no one is being actively murdered or mangled, it’s a love song, so to speak. Jury is still out on that, the character simply cuts her arm but there’s a lot of blood (but a reasonable amount for someone who cuts their arm).

If there isn’t a lot of the thing occurring, such as violence, blood, etc, then, yeah I will forgo the content warning. Someone bopping their head on the bottom of the shelf is not the same as someone getting a “.45 Surprise”. A character getting a paper cut is not going to warrant a “blood” content warning from me. However, even if it is a droplet of a vice, that should be included. Blood is natural and fine, even a kid can scrape their knee. The vices are not, to me. If someone is doing drugs, say so. If someone is getting murdered, say so.

I think I also might have a better understanding about triggers and what is “overboard” and what isn’t because I’m part of actual trauma communities. As in, we talk. Yes, someone might want a content warning over someone cutting their finger or bopping their head on a low shelf but in general, the trauma community tends to want the basics covered, bare minimum. It’s understood knowledge that triggers can vary person to person. For example, one person I met, their trigger were eggs because they were forced to make eggs for the person who viciously harmed them so their brain now associates “eggs” as an “avoid at all cost”. But they, like lots in the trauma community, don’t expect that you’ll point out eggs, since that’s pretty intricate. But they would love it if you pointed out sexual violence, which is where their egg trigger came from … and is not intricate.

People in the trauma community generally knows what they can and can’t take, on average (loose average but an average all the same). All we ask is for other people to do is, at minimum, do the bare minimum. If someone is going to be extremely harmed in the book, a reasonable person can see that and note that. If a person is going to experience massive prejudice in the book, a reasonable person can see that and note that. Few in the trauma community are going to expect a trauma warning like “the word ‘pink’ will be used” just because it’s some random’s person trigger, but the birthplace of the trauma is moreso expected, such as “family abuse, non-physical”.

As I said in the previous post I talked about content warning, I look at sordid stuff, such as mass shootings. I’m a bit used to seeing pictures and videos of people being actively murdered … but I’m pretty sure most people would want me to frontload that that is what they’re about to see before I share it with them. That’s what a “content warning” is. A warning about the content. Just because I can stomach it doesn’t mean others can. But also, there’s the difference between showing mass shooting footage and footage of someone surprising a group of people with a water gun bazooka and everyone laughing about it. Massive difference.

That’s why I know, for my works, what is likeliest to work for my works. I’m most likely going to miss something but that’s why I try to at least ping on the basics/expected. A person with trauma disorders is going to know that something is going to “happen in the universe of” of whatever is their trauma. For example, if you warn that there’s going to be severe blood and violence, they’re fairly certain that if death happens in the book, it wasn’t exactly outside of the realm of likelihood. It’s a temperature grade, in a way. At least knowing that ahead of time helps people better gauge if they want to experience the book.

I think part of the fuss is that people who don’t live with trauma disorders don’t exactly know where the “stopping point” is for what to include in a content warning … and don’t bother to ask the trauma disorder community or look it up because “too hard/too complicated”. It’s not that tough, just make a general call on general topics. Folks in the trauma community are keen on pointing out “Hey, there’s blood in here, like … a lot, a lot. If you’re sensitive to blood, don’t watch it” or “oh, there’s not a lot of blood, someone cuts their finger and that’s it”. That’s why I include “severe/minor/etc” if I feel it is needed. That way folks can better gauge what happens in the work.

In other words, content warnings are for broader topics to help affected readers know what they’re getting into. It won’t harm the story, at all.

Now, there’s a difference between “being wary of triggers” and “coddling”. A White person doesn’t want to read a work about racism? Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww, that’s too bad … if only that hesitance stopped the average White person from engaging in such behavior. I would personally love being around people with a trauma-level avoidance of wanting to harm my life in any way, shape, or form as a Black person. Ditto with anything that includes a historically marginalized experience. A trans-person not wanting to read a book about transphobia will not have the same reasons as a cis-person who does not want to read a book about transphobia. The trans-person has most likely been traumatized by actual transphobia, the cis-person is just a coddled wimp that doesn’t want to think, they just want to go “ewwwwww, I don’t want to learn about what trans-people go through, I just want to be babied into thinking I’m a good person without ever examining my own biases.” If you have privilege in the subject that’s being warned about (racism, sexism, transphobia, queerphobia, etc), then, no, it isn’t a trigger topic – you’re just a whiner. “Trigger” means “subject that an affected – and traumatized – person would avoid at all costs”, not “subject that a person engages in but hates being told they’re engaging in it – especially by the affected person”.

In other words: if you have privilege as it pertains to the book’s subject (White privilege, cis privilege, male privilege, etc), then grow a spine. If avoiding the subject doesn’t stop you from engaging in those genuinely harmful behaviors (read: don’t want to read about racism because “ewwy topic” but you have zero qualms in engaging in racist behaviors, big or miniscule – except when told that’s how you’re acting, be it nice or mean) then it isn’t a trauma/trigger for you, end of story. You’re just a coddled jerk.

Even in the trauma community I’ve learned to spell out “if you have privilege in that life area, then you’re not triggered/traumatized by instances of oppression in that life area.” For example, I’m a cis person. There is literally zero way I could be triggered by transphobia. I’m not a trans-person, people who harm and harass trans people are going to leave me alone because I’m cis. I don’t always like looking at violent media so, no, I do not want to watch a trans-person be beaten to death. But! Remember what I said above, I don’t mind looking at mass shootings. That means, for me, violence is not a trigger. And even if it were, it’s violence that is a trigger, not transphobia. So, me sitting through media where a trans-person is harmed is not going to be the same experience as a trans-person sitting through media where a trans-person is harmed. I’m not watching myself, so to speak, on the page or on the screen be brutalized, they – the trans-person – are.

The worst that will happen to me is I’ll walk away with a “wow, that really sucks what happened to that trans-person by the hands of that transphobic person – wait … do I act in any way like the transphobic person? Ugh, if so, I need to try to not act like that. That person was super horrid.” The trans-person, on the other hand, may be reminded of a personal encounter that was very similar or the media they saw was just another terrible blare of “No one likes you for literally existing, trans-person” that media likes to do … as if trans-people don’t deserve positive representation or something (they do) – a trauma event, basically.

If I was informing a trans-person about said media, I would say “hey, there looks like there’s some transphobia, just to let you know.” To a cis-person, I would probably say literally nothing at all about transphobia, except for maybe “It looks like transphobic trash but you should be fine” – because the cis-person will be fine. Nothing wrong with tipping off a person with privilege in that life arena “this is what prejudice actually looks like” but that’s not the same as “I don’t want to psychologically harm you in the mode of entertainment”.

Triggers are different for different people. When used well, they’re super helpful to those who need it. The traumatized have a tendency to know what they can and can’t take, on a general scale. It isn’t going to make the book dull or anything like that.

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