I recently read my first book with a content warning featured at the beginning. We Weren’t Looking to be Found by Stephanie Kuehn most definitely needed one; it was filled with some gnarly depictions. Another book I have been reading (forever) that has content warnings is Postcolonial Astrology by Alice Sparkly Kat. This book gives content warnings in both the introduction and right before the content comes up in the book. All these content warnings got me thinking: Do books need content warnings?
Trigger Warnings vs. Content Warnings
For the most part, the term “trigger warning” is used synonymously with “content warning.” I personally like to distinguish them. To me, the term “content warning” feels overarching and can refer to all potentially disturbing material. The term “trigger warning,” on the other hand, feels a little bit more specific in that such warnings refer to material that can potentially activate triggers in individuals with a history of trauma. Although arguably, anything can be a trigger for a traumatic experience, especially considering how pervasive historical and generational trauma are.
Throughout this post, I will not be using trigger warnings and content warnings synonymously.
Trigger warnings first came on the scene on feminist message boards in the late 1990s to warn readers about potentially disturbing material. Content warnings have been around a lot longer. I consider things like parental advisory labels and movie/TV show labels as content warnings, even though these are mostly meant to control potential “obscene” material.
Why are content warnings so controversial?
At some point, outspoken conservative “pundits” deemed trigger warnings unnecessary. Such folks didn’t believe psychological safety was essential, specifically in the classroom setting (though, in the very same breath, they want to limit things like Critical Race Theory to protect white children from guilt). According to them, children are already too soft (and fast becoming snowflakes), so to coddle them in this way would be a cop-out, preventing them from engaging in true discourse.
This objection assumes that students, and people in general, will just opt out of all material all the time if they feel a psychological threat from it. And this assumption leads to another assumption: that anyone can just use the warning to avoid doing the work in general (oh, the capitalist nightmare!).
But psychological safety is different from emotional discomfort. Psychological distress cuts off executive function (or decision-making capabilities) and can cause physiological effects, rendering the person unable to learn in that environment. Mitigating that psychological distress doesn’t coddle the learner; it protects them.
So, are content warnings necessary in books?
I have mixed feelings regarding content warnings. I wholeheartedly believe in trigger warnings. Triggers are triggers because of their unexpected nature, which can throw our sympathetic nervous system into overdrive; trigger warnings can help mitigate that.
I appreciate content warnings for material that discusses topics related to oppressed identities (e.g. racism, fatphobia, transphobia, etc.) because we live this shit every day (as oppressed people), and we should be able to choose if we want to engage in the material that day. HOWEVER, this content warning should be used genuinely and not performatively, which I think sometimes happens, especially in the social media world. If your audience is exclusively of the agent identity, you are using this label unnecessarily and performatively.
Book reviewers (good ones, at least) are really good at including content warnings in their reviews of books. If readers are weird like me and like to read reviews after they read the book, they may not be helpful. But I think it is important for authors and/or publishers to include trigger warnings in all cases and content warnings in some cases. There are ways to do this that won’t spoil the story or turn readers away from it.
Content warnings don’t take away from the author’s/artist’s ability to create content that allows readers to connect and reflect. We need to weave consent into every fiber of society, and content warnings are a means of consent. Giving readers the choice to engage in content on their own terms is a form of empowerment.