Opinion Pieces

Trigger warning all the books: are we getting too sensitive?


Over the past few years I’ve seen debate over debate unfold about whether books that deal with particularly traumatic themes should be issued with a warning before students in schools and universities study these books. Many people have argued that putting trigger warnings on books could mean that students who just don’t want to do the set tasks for that book can get out of it. Others have argued that to put trigger warning labels on books is a kind of censorship: books with extreme content material might be banned from the syllabuses for being too emotional charged for students. So how do we find a happy medium? I’m not sure that the answer is simple.

Before my father died of cancer, if you told me that books about cancer studied in schools should come with a trigger warning, I would have told you: yes cancer is terrible, but you can’t put trigger warnings on all the books. And then my father was diagnosed with bowel cancer… His treatment, his struggle, compounded by complex family issues meant that the experience was traumatic beyond my comprehension of the word. I had nightmares that lasted for years after his death, the mention of the word cancer would send me into tears, and sometimes even now, his name gets stuck in my throat and I have to try so hard not to cry into my food… I didn’t think there was a lot of point putting warnings on books about trauma because I had just never really experienced it before. And this is just one story of trauma…

A few months after my father died, a friend invited me to watch a film. I went along not thinking too much about it… I didn’t check the movie synopsis and thought to myself: I’ll be surprised for once. The film was about a child dealing with the imminent death of their father… I cried in that cinema like I was trying to put out a fire. My friend didn’t mean to make me upset, and I don’t blame them at all… The problem was that I didn’t know. And this not knowing meant that when the c-bomb was dropped in the movie, it side swiped me. It ran me over with a truck and then reversed to check how flat I was.

If I could rewind those events to avoid a mascara/panda eyes moment I would… And I would also make sure that I was informed. In fact, I always check now if people recommend books or movies. For the most part, I’m okay, but there are times where I have to decline to watch/read something for now, because I’m just not in the right space to deal with the emotions and trauma that those books and films can create for me.

I can only speak from my experience with the trauma of cancer and losing my father, but I know people who have to deal with memories of sexual assault, violence, and war, and while their trauma is different, the raw emotions that the trauma comes with a very similar and real. In classes where subject matter is discussed, reviewed, and watched in groups, the idea of dealing with this trauma without any forewarning in front of peers (who mightn’t even know) is extremely daunting and down right horrifying. My suggestion is to always create a safe space for people to express concerns about books/films and their own personal trauma. The books don’t need to be banned, but if there is a student who is struggling with the content of the book/film due to a personal trauma, then they can just read another book… And in the case of discussions, the teacher can be understanding when a rape survivor doesn’t want to talk about the details of sexual assault in a book or film.

I used to think trigger warnings were pointless before I had anything to trigger.

What do you think about trigger warnings? Pointless, useful? Remember to share the reading love.

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2 thoughts on “Trigger warning all the books: are we getting too sensitive?

  1. I’m strongly in favour of trigger warnings or content notes or whatever you want to call them. Having the memories and emotions there of childhood sexual violence means that when sexual violence or violence against children or depending on how I’m going that day just violence in general come up, it really sucks for me. And when it’s unexpected it’s way worse (and on the opposite end, when I feel like engaging with these issues content notes help too by giving me more info going in).

    Not having these kinds of things in place meant that for all the years of law I did at uni, before every single semester I had to go to the lecturer and/or tutor and tell my whole damn story so they wouldn’t just suddenly describe de Tailed sexual violence in the middle of a class while I was trapped and couldn’t escape without causing a scene. And they didn’t always manage to get that right.

    Same goes for so many great fantasy books that throw in a rape scene to drive the plot with no warning.

    It’s unnecessary and it makes so many people’s lives harder than they need to be.

    Sorry – couldn’t resist a bit of a rant…

    • No rant at all. I think it’s extremely important to talk about ways to discuss sensitive content and the more people who share their stories, the better!

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