I’ve seen and read a lot of stuff in my life that was shocking. From the mild things that made me feel a bit queasy, to the more extreme stuff that has given me the shakes or prevented me from sleeping. However, I’m lucky enough that I don’t have PTSD, or any other significant issues that would cause me to be seriously affected by this. The worst I get is anxiety, and that’s more related to my to-do list than my reading habits.
So. Lucky me.
If you’d asked me five years ago whether we should print trigger warnings on books, films, and other media, in order to warn people who could be seriously adversely affected, I’d probably have accused you of trying to sneak in some censorship. What’s more, as a sex writer I’d have told you that my sexual fantasies are sometimes dark, and that you should take that as read when you read this blog.
Surprise! I was wrong.
Trigger warnings and sex blogging
Every now and then the debate about trigger warnings pops up within the sex blogging community, and the idea is incredibly divisive. I can kind of understand why, given my aforementioned scoffing at trigger warnings, so I wanted to have a go at tackling some of the arguments and explaining why I changed my mind. If you’re seriously against trigger warnings, you may already have heard some of these excellent counter arguments about nut allergies, movie ratings, and that kind of thing, but for what it’s worth, here goes.
Ultimately a trigger warning is just an extra piece of information. To be honest, I think the term ‘content note’ is better, but for some reason ‘trigger warning’ is more commonly used. Perhaps the term ‘warning’ is, in itself, unhelpful: warning signs are generally used to mark things you shouldn’t do: walk on the railway tracks, drink particular chemicals, that kind of thing. Because of that, I think there’s a misconception that a note on a particular piece of content is designed to act as a barrier – beware! Don’t read this! – so I can see why writers in particular bristle at the idea – including something that will put off readers goes against our better instincts.
But sometimes our better instincts are wrong, and they lead us to hold onto things which aren’t valuable or helpful. Here are some of the common arguments against trigger warnings, and why I don’t think they stand up.
But trigger warnings will lead to censorship!
Sex writers are used to Google and Amazon’s … umm … intriguing ways with content, and sometimes it is a short step from being labelled ‘adult’ to being removed as ‘adult.’ Make no mistake: the latter is censorship. The former, on the other hand, is simply a sensible way to let people know what they’re in for. You can do the former without condoning the latter. For example, including #NSFW tags when you post a nude does not preclude you from protesting if your nude is subsequently deleted. Not all categorisation is the start of a slippery slope.
No: censorship involves the deletion or obfuscation of a piece of work – a trigger warning is an addition to a piece of work. Telling you that you can’t publish something? That’s censorship. Removing a section of your film/story because you think it might cause distress? That too. Adding a bit of info so that people can make an informed decision about whether to read it? Nah.
Ruby Goodnight puts it excellently in her post about trigger warnings:
“Listing a title, author’s name or book price is not censorship. Listing a trigger warning isn’t censorship either. It’s simply a way to classify the text inside. For some, this ‘controversial’ descriptor is more necessary than for others.”
I get it, I do: while the vast majority of ‘slippery slope/thin end of the wedge’ arguments are based on nothing more than a hunch, I can definitely see where this is coming from. With the alarming Tory rhetoric around ‘protecting the children’ by censoring porn, I can see why people are on edge. But, to reiterate, trigger warnings are not about removing text/videos/images, or hiding content away where people can’t find it: they’re about labelling things with one more piece of info, to help people make a choice about whether they look at it. I think people should be able to access kinky porn, but I also think those who make and promote kinky porn should label it properly, and promote it in the right spaces so it doesn’t pop up as an unusual sexy surprise. That latter belief is not the thin end of a wedge that’ll lead to me demanding a ban on fisting – it’s just sensible. Not to mention also a better business move for kinky pornographers, as they promote their product to a genuinely interested target market.
If I tell you that Breaking Bad contains scenes of drug abuse, have I ruined the series? No. In the vast majority of cases, a content note or trigger warning ain’t going to spoil your story. But here’s a thing: even if it might, that’s not an argument against them. It’s an argument, perhaps, for thinking carefully about how you present them. For instance, on the cover of a book you might say ‘turn to page 3 for notes and guidance on the content of this book’, then let people choose whether to turn to that page or skip over it. If you’re doing it in a film, you might have that information available on the DVD cover or (because who the fuck buys physical media these days?) on the Netflix blurb, perhaps available at the touch of a button. It’s the 21st Century – we’re absolutely swamped with data, and we do this for all kinds of other information. I don’t think it is entirely beyond us to do it for content notes too.
Oh, and by the way: I have very rarely seen the people who kick off about trigger warnings kick off equally when people say ‘SPOILER ALERT!’ Spoiler alerts are useful, and I like ’em – they mean I get to avoid certain things before I’ve seen a particular TV show. I used one only the other week on this blog. A trigger warning does a similar thing, yet somehow it’s far more controversial.
But they make my writing look bad!
I understand. If you’ve carefully crafted some lovely words, you might be annoyed at having to slap a sticker on top of them that contains nothing but admin information. However, there are many ways to alert people to content that might cause distress, and these do not always consist of a massive neon sign above your copy. You can use tags, colour schemes, general guidance in pop ups or bylines or what have you (see above).
If you need more ideas – you can (if you like) put content behind a click-box (I know there are some sites that do this with NSFW content – there’s no reason you couldn’t do it with trigger warnings or other things). You could eschew the phrase ‘trigger warning’ or ‘content note’ if you like, and simply include something in your copy that flags up the nature of what you’re writing in the introduction: not all trauma has to come as a big reveal.
But ultimately, if you think a trigger will utterly ruin your writing, I’d suggest you have a bit more faith in yourself. If you can write a story that turns people on, or a blog post that gets people laughing, or clicking the ‘Tweet this now’ button, then you can probably include content notes without your readers smashing their laptops in disgust.
Oh but some people are triggered by things like snails and teacups and Sonic the Hedgehog so are we going to have trigger warnings on everything?
Ah, my dear friend straw man – welcome. Have a seat. No, over there in the bin.
Look: people can be triggered by a huge variety of different things, and some otherwise innocuous images or phrases can cause incredible distress because – hey! Trauma is deeply personal and unique! However, as far as I have seen, no one is suggesting that we include trigger warnings for every single conceivable trigger – only those things which are commonly known to cause distress.
Well how am I POSSIBLY supposed to know what to put a warning on then?
Well… how do you know not to swear in front of your grandmother? Or avoid giving in-depth info about your colonoscopy at the dinner table? You learn to do these things because they’re polite, and then if you’re a fairly decent person, you just do them. You don’t shout “Fuck you and your censorship, grandma! Now look at these high-res pictures of my arsehole!”
I’ll be honest here: sometimes you won’t know. Sometimes it might be that you are in such a feverish writerly excitement that you stick your new blog post up on Twitter and say ‘hey so here’s a story about a sex thing’ and a bunch of people go ‘woah, mate, I found that pretty disturbing and you should probably have put a trigger warning in the tweet.’ I’ve fucked up like that, more than once. It happens. But, like saying ‘shit’ in front of your gran, you try and catch yourself when you mess something up and do better the next time.
To be honest, I am sure there are still some things on this blog that could do with better content information. As I say, I normally try and get it into the copy or intro, but I bet there’s a bunch of stuff in the archives that was written before I had properly thought about this: I’m working on it.
Look, I just think having a law about trigger warnings is a bit unnecessary, yeah?
Who said anything about a law? Trigger warnings are just a helpful thing to include – no one’s making them compulsory, like car insurance. Please join your other straw man colleague in the bin.
Life is hard. I can’t protect people from everything!
Ah, the shoulder shrug. This argument makes me sad, to be honest. Of course you can’t protect everyone from everything, and nor should you try – it would be utterly impossible. But given that life’s going to be hard for all of us, to varying degrees, isn’t it bloody lovely when someone makes a small gesture to make your life easier? No one’s asking you to run a marathon or fill out someone else’s tax return – they’re just asking if you’ve perhaps got the time to include a short sentence somewhere that’ll give them a bit of a heads-up.
I agree with you that life is hard. It’s harder for some than others. Why would you ever want to make it harder?