Trigger Warning: Trigger Warnings | Why I Don’t Use Trigger Warnings In My Reviews

In the relatively brief time I’ve been a part of the book hemisphere of the Internet, I’ve noticed a trend gaining traction among book reviewers: trigger warnings.

46 comments

In the relatively brief time I’ve been a part of the book hemisphere of the Internet, I’ve noticed a trend gaining traction among book reviewers: trigger warnings. From the Trigger Warning Database to the Book Trigger Warnings website and Storygraph’s trigger warning section, trigger warnings have become ubiquitous in book reviewing circles.

But, while I understand the intent behind these warnings, I have several problems with them.

What Are Trigger Warnings?

What exactly is a trigger warning? According to Google’s handy dictionary, a trigger warning is “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).”

What is the intention of trigger warnings? They’re intended to warn people with past trauma of potentially disturbing content in books and other media. This makes sense. For someone who has experienced a violent traumatic event, for example, watching footage of a similar event could trigger their PTSD.

And some people just don’t want to read/watch something with graphic content. This is, after all, why we have movie ratings and TV content warnings for things like “sexual content”, “violence”, “drug use”, etc. General content advisories like these are not what I’m writing this post to discuss.

Obscure Trigger Warnings and Virtue-Signaling

I’ve noticed an increase in less general, more mild, more content-specific warnings recently.

Many of the “triggers” I’ve seen listed are everyday topics or events, things that appear commonly in everyday life and that most young children would not be upset by. Far from graphic violence, some of the new triggers are for things like “mentions of Harry Potter”, “insects”, “nightmares”, “dieting”, “hospitals”, “blood” or “homophobia, off-page”.

Of course everyone has different life experiences and will have different reactions to different topics. But it’s unrealistic to expect the entire world to tiptoe around, trying to create a “safe space” for everyone and their unique triggers. How many different phobias are there? How many different potential triggers?

I’m sure there’s someone out there in the seven billion people on this planet who’s scared of… windows.

What do you know? I just looked it up and Nelophobia is the fear of glass.

Now, do we need to put “trigger warning: windows” or “trigger warning: glass” in front of every piece of media that shows windows or glass? Of course not, because most people are NOT scared of windows and glass and most people are not going to be upset when reading about it. Do rooms with windows have warning signs on the doors because the windows are potentially triggering to a tiny subset of the population?

But what about all those people with nelophobia who might have a panic attack from reading this description of glass? What about their feelings? Don’t you have any compassion? Check your privilege!

What about all the other hundreds of different phobias people might have? What about all the other obscure triggers and fears that someone could presumably have? Should we cater to all of them? How long should we make these trigger warning lists?

The logic falls apart. An argument that is based on “just try to understand how they feel” still needs to be substantiated by common sense.

The Prioritization of Feelings Over Sustainability

The idea that you need to unquestioningly accept and act to appease someone’s individual feelings with no evidence is simply unsustainable and does not lend itself to a functioning society.

I, obviously, don’t like this brand of trigger warnings. What if I tell you right now that they make me feel extremely triggered? I feel so deeply triggered that I am writing this entire post. I feel annoyed just thinking about them. I don’t even want to see them anymore. Should you now preface your posts with “trigger warning: trigger warnings?” because one person said they are triggered?

The Self-Defeating Brand of Trigger Warnings

TW: Mentions of Harry Potter

For a minute, imagine such a person exists who is viscerally distressed by any utterance, reminder, or mention of The Boy Who Lived. If all it takes is one mention of Harry Potter to trigger them… how would they not be triggered by your trigger warning itself? And if your trigger warning is itself triggering to its intended beneficiaries… then what’s the point?

There is none. In cases like these, the trigger warnings seem to serve as an easy way to virtue-signal to one’s audience.

The Spoilers

The worst trigger warnings in my opinion, however, are ones that spoil the plot of the book.

This is especially true for books in the mystery/thriller genre which especially rely on the element of surprise to generate suspense, but it can affect any book. I’ve been spoiled by people’s trigger warnings just by scrolling through top, non-spoiler-marked Goodreads reviews before.

I see the argument often that including trigger warnings is just being kind and receptive to others and therefore spoilers shouldn’t be a concern. The benefits of these warnings are debatable, but this still doesn’t stop them from being spoilers.

Spoilers are spoilers, regardless of whether they are saving some hypothetical person from being triggered. Arguing for trigger warnings from this standpoint cannot disprove the FACT that telling someone an event from a book that is not in the synopsis is spoiling the book.

Consider a hypothetical book. This hypothetical book is a thriller about a person who is looking for her missing father after he disappeared in an accident.

Now let’s say someone is reviewing this book, and they put “Trigger warning: death of a parent”. Someone stumbling upon this trigger warning would be spoiled.

This example was a pretty blatant hypothetical one, but even for less huge spoilers, trigger warnings can affect your enjoyment of a book. For example, if I’m reading a book and I see a review with a trigger warning for “kidnapping”, I’ll be spending the entire time anticipating who’s going to get kidnapped and waiting for it to happen.

And authors foreshadow. It’s part of the beauty of a good plot. But as soon as I have the anticipation of the event, the foreshadowing becomes painfully obvious and clunky. Maybe the character’s mother will mention that the character’s younger sister is “too trusting.” Hmm…

Anyone by using deductive reasoning can spoil themselves once warned by a trigger warning that they might not have even wanted to read. Skirting around this by shaming people for being inconsiderate and claiming that you can’t know what offends other people and you need to listen to the people complaining about being offended does not make a good argument.

I’ve seen trigger warning lists where people list out extremely specific triggers and even include the chapters in which they occur. (Ex: “death of a parent, chapter 20”) No matter how you look at it, doing that IS spoiling the book.

Opt-In Trigger Warnings: A Possible Compromise?

I have recently noticed more people hiding trigger warnings in a dropdown menu where you need to click to be able to read the list, and I think this is a smart way to balance the preferences of those who want to see trigger warnings and those who don’t.

However, I am very much against the current proliferation of superfluous and spoiler-y trigger warnings… for the reasons I have previously outlined in this post.

Do you believe in trigger warnings? Why or why not? Do you include trigger warnings in your reviews? Do you rely on trigger warnings when making reading choices?

Regardless of your stance on this issue, I’m open to nuanced, respectful discussions in the comment section 🙂

Thanks for stopping by Frappes & Fiction today! If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to my blog. I post about the books I read and whatever else crosses my mind.

46 comments on “Trigger Warning: Trigger Warnings | Why I Don’t Use Trigger Warnings In My Reviews”

  1. Hurrah! I’ve absolutely hoovered-up your bold, frank, extremely well-reasoned post. I’ve become a tad eye-roll-y over the increase of trigger warnings. I’m all for treading softly and hate the idea of someone being so profoundly upset by a book/passage that they have a panic attack (that must be dreadful), but I agree that a more balanced approach allows for the sensitivities of some readers whilst avoiding spoilers for others.
    Your post is pitched perfectly, and so well thought out. I applaud you for starting the conversation

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My new favorite blog ❤
    I believe that trigger warnings make sense when it's really heavy topics. For example, I'm very upset by graphic depictions of animal abuse. I never ever see trigger warnings for this. The same youtubers (I watch a lot of commentary youtube) that will be like "trigger warning mentions of suicide" will deadass launch into a graphic description of animal abuse out of nowhere.
    The fact that upsetting things don't get trigger warnings equally makes me think this is just another way to virtue signal. Like Uwu look how good and woke I am

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you! That is another interesting point that I didn’t really think of– I guess it’s hard to cover trigger warnings “fairly” when you try to fit every one of infinite possible “triggers” into a list

      Like

  3. This is one of those discussions that never grows old, and I enjoyed reading your side of the argument—you expressed your points in a really reasonable, logical way 👏 I actually wrote an entire paper about this debate in May so you could say that I have a lot to say but very few answers 😂

    Research shows that trigger warnings either have no effect at all on anxiety levels (in both people who have experienced trauma and those who haven’t) or actually lead to a small INCREASE in anxiety. And like you said, the mechanics of using trigger warnings are pretty confusing/complicated as well—I completely agree with what you said about the impossibility of managing to pinpoint every single trigger. But then again, I personally know so many book bloggers who have benefited from trigger warnings and think of them as instrumental in protecting their mental and emotional health. Reading for a lot of people is a form of escapism, and denying them the right to prepare themselves before diving into potentially triggering content seems wrong. But then by requiring trigger warnings from all bloggers/bookish influencers, we also run the risk of the trigger warnings becoming performative and losing their original function.

    I honestly don’t know if there are right answers to all these questions. And it doesn’t help that the debate has become so politically charged. For now, I’ve been using the drop-down function so that reading trigger warnings on my blog is optional, which I think is a nice compromise between the two sides of the argument.

    I don’t know what I was trying to accomplish with this essay of a comment (sorry for all the rambling 😅), but yes, that was my two cents on the topic 😂 I really appreciate you writing this post, it can’t have been easy starting such a charged conversation! ❤️

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thank you! Yes I agree that it has become almost a political thing and that’s why I was a little hesitant to post this at first, but it has been great to read other people’s opinions and have a reasonable discussion. I still don’t think I will be including trigger warnings in my posts in the future, but I agree that these are difficult questions to answer definitively. I’ve actually read some of the research about trigger warnings increasing anxiety and I do think that’s something people should consider as well. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great discussion! I think trigger warnings are helpful to some readers, but having them be extremely specific just makes it a list of spoilers. If they’re more in the general sense, like “graphic violence” or something like that, I’m okay with it. When I list trigger warnings, mainly only in my reviews, I usually list ones that are more common, because it would be impossible to list all the things that could possibly trigger a reader.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I completely agree with this! I don’t use trigger warnings either, but it’s not because I am insensitive, it’s more because I honestly feel like I might spoil someone who hasn’t read that book…. Besides most blurbs of books give an indication anyway, and if someone is interested in the book but scared, they can go and look up the trigger warnings and see for themselves if they want to read it or not …

    Once again, amazing post!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Great post, Emily! I must admit, I’m very torn on the subject of trigger warnings myself 😅

    Personally, I don’t like them at all and try to gloss over them whenever possible. Because like you said, they often include major spoilers! Even if the trigger warnings refer to some very serious things, such as rape or other kinds of abuse, I prefer going into books not knowing, because then those scenes hit me even harder when I do come across them and really make me think. If I know something like that is coming up, I’ll have time to mentally prepare myself, and the impact just won’t be as strong anymore. Like, once I read a book that had “abortion” as one of its trigger warnings, so when it was dramatically revealed that the MC was unexpectantly pregnant, my shock was not all that grand…

    But of course, I also see that people who have experienced these things themselves might not want to be blindsided by them when picking up a book. I’m very lucky in that I’m able to read just about anything and be fine with it, but can imagine that it must be horrifying to unsuspectingly come across something that will make you relive some past trauma. So I do think it’s a good thing that trigger warnings for serious topics like this exist, even though I personally don’t like them. Which is why I actually love those drop-down links in e-books or QR-codes in physical books that take you to the trigger warnings, because then you can decide for yourself whether you want to read them and I can happily choose not to 😁

    As for my reviews, I don’t include trigger warnings because I myself don’t like seeing them when I read reviews. I do, however, sometimes mention that people who are hit hard by heavy topics might want to look into them if they’re interested in the book. As an author, I think it’s good to provide readers with a list of potentially triggering things (which is also why I include them before my short stories, just to be on the safe side), but as a reviewer, I don’t really see the point. It’s not like I’m going to vividly describe those triggering scenes again in a review, so how does it make it less triggering if I use a trigger warning? And if you know you’re sensitive to a certain topic, wouldn’t you as a reader do a bit more research before buying a book anyway, rather than just reading my review?

    However, as to trigger warnings regarding things like “glass” or “Harry Potter”, I’m 100% with you. At some point, it jusy gets ridiculous! You can’t write down every single thing that happens in the book just because someone might find it triggering. If someone is really that sensitive, I doubt the trigger warnings are going to be any less harmful than the actual book itself…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I completely agree! I would rather go into books blind and feel the impact of the book, even if it makes me upset, since it’s how the author intended the book to be written. I do see the other side of things considering very serious or graphic content, however. But I do think trigger warnings have gone way too far recently. While “glass” was my exaggerated example (haven’t seen that one yet!), I see Harry Potter trigger warnings all the time and I find it very exasperating because like you said, I’m not sure anyone who is offended by seeing “Harry Potter” is going to be more offended by the book than the trigger warning, and if we extend the warnings to everything it just makes no sense anymore. I don’t intend to start using trigger warnings in my reviews but I’m glad to be able to discuss their merits/flaws with other readers and bloggers. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think it is important to put trigger warnings into things which may be extremely triggering to someone, but you are right in saying that pretty much all of us have a phobia of something, or have something that could be triggering as a result of past experiences, therefore it would be very difficult to have to tip toe around all of that. While it reduces the effectiveness of trigger warnings when they may be needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. you make so many valid points, and so do the commenters here. i like the idea of hiding the trigger warnings, so as to not spoil the book for those who aren’t phased by it. and i 100% agree, that the heavy stuff should be included in trigger warnings, but some of the other stuff is just ridiculous. your list is going to be so damn long!!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for posting about such a difficult subject. I really understand why books may, or should have a trigger warning, but similar to censorship, a trigger warning is only as good as the person who is posting the warning. I can never decide what things are triggers and which are not, so I don’t post any at all with my reviews, because I’m certain I would miss triggers for some people and then I would feel bad that I didn’t include them all.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Great post! I’m a fan of the opt in. I shouldn’t need to avoid reviews to avoid trigger warnings when I don’t have triggers but people do and the information should be available. Some are definitely a little extreme but general trigger warnings probably aren’t enough for most people, if you had any triggers, you’d never be able to read, everything would say graphic content. So as detailed as they want but hidden enough that I don’t stumble upon it by accident. I do sometimes want them too, I lost my dad a few years ago and around certain times of year, I purposefully avoid books with parent death or alzheimers, it’s a personal thing and only sometimes but I like knowing that information exists so im not caught off guard when I’m feeling like I can’t deal with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment! Yes, it is a complicated topic and there’s not really a perfect way to deal with it, but I do think opt-in is the most practical way to appease both sides of the debate. Also, I’m sorry for your loss. Take care!

      Like

  11. I used to do trigger warnings for every book I mentioned. It wasn’t very hard for books that I had read before, but was quite taxing for ones I haven’t. I just started linking a Goodreads user at the bottom of all my posts where people can find trigger warnings for every book that they would want to read.

    I was tired of stressing out about forgetting something or some type of trigger. If someone wants trigger warnings for kids, they can go to commonsensemedia and find them there. I fully appreciate why people want them and why they are important, but it was stressful for me to sit for an hour every time I posted looking up trigger warnings for every single book.

    If there is a trigger warning that I think will be harmful to most people, like murder of a child or baby, I will mention it and recommend my viewers look them up. Other than that, I think it should be on the reader to find them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this is a good take. I agree that it’s just not the most practical idea to list out every single possible trigger. I actually used to use common sense media a lot when I was younger because I used to be very sensitive to violence and other kinds of stuff in books and I liked to see what the rating was before I read it– that’s why I understand why people like trigger warnings; I just believe they have gotten out of hand recently

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I totally agree. I mean, I can see why it would be slightly upsetting to see a harry potter reference, but I don’t see how it could be triggering!
        I also never added trigger warnings for blood or vomit because I thought those were kind of odd to add in!

        I love to use common sense media because my child is terrified of everything that is even a little scary, so it helps me a ton!

        People could also do their own research for obtuse trigger warnings.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect to be warned/protected from things that are very commonly mentioned in daily life (blood, etc.)– as a former sensitive kid I’m fine with general content warnings particularly for kids but the way some people are using trigger warnings now is a bit much. Thanks for commenting!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. i love this post so much, emily! i used to include trigger warnings in my post, especially if they had really heavy content, but slowly i realised that a lot of triggers were spoilery, and i ended up with a list almost as long as my review if i included every single one!

    i completely agree with all of your points, and i loved reading this ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I relate to this post and really glad you wrote it! I have had similar experiences with trauma (even diagnosed with PTSD) and do not like trigger warnings. I agree with everything you said here. I would also add that there is an issue with whether or not trigger warnings do more harm than good. When I researched this topic, I found that trigger warnings actually reinforce trauma and there isn’t any psychological literature in favour of them (forgive me for not citing sources- I don’t have the egs to hand cos I’m commenting on my phone, but I did do a post with sources a while back if you’re interested). I do however understand that people anecdotally feel they help and I would never tell someone to stop using them if they want to. I just personally will not use them myself and think there should be more discussion about them. Thanks very much for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah thanks for your comment! Actually I might have read your post at one point– I love your discussion posts, especially the cancel culture one. I came across some literature about negative psychological effects of trigger warnings while writing this post and thought about including it but I ended up not talking about it in this post because I already had a lot to say! I agree– I’m not rigidly opposed to general “trigger warnings” as a concept but I really do not like how people were trying to shut down the debate by saying it was offensive/inconsiderate/whatever to question trigger warnings at all

      Like

  14. This is a great discussion. I personally never read trigger warning myself because 1) I thankfully don’t need them and 2) I don’t want to be spoiled. However, I do list them when reviewing on my blog, for the benefit of others. I usually keep it general (although there’s been some exceptions) and spoiler-free. All in all, you made some great points with this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Interesting discussion! I think trigger warning about content that can distress a majority of audience, like sexual content and gore, should be mentioned, and the drop down thing is cool! But warnings for stuff lolr harry potter…what even 😂. And trigger warnings spoiling the book is an absolute pet peeve 😤. Nice post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed! People put Harry Potter because apparently JK Rowling’s controversial Twitter comments are enough to make any mention of the series taboo for some people…. and yes the spoilers are the main reason I wrote this post because I could not stand the people trying to say they weren’t spoilers just because they could be helpful for a subset of the population. If they are helpful for some people, put them under a dropdown so everyone else is not spoiled! Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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