Trigger warnings: when to use them and why they help

The following is a comment I posted here about trigger warnings—proceed with caution, the link includes some pointed barbs and many commenters who really miss the point.  The post was specifically about whether or not authors should use trigger/content warnings for books.

Here are my thoughts:

As a person with PTSD, I think that generally, people really, really don’t understand why trigger warnings are important, and in what situations they are helpful.

A trigger warning is there for those of us with such psychological disabilities (and yes, it is that severe that many of us have to go get declared as having a disability in order to participate in things like university classes—especially when sometimes, being enrolled at a university is the only way to get access to treatment). It’s there because CONTROLLED EXPOSURE to triggering material is important in mitigating the impact that PTSD has on one’s life. That’s not to say that we don’t ever read triggering materials. We do, and sometimes it’s actually *helpful* to read them. Engaging with triggering materials can sometimes be GOOD—but only when we’re in the frame of mind to be able to do that. Only when it’s NOT likely to completely take over and make it so that we can’t complete the other tasks that we are supposed to do. If I had adequate warnings, I wouldn’t engage with triggering materials right before I have some sort of deadline, for example.

But most of the time, you don’t get any sort of warning. And saying “oh, well you have a responsibility to research it beforehand” isn’t really helpful, because while I do try to do that, it’s not always something that’s actually possible. For example, say I watch a TV show regularly, and in general I’ve found it to be completely fine, with no triggers. But suddenly, there’s a plot twist which now DOES involve a triggering subject. This is the first time the episode has aired, so I wouldn’t be able to rely on other people to tell me before that comes up. So the plot twist happens and now I’m already triggered, but I have a choice: keep watching, or stop? If this is a show I’m watching as it airs, then I’m pretty invested in the show, so most likely I’ll keep going unless it’s really, really bad. But I’ll start to get more wary of the show, and treat it with greater caution in the future.

And there are of course triggers which are personal, and it’s totally unreasonable for me to expect anyone to know about, or warn me of. I would suggest that the only triggers we should reasonably expect others to care about enough to warn people about are the ones that are very common—especially various types of violence and abuse.

But all of those unexpected triggers ADD UP. And they’re pretty frequent, even if they’re minor. It’s a death-by-a-thousand-cuts type of scenario.

So while you’re not *required* to use trigger warnings, you really should be advertising what sort of content your book includes in SOME way (good blurbs don’t require trigger warnings, because they’re descriptive enough that it becomes redundant information). If you don’t, I’m gonna think you’re either bad at blurbs or kind of a dick (being too scared of “spoiling” your work to adequately advertise what kind of content it contains is kind of narcissistic, in a way—it assumes that everyone reads books for the same reasons, or the same reasons every time), or possibly both. (And btw, I should note that I’m using a general “you,” not talking about you specifically—the blurb for Atlanta Burns was fine as far as I could tell without reading it.)

The situation is different when it comes to blogging and assigning books in a classroom setting.

People blog because they are having discussions within their communities. Not using trigger warnings–or making fun of them–is a passive-aggressive way to marginalize people with PTSD, and edge them out of their own communities. It reduces trust, and makes talking about trauma with the community harder.

Teachers at universities have a responsibility to keep in mind the needs of disabled students, including those with PTSD (who again, may only be still enrolled because they need to stay there in order to get treated at all). That means being flexible enough to have alternative assignments available, allowing students with issues like PTSD to turn in assignments late, having ground rules about content warnings in creative writing workshops, and yes, providing warnings when the assigned material is especially likely to be triggering to students with histories of trauma. I’ve had many teachers not only fail at accommodation in that way, but also create a hostile environment by perpetuating rape myths and making other very inappropriate comments (these not just from literature teachers but also from things like Human Sexuality 101 teachers, who should *really* know better). Being in a hostile environment that you really can’t escape like that REALLY marginalizes people who have ALREADY been victimized. Many bright students just have to drop out because of this.

So… yeah. Trigger warnings are most appropriate for discussion settings like blogs, and especially important for classroom settings. Smart writers can certainly get by without resorting to using them if they’re good enough at blurbs, but the content SHOULD be advertised in some way—or else you’ll just marginalize readers who shouldn’t have been your target audience anyway, and probably get some bad reviews.

Some further thoughts:

  • Trigger warnings have nothing to do with censorship, and they shouldn’t be used to censor.
  • They aren’t about things that people merely find uncomfortable. They are about showing care and concern for those with serious mental illnesses—trauma, eating disorders, things like that. It’s about actively including instead of marginalizing those readers/community members.
  • And it’s SUCH bullshit to call someone “weak” for having any mental illness, and make fun of them for wanting to manage it better, and have the support of their communities in doing so. Also bullshit: centering an author’s goal to “challenge” readers at the expense of those who would re-experience their trauma by reading the material. Challenging material is not automatically better than other material. That’s just elitism. Personally, I like to have a variety of material available.
  • Again, this is especially important in communities and discussion settings, like blogs and panels. And we’re aware that you may not know all of our personal triggers—we don’t expect you to. But there are some things that are pretty widely known to be triggering, and that’s what we want others to try their best to warn us about.
  • It is worth being more specific than just whether or not sexual violence is discussed. That is a broad topic, and can contain many different triggers of varying degrees. Is it just a discussion, or is there actually a rape scene? It can be hard to tell.
  • It’s worth mentioning things that could be triggering to some readers in book reviews—or if you are the author, making spoiler-tagged statements about what sort of triggering material readers might come across.

So what are your thoughts? Are there any specific trigger warnings that would be helpful, but you find often go unmentioned? I’d like to compile a list of trigger warnings for others to consult before publishing blog posts, to make it easier for those with no experience with trauma or other mental illnesses to actively include and show support for us.

Book Review: No Touching by Aileen Deng

This book leaves me with one burning question. I have got to know: What the heck is the deal with cherry pies?

The main character mentions cherry pies about 20 times in a 237 page book (I skimmed every single page to count, but I was tired so I am sure I am slightly off), way more often than any other mention of food. There are an additional four or five mentions of cherries not in pies, which means that if they were evenly spaced, you’d get a mention of cherries about every ten pages. Now, it’s one thing to have a motif, but the way that this one was implemented was awkwardly inappropriate. The main character seems to have this weird obsession with cherry pies that arguably borders on some kind of sexual fetishism. I’m not kidding. Check out this passage:

“Mom goes to get the cherry pie from the oven. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. Homemade cherry pies are the best. The sweet smell grows stronger as Mom brings it out and cuts us each a big piece. I seem to be getting high just from the sight of this treat. As soon as I get my piece, I dig in shamelessly. The cherries taste perfect as the warm juice gushes out. The crust is crispy but blends in softly with the filling. I put one cherry aside to save for later as the ultimate dessert. I’m having ten orgasms at the same time.” (page 74-75)

There is no qualification that Tiffany is using such sexual language as a joke, so it seems that she is working herself into a genuine sexual frenzy, here. Now of course this isn’t what every mention of cherry pies is like. Most of it is stuff like this, from page 72: “Dinner is delicious as usual. My parents are great cooks. I am very excited about the cherry pie in the oven.” (No kidding!) But she doesn’t actually introduce the motif by telling the reader that cherry pies are her favorite (actually on page 194 she says her favorite is cake and ice cream… oh really?), she just starts mentioning them a lot, in rather inappropriate moments. For example, upon hanging out with a guy she’s only very recently met, she begins mentally making a list of their future dates, and the only item on this list that she bothers to mention is to “bake a cherry pie together” (page 122). I can only conclude that cherry pies are supposed to symbolize SOMETHING, but I cannot for the life of me figure out what, and Tiffany never elucidates us.

Traditionally, of course, cherries and cherry pies are symbols for the vagina, loss of virginity, and promiscuous women. Food more generally is also often sexualized. Given this history and the overtly sexual way in which the pies are described, it strikes me as incredibly inappropriate to pick as a motif for a character who is supposedly asexual. What does it symbolize? What purpose does it serve? It seems only to misdirect the reader to make a more sexual interpretation of the main character, perhaps to think she is not really asexual, but just repressed or has some kind of sexual dysfunction. I assume we are NOT supposed to make such an interpretation, since the book is actually marketed towards asexuals, and the author seems genuine in her desire to portray an asexual character. However, it is not easy to take this character seriously. Because… well, I’ll just come out and say it: Tiffany is insane.

It takes a seriously unhinged person to imagine that your pillow is your imaginary boyfriend, make up a detailed back story about this boyfriend, and make out with your pillow-boyfriend so often that the seams on the pillowcase actually begin to come apart. And then, upon getting a real-life date, to feel like a guilty cheater for not telling him about the imaginary boyfriend. How are we supposed to sympathize with this character? Honestly? She seems to be a psychotic loser. I may be asexual too, but that is no basis for feeling empathy for an unlikeable character (much like mutual asexuality is no basis for forming a relationship with someone who is otherwise incompatible), especially when that character is somewhat questionably asexual in the first place; if the book had been marketed differently, I would assume that this is a classic case of an unreliable narrator, because of her penchant for lies and very shallow level of self-examination springing from her unwillingness to face uncomfortable truths (she thinks that she is sane because she knows that she is insane… how does that work?). Instead, I will assume that this is a case of the author not doing enough research. Amusingly, there is a little cafe in this book where asexuals go to hang out, and a couple of other asexuals just walk up to the main character and ask her if she is asexual the very first time she goes there, with no prior planning on the internet. Wish it were that easy to meet other asexuals in real life!

I really dislike the way that asexuality is defined in this book as a lack of sexual DESIRE, not attraction, and equated with the stereotype that asexuals don’t or can’t enjoy sex. That’s a cop-out definition which ignores the existence of people like me, who are asexual but CAN enjoy sex. In fact, the whole character seems to be based on the stereotypical idea of what an asexual person is like, with an especially negative twist. Tiffany is insecure, socially awkward and even succumbs to an anti-sexual superiority complex:

“I evaluate my asexuality to figure out whether it’s done more good or bad to my life. On the surface, it doesn’t seem too appealing. It’s almost as if I were built differently. I don’t feel what I think I should feel. However, this misfortune sometimes makes me feel better than everyone else. In a weird way, I’m above the level of needing physical pleasure, which is philosophically ranked the lowest in human nature by Plato. Material possessions and bodily pleasures are shallow and mindless, having the power to slowly destroy the human race, to reduce us to nothing but slaves to non-living objects, and to weaken our noble mentality and willpower. What is most sublime and should be focused on is human knowledge, which inspires the never-ending quest for information to enlighten our mind and soul.

“I feel like a saint now. I am not degraded by desperate, sexual urges. I am virtuously unaffected by the most basic human need. I am a goddess. I stop myself before becoming convinced that I possess magical powers to heal the poor human sex slaves around me.” (page 89)

Imagine what sexual people would think of asexuals if they read this book! I’d also like to point out that Tiffany masturbates (she even says she can get herself off within seconds!), and that eating food (for enjoyment, which she clearly does) is just as much a “physical pleasure” as having sex, so it is incorrect for her to claim she is above the level of physical pleasure. And there are tons of scenes with her eating way more food than the situation warrants or fantasizing about eating lots of food; she does truly seem to need cherry pies as some sort of emotional comfort. There is no mention of her having a fast metabolism or anything like that, and there is never any physical description given of her besides the fact that she is Chinese and other people say she is pretty. And she says at one point that she feels “a hundred pounds lighter,” so I suppose that we are meant to assume that she weighs a lot, too. Which I think is also part of the stereotypical idea of what asexuals look like.

I also have very little sympathy for Tiffany because she seems to get teary-eyed about EVERYTHING. In fact, all of the characters do, except for Peter (who is happy all the time). The author seems to rely on tears and cliches as a shortcut for showing emotional pain, when really, people don’t act like that. And this truly cripples the book. All of the characters’ behaviors are extreme, to the point that they can’t be taken seriously; however, I think these would be plausible situations if they were toned down somewhat (except for the imaginary boyfriend part). This book actually would work really really well as a comedy. As it is, it’s very funny, but it’s funny in about the same way that The Room is funny. If this book, as it is now, were actually meant to be a comedy, though, I would feel a bit insulted because it would come dangerously close to satirizing asexuals. However, I think it was really meant to be a positive portrayal, but the author just didn’t quite make it to a level of deep emotional honesty with regard to the characters’ actions.

The fact that this book was self-published speaks volumes about its quality. It reads like a rough draft. What it really needs is revision: the attention of a ruthless editor and some asexual beta readers would have done wonders for it. It really does have potential, because it’s a good set-up. The storyline and plot twists are pretty great. It needed to be critiqued by an intelligent and thoughtful group of people knowledgeable about the process of writing, who wouldn’t sugar-coat things and just stroke the author’s ego several times before being published, pushing each successive revision to the next level. I feel somewhat bad for probably really damaging the author’s ego as it is, but harsh criticism really goes with the territory when you put yourself out there like this, and I think it’s more important to be completely honest in a review. I really, really wanted to like this book… but unfortunately, I just couldn’t. However, on the positive side, I did greatly enjoy the author’s sense of humor, and I think she has a knack for comedic situations. Dialogue especially is her strong point. I hope that she will hone this talent and keep on writing.

In conclusion, I have very high standards. I give it 1 star out of 5.