Tag Archives: sensitive content

Trigger Warning: Talk about Trigger Warnings

Following through on my promise to hash out the drama of TikTok and Booktok, let’s take a quick look at trigger warnings.

The problem is–at its root–one of semantics.

While some people are, in fact, asking for trigger warnings, most readers should be asking for content warnings, and I think that’s what is causing the rift between readers and authors–and simply between authors.

The difference is that content warnings address sensitive material that people commonly find sensitive. Content warnings are the blurbs you see at the beginning of primetime television–The following program contains subjects that may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised–and on movie trailers–This feature has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.

These ratings and warnings are often accompanied by broad but vague bullet points: sexual situations, suggestive/harsh language, violence, fantasy violence, gore, bullying, self-harm, animal death . . . It is a list of subjects in the movie or television show that have been agreed upon by a wide variety of people as having an adverse effect on a large portion of the population.

Triggers, on the other hand, are neither broad, nor vague, and it is nearly impossible to address all potential triggers in a work of media. Triggers are sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or tactile sensations that bring to the surface negative physiological responses in connection to a person’s lived experiences. Fireworks are a triggering event for many military veterans who served in active combat. Raised voices can be a trigger for survivors of domestic violence.

I use my own triggers as an example.

Snakes, basketball, and Pearl Jam’s Ten.

I hide images of snakes on my social media. I don’t like them. I had what I believe now to have been a night terror as a child where I was surrounded by snakes (think Indiana Jones) but when I woke up, they were still there, covering my bedroom floor and I couldn’t do anything but scream for help.

Several years later, my cat found a nest of garter snakes and joyfully brought them into the house, one by one, and laid them proudly at my feet. To say I was paralyzed in fear would be melodramatic and 100% true.

I have not watched a basketball game in 20 years. I associate some of my worst experiences with bullying–by peers and adults–with basketball. I had teammates throw the ball at my face (in youth league/peewees and in middle school). I had coaches actively single me out, even when we weren’t playing competitively, and make me shoot free throws until I made one (while everyone else sat and watched). As a cheerleader for a school with no respect for cheerleaders, basketball season was excruciating. Now, just watching basketball on television makes me anxious.

I am in the process of figuring out what happened in my past between a “friend” and me and Pearl Jam’s Ten album plays a fairly big part in that historical reconstruction.

But those things don’t trigger negative responses in most people.

Maybe the snakes but I have yet to see them added to any of these lists.

The point is that we absolutely can–and should–add content warnings to media, but we need to call them what they are and not try to predict and address every single reader’s individual triggers.


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