Explicit material: students want warning put on books

As US students seek trigger warnings on reading lists and calls grow for reader alerts on literature, are clearer content indicators the answer?

There is a new trend in town. The "trigger warning" has taken on a new lease of life with the increased usage of social media. Following the release of the Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why, based on the novel by Jay Asher, newsfeeds were flooded with demands for more trigger warnings to be included in cinema, TV and literature. So where are these demands coming from and should we be taking them seriously?

What exactly is a trigger warning? Dictionary.com tells us that it is “a stated warning that the content of a text, video, etc., may upset or offend some people, especially those who have previously experienced a related trauma”. We have all come across the blank-screen warnings at the beginning of a TV show that warn “some viewers may find this programme upsetting” and this is usually followed up with a list of helplines available to viewers at the end of the broadcast.

However, some believe that this is no longer adequate. There is now a call for trigger warnings on books. Amazon and Goodreads reviews are a hotbed of activity for young adults and they are not shy about coming forward. There have been Twitter attacks on authors and publishers, accusing them of triggering readers who suffer from mental health issues/ eating disorders/ PTSD and there are calls for mandatory trigger warnings on books containing potentially upsetting topics. But how can this be implemented?

Content indicators focus on what we do know (what's in the text) versus what we can't (what might serve as a trigger for certain members of the audience)

Some universities have altered their courses to exclude potentially upsetting content, while others have vehemently refused to dismiss titles based on potential triggering. Last year, the University of Chicago welcomed their incoming students with a firm stance on this issue: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’.” The university’s policy on freedom of expression states that “It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive”. In 2014 the New York Times revealed that the student government of the University of California did “not require that professors alter their planned course material, but that they include in their syllabi ‘trigger warnings’”. There is an ongoing discourse surrounding trigger warnings, safe spaces and post-traumatic stress. By removing texts from schools and universities are we protecting our students or censoring their reading material? As parents, do we need to shelter our children from fiction as well as reality?


Would that perhaps mean a trigger warning on Shakespeare's works? Could Macbeth be marked with a warning due to its representation of murder and madness? Would To Kill A Mockingbird be tagged as unsuitable as it features racial discrimination and intolerance? Would young adults be dissuaded from reading The Gamal by Ciarán Collins as it has scenes of sexual violence?

Tony Keenan, an English teacher at Our Lady's College in Drogheda, Co Louth, fears that restricting the prescribed reading list, is not the way to go. While he has noticed an increase of gratuitous violence (particularly against women) in recent TV dramas such as  Game of Thrones and The Last Kingdom, he does not believe we should facilitate trigger warnings in literature.

“I find it farcical that you’re going to put a trigger warning on something that a person has endeavoured to put in hundreds and hundreds of hours to turn into a work of art. That is a massive concern; whereas the internet is completely unlicensed. It’s bolting the stable door, after the horse has bolted.”

Teaching literature to teenagers is difficult enough without sanitising the experience. Clearly passionate about the subject, Keenan makes a compelling argument; “No teacher is doing a book because it’s about rape or murder or suicide; you’re doing it because it has a story; it has a plot; it has character development; there’s a meaning to it. A plot is a plot. It is a device.”

The girls of Our Lady’s College are aware of the trigger-warning phenomenon and are concerned that it is a form of censorship: Leaving Cert student Aisling (18), says “I feel like it could end up like book-burning. You might as well burn it by stamping a big ‘X’ on it.” They also fear that it could get out of control, with any sensitive issue being flagged as a trigger: Louise, 18, points out that “everyone has different triggers. You can’t make a list of all the different things that could trigger people.”

Indeed, if you search for” books with trigger warnings” you will hit an interminable list of titles which include, and are not restricted to, suicide; self-harm; eating disorders; grief; miscarriage; addiction; racism; rape; sexual violence; incest. Where do you draw the line?

Cáit (18) points out that triggers are unavoidable: “If they want to put trigger warning on literature, they should put them on the news. Children can watch the news. Literature expresses life.”

Author Claire Hennessy addresses sensitive issues in her YA novels. Her novel, Nothing Tastes As Good, which focuses on eating disorders, is now featured on the Junior Cert papers. She believes “the concept of trigger warnings is well-intentioned – but wrong – for so many readers. We cannot possibly anticipate what might ‘trigger’ someone, because this is a deeply personal issue, and does not follow the neat linear path we might expect.”

Lilly Molloy, director of services at Lois Bridges Eating Disorders Centre in Dublin, has doubts as to the benefits of trigger warnings. Most of the centre’s clients have underlying issues that would not be directly affected by reading a book about an anorexic character. An eating disorder is a very personal thing and tends to be exacerbated by stress, rather than triggers. You only need to open a magazine or see an advertising billboard to be bombarded with images of “the perfect body”. A book about someone with an eating disorder is not really going to make any difference. If anything, it can open up a discourse about an age-old problem. The issues are underlying and often misunderstood.

What about books with themes of sexual abuse? Should The Color Purple or Room have trigger warnings? In the world of media this is usually addressed with blanket warnings before news items and TV dramas but should we be worried about works of fiction? Noeline Blackwell, CEO of Dublin Rape Crisis, says "Our services are available to anyone who is triggered by crisis or reaction to something they have seen on TV or a news report". She points out that while there is no evidence to suggest that reading can trigger an emotional crisis and "film and literature are not as much of a concern to us; they are part of human nature", DRC "are always on hand to offer access to services and manage their reactions to emotions".

Lorna Fraser, media adviser to Samaritans, agrees that trigger warnings “have not been extensively researched yet” but thinks that there is “value is warning about sensitive issues”, particularly surrounding suicide. If a person is already under extreme stress, and may have contemplated suicide in the past, there is always the fear of them “stumbling upon information prematurely” without making an “informed choice about whether to read on or not”.

She also advises that while “warnings do not take away the risks” and “are not fail-safe ... signposted specialised services are essential”. If a reader is feeling vulnerable before, during or after an emotional read, it would be ideal to have links to services related to the topics addressed within the book. The young students at Our Lady’s College had mixed opinions. Eimear, 18, felt that something containing graphic sexual abuse should have a warning as “if you’re reading something out in class, it might take someone by surprise and it might trigger them”, whereas two classmates felt that it was “an archaic idea” and “we are sheltered enough”.

The world we live in is full of potential triggers. From the moment we are born, we are protected by our parents and guardians. We are then sheltered from inappropriate behaviour, guided by age restrictions and taught about the goodness (and sometimes badness) in others. But how can we protect feelings that we may not have yet experienced? If we wrap our young adults in safety blankets, how will they cope when confronted with something they are unprepared for?

Is there a generational gap when it comes to the idea of trigger warnings? Are too many of our young adults experiencing life online, rather that experiencing it first-hand? Are they too frightened to have emotions that are outside their norm? These are all questions too big to be answered here. All we can do is address one issue at a time.

The issue of trigger warnings is about to get a whole lot bigger. Hennessy makes a short-term, realistic suggestion: “What we can do, and indeed what we already do, is have content indicators – cues to what a reader or viewer might find in a particular text, which focus on what we do know (what’s in the text) versus what we can’t (what might serve as a trigger for certain members of the audience). They don’t necessarily come marked ‘trigger warning!’ but they do indicate – via a book’s cover or blurb – what a reader might expect, and highlight elements of books which might upset some people.”

It is feasible that a combination of content indicators and a list of relevant services for those affected by a particular theme may suffice. Do we really need to change what our students are reading or what our writers are writing?
Margaret Madden blogs about books at Bleachhouselibrary.ie