Jun 14 2017 12:30pm

Romance in the Age of the Trigger Warning: Do Readers Need to be Warned?

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The presence of Trigger Warnings has been fast growing. We see them more and more. Sometimes clear, sometimes vague, but always—in my opinion—helpful.

I wish there were more of them.         

But not everyone feels the way I do. Some complain they’re annoying, and they’re spoilers. It’s true. They do let the reader know what to expect. But for those of us who need trigger warnings, it sometimes makes it possible for us to read at all.

Many gravitate toward romance because it’s a safe space. We know the happily-ever-after will come. That love will triumph over evil. That no matter how bad it gets, it will all be okay. They provide a security no other genre can give us. In our real world, where HEA is not guaranteed in any part of our lives, romance novels are nothing short of priceless.

For the most part, our heroines and heroes won’t be harmed, assaulted or abused between the covers of the books. Usually, there won’t be any graphic violence or offensive slurs. These days, we expect consent in all romantic situations, unless of course it’s a character’s particular kink. In which case, a warning to the reader that this will be the case is polite.

I need my trigger warnings. I depend on them.

But without the warning, it blindsided me and shrouded me in anxiety.

I’ve read accounts where people who disagree say, I should learn to deal with the real world, and that trigger warnings are treating people as if they were babies.


My friends know that if I read something that triggers my PTSD it can set me back hours, if not days in anxiety and panic. Recovery from trauma is maddeningly slow. But it is possible. It’s a tough slog of therapy and positive self-talk and reinforcement that we are NOT in danger in daily life and that the trauma is over and we can lead lives free of hypervigilance for our safety. Avoiding triggering situations can be key to the re-wiring of the nervous system post-trauma.

Being forewarned that what you are about to witness could be triggering, the emotional preparation, the decision to read something that contains difficult content rather than being trapped in it makes all the difference. It gives one the power to choose. Because some days, there’s no way I can read past a trigger warning. But other days when I’m feeling stronger, I can.

My favorite author for trigger warnings is Skye Warren. Her book Wanderlust clearly states in the blurb that it “explores captivity and power [and is] not intended for those uncomfortable with the subject matter.” Prisoner, which she team wrote with Annika Martin is similar, letting readers know it explores situations of “dubious consent.” These trigger warnings made it possible for me to not only buy the books but enjoy them very much. When I know what’s coming, I’m reading it by choice rather than being shocked by it.

For someone who’s experienced a traumatic event they were forced to live through—choice is everything.

I’ve read books where this warning was not given.

Most recently, it came out of nowhere—the heroine being touched in an explicit way without her consent. It was shocking and, for me, panic inducing. If I’d had warning, I might have made it through okay, or been able to save it for a different day.

But without the warning, it blindsided me and shrouded me in anxiety.

You can bet I will never pick up another book from that author again.

It was from a publisher I trusted. I’ll think twice before I buy from them again. It’s made me weary of that subgenre.

For some, their reaction is the opposite.

For some a trigger warning would’ve spoil the surprise. For me, a trigger warning would’ve meant I could enjoy the book instead of losing a night of sleep to flashbacks. Or picked a different book to read.

There is no perfect answer.

What works for me inevitably spoils it for someone else.

If it were up to me, RWA would have a recommended policy for what fictional situations call for trigger warnings and best practices for how to include the warning in the book’s blurb. Having it be clear on the book’s meta data—the title or the cover is also good. As long as I don’t have to read between the lines to find it.

I recognize often authors and editors simply forget or don’t realize that their content can be triggering. And there is no perfect solution.

There are plenty of benign things that those of us with PTSD know we could never be warned about. Things that are unique to each person’s experience—colors, words, people, phrases, images, situations—can trigger the post-traumatic-stress. The hope that we could be warned about the more obvious graphic and offensive things is a plea for our struggle to be compassionately recognized. 

You know where I stand. I like my trigger warnings.

But what about? Do you like them, loathe them, or are you indifferent either way?

H&H Editor Picks:

Sex Doesn’t Sell? Wait...What Now?

What’s the Line Between Forbidden and Too Forbidden?

June 2017 Romance New Releases






Robin Lovett writes sexy contemporary romances, and her dark romance trilogy will release this summer through SMP Swerve.

Robin enjoys writing romance to avoid the more unsavory things in life, like day jobs, housework, and personal demons. To feed her coffee and chocolate addictions, she can frequently be found overdosing on mochas. When not writing with her cat, she’s busy embracing untamable curly hair and adventuring in the outdoors with her husband.

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1. Cerestheories
It's an interesting and sometimes frustrating conversation that I agree we need to have: readers, authors, publishers, reviewers. When I review books for the site here, I try to include a trigger warning at the end of the post if applicable. Of course, triggers vary from person to person, and I am fortunate enough to have "icks" but not "triggers," so I'm sure I miss a whole bunch of them.

I recently read/reviewed a book that had a character recovering from a graphic assault that was depicted in a flashback. The story was a powerful work that showed the heroine reclaiming her body, her life... but those pages were definitely worthy of a trigger warning. Sometimes I think that we (reviewers, people recommending books, w/e) should be more specific "it's between pages 208-220" but that's not practical and probably not sufficient.

IMO broad warnings are good, not just for triggers, but also to keep folks who don't want sex in their romance from posting those 1 star "it had sex in it" reviews.
Jonetta Allen
2. Jonetta/Ejaygirl
I personally don't need trigger warnings but do respect those who do. I'd much rather suffer a bit of spoilerism than cause someone unnecessary stress or severe upset because they were not forewarned. Perhaps headings could be used and those needing them can explore further and those that don't can bypass. Otherwise, I'm perfectly happy to adjust.
3. Bailee
I agree with you completely on the subject of trigger warnings. I think they should be required for all authors to include. Maybe they could put them on a seperate page (behind the table of contents or something) where those of us that want to read them can do so and those that feel like they are spoilers could just skip right over them.
4. Pam G
Yes, I just read a short story from the anthology Scoundrels of Summer and ran in to something like this. The first book (Maya Rodale) had some F/F action going on, nothing too much, but I wasn't prepared for any and didn't see what it really had to do with the story. And I was worried exactly where the story was going. I put it down and had to make myself finish the story so I could get to the next story in the book.
Anne Ohlrogge
5. krissieo
As a writer I like trigger warnings - I tend to push boundaries but I hate that people are blindsided or hurt by me. I occasionally put warnings in, but I think I'll do more of that, especially because I like to go right to the edge sometimes and occasionally I'll throw myself over it. OTOH, triggering events can be difficult - I can't read drownings, have a real hard time with the death of teenagers, depending on character & circumstance (Even writing that mkes me cry). So, obvious warnings are a good thing and can be ignored, but some things are just gonna trigger you.
Jennifer Proffitt
6. JenniferProffitt
@Cerestheories, I think you're right on the practicality thing and of having a broad warning because we can't account for every trigger that is out there, and it seems like a process you don't want to start if you're going to do it wrong by being specific with your warnings...and then not realizing something ELSE was a trigger and then accidentally triggering someone you were trying to protect all along.

I think that's why it's hard for policies to be made on the topic, because the questions is always how do you encompass such a wide range of things into just a few words. And certainly you can't say "skip these 20 pages" because what if THOSE 20 pages were fine, but a different set of pages, was not. You never know.

All that being said, I appreciate trigger warnings. I don't need them myself, but there are just some things that I'm not comfortable reading and so prefer to be warned beforehand, and I appreciate that for other people it's a vital part of reading.
7. lauralee1912
Like Cerestheories, I think broad warnings are good, especially for those readers who wish to avoid explicit sex scenes or violence.

Personally, I don't need trigger warnings. I stay away from books which I feel aren't for me based on the description and reviews. There are more books out waiting to be read than I'll get to in my life time so why poke the bear?
Maria Petersson
8. summerofjoy
I don't need trigger warnings personally, that being said I don't mind them. Some might call them spoilers, but in my view they simply give an indication of what you will find in the book which you then can choose if you want to read or not. I think a certain amount of spoilers is fine, it's not like the entire situation is spelled out, and if you don't need the warning - then don't read it.

In fact I find some trigger warnings enlightening where the blurb might be less than forthcoming.
9. FX
I have had to stop reading a book for days if I come across a graphic rape scene. I can skim it and not go into a rage coma if I know about it in advance so I absolutely want to get a trigger warning for that.
10. Kareni
I'm fortunate in that I do not need a trigger warning; however, I have no objection to seeing one. The ideal, I think, would be to have a symbol (or some such) on a book indicating that a trigger warning exists. One could then visit (or somesuch) to learn the specifics.
11. amiesavitri
I do need trigger warning. I think previously, my romance experience is pretty "vanilla". Nowadays I'm exposed to many things in romance, including dark romance and kinks. So I'd love to get warning especially regarding violence, rape, and consent (dubious or non). It helps adjust my frame of mind when reading the material and can actually elevate my reading experience if I know what I'll get myself into.
12. Althea Claire Duffy
Less Than Three Press has found a brilliant way to do trigger warnings while not giving spoilers to people who don't want them: there's a link on the blurb, and clicking that link reveals the trigger warnings (as well as whether or not there's explicit sex). I seldom find they spoil much of anything specific, though, and often for me they're a vague teasing tidbit of information that makes me more curious.

I have depression and anxiety triggers but they're really weird and hard to explain - if I wanted to explain them publicly, which I don't. So conventional trigger warnings aren't any use to me - they're not anything like rape or child abuse. I've developed my own spidey sense for stuff that would wreck me, and it usually works pretty well.
13. Kahintenn
I love the idea of a website where you could go to find trigger warnings. Provides the info that people need, without spoilers. Publishers, are you listening?
14. willaful
Riptide Press also does this, very comprehensively. They list anything that might be concerning, including the relationsip status of the couple at the end! (But you have to click to get the specific info, so you can be "spoiled" about one subject and not all the others.)
Teddy Pierson
15. TeddyP
I feel trigger warnings are spoilers and should not be given. I also like, and expect, when my emotions are triggered, good or bad, at any moment when I partake in every form of entertainment.
16. smmoe1997
While I don't need trigger warnings, I actually do appreciate the availability of them, because some of the things listed as triggers are just not for me. I would really prefer to not read about rape or abuse of any kind, in fact I'm having a horrible time reading one of my favorite author's newest book because of the rape and abuse included in the flashback portion of the book. It is currently sitting in my DNF pile, and I don't know that I will ever convince myself to finish it.

I think the idea of a symbol on the book that people can then look-up more info if they want to know more would be great. There has to be a way to compromise that won't provide spoilers for those who don't care about the warnings, but will provide enough detail that those who want to avoid certain material and topics are able to do so. I certainly don't mind having to dig a little deeper to find out if a book has subjects I would rather not read about.
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