Book Discussion · thoughts · Uncategorized

Should there be trigger warnings on books?


Before 2007, Yeonmi Park lived in North Korea under wealthy standards until her father was caught participating in an illegal trade business during the economic collapse and sent to a labor camp. Faced with starvation, Yeonmi Park, escaped to China along with her mother only to fall into the hands of human traffickers. She does eventually escape to South Korea and is now serving as a human rights activist. She wrote a memoir about her journey, In Order To Live, which was published in September 2015.

I have not yet read the book but it can be safely assumed after reading and watching reviews that she suffers through a great deal of violence and tragedy both directly and indirectly. One reviewer in particular I watched said that she usually avoids these kinds of books because she is a sensitive person and it’s difficult for her to stomach things like this when it’s actually happening in someone else’s life.

To which I say, isn’t that our responsibility as readers? Isn’t it our responsibility to broaden our perspectives to other people’s lives? Are we really going to run away from things that can make us uncomfortable and even offend us sometimes just so we can have peace of mind? What about learning to critically analyze our own culture and society through these lens? 

Another point I would like to make is that by putting trigger warnings on books, you are emphasizing the actual event instead of the repercussions which can be just as important. If I saw a trigger warning that said “rape” in this book, all I can think about is that there is rape in this book instead of focusing on the fact that maybe this book is about someone coming to terms after being raped. It’s like if someone slapped a sticker that said ice cream on the cover and basically all I’m waiting for while reading the book is when the person is going to eat ice cream.

Trigger warnings may actually exist soon enough. About a week ago, Laura Murphy, a Virginia mother, was appalled to hear that part of her son’s required reading was Beloved by Toni Morrison which contains explicit sexual content. A bill is now making through the Virginia legislature which would require K-12 teachers “to identify classroom materials with “‘sexually explicit content'” and “notify parents who would have the right to ‘opt-out’ their children and give them something less objectionable to read. It’s not censorship but it basically is a trigger warning.

Some books that would contain this label if bill is passed:

I have not personally read Beloved but I have read The Bluest Eye and it does contain the same kinds of sexual content in the form of rape as I think Beloved has. And I have to say that is there anything that’s truly objectionable nowadays? There has to be some controversy. It sparks discussion and a meaningful conversation about our society. And I don’t think anyone reads Toni Morrison’s works for pure enjoyment. She is not Sophie Kinsella. What she is is a writer of brutal human condition and what it means to be black in America. That’s not an easy discussion to have and sheltering is not going to make hardships go away. I also would like to point out again that putting a label on a book as having sexually explicit content makes it seem like the topic should be discouraged from discussing altogether which I think is hugely disrespectful to people who have actually experienced this. It also, again, latches onto the fact that it has sexually explicit content which completely disregards everything else this book is actually about. Rape is not about rape. It’s about power. Torture is not really about the act of torture either. It’s also about manipulation.

Take A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara for example. Sure, it has abuse of almost every kind in this book but if I had purposefully censored myself from reading it, I would be missing

Scene from 1984 movie

out on an incredible story about redemption and friendship. Take 1984 by George Orwell which contains torture *shudders*. I would be missing out on a story that although fictionalized says a lot about totalitarian governments and the nature of political propaganda and power. In fact, Yeonmi Park herself read 1984 after escaping and when she read it, she felt as if George Orwell truly knew what she went through.


“I read to fill my mind and to block out the bad memories. But I found that as I read more, my thoughts were getting deeper, my vision wider, and my emotions less shallow. The vocabulary in South Korea was so much richer than the one I had known, and when you have more words to describe the world, you increase your ability to think. In North Korea, the regime doesn’t want you to think, and they hate subtlety.

I know I cannot speak for everyone because everyone has had different experiences and everyone has their own reasons for not reading certain things that are totally valid. In fact, I can’t stand watching or reading torture but I think that it’s still an important topic that should not be gleaned over. But bottom line for me is that trigger warnings is censorship by choice.

Do you think there should be trigger warnings on books? What do you think of the Virginia bill?

Some articles where I did my research if you’re interested:

Yeonmi Park

The Virginia Bill




17 thoughts on “Should there be trigger warnings on books?

  1. Well said. I don’t think the warnings are going to necessarily work for some kids, especially if it’s censored with “explicit sexual content”. I think they’ll sneak about and read it just for that purpose. Take my Gramps for instance, he snuck into the playboy theaters when he was a kid just so he could see Howard Hugh’s film – “The Outlaw”. Needless to say he was sorely disappointed because there was just one nude scene and it wasn’t for sexual purposes. So he was suckered into watching a Western movie.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. HAHA, that is actually hilarious but pretty good marketing then ;p
      And yes good point! Censoring it just adds to the appeal and I remember an author (Rick Riordan) who was once a middle school teacher who said that his students shouldn’t read his adult books because they contain cuss words but they just ended up getting a copy and highlighting all the cuss words lol

      Liked by 1 person

  2. i’m split on this topic. i really, really agree with you strongly that we can’t have important conversations and change things if we’re not willing to face hard and painful truths. but i also understand that it may be hard for people who have actually gone through these things and/or have any amount of ptsd from them to read about these things. i understand that. in the end, i think it has to be the reader’s decision. if you think a book will be triggering, don’t read it. if a book starts to get triggering, put it down. you don’t have to read something until you’re ready. i do, though, dislike the thought of art being labeled because it is thought “distasteful” (which is essentially what the VA bill is doing). would we label great, historic works of art “distasteful” or “triggering” just because they show pain, violence, or (*gasp*) nudity? no. we recognize that they are depictions meant to show insight into humanity and what it means to be human. we should do this with all art, not just visual. all art is meant to show humanity, good, bad, and ugly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely agree that some topics would be difficult for some people to read (I know it’s very true for victims of rape reading about rape or war soldiers and war) and that’s a really good alternative! They should definitely at least give it a shot and if it doesn’t work, at least they gave it a shot and learned something. And yes, well said!! Pain, violence and nudity are all part of humanity and we shouldn’t hide it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. WOW WOW WOW this discussion is so eloquent. Before reading this, I thought, sure! Why not have trigger warnings. But you have completely won me over! It makes sense—sometimes a book is doing you a favor by NOT having a trigger warning. BRILLIANT. Plus, triggers for some aren’t triggers for others. The reader needs to be a big kid and decide for themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. stahp you’re making me blush ❤
      That's a good point, some triggers wouldn't be triggers for some readers but will really affect others. Trigger warnings would definitely sway some readers not to read or to read something.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That sounds like the mom giving I know why the Caged Bird Sings a one star out of five just because she read the sexual content and she was mad it was a school required reading for her son.
    Of course you HAD to add those analogies all the time.
    I mean it kinda depends. I think all books should have trigger warnings because people might be really affected after reading those scenes.But its really sad if someone read those trigger warnings to “scare” them away instead of letting them be more open to the point of it in the novel. I’m not too sure. Nice discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My only exposure to the subject of “trigger warnings” has been Tumblr. As you probably know, many bloggers tag their posts a certain way if they are discussing a subject that may be “triggering” for others. But as I understand it, “triggering” does not mean when a subject makes a person uncomfortable, but when a subject elicits a real, anxiety-inducing response. I know there’s a book blog on Tumblr that lists books and trigger warnings for those needing to avoid certain subjects. I personally think this is a good way to help those who are dealing with anxiety issues.

    However, I do agree with you that placing these warnings on books does sort of feel like a form of censorship and I completely disagree with this bill that would ban these books because school is supposed to be a place where kids learn about the world, not be secluded from it. Perhaps a compromise for those looking for these warnings would be the publisher to list them on their website. Great discussion post, Carolyn!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually didn’t know people could have such visceral reactions to reading until a few months ago when a person said they could have a panic attack while reading. And in cases like those I totally agree!
      And oooh, that’s a good alternative! Then the person can look them up at their own discretion.
      Thanks Alicia! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Now it’s MY turn to love your post!! And heck, I love this one. I first came across tw’s on tumblr, and have been thinking about it ever since. I think they are necessary for spaces such as Tumblr; I mean people go on it to relax and read things (or at least I do idk) so tw’s can make Tumblr a safer space for them where they can feel comfortable and safe.

    We have trigger warnings when it comes to movies (like, rated R for sexual content, or something like that), though it would be interesting if we had that in books. I wouldn’t know how to feel about it.

    I think it does depend from person to person as others have said here. Do you avoid content because you want to be ignorant to the pain of others, or because you’ve had a traumatizing experience in the past? If the latter, then I think it is okay.

    To answer your questions though:
    1. I am mixed on this, and don’t really have an answer. I’m worried about the consequences if we did though, because, as you mentioned, books can be dismissed as ‘having X’ rather than ‘exploring the effect of X’.
    2. I think the Viriginia Bill is a terrible idea. There will be some parents who do it out of concern for their kids, but I think teachers and schools would face a lot of pressure. I do believe that sometimes parents have to take a step back and let teachers learn and do their thing. I believe that some teachers know what is best, and if that means teaching ‘objectionable’ content, then so be it, so long as the teacher can teach it sensitively, create safe spaces, that sort of thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally get it when it comes to Tumblr because it can be be actually triggering for some people.
      And I did think of trigger warnings on movies (good point btw) but it’s like different to me? Because you know R-rated is stricted to people seventeen and older but it would just feel weird if we assigned age categories to books. Idk how exactly though lol. Maybe because movies are a more like social thing? Like a mom/dad would have to pretty conscious of their movie choice if they’re going with their entire family versus with their friend and I think reading is more about personal taste.
      I guess I’m also saying that even if you’ve had a traumatic experience, it shouldn’t really keep you from reading it either. I know that’s kind of horrible to say and it definitely will vary from person to person and what the person can handle and the experience but I sometimes feel like reading about it and feeling like you’re not alone will help? But I mean, what do I know..


      1. More so, movies are very visual, and that can have more of an effect on people. (I mean, horror movies… which I do not watch because I’m a chicken!)

        Hmmm, I totally see where you are coming from, Carolyn. I think, however, I’ve never been traumatized by something, so it’s very hard for me to say – or not even in my place to say because I don’t have that experience!

        I think it also does depend on how the triggering subject matter is presented. If its a recovery-focused sort of book, it could help maybe? I am not sure either.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh yeah that’s true I hadn’t thought about how much of the triggering subject would have to be present. I know! I try to watch them but I have to cover my eyes and pause like half the time lol


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