Should Books Come With Trigger Warnings?

Neil Gaiman’s most recent book was a collection of short stories under the title Trigger Warning. He opened the book with a short discussion of “trigger warnings” (an internet phrase that is used to indicate that there may be objectionable or deeply troubling content to follow, to allow readers to “opt out” if they feel unprepared for it). Gaiman comes out neither for or against trigger warnings—he basically says if someone will be greatly upset by something, they do have a right to avoid it, but that sometimes it is good to introduce ourselves to troubling things, in order to grow as people—and I didn’t think too much about it beyond “hm.”
Then I read Ship of Destiny. Not to spoil too much, but there is a sudden and unexpected rape scene in the story. Much like a real rape, it occurred practically without warning. It was not a particularly graphic scene, violence-wise, but the word choices and the trauma of the victim that played out over the next several chapters deeply troubled me.
I think I would have liked to have had a trigger warning that there would be a rape in the book. I think I would have still read it—it was very well executed, sensitive to the victim, and made it clear that the villain was a deeply conflicted, messed-up person—but I would have liked some warning, so I could have emotionally prepared myself.
I struggle with rape scenes in all genres. I was interested in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo until I heard there was a graphic rape scene, and I know myself well enough to know I just can’t handle that. I had to stop watching a movie (I think it was The Missing?) because it looked like the main female character was going to be raped–I ran out of the room crying and couldn’t bear to finish.
Someone I know has told me she wishes TV shows and movies came with trigger warning-esque labels: she has a crippling anxiety about people being shot in the head after someone close to her died that way. I can’t blame her for that.
But of course, content creators may not want their work to be labeled in this way. (Publishers probably wouldn’t!) It might put off potential book-buyers. People might protest something that, if they just read it in context, would be fine. There’s a danger inherent to telling people your work might be challenging to them.
I don’t know that I feel that all books should carry a trigger warning. After all, I found Kushiel’s Dart …troubling… but it was still a great book and I’m glad to have read it. (The difference between that and Ship of Destiny? Kushiel’s Dart had lots of clear warnings about what I was getting into!)
I agree with Gaiman that sometimes we have to push our boundaries a little, and that may mean reading something we find unnerving. But I also think people do have a right to protect themselves, particularly that very delicate emotional scared place we all have.
What do you think? Would you want your book to have a trigger warning?
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Filed under Reading, Short Stories, writing

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