Content warnings are not weakness

Jan 15, 2023

I posted a version of this back in 2021, but rather than edit that I’m reposting, as the link to the previous one is in several places online. This is an updated version to address a couple of points that always come up in relation to this subject.

There are frequently posts on social media where a certain subset of people end up ranting about including content warnings in horror books. Content warnings are sometimes called trigger warnings, but given the way edgelords all over have co-opted the term “trigger” as some kind of insult, it’s actually easier and more accurate to refer to what they actually are – warnings about the contents of any given book (or movie, etc.). From here on, I’m going to refer to them simply as CW.

There was a day when I was against the idea of CW, then I learned more. Now I’m not. Horror, or any other fiction for that matter, has no rules. Story is how we mirror and interrogate our world. Write your soul, your pain, your truth. Anyone who tries to tell you what you can write can go suck it. Equally, if you write something deeply offensive or harmful to others, be ready for consequences. Don’t be a dick is always the benchmark, for fiction of any kind or life in general. But write what you want. You should always consider whether a story is yours to tell, but we want diversity in our fiction. We want to see our world reflected. Doing that without harm is the trick.

Horror, of course, is meant to be confronting. But that doesn’t mean it should be traumatic, or that people avoiding trauma are somehow wrong, weak, or censors. If a reader asks for CW, that’s okay. People carry all kinds of trauma they don’t want reinforced. CW are not censorship. You don’t have to include them, of course, but don’t deny or complain about others discussing them. That’s a dick move. A lot of people don’t want CW, they want no spoilers. Fair enough, I’m like that too. CW should definitely be somewhere out of sight. A good idea is the back of the book maybe, where people who want them can look. Another option is to have them available via the publisher or author website. That’s an inclusive move. I’ve added a page to my site here that people can check or be directed to, then anyone who might need a warning about the content of any of my books can find what they need. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s something. I definitely deal with some seriously fucked up shit in my stories. Horror is the genre of honesty, after all, and honestly, the world can be pretty fucked up.

But the idea that people asking for CW are somehow “snowflakes” is bloody toxic. If I love cake but I’m allergic to peanuts, it’s not censorship of the cake’s integrity or commentary on the cake’s validity to include a list of ingredients. It’s not weak of someone with a peanut allergy to want to avoid a cake that can harm them. People without allergies can ignore the ingredient list. People with peanut allergies can stay safe. It’s really that simple. If you don’t include a list of ingredients and someone has a peanut allergy, they’ll avoid all your cakes entirely just in case. But if they have one allergy and your ingredients point out their problem isn’t in the cake, you might even gain a new reader. Do people read cakes? This analogy has taken me down a dark alley and mugged me. Let’s move on.

I don’t think books should have CW included. If you want to put them in the back, or somewhere people can easily ignore them or find them, that’s great. But they shouldn’t be required by any means. There are inherent issues that arise from that kind of prescriptivism. As is often the case, the best way lies somewhere along the middle path. Supplying a resource like I’ve done on my site here is easy and it’s kind. The vast majority of people don’t need CW, don’t care about them, and probably won’t ever even know about that particular page on my site. For the people who do need it though, there it is. Supplying that kind of information is such a simple kindness, and it’s a real indication of privilege and downright dickishness to say something like, “Ugh, the fact it’s horror should be trigger warning enough!” No, that’s not true. There are people out there who love horror but have PTSD from e.g. childhood abuse – they shouldn’t have that trauma reinforced while trying to enjoy books about ghosts or monsters or any other kind of horror.

And here’s where some edgelord (it’s always the edgelords and edgeladies) comes along and starts posting articles talking about how studies have shown that using trigger warnings in university courses can actually be counterproductive and so on. Like that’s some kind of gotcha. Guess what, fuckknuckle, we’re not talking about the real and challenging process of educating yourself at university. We’re talking about the kind of stuff that people choose to entertain themselves with. They shouldn’t be forced to confront damaging issues while they’re trying to relax and enjoy downtime.

And those same edgefolk always come along with something like, “These snowflakes need to take responsibility for themselves and their issues!” Guess what, fuckmuppet? That’s exactly what they’re doing. By asking for content warnings, they can judge for themselves and take personal responsibility for anything they consume. If it’s not something that is an issue for you, well done! You can literally just ignore it. It takes more energy for you to rant, incorrectly, about their “weakness” than it does for you to simply fuck on by. No one is changing your experience, and who the fuck are you to gatekeep a genre for others?

Just to reiterate:

Horror is meant to be confronting.

That doesn’t mean it should be traumatic, or that people avoiding trauma are somehow wrong, weak, or censors.

People with trauma can and do love horror.

If we can create whatever we want and protect people with trauma as well, why the fuck wouldn’t we?

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