Trigger Warnings and Romance

Consent Is Sexy

A recent conversation with other romance novelists inevitably went where all discussions of literature and media end up these days: discussing content warnings, often called trigger warnings. To be transparent, I prefer “content warnings” for reasons I’ll explain in a moment, but I’ve used “trigger warnings” in the title because it tends to attract more attention and incite more controversy.

If you’ve been living under a rock the last few years and aren’t sure what they are, content warnings alert readers (or viewers, in the case of film and media) to potentially sensitive subject matter they may not want to encounter or may appreciate having a warning about before their encounter. Often this means scenes of sexual assault, gun violence, domestic violence – things that often cause trauma. People who have lived through these experiences may be “triggered” into having a traumatic response to reading or screening subject matter like this.

Those who oppose the inclusion of trigger warnings at the beginning of novels or on classroom syllabi argue that the “trigger” notion is flawed. (Well, some just plain argue that it doesn’t matter if people will be triggered because that’s life, but they’re giant assholes whose ignorant positions aren’t worth exploring here.) Because traumatic responses can be incited by smells, tastes, music, things that are not directly related to the trauma itself, and because for some encountering images of the traumatic event isn’t a trigger, opponents say this is an unnecessary measure that ultimately doesn’t help the very people it intends to help.

I’m not a licensed psychiatrist, but from the experiences of myself and my loved ones, that seems sometimes true.

Another argument is that there is no feasible way to account for every potential trauma trigger. Thus, trigger warnings can’t be effective – or, if we wanted them to be, we’d essentially have to include every single scene and line of dialogue in the warnings to be encompassing. This is obviously not reasonable, and it would mean the warnings and the content itself would become indistinguishable. I can see this side of the argument, too.

But here’s the other side: even if warnings are unnecessary or do not prevent trauma or can’t account for every trauma, what exactly is the harm in alerting readers or viewers to sensitive content? How exactly does a list of warnings do damage? It doesn’t.

Furthermore, content warnings in romance and erotica get to the very crux of what makes good romance in the 21st century: consent.

When a reader understands what sensitive subjects are in a book before reading it, that reader is being given the opportunity to consent to the experience. Without content warnings, the reader is not in a consensual position. Sensitive scenes like rape and torture might be encountered without warning, without the reader wanting to encounter them. The reader then has to decide whether to keep reading or put the book down, but the encounter has already happened. It’s the equivalent of an aggressive dude sticking his tongue in a woman’s mouth without asking if she wanted to be kissed. She then has the choice to kiss back, endure it in suffering, or shove the jerk away. Even if she takes the last action, she can’t undo the fact that the guy has already kissed her, already spread his germs.

One of the awesome things about the #MeToo movement and the Obama-era changes to campus sexual assault and misconduct was the greater attention paid to consent – and even active consent. I grew up in the 1980s. I remember learning about “date rape” and being taught that sex should stop the minute someone says no. Today, though, the philosophy is that sex should not start until someone says yes. Consent-based sex, rather than objection-based stopping. Pretty cool, no? Active consent, the best practice, means that the parties involved in the sexual encounter have consented before it starts and continue to give consent throughout the encounter as new acts are tried, as time rolls on, etc.

[TMI: My wife and I practice active consent, and it’s really so much sexier and so much more intimate than the kind of sex I experienced before, when I was never sure what was okay for me or for my partner.]

If we translate all this to romance, which is by nature an intimate encounter on the page, isn’t it better to give readers the chance to consent? By telling readers on page before the start of chapter one or in the book blurb that sensitive scenes are featured in the book, writers and publishers can ensure that readers are choosing to consent into the reading experience. This means they want to read, and they won’t be turned off by the experience. Happy readers, of course, mean readers who will write good recommendations, share books and favorite authors with friends, and read future publications. To be clear, I’m not saying we should include content warnings in romance because it’s profitable. We should do it because it’s the right thing to do. But it doesn’t hurt that it has extra benefits.

Consent is cool. Let’s practice it.

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