I’m Warning You…

October 5, 2010
Two characters speaking, the smaller one looking apprehensive, as if just given a warning

A panel from the online comic I.C.Q., which I co-write with Veritas, featuring Toni Squire (cat) and Cassandra Martinez (chinchilla)

One concern that in a way is unique (and, in other ways, when you start looking further into things, really isn’t) to writing which is self-published on the Internet, is that of content warnings. TV shows like Cops will start with generic warnings like “Due to the nature of this program, viewer discretion is advised,” and the text on the screen may go into enough extra detail to establish that it’s about violence, but that’s about it. It doesn’t mention on the book jacket of Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear that it contains rape scenes, but perhaps it should. Readers and viewers of mainstream media have to resort to other methods to find out whether the work they’re considering consuming contains content they for some reason want to avoid.

These other methods are not available for most fiction published online, no matter whether it’s original or fannish in nature, whether it features furry or human characters. So, at some point in the past, someone came up with the brilliant idea of posting content warnings with their stories. I will admit that I’ve previously primarily thought of these as squick warnings; it was only in the past year or two that the idea that they might be triggering to past sufferers of trauma even crossed my mind. Since I was already in the habit of warning for content, this didn’t really affect me very profoundly; I started being a little more careful about warning for stories which feature e.g. characters in a fragile mental state, but in the end? Whether you want to avoid something because it squicks you or because it’ll cause you to relive past trauma doesn’t matter. It’s (mostly) all the same to me, though I will admit to teasing a couple of straight friends about their refusal to read anything I write featuring men getting it on.

I was, recently, exposed to a massive argument that went down some time a bit more than a year ago, regarding a writer’s moral obligation towards zir readers. Am I, as a writer, obligated to show my readers the kindness of telling them what to expect from my work? Possibly not. I think, however, that I, as a human being, am obligated to be at least thoughtful enough to inform potential readers about the common triggers.

Beyond that, well… I’d rather flag my stories for gay sex (provided they actually do contain gay sex, of course) and have people who enjoy gay sex read them, than not flag, and end up killing (or worse, confusing) the boner of that mythical, elusive straight reader. I don’t see how saying “two guys will end up getting it on in the space of this story” is spoiling much of anything. For those of you who are concerned about spoilers (I also have no problem reading synopses before consuming a work for the first time; if it’s really worth reading or viewing it’s worth doing so twice, and with anything short of sudden-onset selective amnesia I’d be spoiled the second time no matter what), check the link list at the end of the article for code that’s compatible with pretty much anything that isn’t a phone browser or possibly Lynx.

It makes my heart ache that there are people out there who don’t seem to think people who’ve suffered trauma or abuse in the past deserve the courtesy of warnings. Hell, it upsets me enough that there are people out there who think people who “just” find some content squicky don’t deserve warnings. I’m fortunate enough that I can “turn off” most of my squicks and read a story from a detached, technical point of view (and I do encourage people to branch out and at least read things that aren’t specifically their turn-ons, even if it’s up to the individual to decide whether they can handle reading squick objectively), but not everyone else is. I honestly don’t understand where the artistic value in offending your reader lies. Even my own The Gift of Rosiel, which is supposed to be unpleasant, was never intended to be offensive, and I’d never dream of not warning for the abuse, violence and rape that story contains.

If I don’t want to read about your characters eating feces, I’m not going to be any more receptive to this kink because you didn’t warn for it. In fact, the lack of warning will probably adversely affect my overall impression of your story, even if I don’t intend to let it do so, because you didn’t give me the chance to brace, mentally, for something I find squicky. Why would you want a review from someone who finds themselves unexpectedly reeling with disgust?

I don’t intend to conflate squick and triggers by any of what I say above; I simply consider both worth being taken into account, and if you take all common squicks into account you’re going to be taking all common triggers into account, so in the end, if people can be convinced to warn for squick, the people with triggers will be all the better off for it. If you don’t want to warn for squick, at the very least you should warn for triggering subjects or, if you don’t even do that, have the basic fucking courtesy to warn that you don’t warn for content.

In a closing note, I’ll mention that on Vixenscratch, I do try to warn for triggers by way of post tags. This is not a perfect system (categories and tags show up at the bottom of the posts) if you’re being linked directly to the stories. It should be adequate for reading from the archive, as I also make sure to have no explicit content before the “read more” link. If I miss anything (being only human), let me know and I’ll fix it. I know some people have issues with the term “dub-con” (or “dubious consent” as I’ve tagged it). The way I use it, it’s generally for issues such as a character withdrawing consent after it’s already been given and not telling zir partner about it, or neither character being entirely in a state to give informed consent (who’s taking advantage of whom if you’re both piss drunk?).

Further Reading:
Sexual Assault, Triggering, and Warnings: An Essay by Impertinence (Warning: Very explicit discussion of sexual assault and the nature, anatomy, cause & effect of triggers. Is itself triggery.)
Warnings & How To Do ‘Em by Amadi (HTML code snippet for generating warnings.)

Image Caption Links:
The Mephit’s Tales – Veritas’s storyblog
I.C.Q. – Veritas’s and my free webcomic

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