Riot Grrrls and Trigger Warnings

My novel Grrrls on the Side, (Duet, June 8, 2017), takes place during the Riot Grrrl movement of the early to mid-’90s. The young women who considered themselves Riot Grrrls were feminists, activists and artists. They participated in the punk scene, created zines, marched on Washington, spoke out about rape culture, and demanded to be heard. But like many young women and teens, they were often derided for their choices and for daring to speak out.

It was an imperfect movement that was often criticized for its lack of intersectionality and ultimately fizzled out due to a lack of organization. But it was still important. Many young women found themselves through the friendships and values they formed as Riot Grrrls. Myself included. My feminism definitely has its roots in Riot Grrrl.

Because Riot Grrrl was (and still is) important to so many women, I knew I had to depict the experience with honesty and respect. That meant being realistic about what these “grrrls” talked about during their meetings. Unfortunately, for one in six American women, that probably meant talking about sexual assault. So it would be impossible to talk about feminism and Riot Grrrl without addressing that very real and important issue. But that doesn’t mean I should exploit the situation. Real people who have been sexually assaulted may read my book (I know of a couple who already have), and I owe it to them to treat their experiences with care because rape and other forms of sexual assault cause very real, lasting trauma. Just because it happens in real life and I wanted to reflect that in a novel, doesn’t mean that victims who might be harmed by reading about something so traumatic should have to read it. So I chose to include a trigger warning in the author’s note at the beginning of the book. There has been a lot of talk lately among authors about trigger warnings, especially in the YA community. Some, like me, feel they can be an important tool for helping readers, particularly young readers, to navigate what might feel like a literary minefield after a traumatic experience. Others view these warnings as spoilers for the content of a book. While part of me understands where these authors are coming from (they spent a long time crafting that story and don’t want to take away from the emotions they spent years crafting), I don’t agree with them that trigger warnings are spoilers.

Simply put, the point of a trigger warning is to give readers a clue as to what they’re in for. Just like a review, when done right, they can guide a reader to make an informed decision about whether a novel is right for them. If it’s explained clearly but without giving away the plot, authors can warn readers for potential triggers without spoiling the moment for readers who don’t need them. Here is the trigger warning from Grrrls in its entirety.

“While there are no specific depictions of rape in my novel, there is discussion of the rape of an underage girl. There is also one scene where a character experiences unwanted kissing and touching. If you think this might be harmful or triggering to you, please feel free to give this book a pass. Or if you’d like to know what page numbers to skip or want to contact me for more details, please visit my website at www.carriepack.com.”

On the page linked above, I give a few more details about those sections as well as trigger warnings for my other books. It’s not perfect. I might have missed something. But what I think it most important here is that I would also answer questions revealing plot points if it helped a reader. The point is to make the reader comfortable and safe without forcing them to relive one of the worst moments of their lives.

I think a lot of people might misunderstan the point of a trigger warning, believing it is pandering to people who are easily offended, but when approached correctly, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Triggers are references that evoke very real and often severe emotional responses in the victim. For example, a soldier who has PTSD from combat may experience a trigger when they hear fireworks on the Fourth of July. Depictions of sexual assault can have the same effect on a rape survivor. Many veterans have begun posting signs in their yard alerting neighbors to this trigger, so what’s the harm in including a warning in a book?

I consider myself an empathetic person, but I’m also a realist. I know we can’t possibly warn for every trigger that anyone might experience ever. But there are situations, such as self harm, rape, molestation, violence, suicide, etc. that are obvious triggers. The point is to treat readers with care, just as we would any any person who has experienced trauma. And because I care about my readers, I will continue to include trigger warnings whenever warranted.

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