Content Warnings: What It Is and What It Isn’t

Posted September 13, 2018 by Lillian in Features / 0 Comments

There’s a debate that’s been raging in the book community for years now: should there be content warnings on books? The answer is complicated, and I could spend days on this topic alone. BUT the short answer (in my opinion) is YES. Now before you start coming at me with the pitchforks, I want to stress that I DO NOT condone censorship. Rating content is NOT censorship. It’s information used to decide whether a book is right or wrong for the reader in question (i.e. trigger warnings). Keep that in mind as you read.

Content Warnings is NOT a new concept.

Content Warnings have been around for a long time. Frankly, as long as there has been media available, there have been warnings. In the 1920s, the Motion Picture Association of America, or the MPAA for short, was founded and formed. This is the company that responsible for developing the movie rating system we all know today. As a mom, this rating system is really important. It lets me make an informed decision about what my child is watching. I can quickly look at the rating to see if it is ok for him, and then in the box it gives more info as to WHY it is rated as such.

For example, my son is 7. He is not ready for sex scenes or graphic violence. Those things would scare him at this age. The MPAA’s rating system allows me to make a decision ahead of seeing the movie. Does that mean the movie isn’t good? NO! It means that it’s too mature for my son. As a parent, it’s our job to know our children and what they are mature enough to see.

This same principle has been applied to TV and video/computer games. The TV guidelines were established in the late 90s after Congress passed the Telecommunications Act. This asked the entertainment industry to established a ratings system that would work with the V-chip in TVs, allowing parents to block programming that they felt inappropriate for their family.

We use this a lot, especially with Netflix and Vudu. We have it set up that a pin number has to be input to watch programming above G (PG for MPAA ratings). This is a lifesaver for us. I don’t have to worry about my son watching a show I don’t approve of. As he ages, we’ll raise the limits, at our own discretion. And even now there are some things we allow him to watch that are above those ratings. HOWEVER we’ve watched them and know that those will not scare him and feel he is mature enough for those shows/movies.

Movies, TV, Games, Why not Books?

I’ve been an avid reader since I was a little girl. I have read any and everything I could get my hands on. This included my grandmother’s Harlequin books at age 13. I can honestly tell you that if my grandmother knew she gave her 13-year-old granddaughter a book that discussed the size of a cowboy’s cock she would have keeled over right then. I was NOT ready for that lesson on sex and a rating on the book would’ve prevented me from getting my hands on it.

Bottom line: we rate movies, video games, and TV shows. We put content warnings on music with a big “EXPLICIT” label when vulgar language is used. Why are there no ratings on books? Yes, as readers we give books a rating, but that rating is opinion and based on how well the book is written, the plot, characters, and if we ultimately liked the book. However there are no set guidelines on rating books for content as there is for virtually everything else. As a parent, this is disturbing to me.

Now let me clarify before the critics crucify me. I am not suggesting censorship. Let me repeat: I AM NOT SUGGESTING CENSORSHIP. Okay, did you get that? I do not suggest or support censorship in any form or fashion. All books have a place in this world. However, there needs to be check and balance for our kids’ sake (and those who deal with a mental illness). There needs to be a way for parents who don’t read much to see what their bookaholic child is reading. Just like the movie ratings and TV guidelines, books need to have a content label that gives parents the ability to know if their child is ready (re: mature enough) for the book they are wanting to read.

My Responsibility to My Son

I could do (and have done) a quick search about this topic on Google and come up with hundreds of articles. Some debating the need for content ratings like Fadwa @ Word Wonders, and others debating that content warnings is akin to censorship like this article from the NCAC. Then there’s this article about trigger warnings from Book Riot that does a great job summing up how I feel about content warnings in general.

I have very strong feelings about this subject (if you can’t tell). More so now that I have a bookaholic child 😉 Despite being an avid reader myself, I know that once he is older and reading larger books, I won’t be able to keep up. I want to know that what he is reading is age appropriate for him, meeting his own maturity level, and our own family standards. Will I censor him? No, but I will monitor what he reads. I want to know that when he is thirteen, he isn’t reading a book that has a murderer on the loose and describes those murder scenes in detail (Thanks James Patterson 😂).

As a parent, it is our job to protect the innocence of our kids. Not just in movies or on TV, but in the books they read as well. This conviction led me to a decision over my summer break. You may have noticed since returning to the blog on Monday, there haven’t been any book reviews. You might be thinking, “Did she read anything this Summer?” Y’all I read plenty, BUT I wanted to post this discussion first before I rolled out a review. Why? Because from now on, you will see content ratings on the books I review.

Applying Content Ratings

I’m not the first to do this. In fact, I did extensive research on the blogs who already have a system in place. I attempted to create my own content ratings, but after my research and determining how to do it without coming across as biased OR censoring (because remember I DO NOT CONDONE CENSORSHIP), I decided to join up with My Book Ratings.

I will place a rating on every book I read and review on the blog from this day forward (or at least most). To see how I come to a certain rating, check out the FAQs page at My Book Cave. The rating system is very detailed and I have to answer several questions about the book before a rating is determined. It’s streamlined and doesn’t ask for any opinions, only facts about the book. For example, how many sex scenes are in the book, are they close door or detailed scenes? I feel this is a very unbiased approach to content rating for books, applying what is already used on movies, tv, and games.


Your turn! I want your opinion (pros and cons) on book content ratings. Do you use something similar on your own blog? Is this something that the book community (i.e. publishers, authors, and guilds) should employ and standardize? I know this borders on censorship as many have debated. What do you think? 

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