|See also:||headers, spoilers, trigger|
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Warnings are the header element in fanworks that warn readers or viewers of potentially disturbing content, including but not limited to graphic sex, violence, chan, rape or non-con, BDSM or other kinks, foul language, character death, triggering depictions of mental illness, spoilers, slash, het, homophobia, or a host of other possibly offensive elements and squicks. Many fans also expect a warning for an unhappy ending, such as their OTP not getting together or breaking up.
Sometimes warnings are used to attract readers who may be seeking a specific type of content, such as a particular kink.
Warnings may also be used in a facetious manner, to "warn" readers about content that is unlikely to be disturbing. ("Warnings: You cannot look away from the Shiba Inu puppy cam." .)
Warnings and Different Fandoms
For example, The Sentinel slash fiction developed a growing list of warnings. The trend peaked in late 1999 or early 2000, when during a Senad discussion about warnings -- with many people suggesting things that should be warned for -- one fan asked that people warn for stories where Blair Sandburg cuts his hair, which she personally found traumatic. The idea was quickly shouted down and the fan withdrew her request, but it was such an extreme one that word spread out to other fandoms, cementing Sentinel fandom's reputation at the time as the most-warned-for fandom ever.
In Lord of the Rings fandom, interspecies sex between hobbits and humans is often considered to merit a warning, while many other fandoms consider consensual interspecies sex to be no different from any other.
The History of Warnings
For many decades during the print fanfic days, the use of warnings was not commonplace. This is, however, not to say fanzine publishers did not include descriptions in their zine flyers or ads. And one function of fanzine reviews was to offer other readers insight into the fanzine topics before having to part with cash to buy the zine.Maggie Nowakowska wrote:
Fans began to want more information about what it was they were buying and viewing; the rise of the age statement is in some ways, was also the rise of warnings and labeling. This comment is from 1988:[regarding Carolyn G's] comment that fan fiction should be able to embrace genres as pro fiction does. For myself, I have long wished stories were identified as "action/adventure", "relationship", "wish fulfillment", etc. The subject came up year ago when "/" stories began to appear regularly, but it got lost in accusations of "censorship" because of the subject material. People who wanted "/" stories identified as such were subject to all kinds of accusations. However, with the changing times, "/" stories tend to be so identified these days. It would be nice if we also had some way of knowing which other "genre" a zine's stories tended to be; or if a zine were fairly well represented, which stories were which. It certainly would help when buying the zines blind, as many of us who don't regularly get to cons (or go at all) must do through the mails. (Yes, there's the good chance that a person will miss a story that's really good in a genre she doesn't usually buy, but good stories tend to get talked about and she can look it up among her friends. Meanwhile, she won't have spent more money than she can afford on zines that aren't really interesting to her. Some people like any story with SW characters in it; some prefer to stay away from fandom's version of, oh, say, bodice rippers; some don't want death stories, or violent stories, etc.) Hey, I can see it now -- international fanlit label! 
In 1994 Rachel Sabotini recalled:Age statements serve two main purposes. First, they act as insurance for the publisher. In the fabled case of a litigious parent discovering her minor child reading a zine she feels to be pornographic, the existence of that signed age statement offers a first line of defense. Of course 'literary worth' is the main defense against charges of being pornographic, and I'm sure all fan publishers feel what they are printing has value or they would have rejected it to begin with, but realistically, how many would look forward to having to prove that point in court? Which means that for this purpose whether to require an age statement depends on how fearful the publisher is and how she feels about her zine. Just how 'sexy' or 'likely to arouse prurient interests' or "obscene" (depending on one's attitude towards erotica) does she think it is? Given that homophobia is as common as it is, a parent is more likely to be upset by a line such … Kirk's penis being caressed if the partner is Spock rather than Uhura, so probably for the protection of the publisher the 'explicit-ness threshold' should be lower for K/S zines. to serve as a warning flag to prospective buyers, and this is where I feel today's practice is inadequate. If this purchase will be my first exposure to Publisher A's zines, how can I know if her standards mesh with mine? The fact that she's asking for an age statement implies that she thinks some people may be offended by some of the contents, but what yardstick is she applying—and to what type of content? Is the only problem some "blue" language? Nude illustrations? Are there explicit sex scenes? Is there detailed, gory violence? The same person's taste for, and ability to stomach, differing aspects of "adultness" can vary greatly. For example, "language" doesn't bother me and I consider most art and "sex scenes" to be as big a plus as almonds on a Hershey bar, but not those involving sadistically inflicted pain or the rape of a child, and prolonged descriptions of violence or suffering of any type repulses or depresses me. There is no way the publisher can be expected to know my tastes in that detail. But I do. And if she would only offer enough useful information in her flyer her public would be happy to make their own informed decisions. I appreciate that space is limited in adzines but surely In a full page flyer the publisher needn't hide behind that coy-but-useless "age statement required." If you think some readers might have problems with some of your contents, tell them why. "Adult language used." "Some stories in this zine include explicit torture." Or "one of the stories involves incest." Or pedophilia or cannibalism or sadism or necrophilia or whatever you believe might especially upset a reader. I'm sure the publisher would prefer losing the sale of one particular issue to having a disgusted reader who will never order another zine from her, and who might even "bad mouth" the publisher's works in private or public forums.... I'd have been much less upset by the stories involving zoophilia and sexual torture if I hadn't stumbled into them unwarned.
CI5 mailing list received private complaints from listmembers that a death story posted to the mailing list had not been properly labeled. She observed that she had thought it was the norm to say if a story involved death, but then realised to her surprise that maybe labeling was only common to the Pros online circuit library. This led to a revision of mailing list rules:To hop on an old bandwagon, at my first slashcon, [Koon-tu-Kalicon (in 1989) I, Sandy, the woman who edited The Paladin's Affair (who's name escapes me right now), and I discussed the 'warnings' that she listed on the table of contents of her zines. (I'm one of those people who don't want to know it's a death story because, in general, I like death stories and enjoy the 'will-he' or 'won't he' live thing.)
Basically, we came to the conclusion that it might be nice to put this information on the back page of the zine, where those who like to turn to the last page could find it, while others wouldn't be bothered by the information.All of this, of course, ignores one of the problems I have with labeling: the difference between s/m and h/c, not to mention how to label hurt/hurt stories where there's little if any comfort involved. Come up with some good, non-subjective rules for that and I'll be happy. 
By 1999, more and more fanfiction had been posted to the Internet with warnings, so that when netfans did come across print fanzines, their lack of warnings often resulted in outrage and cognitive dissonance. In a comment left on Sandy Herrold's rapefic rec website, one fan wrote:Any story involving the death (beforehand or during) of one of the three main characters must be clearly labelled as a death story in either the subject line and/or the body of the message before the story begins. In a side note, it'd probably be nice if you mentioned who it is that dies, but I won't require that, since it seems it's more the idea of death stories that upsets people, rather than the identity of the deceased. It might also be best for some folks if you mentioned killing off any recurring character, like say Murphy or Susan, but I won't require it. 
In response to this complaint about the lack of warnings in fanzines, one fan commented:"I *HATED* the PROS zine 'Angel in the Dark' by Thomas: In this one, Bodie is a really sadistic person who keeps playing mindfuck games with Doyle. When Doyle finds Bodie cheating on him with another woman and later confronts him, Bodie rapes him. Then Doyle demands that they end their relationship and threatens to leave their CI5 partnership unless it's over. Bodie reluctantly agrees, but then is killed in a shoot-out a few months later. As he dies, he tells Doyle that despite everything, he really loved him and just couldn't say it.
In shock at this revelation, Doyle kills himself after Bodie dies in his arms. Partner rape; Death story; Suicide. NOT MY THING! But I understand a lot of people loved it. The drawings by Suzan Lovett *were* gorgeous, I must admit.
As I've said to [other fans], there are many stories that I don't like personally, and don't want to read, but I strongly respect the right for them to be posted to story lists/web archives, as long as proper warnings are attached. IDIC, YMMV, etc.I think that's why 'Angel in the Dark' so upset me - there were *no* warnings at all, and you were expecting this beautiful love story, with the gorgeous drawings and title, and it was so explosively violent and horrifying. I hated that more than the story. IF there had been a warning on the first page about partner rape and death story, I wouldn't have had a problem with it."
These children just aren't ready for zines when they tiptoe away from the net with all of it's grade school norms of protection, are they? And frankly, I was fascinated by her synopsis of the story -- I wouldn't have recognized [the review of Angel in the Dark] without the title included. 
Other fans attempted to answer the question as to why fanzines lacked the 'necessary' warnings more seriously. For example, in 2001 when a fan asked: "I've noticed that zine stories (at least in my experience) don't include the codes and ratings and warnings one usually finds in an online story... even when they contain things that might bother a reader (ranging from AU scenarios to slavery or pedophilia.) They start with the title and author, and that's it; there isn't even a summary, and any notes are at the end. Why is this? To save space? Or because printed books don't include them?" answers ranged from "it is not the zine tradition" to online warnings were needed to avoid "potential liability and prevent people from stumbling upon these stories unaware."
Two fans in 2010 talked of warnings: "We didn't need warnings in those days - it was either slash or it wasn't! It's only now that there's much more slash available that subtle differences of taste have crept in; then, we were grateful for whatever we could find - and just skimmed over the bits we didn't like!  Another an answers: "Gah. I doubt I would have made it then; I'm far too sensitive about things like rape to even consider reading a fic that contains explicit non-con. The warnings debate continues across many platforms such as tumblr. Because of the migratory and segregated nature of fandom, the history of warnings and the role they play in fandom is often overlooked. In 2012, one tumblr fan attempted to educate her followers with her own cautionary warning about warnings:
"So, because [the warnings debate] hit pretty much every single fandom I was involved in back in 2009 and I am not sure how aware everyone on Tumblr is about the great debate over the use of warnings in fic, I am going to link you to the following, with the caveat that it does speak about upsetting content in stories, especially about dub/non-con, so if it will upset you, please be aware, however if you can read any of the following links, please do, if only to understand where fandom has been in order to understand how some are expected to be aware of how to use fandom today, and how trigger warning became a far more mainstream term: Fandom Warnings Wank: A Comprehensive Linkspam....[snip]
Because the original “warnings wank" BLEW UP on livejournal because people just kept on arguing and then it lead to really, truly ugly things being said.....[snip][The warnings debate] spirals though, as seen in the above links. It does not make fandom better, it diminishes fandom, and I hate to see history repeat itself when we already went through this painful discussion once before."
Warnings are occasionally the subject of controversy. Some fans choose not to include warnings on their fanworks because they want their work received without preconceived ideas; additionally, warnings may spoil important plot points.A fan comments:
I'm a dinosaur, and I don't believe in warnings so that readers are never exposed to something new, or something that will make them feel. Take a chance, and experience the stories as they were meant to be experienced - without warning, raw, and real. Think of it as the organic form of fan fiction -no artificial additives! 
However, other fans may become mentally or emotionally distraught if they read or view work that contains triggering themes, or encounter a story element that they strongly dislike. From one fan:
There is perennial disagreement among fans about what kinds of content should be warned for. Warning for certain elements, such as slash, may be seen as homophobic; warning for het, especially when the heterosexual pairing in question is canonical may be seen as misogynistic. Some fans feel that warning for elements that are present in the source text, such as violence, is unnecessary. Some warnings may not have solid definitions shared by all fans; the dub-con label was created in order to address a certain type of rapefic kink, usually along the lines of sex pollen or Aliens Made Them Do It, but some fans debate that there is any difference between rape and dub-con, and there have been instances where fans felt misled by these warnings.I began this post on the suggestion of a friend, who pointed out that people did not seem to understand that survivors (and not just survivors of sexual assault; the bare bones of what I've said, the helplessness you feel upon being triggered and the mental effects of the triggers itself, are often similar across the board) are not just asking for warnings to be saved a mild inconvenience or short-term disturbance. Additionally, survivors are not asking for extensive warnings on their rare and/or particularly specialized squicks. Survivors are asking that authors not hurt them even further by placing them in danger of being thrown back to such harmful mindsets. Survivors are asking that they be given a tool that helps them choose their fandom space and continue to heal, rather than have the same wounds reopened. And most importantly, survivors are asking for something that they did not have at the time of the assault(s): the power to say no. The power to not be made helpless and afraid. 
Seriously, let's nail down a precise definition of "rape" and "non-con" (in between sessions of herding cats) and THEN let's talk about whether you should use those warnings or not, because even if everyone started using those warnings tomorrow, everyone would be using them to *mean different things*. .... Like I said to darthhellokitty, even with something as common as being a vegetarian, there will always be people who are like 'Since you're a vegetarian, tonight we're having fish!' 
Writers who do not like to warn are often accused of trying to force readers to read the way they want them to. However, it is not actually possible for a writer to force a reader to read a story without warnings. Since this is the case, most writers who do not include warnings frame the discussion in terms of personal responsibility, arguing that readers who know that they are vulnerable to being seriously affected by certain story elements should refrain from reading unlabeled stories, just as a vegetarian might refrain from eating an unlabeled food product.
In most cases it's just that they themselves do not like warnings as readers, and thus when faced with two types of readers, unsurprisingly favor those like themselves.
There also have been various compromise solutions implemented to satisfy both pro- and anti-warning preferences and leave the choice to the readers themselves. That includes special formatting, such as warning display options in archives, putting warnings in a separate post on lists, in a hidden section that is only visible when highlighted in journal or website posts, or on the bottom of the story or linked on a separate page.
Warnings on Songvids
The idea of warnings on songvids comes up from time to time. With songvids at convention vidshows, you're sitting in a room, when suddenly something squicky appears. These are usually new vids, too, so it's hard to have a friend pre-watch them for you. In the late '80s-early '90s, a few slash vids had m/m porn clips cut into them, which shocked (or at least surprised) some congoers. However it wasn't until 2000 when attendees of vidshow began to demand warnings on the content of the vidshow. More recently, vids done to movies (like Absolutedestiny's 15 vid Deep Kick at Escapade 2008) or HBO/Showtime shows with visceral violence (Oz at VividCon 2004, Dexter at Vividcon 2008), have led some congoers to wonder if there is some way to warn susceptible members of the audience before a vid show. Many vidders and attendees tend to hate this idea with the fire of a thousand suns.
Warnings on vids that are streamed online depend on the preferences of the vidder and the fandom culture. For some vidders it seems natural to include the same types of warnings they would on fanfic. And, since vids are a visual medium, a few vidders will include warnings on flashing lights and quick edits as these have the potential to physically impact viewers. But unlike vidshows which are a compilation of various vids shown live, vidders own their own websites and blogs and have greater control over whether to warn or not. And most of fandom seems content to allow them to exercise that control. As one fan explained it: "I don't get warnings on some of the crap I see on Youtube. Why should I expect warnings on fanvids?" (cite source?) Other fans feel that this is not accurate as Youtube uses flags to allow viewers to demand removal of objectionable content. However, allowing fans to demand removal of fanfic, vids, and art raises a whole other set of issues in the warning debates.
On The Challenges of Crafting Warning Standards
In response, Cybel Harper offered her thoughts on the proliferation of types of warnings:"As to marking, I do like knowing if it is a death story because I tend to avoid those. So many are over-the-top sentimental in a cliched sort of way. There are good ones - Endgame, for example, and The Last Time We Saw Bodie - wrenching, but good in the standard loose use of the word.
Marking for s&m content is probably a good idea too, since many people seem to want to avoid those stories. So marking for certain kinds of content might be worthwhile.But it is impossible to classify every story, and many people would argue about certain classifications, so people are just going to have to read the stories to see what they are in many cases. If it is in my house I'm probably going to read it at some time or other.
In 1994, alexfandra offered her tongue-in-cheek take on the difficulty of coming up with a standardized set of warnings (or as the terminology of the time, a 'story marker'):"There used to be only a couple of 'types' of slash that seemed to upset some fans and that were sometimes labeled due to that fact, mostly death stories and, maybe, S&M. I'm sure others would add categories such as graphic violence, partner rape (or rape in general) etc.
These are problematical categories that push some very intense cultural, personal, and perhaps even ethical buttons. I'd hate to think that we need to categorize *all* stories based on every other like/dislike among fans. Talk about cutting off our noses despite our faces!
I, and, I'm sure, many other fans like some graphic sex scenes, and not others. Like some PWPs and not others. Like some well written stories, and not others. Hell, I even have liked *some* rape stories (damn few, though) and a death story or two, and at least one B7 story about Blake as a pedophile (thanks a lot, MFae, I used to be a nice Catholic girl!).
Some fans are wonderful story tellers, but not particularly good writers.
Some of their stories are unreadable, others are lovely. And yes, I am a grammar and typo and quality freak, but I can still like a given story based on other merits as well. I've even read some *gasp* GEN stories that I've loved!
Um, back to my original point.We can categorize ourselves to death, I think. No matter how a story is labeled, I prefer to give it a chance and decide on its relative merits myself. Labels might protect me from an occasional bad (or boring) experience, but they might also influence me to skip stories I would love if I gave myself the chance to read them. And if I'm going to at least *try* to read them, why do I need a label? 
"Well, many of you know how picky I am...see, if I have no clue what the story is, this is what I do: go straight to the end page, skim the last few paragraphs to make sure it a) isn't a death story and b) has a happy ending. Then I flip through the rest of the pages to make sure that neither Bodie nor Doyle is spending all of his time with Murphy. Then I actually read it.
As someone pointed out, some type of story marker is very helpful when ordering long stories from the circuit library, sight unseen. I DO NOT DO DEATH STORIES, PERIOD. Don't care if they were written by the slash equivalent of Dostoevsky. NO. NEVER. WILL NOT CROSS MY THRESHOLD. AND THAT'S FINAL. In regards to the Thread Next Door, I do wish that the library marked first-person stories, 'cause I'm one of those fans who can't stand 'em. But then, I don't generally like them in non-slash fiction, either. Too much time spent inside one person's head makes me feel claustrophobic. Or something.
This seems like a good time to repost my list of Things in Pros Fanfic That Shouldn't Make Their Way Into My Life, or:
Story markers are great, but they just aren't detailed enough for me, I guess.
- Just Say No
- No death stories.
- No Bodie/Cowley.
- No Bodie/Murphy.
- No Doyle/Murphy.
- No Cowley/Murphy.
- No Bodie/Cowley/Murphy.
- No elves.
- No werewolves.
- No vampires.
- No centaurs.
- No sheep.
- No sex with teddy bears.
- No first person.
- No embarrassing sex scenes in public.
- No "Let's get married".
- No "Let's quit CI5 and set up house in the country and raise Irish Wolfhounds."
- No "Let's quit CI5 and set up house in the country and raise horses."
- No "Let's quit CI5 and become a musical duo."
- No Doyle-is-forced-to-be-a-sex-slave-in-a-leather-bar.
- No "It's ten years later and we must now discuss STDs, gays in the military, condoms, and other issues of serious import".
- No Doyle in drag.
- No Bodie in drag.
- Cowley can be in drag.
- So can Murphy.
- But only if it's a Cowley/Murphy story.
- No anal plugs.
- No Cowley/Murphy stories.
- No excessive nipple sucking.
- No humiliation, unless you're Sebastian and can write something as good as "On Heat".
- No Mysterious Illnesses which May or May Not Be Terminal.
- No excessive licking of ears.
- No "turgid members".
- No "manhoods".
- No "he was tight and hot like a virgin".
- No "then Doyle dipped his fingers in the pool of Bodie's cum on his chest, licked it a little, and then held his fingers to Bodie's lips and Bodie sucked them, murmuring sweet words of love".
- No margarine.
And finally, as some fans point out, warnings lack the necessary nuances to convey the true nature of some fanfic: "Personally, I don't like to see stories pigeon-holed so cavalierly .... A story could be brilliantly written, insightful, compelling, fresh, but if a character dies -- bang -- it is a "death" story."
A Parody of a WarningOne fan responds to the whole warning subject:
Story Warnings: Please be advised there is adult content in this story. By adult content, I mean content that would be defined as 'adult.' Sex is conspicuous throughout the story (I'm sure most of you will reconize it.) so when you come to a segment that contains sex, the section will be highlighted by the words 'BEGIN SEX.' When that section is over, the words, 'END SEX' will appear. Readers not sexual by nature should make note of this and skip over any sections that begin and end. Readers who have any sexual preferences to their aversions must make the folowing distinctions: 'NS' indicates a 'Normal Sex' scene. 'KS' refers to a 'Kinky Sex' scene. Please do not confuse the two terms... This is a death story, by which I mean the word 'death' does appear and is used in its proper context. Just as sex segments are marked with sexual warnings, death segments will be marked with deathly warnings... This is an AU story. However, since I don't know what an AU is, I can only warn readers not to read this story if they are unfairly and ignorantly biased against AUs... There are some bad words in this story. (However, please know that I had a friend add these bad words, as I would never use them myself.)... 
- Have You Noticed? It's Fandom, Not Wal-mart by K.S. Langley
- The Sliding Scale of Story Information by Lucy Gillam
- Fandom Warnings Wank: A Comprehensive Linkspam
- This is not OK - compilation of the arguments made against warnings
- Seraphwings,header of fic. Accessed November 13, 2008
- Private email sent to organ Dawn on Sept 22, 2013, quoted with permission.
- from Southern Enclave #16
- from Treklink #14
- September 1994 post to the Virgule-L mailing list, quoted with permission.
- Morgan Dawn's personal notes, accessed November 3, 2012.
- Morgan Dawn's personal notes accessed November 3, 2012. The rule did not identify the three main characters, but it was generally understood that they were Bodie, Doyle, and Cowley.
- Website offline, review accessed via Morgan Dawn's personal notes, November 3, 2012.
- Posted February 1999 to a private mailing list quoted with permission.
- Zine Question posted to alt.startrek.creative.erotica.moderated on August 19, 2001.
- from theficklepickle at Epic Recs, May 25, 2010, accessed September 24, 2013
- from janeelliot at Epic Recs, May 25, 2010, accessed September 24, 2013
- Sunday Morning Fannish History; reference link.
- from  Deb Walsh Classic Genzine Fan Fiction Archive, accessed 7.5.2011
- Fuck Yeah, Trigger Warnings, I Would Like To Talk With Ya'll About Trigger Warnings, accessed July 6, 2011.
- impertinence, Sexual Assault, Triggering, and Warnings: An Essay, accessed July 6, 2011
- Liviapenn in comments, The warning debate, 2007 edition Posted January 05, 2007. Last accessed November 13, 2008.
- During the vid show, an Oz vid [Prison Sex]] disturbed some viewers with its canonical images of graphic violence. This led a few attendees to complain and later demand warnings on Escapade vidshows. It was the first time this had been requested and signaled a shift in the expectations of the viewing audience towards a more controllable and individual customized viewing experience. While media vidshows had always included movie vids which had R (and in some cases X) ratings, the majority of footage had come from primetime TV shows which were restricted by censors in terms of both sex and violence. Cable TV had however, by 2000 made significant inroads in both, and the request for warnings on vidshows illustrated that not all fans were prepared for fandom to adapt to the increased explicitness in TV and movies. Escapade eventually decided to not include warnings on their vidshows deciding that since the convention was for fans 18 years or older, that this was not necessary.
- Elke Tanzer.Gut reactions are visceral, let me show you them. Posted 11 March 2008 (accessed 15 November 2008)
- September 1994 post to the Virgule-L mailing list, quoted anonymously with permission.
- Cybel Harper posting to the Virgule-L mailing list July 1996, quoted with permission.
- Posted September 1994 to the Virgule-L mailing list, quoted with permission.
- September 1994 post to the Virgule-L mailing list, quoted anonymously.
- from the zine, Dangerous Lives, Dangerous Visions #1, by Lizzie Burns
- reference link.
- reference link.