I would like to comment, especially since I write erotica with multiple themes or -isms, including rape and polythesism, appearing in the pages of my books. I am also a reader.
In theory, the proposal is sound. There is nothing wrong with warning potential readers or students that certain issues may come up during the reading of a book or a class discussion. Informing beforehand allows individuals to make their own decisions regarding what they can, personally, handle at this point in their life.
However, where it gets tricky, is in the details. How can one person, or even a small group of people, predict every possible trigger for every potential reader or student who might walk through the door? Seriously, take a look at this list of 234 -isms, which may or may not trigger some horrendous event for a member of the world's society. For one of my short stories, alone, I found at least 35 isms which might trigger some person, somewhere. And, that's a short story based pretty close on a classical myth (a myth most if not all college Mythology courses would cover).
I understand where the student's are coming from. I have a horrific fear of the ocean, specifically swimming in or near it. In fact, so serious is my fear, that I cannot watch Titanic (yes, I know it won a ton of awards and is damn near impossible to ignore) nor can I get through the reading of The Perfect Storm without shudders and heaving. But, know what. I was required to read the book in school. So, I did. Was I happy? no. Did I have nightmares? you betcha. Am I scarred for life? no, not really. I learned to deal with it. Just like I learned to deal with my irrational fears about spiders and talking toys. Having to watch the Toy Story with a child I was babysitting was one of the worse moments of my youth. Still, I survived.
Why, then, can these current students not learn to deal with it? Yes, literature may include troubling moments where, yes, some traumatic event from your past life may be triggered. That's okay. It's why you are allowed to put down the book, being that it is not forced upon you to read it, and either speak to the professor about your concerns calmly and patiently, suggesting an alternate reading or making an appointment with your therapist to discuss the implications of what you've read and how best to accept it and allow yourself to grow from the experience.
Heck, I did this in high school, as a freshman. Not even in college. While reading The Lord of the Flies, (spoiler alert!) I came across the scene where Piggy dies. I was horrified, disgusted, and emotionally disturbed. I threw the book down. I never picked it up again. I went to my teacher and expressed what I felt. She understood, gods bless her, and gave me another similar book to read where no young child dies at the hands of his friends. Was she mad? no. I handled it like an adult. I still got from the reading what I was supposed to. I still participated in the class and the discussions which came up.
Why, then, can't college students do the same? I do not understand why they wish to put trigger warning labels on syllabi and books (classics or not) so as not to have to learn to grow up, deal with it, and move on. And, if they can't. They handle it with aplomb and maturity. Instead of blaming all around them for inadvertently upsetting them, they need to understand that they are one in billions.
Having said all that, I do have an alternate proposal. Why not consider the idea of rating literature similar to how movies are rated? It isn't perfect and won't suit everyone. Nothing ever does. But, at least it could provide insight for a new reader as to what could cause them issue if they are sensitive.
Here is a good site to see what I mean: FictionRatings. And, considering a rating system like this, I took the opportunity to draft what a warning could look like for a novel.
explicit, graphic lesbian sex and explicit description of rape
So, how do you all feel about this issue?