Updated: Jan 13, 2020
The EFA is offering a 1-hour webinar on sensitivity reading (free for members!). This service is plagued with misconceptions, and the webinar cleared up a lot of the fuzziness I had about it. I definitely recommend it if you're an editor, or if you're thinking of writing about people with viewpoints other than your own. Here's a little rundown on what I took away from it.
The term "sensitivity reader" has become controversial because of fears of censorship, and so someone offering this service may instead call it authenticity reading, cultural reading, or targeted beta reading. A sensitivity reader is not out to censor your book, any more than an editor is. As an editor, I will tell you what's working with your manuscript and what isn't, and a sensitivity reader does the same thing, with a narrow focus: pointing out anything that doesn't ring true, that may have harmful repercussions, or that is not believable and authentic in the way it portrays the experiences of a particular group of people.
For example, if I'm writing a novel featuring a character who uses a wheelchair, I would do a lot of research about what it's like to use one. I would read books and blogs by people who use wheelchairs. I would watch documentaries. But no matter how much secondhand research I do and how hard I try, it's very likely I'm going to have my character say or do something that just isn't 100% believable to a reader who has actually lived the experience of using a wheelchair—because I haven't done it myself. Maybe it's even a big enough error that it reinforces a stereotype for my readers who haven't had that experience, and frustrates those who have. These issues reduce your ability to connect with your audience. A sensitivity reader can help me avoid this situation and make my writing better by reading through my work and pointing out to me places where I haven't portrayed the character, culture, or situation very well.
There's a long list of things people read for, such as gender, race, sexual orientation, social class, mental illness, religion, disability, appearance, abuse, alcoholism, location, age, language, and immigration. And what the reader looks for will be particular to their specific experiences. They can make sure your characters aren't displaying stereotypes, for example, and that we aren't seeing the entire story through the eyes of one group—like if only nonwhite people are described by the color of their skin or the texture of their hair, or if only women are described in reproductive or family terms. They can make sure your use of a language or dialect is realistic. They're looking for repercussions you may not have intended to create and that you might not even be able to see, but that will pop out for someone who has a different set of experiences.
In nonfiction, the readers look for things like outdated terminology, unintentional slurs or bias, unintended meanings, controversial language, and blind spots. Just like in fiction, it's important to portray a culture accurately in journalism, educational materials, and other types of nonfiction.
When copyediting or dev editing, I always let the author know when language may be inappropriate or offensive or may not feel authentic. Now that I am more familiar with the service, I will better know when to recommend hiring a sensitivity reader.
Here are some links from the webinar that you may find useful:
If you have anything to add that I've missed here, please do.