Fifty Shades of Abusive Influence?

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 When the preview for the forthcoming big-screen adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey was released recently, the organization Morality in the Media responded, “The newly released trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey deceives the public with a visually appealing melodramatic love story that romanticizes and normalizes sexual violence.”

It turns out they may have been even more right than they knew.

A new study out of Michigan State University (published in the Journal of Women’s Health) indicates that young women who read the bestselling bondage-and-S&M-laced story by British author E.L. James were more likely to engage in a range of risky behaviors compared to those who hadn’t read it.

For instance, those who had read just that book were more likely to have a verbally abusive partner and to exhibit signs of an eating disorder. For those who had read all three books in the Fifty Shades trilogy, the list of correlations grew, with those women being more likely to have had multiple sexual partners and to have participated in binge drinking.

Michigan State researchers, led by professor Amy Bonomi of the school’s Human Development and Family Studies Department, used an online questionnaire to survey 655 women between the ages of 18 and 24. About a third of the participants had read at least the first novel in the series, compared to about two-thirds who hadn’t read any of them. The researchers didn’t attempt to control for whether women who might have had issues such as an eating disorder before participating in the study. But they suggest it doesn’t really matter: Either way, their study says, the correlation was negative:

If women experienced adverse health behaviors such as disordered eating first, reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma. Likewise, if they read Fifty Shades before experiencing the health behaviors seen in our study, it’s possible the books influenced the onset of these behaviors.

The authors also added,

Problematic depictions of violence against women in popular culture—such as in film, novels, music, or pornography—create a broader social narrative that normalizes these risks and behaviors in women’s lives. Our study showed strong correlations between health risks in women’s lives—including violence victimization—and consumption of Fifty Shades, a fiction series that portrays violence against women.

Dr. Susan G. Kornstein, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Women’s Health, said the study indicates the need for more research regarding how pop culture influences the choices of those who consume it: “Clearly, we need a better understanding of the association between reading popular fiction that depicts violence towards women and engaging in risky health behaviors, particularly among adolescent and young adult women.”

Indeed. We here at Plugged In wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment. At the same time, we’d also respectfully suggest that this is just the latest in long line of studies indicating that what people consume, media-wise, often has a strong correlation with the choices the make in the real world.

And in this particular case, the correlations are pretty damaging ones indeed.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

syd collings More than 1 year ago

--I really don't understand the appeal of the Fifty Shades books, they are VERY poorly written. I actually bought the book to see what all the fuss was about, but the writing was soooo bad that I abandoned it soon after. Maybe the fans of the book are so caught up in all the sex going on, that they can't see that E. L. James is a terrible writer?

Kendra Ware More than 1 year ago

--@sistercynthia:

I've read similar sentiments, that people who are actually part of the BDSM culture hate these books.

I haven't read them, but I have several friends who have and I've heard enough to know that the relationship portrayed is flat-out abusive.  Grey stalks the main character, manipulates and tries to dictate her behavior, and shows little to no regard for her thoughts or feelings in or outside the bedroom.  He very much takes advantage of the fact that she is inexperienced and this is all portrayed as sexy, even romantic.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

--Friends of mine who are actually "into" the bondage and S&M stuff don't like these books, either, because they say it presents actual abuse, unlike what they say they are into.  I have not read these books (not my taste at all) but they have, and unlike the notions of "safety" in their subculture, where there are supposed to be safe words that get the dominant person to stop, and efforts made to keep from really harming the submissiver person or breaking their sense of self, apparently the abusive male in this series does not give the girl that consideration, merely doing whatever he wants, as long as he wants, however he wants, regardless of her feelings or welfare.  Such a disregard for the other's humanity is the domineering, abusive actions of a narcisistic sociopath, NOT some great, strong lover or someone simply exploring the fringes of sexual expression with a willing partner.  Such a one is not going to be capable of real love outside the bedroom any more than he is inside of it, because his nature is purely selfish and cruel--any woman with a shred of self respect will run from being used as a metaphorical or literal punching bag, and should be encouraged to do so by anyone who sees what is happening to her.  Which means, choosing to be on the receiving end of such treatment is NOT empowering, no matter how the author tries to portray the girl.  It is dehumanizing and evil and usually ends up with the woman actually dead, or so emotionally and mentally shattered as to be nearly dead inside.  It is one of the great paradoxes of our day, that much is made of "woman power" by some of the same people who would consign us to relationships or encounters that destroy any power over our own lives which we possessed, and dress it up with all kinds of glam and swagger, to hide the destruction and emptiness.