Fifty Shades of Abusive Influence?

 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.

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