“Mr. Grey will see you now.” Just these words are likely to send many women into a frenzy. The Fifty Shades novels by British author E.L. James have been a global phenomenon, selling more than 100 million copies worldwide. But although reading a book may seem harmless, a new study suggests young adult women who read these erotic novels are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors that are risk factors for abusive relationships.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Fifty Shades, the story revolves around the sexual endeavors of two characters: Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.
In the first of the series – Fifty Shades of Grey – Steele, a literature student described as “unworldly” and “innocent,” meets Grey, a man who is charming, intelligent, but who has a dark, controlling side.
They then embark in a “daring, passionately physical” affair, or as lead study author Amy Bonomi of Michigan State University deems it, an abusive relationship. This continues throughout the subsequent two novels – Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.
According to the researchers, the erotic series “depicts pervasive violence against women, perpetuating a broader social narrative that normalizes these types of risks and behaviors in women’s lives.”
Is there a relationship between reading these books and unhealthy behaviors in real life? Bonomi and colleagues from The Ohio State University wanted to find out.
For their study, recently published in the Journal of Women’s Health, the team analyzed 655 women between the ages of 18 and 24 – a time in women’s lives when they are most likely to explore greater sexual intimacy in relationships, according to Bonomi.
Of these women, 122 had read all three Fifty Shades novels, 97 had read at least the first novel but not all three, and 436 had not read any part of the novels.
The team found that, compared with women who had not read any of the books, the women who had read the first novel were 25% more likely to have a partner who verbally abused them, 34% more likely to have a partner who showed stalking tendencies, and 75% more likely to have starved themselves for more than 24 hours or to have used dieting aids.
Furthermore, women who had read all three books were 65% more likely to engage in binge drinking – defined as drinking five or more drinks in one sitting on 6 days or more every month – and were 63% more likely to have had five or more sexual partners in their lifetime, compared with those who had not read any of the books.
Bonomi admits that one limitation of this study is that they were not able to determine whether these behaviors were already pre-existing among the women. But she says that even if they were, reading the books may still pose problems.
“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.”
Bonomi notes that she is not recommending that the book should be banned, nor is she trying to dictate what books women should or should not read.
But she says it is important that women understand that the unhealthy behaviors linked to reading Fifty Shades demonstrated in this study are risk factors for engaging in violent relationships.
In an attempt to reduce these risks, Bonomi says that parents and teachers should have conversations with children from a young age about sexuality and expectations of body image and gender roles.
In addition, she believes children and young adults should be taught to be critical when it comes to watching movies, reading books or consuming other media that demonstrates violence.
“We recognize that the depiction of violence against women in and of itself is not problematic, especially if the depiction attempts to shed serious light on the problem,” Bonomi adds. “The problem comes when the depiction reinforces the acceptance of the status quo, rather than challenging it.”
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, revealing that almost 10% of youths under the age of 21 have instigated sexual violence.