From the front lines of the culture wars
LifeSite by Jonathon Van Maren Thu Jul 31, 2014 – 2:50 pm EST
To everyone who think 50 Shades is all sorts of awesome: Please, stop and THINK
It’s pretty depressing when you realize that, in 2014, many people seem to think that destruction of human dignity is a small price to pay for an orgasm.
I suppose when I write a column about a book that just sold its 100 millionth copy I shouldn’t be surprised when I get a bit of a kickback. But I have to say—I wasn’t expecting hundreds of commenters, many saying they were Christian, to come out loudly defending the porn novel 50 Shades of Grey, often tastelessly interspersed with details from their own sex lives.
People squawked that we “shouldn’t judge” those who practice bondage, domination, sadism and masochism (BDSM), and informed me that “no one gets hurt” and that it “isn’t abuse” and said that it was “just fantasy” (as if we have a separate brain and body for fantasy).
Meanwhile, not a single commenter addressed one of the main arguments I laid out—that with boys watching violent porn and girls being socialized to accept violence and torture inside of a sexual relationship, we have created a toxic situation in which people very much are being hurt.
In response to the defenders of this trash, let me make just a few points.
Not all consent is equal.
People keep trumpeting this stupid idea that just because someone consents to something or allows something to happen, it isn’t abusive.
But if someone consents to being beaten up, punched, slapped, whipped, called disgusting and degrading names, and have other things done to them that I will choose not to describe here, does that make it any less abusive? It makes it legal (perhaps, but it certainly doesn’t make it any less disgusting or violent.)
Would you want your daughter to be in a relationship with Christian Grey? Would you want your son to turn into Christian Grey? If the answer is yes to either of those, someone should call social services.
Anyone who works with victims of domestic and sexual assault will tell you that just because someone permits something to happen or doesn’t extricate themselves from a situation doesn’t mean it isn’t, in fact, abuse. Only when it comes to sex are people starting to make this argument, so that they can cling to their fetishes and justify their turn-ons. Those women who defend the book because they think it spiced up their sex life are being incredibly selfish and negligent, refusing to think about how this book could affect other women in different situations, as well as young and impressionable girls.
In the words of renowned porn researcher and sociologist Dr. Gail Dines:
In his book on batterers, Lundy Bancroft provides a list of potentially dangerous signs to watch out for from boyfriends. Needless to say, Christian [Grey of 50 Shades of Grey] is the poster boy of the list, not only with his jealous, controlling, stalking, sexually sadistic behavior, but his hypersensitivity to what he perceives as any slight against him, his whirlwind romancing of a younger, less powerful woman, and his Jekyll-and-Hyde mood swings. Any one of these is potentially dangerous, but a man who exhibits them all is lethal.
The most likely real-world ending of Fifty Shades of Grey is fifty shades of black and blue. The awful truth in the real world is that women who partner with a Christian Grey often end up hightailing it to a battered women’s shelter with traumatized kids in tow. The less fortunate end up in graveyards.
50 Shades of Grey normalizes intimate partner violence…
…and sickeningly, even portrays it as romantic and erotic. Amy Bonomi, Lauren Altenburger, and Nicole Walton published an article on the impact of 50 Shades last year in the Journal of Women’s Health. Their conclusions are intuitive and horrifying:
While intimate partner violence (IPV) affects 25% of women and impairs health, current societal conditions—including the normalization of abuse in popular culture such as novels, film, and music—create the context to support such violence.
Emotional abuse is present in nearly every interaction, including: stalking (Christian deliberately follows Anastasia and appears in unusual places, uses a phone and computer to track Anastasia’s whereabouts, and delivers expensive gifts); intimidation (Christian uses intimidating verbal and nonverbal behaviors, such as routinely commanding Anastasia to eat and threatening to punish her); and isolation (Christian limits Anastasia’s social contact). Sexual violence is pervasive—including using alcohol to compromise Anastasia’s consent, as well as intimidation (Christian initiates sexual encounters when genuinely angry, dismisses Anastasia’s requests for boundaries, and threatens her). Anastasia experiences reactions typical of abused women, including: constant perceived threat (“my stomach churns from his threats”); altered identity (describes herself as a “pale, haunted ghost”); and stressful managing (engages in behaviors to “keep the peace,” such as withholding information about her social whereabouts to avoid Christian’s anger). Anastasia becomes disempowered and entrapped in the relationship as her behaviors become mechanized in response to Christian’s abuse.
Our analysis identified patterns in Fifty Shades that reflect pervasive intimate partner violence—one of the biggest problems of our time. Further, our analysis adds to a growing body of literature noting dangerous violence standards being perpetuated in popular culture.
I notice that commenters rarely break down what the acronym “BDSM” actually stands for: bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism. If they did, they could no longer make the repulsive claim that “love” or “intimacy” have anything to do with it.
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The definition of sadism is “enjoyment that someone gets from being violent or cruel or from causing pain, especially sexual enjoyment from hurting or punishing someone…a sexual perversion in which gratification is obtained by the infliction of physical or mental pain on others.”
As one of my colleagues noted, we used to send sadists to a therapist or to prison, not to the bedroom. And 100 million copies of this porn novel have been unleashed on our society informing people that getting off on hurting someone is romantic and erotic. It is a brutal irony that people who scream about water-boarding terrorists are watching and experimenting with sexual practices far more brutal. As one porn researcher noted, some online BDSM porn promotes practices and behaviors that would be considered unlawful under the Geneva Convention if they were taking place in a wartime context.
It seems the Sexual Revolutionaries have gone from promoting “safe sex” to “safe words”—just in case the pain gets too rough. And none of them seem to be volunteering information on just how a woman is supposed to employ a safe word with a gag or bondage headgear on.
But who cares, right? Just one more casualty on our culture’s new Sexual Frontier.
“It’s just fiction and fantasy and has no effect on the real world!”
That’s total garbage and they know it. I’ve met multiple girls who were abused like this inside of relationships. Hotels are offering “50 Shades of Grey” packages replete with the helicopter and private suites for the proceedings. According to the New York Post, sales of rope exploded tenfold after the release of the book. Babeland reported that visits to the bondage section of their website spiked 81%, with an almost 30% increase in the sale of things like riding crops and handcuffs.
I could go on, but I won’t. As Babeland co-founder Claire Cavanah noted, “It’s like a juggernaut. You’d be surprised to see how very ordinary these people are who are coming in. The book is just an explosion of permission for them to try something new in the bedroom.”
What does this book and the BDSM movement say about the value of women and girls?
I’d like the defenders of this book to try stop thinking with their nether-regions for just a moment and ask themselves a few simple questions: What does sadism and sexual torture (consensual or not) say to our culture about the value of girls? What does it say to boys about how they should treat girls? The youth of today are inundated with porn and sexually violent material—is nobody—nobody—at all worried about the impact this has on them? On the girls who are being abused by boys who think this is normal behavior—and think it is normal themselves?
Dr. Gail Dines relates that when speaking to groups of women who loved the book, they all grow deathly silent when she asks them two simple questions: Would you want your daughter to be in a relationship with Christian Grey? Would you want your son to turn into Christian Grey?
If the answer is yes to either of those, someone should call social services.
This book and the sadism it promotes are an assault on human dignity, and most of all an assault on the worth and value of girls and women. Please consider the impact you will have on your daughters and the vulnerable and confused people around you when you read and promote this book. Anastasia Steele is, thankfully, a fictional character. But real girls are facing these expectations and demands from a culture that elevates a sexual sadist to the level of a romantic hero. Ask yourselves if you want their “love” and “intimacy” to include sadism and domination, or real respect.
Because you can’t have both.
To cite this article:
Bonomi Amy E., Nemeth Julianna M., Altenburger Lauren E., Anderson Melissa L., Snyder Anastasia, and Dotto Irma. Journal of Women’s Health. September 2014, 23(9): 720-728. doi:10.1089/jwh.2014.4782.
Published in Volume: 23 Issue 9: September 9, 2014
Online Ahead of Print: August 21, 2014
Background: No prior study has empirically characterized the association between health risks and reading popular fiction depicting violence against women. Fifty Shades—a blockbuster fiction series—depicts pervasive violence against women, perpetuating a broader social narrative that normalizes these types of risks and behaviors in women’s lives. The present study characterized the association between health risks in women who read and did not read Fifty Shades; while our cross-sectional study design precluded causal determinations, an empirical representation of the health risks in women consuming the problematic messages in Fifty Shades is made.
Methods: Females ages 18 to 24 (n=715), who were enrolled in a large Midwestern university, completed a cross-sectional online survey about their health behaviors and Fifty Shades’ readership. The analysis included 655 females (219 who read at least the first Fifty Shades novel and 436 who did not read any part of Fifty Shades). Age- and race-adjusted multivariable models characterized Fifty Shades’ readers and nonreaders on intimate partner violence victimization (experiencing physical, sexual and psychological abuse, including cyber-abuse, at some point during their lifetime); binge drinking (consuming five or more alcoholic beverages on six or more days in the last month); sexual practices (having five or more intercourse partners and/or one or more anal sex partner during their lifetime); and using diet aids or fasting for 24 or more hours at some point during their lifetime.
Results: One-third of subjects read Fifty Shades (18.6%, or 122/655, read all three novels, and 14.8%, or 97/655, read at least the first novel but not all three). In age- and race-adjusted models, compared with nonreaders, females who read at least the first novel (but not all three) were more likely than nonreaders to have had, during their lifetime, a partner who shouted, yelled, or swore at them (relative risk [RR]=1.25) and who delivered unwanted calls/text messages (RR=1.34); they were also more likely to report fasting (RR=1.80) and using diet aids (RR=1.77) at some point during their lifetime. Compared with nonreaders, females who read all three novels were more likely to report binge drinking in the last month (RR=1.65) and to report using diet aids (RR=1.65) and having five or more intercourse partners during their lifetime (RR=1.63).
Conclusions: 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. While our cross-sectional study cannot determine temporality, the order of the relationship may be inconsequential; for example, if women experienced adverse health behaviors first (e.g., disordered eating), reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma. Likewise, if women read Fifty Shades before experiencing the health behaviors assessed in our study, it is possible that the book influenced the onset of these behaviors by creating an underlying context for the behaviors.
Normalization of violence against women in popular fictionDespite known associations between consumption of media containing violence and related risk factors, including television and print media, and aggression tendencies,1–5 along with theories suggesting that consumption of fictional communication can alter beliefs and attitudes,6–11 no prior study has empirically characterized the association between health risks and reading popular fiction depicting violence against women. Fifty Shades—one of the world’s fastest selling fiction series comprising Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed12–14 depicts problematic violence against women15,16 cloaked within the romantic and erotic bondage-discipline-sadism-masochism17–19 relationship involving Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. In a comprehensive analysis using the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions of intimate partner violence20 and Smith’s battering framework,21–23 Bonomi and colleagues demonstrated that problematic abuse exists in nearly every interaction between Christian and Anastasia.15Namely, Christian employs strategies typical of abusers, including stalking (he deliberately follows Anastasia and uses a phone and computer to track her whereabouts), intimidation (he threatens her with punishment and violence, including pressuring her into activities she is uncomfortable with), social isolation (he isolates Anastasia from friends and family), and sexual violence (he uses alcohol to impair Anastasia’s consent and intimidates/pressures her into uncomfortable sexual activities).In response, Anastasia experiences reactions typical of abused women,21–23 including constant perceived threat (for example, that Christian is trying to track her down, is angry with her, and will punish and harm her); altered identity (Anastasia describes herself as a “pale, haunted ghost”; p. 511);12 stressful managing (Anastasia engages in behaviors to keep peace in the relationship, such as withholding information about her whereabouts to avoid Christian’s anger); yearning for health and normalcy in the relationship; and disempowerment and entrapment as her behaviors become mechanized in response to Christian’s abuse.15
Other popular fiction series, such as the Twilight24–26 series, also normalize abuse within the context of romantic relationships, including stalking, physical and sexual assault, emotional manipulation, threats, and intimidation.27,28 For example, within the Twilight24–26 series, which achieved enormous popularity among teenage girls, Edward, a “breathtakingly handsome vampire,” is depicted as “an obsessed stalker with no interest or friends other than his family and Bella,” the female protagonist and his romantic focus.27 Edward routinely orders Bella around, growls, snarls, shouts, and uses aggressive looks and physical gestures, such as aggressively grabbing her; some of the physical control strategies cause bruising. Despite such problematic depictions, the Twilight series, just like Fifty Shades, has infiltrated social life throughout the Western world; this infiltration has been aggravated by the production of five blockbuster romance fantasy films (the Twilight Saga) paralleling the Twilight fiction series.29
Internet-based pornography: Another standardizing vehicle for violence against womenLike Fifty Shades and Twilight, pornography is another standardizing vehicle for violence against women4,30,31 In Pornland: How Pornography has Hijacked our Sexuality, feminist scholar Dines argues that images of violence in internet-based pornography—including choking, gagging, beating, cutting, and forcing women to consume bodily fluids—have created unrealistic expectations around sex, including subjecting females to violent sexual acts.4 Dines’ conversations with pornography-exposed young males indicate they expect their female partners to agree to violent sexual acts and their female partners feel equally pressured to do so4—paralleling the sex scripts in Fifty Shades, where Christian routinely pressures Anastasia to participate in uncomfortable sex acts.
Degrading sexual representations of women through pornography media genres, including images that support violence against women, have been inexistence for decades in the United States, beginning with print media in the 1950s, such as Playboy and Hustler, as well as film, such as the controversial 1972 film, Deep Throat.31 Dines and others argue that these degrading, violent images are becoming ever-more violent and limitless through the proliferation of internet-based pornography.4,30 While some argue that pornography is fantasy, recent empirical studies32 and meta-analyses33 have shown correlations between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women.
Is interacting with popular fiction associated with violence victimization and related health risks?Even with parallels between Fifty Shades and pornography, Fifty Shades is among the top-selling fiction series in history and is being read mostly by women. The media has referred to Fifty Shades as “Mommy porn;”34 and E.L. James insists that she wrote Fifty Shades“for fun,” to provide women with a means to openly express their sexuality, while denying concerns that Christian and Anastasia’s relationship mimics real-world abusive relationships.35 Others have argued that while Christian and Anastasia’s relationship is being cast as sexually liberating for women, in fact, it is entrapping them further through the abuse standards being perpetuated in the book.16 So what, one might argue further: Isn’t Fifty Shades fictional? What harm can be done to women by consuming fiction? Are women prone to behaviors that cause harm in their lives more likely to consume fiction depicting problematic messages in fiction like Fifty Shades?Despite the lack of empirical studies on this topic, scholars suggest that individuals regularly alter their real-world beliefs and attitudes in response to fictional communication.7–11 Stories are especially influential when readers become drawn into them and cognitive resources, emotions, and mental imagery faculties are engaged.9 Additionally, while the harms of reading fiction have not been documented empirically, when libraries and schools ban books, the assumption is that fiction can have harmful effects on attitudes and beliefs.36–38 According to the Huffington Post, Fifty Shades has been banned in public libraries in several U.S. states,39 suggesting that the novel may be harmful to readers. The banning of Fifty Shades in libraries is in part linked to the pornographic sexual content,39 but has not, to date, been linked to other aspects of the abuse represented in it. While we are not advocating to ban Fifty Shades, we previously raised questions about the potential for the violence in Fifty Shades to normalize violence women are experiencing in their own relationships.15Fiction or not, millions of women are consuming messages in Fifty Shades that normalize and glamorize violence against women, under the guise of romance and eroticism. A pressing question remains: What is the empirical correlation, if any, between health risks and reading popular fiction depicting violence against women? The present study characterized the association between health risks in women who read and did not read Fifty Shades. Our study is cross-sectional, including the administration of a one-time-only online survey to late adolescent and young adult females enrolled in a large Midwestern university about their Fifty Shades’ readership and health behaviors.
While our cross-sectional study design precludes causal determinations, an empirical representation of the health risks in women consuming the problematic messages in Fifty Shades is made. We concentrated our study sample on females in the 18- to 24-year-old age group because they are immersed in a developmental period characterized by profound identity explorations of love, work and worldviews.40,41 In this developmental period, females are experimenting with new relationships and increased sexual intimacy,42 with explorations in love becoming more intimate and serious.41 Recognizing that humans are situated within, interact with, and are influenced by a larger ecological context,43 this particular developmental period of increased explorations in love and sexual expression, then, becomes critically important, particularly the potential uptake of problematic love and sexual depictions in popular culture, such as Fifty Shades12–14 and pornography.4,30
Study sampleStudy procedures were approved by the Institutional Review Board of Ohio State University. Females between the ages of 18 and 24 were randomly sampled from the registrar records of Ohio State University during the May and summer semesters of 2013; these females were invited to complete a cross-sectional online survey. We focused on females ages 18 to 24 years of age, since late adolescence/young adulthood represents a critical developmental period when females are commonly entering into their first sexually intimate relationships and patterns for intimacy in future relationships are being established.40,41,44
We sampled a total of 1,950 females, with 715 eligible females consenting and completing the online survey. Of 715 females who completed the online survey, we included 655 in the analysis who reported reading at least the first novel in the Fifty Shades series (n=219) and those who did not read any part of the Fifty Shades series (n=436). We excluded 60 females who started but did not finish the first novel in the Fifty Shades series; this decision was made to create the cleanest exposure groups. In particular, among females who said they read part of the first novel but did not finish it, the level of exposure could vary widely in this group and we did not have information about their lower level of exposure—whether they read the first few pages and stopped, for example, or whether the completed nearly the entire first novel.
Survey methodsThe online cross-sectional survey included questions about Fifty Shades’ readership, health behaviors, and basic demographics. Following is a description of the questions in the order that they appeared in the survey; namely, questions about health behaviors, such as intimate partner violence victimization, were asked before questions about Fifty Shades’ readership to reduce response bias.
Age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and year in college were assessed first.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) victimizationEight questions were used to assess lifetime (ever) exposure to physical (one question), sexual (two questions), and nonphysical (five questions) abuse, including cyber-abuse, by an intimate partner; please see Table 1 for a complete list of IPV questions. Response options for the IPV questions were binary (yes/no). The IPV questions were derived from prior studies conducted by the authors44,45with late adolescents and young adults, including a combination of questions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System46 and questions from Foshee and Swahn’s studies.47–49 Validity data for the eight violence questions used in our study were presented at the Women’s Health Congress in Washington, DC in March 2013,50 and in brief, a confirmatory factor analysis showed that the eight questions loaded onto hypothesized conceptual abuse factors (physical, sexual and nonphysical abuse).
We asked women about a range of health indicators that have been shown to correlate with violence victimization, including disordered eating, binge drinking, and frequent intercourse partners.45,51–54 Information was also collected on women’s identification with traditional general roles;55,56 this analysis is the next step in our research (see discussion section).57 Binge drinking was assessed using one question from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS),46 defined as having five or more drinks on six or more days during the past month; sexual practices were assessed using questions that asked about ever participation in vaginal/penile intercourse or anal sex and the number of partners engaged with in each of these activities; and disordered eating was assessed using two questions from the YRBS about ever use of diet aids or fasting for 24 or more hours to lose weight. For all of the health behavior questions, the response options were binary (yes/no), and for sexual practices, subjects also estimated the number of sexual partners they had. Based on our prior studies with young adults, five or more partners was the cut-point for having a high number of sexual intercourse partners.44,45 For anal sex, which occurred less frequently and typically with only one partner, this behavior was defined as having any anal sex.44,45
Fifty Shades’ readership
After questions about demographics and health behaviors were asked, subjects answered a question about whether they read the Fifty Shades series, including how much of the series they read. For the purpose of the analysis, exposure groups were created as follows: the two exposed groups included (1) subjects who read at least the first novel in the Fifty Shades series (but not all three novels) (n=97) and (2) subjects who read all three novels in the Fifty Shades series (n=122). The nonexposed group included subjects who indicated they read no part of the Fifty Shades series (n=436). We separated the two groups of Fifty Shades readers in this fashion for two reasons: First, there was a clear “lower level of exposure” for each of the two groups (women who read at least the first novel comprised one group, and women who read all three novels comprised the second group). Second, there were differences in the degree to which these two groups of women “liked” the books. Namely, in a second question we asked about Fifty Shades readership, 70% of the subjects (n=86/122) in our sample who read all three novels reported liking the books “quite a bit/very much” versus 36% of subjects (n=35/97) who read at least the first novel (but not all three novels). As noted, we excluded 60 women who started the first novel but did not finish it because we did not have a “lower exposure level” for this group—whether they read a few pages or read the entire novel.
AnalysisChi-squared tests were used to compare IPV victimization, binge drinking, sexual practices, and disordered eating in subjects who readFifty Shades and those who did not read any part of Fifty Shades (Table 2). Next, generalized linear models with a log link and robust sandwich variance estimators were used to obtain relative risks ratios (RRs) for each dichotomous health behavior (e.g., binge drinking) for Fifty Shades–exposed compared with unexposed subjects, using a modified Poisson regression approach.58 While our study design was cross-sectional and we could not determine causality, for the purpose of the analysis, the dependent variables included each of the health behaviors (e.g., binge drinking) and the independent variable included Fifth Shades’ readership. Logistic regression models were not used because the health behaviors (e.g., binge drinking, intimate partner violence victimization) were not rare, and the odds ratios from these models would not closely approximate relative risks (or equivalently, prevalence ratios).
Two separate Poisson analyses investigated the relationship between Fifty Shades’ readership and each of the health behaviors; in one analysis, health behaviors were compared in subjects who read at least the first Fifty Shades novel (but not all three novels) to subjects who read none of the Fifty Shades series, and in the second analysis, health behaviors were compared in subjects who read the entireFifty Shades series (all three novels) compared with subjects who read none of the series. In both Poisson analyses, the models were adjusted for age and race/ethnicity, which are theoretically and empirically associated with IPV victimization and related health risks.59–63Analyses were completed using Stata statistical software, version 12.0.64
Characteristics of the study sample
Consistent with the undergraduate population of Ohio State University, the average age of subjects was 21 years and most identified as heterosexual (Table 2). One-third of subjects read Fifty Shades (18.6%, or 122/655, read all three novels, and 14.8%, or 97/655, read at least the first novel but not all three) (data not shown in Table 2). Fifty Shades’ readers were more likely to be white (82.8%) compared with nonreaders (73.8%).
Multivariable analysisTable 3 presents the results of the multivariable analysis comparing health behaviors in nonreaders and readers of the Fifty Shadesnovels. In analyses adjusted for age and race/ethnicity, compared with nonreaders, subjects who read at least the first novel (but not all three novels in the Fifty Shades series) were more likely to have, at some point during their lifetime, a partner who shouted, yelled, or swore at them (RR=1.25) and who delivered unwanted calls/text messages (RR=1.34). They were also more likely than nonreaders to have engaged, at some point during their lifetime, in fasting (RR=1.80) and using diet aids (RR=1.77). Among readers of all three novels, compared with nonreaders, subjects who read all three novels in the Fifty Shades series were more likely to report binge drinking in the last 30 days (RR=1.70), and to report using diet aids (RR=1.65) and having 5 or more intercourse partners during their lifetime (RR=1.63).
Summary of our study findings and comparison to other studiesOur analysis showed that young women who read at least the first novel in the Fifty Shades series (but not all three novels) were at increased risk of having, at some point during their lifetime, a partner who shouted, yelled, or swore at them and who delivered unwanted calls/text messages—behaviors that are consistent with definitions of verbal/emotional abuse and stalking, respectively.20 While we did not ask women specific questions about why they stopped reading the Fifty Shades series, it is possible that women who read the first novel (but not all three novels) were less motivated to continue reading the series because of their abuse experiences. We do know from our data that only 36% of women who read the first novel (but not all three novels) liked the books “quite a bit/very much” compared with 70% of women who read all three books. While only speculation, it is possible that their lack of draw to the books related to their discomfort with abuse in the book; in-depth interviews with readers about their reasons for reading (or not reading) all three books would be needed to fully answer this question.
Other health behavior risks were also associated with Fifty Shades’ readership in our study. Namely, compared with nonreaders, women who read Fifty Shades (whether they completed the first novel or all three novels) had higher rates of disordered eating during their lifetime, and those women who read all three novels were more likely to report binge drinking in the past 30 days and five or more intercourse partners in their lifetime. Disordered eating, binge drinking, and a high number of intercourse partners have been shown to correlate with violence victimization in studies of adolescents and young adults.51–54 Moreover, our findings that readers of Fifty Shades(a novel series that perpetuates hypersexualization of women) seem preoccupied with body image (through their reports of disordered eating) are consistent with recent longitudinal studies showing that female consumption of sexualizing magazines predicts their internalization of physical appearance ideals over time, including valuing appearance over competence, and a tendency to engage in intensive body surveillance.6
Study limitationsOur study is cross-sectional, including the administration of a one-time-only online survey and lack of time-specific data about when Fifty Shades’ readership occurred relative to the health risks we measured. We are therefore unable to report causality in the relationship between Fifty Shades’ readership and the health behaviors examined in the study (violence victimization, binge drinking, sexual practices, and disordered eating). Namely, we cannot state whether reading Fifty Shades caused women to experience some of the health indicators we assessed (e.g., disordered eating), or whether women predisposed to these health indicators were more drawn to read Fifty Shades than other women. Regardless, the order of the relationship may be inconsequential; if women experienced adverse health behaviors first (e.g., disordered eating), reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma, as consuming fiction is purported to impact sensory intake.7–11 As well, if women read Fifty Shades before experiencing the health behaviors assessed in our study, it is possible that the book influenced the onset of these behaviors by creating an underlying context for the behaviors; in our analysis of real-world violent couples, we showed that underlying contexts, such as the uptake of traditional gender roles as supported through Biblical scriptures, supported severe violence in couples.56
Despite our inability to specify causality, our study is nevertheless among the first to assess associations between engagement in popular fiction and a range of potentially harmful health indicators. Further, our analysis raises questions about consuming media that reinforces violence against women—especially for those women who may have already experienced abuse in intimate relationships or who are engaging in risky behaviors, such as binge drinking, known to be associated with violence exposure.45,51–54
Study implications: Practical approaches to preventing violence against womenRecognizing that humans are situated within, interact with, and are influenced by a larger ecological context,43 the study sample we concentrated on—late adolescent and young adult females—is particularly important, as they represent a developmental period concentrating on intense explorations in love and sexual expression40,41 and therefore may be especially susceptible to the uptake and reproduction of problematic love and sexual expectations depicted in popular culture such as Fifty Shades.12–14One possible strategy to assist adolescents and young adults in constructively engaging with popular media is through the development of critical media analysis skills. Several media producers and critics have developed systems to rate popular media on the inclusion or absence of what once were historically accepted biases pertaining to topics like gender standards, sexuality standards, and race and ethnicity.65–69 One such rating system that has received recent attention in popular media because of its effective implementation in Sweden’s film industry is the Bechdel test.65,67 The Bechdel test is a test of gender neutrality—originating in a 1985 comic titled “The Rule,” in which one of Alison Bechdel’s characters pronounced that she only watched films where two named women engaged in conversation with one another about something other than men.65,67The Fifty Shades series12–14 would clearly fail the Bechdel test. Despite the existence of such critical media rating systems, no existing system asks consumers of popular media to raise questions about the depiction of violence against women or other vulnerable populations. We recognize that the depiction of violence against women in and of itself is not problematic per se, especially if the fictional creation attempts to shed light on the lived reality of a significant portion of women in this country and across the world; however, if the depiction reinforces the acceptance of the status quo, rather than challenging it, it is concerning, especially considering that, among theFifty Shades’ readership in our sample, violence exposure and risky health behaviors associated with violence were more prevalent.In addition to assisting adolescents and young adults in constructively engaging with popular media through critical media analysis skills, other types of ongoing constructive conversations are needed with women and men about sexuality, sexual behavior, body image, and gender role expectations—including power, control, abuse, and healthy communication, planning, and coping in relationships. Drawing from intersectionality theory,70 these conversations must intersect with other critical conversations about all factors impacting identity, such as race, class, and disability.70–73 These conversations must start in grade and middle school, within the context of successful prevention programs, such as Safe Dates, which targets abuse prevention through healthy relationship skills training and gender role examination,47,74 or Coaching Boys into Men, which trains high school coaches to have discussions with male athletes about stopping violence against women.75
Within ongoing conversations and prevention efforts, incorporating material from popular media, such as the messages conveyed in Fifty Shades12–14 along with hypersexualized representation of women and girls in print and visual media, is essential to address underlying issues that place women and young girls at risk of unhealthy relationships. In particular, attention must be given to the possibility that normalized representation of abuse in Fifty Shades illegitimizes the experiences of women suffering from abuse in their own relationships and possibly hinders their ability to recognize abuse when it is occurring.
Implications for future studiesFuture studies that could be conducted to expand upon what we have presented here include collecting data on other exposures that potentially correlate with the health risks observed in our study, such as child abuse exposure and trauma76–84 and specific experiences of race and class.55,59–61,71–73,85 With additional resources, future studies could also consider a longitudinal design, with time-specific data collected on when readership and health risks occurred; this would allow for a comprehensive assessment of the direction of the relationship between readership and health risks.
Finally, the two next steps in our own research agenda include analyzing the association between women’s identification with traditional gender roles55,56 and their draw to the Fifty Shades’ novels through data collected in the study presented here;57 and conducting qualitative interviews with young women to describe, in depth, themes associated with their draw (or lack of draw) to problematic narratives occurring in Fifty Shades and in popular music—such as in Rihanna and Eminem’s music video, Love the Way You Lie,86which romanticizes physical, sexual, and emotional threats, including an intent to kill within a couple’s romantic relationship. In this latter stream of qualitative research, and in other research we are currently conducting on dating violence, we are oversampling women from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds because they are at disproportional risk for violence victimization.59–61