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Erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” promotes unhealthy behaviors to readers

Intimate partner violence affects 25% of women and impairs health, and current societal conditions, including the normalization of abuse in popular culture such as novels, film, and music, create the context to support such violence
Intimate partner violence affects 25% of women and impairs health, and current societal conditions, including the normalization of abuse in popular culture such as novels, film, and music, create the context to support such violence
Robin Wulffson, MD

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is a popular three-novel trilogy written by E.L. James. It has sold more than 100 million copies and a film-adapted version is scheduled to hit the big screen in February 2015. The trilogy depicts a romantic and erotic relationship involving 28-year-old multimillionaire, Christian Grey, and a 22-year-old college student, Anastasia Steele. A new study has found that young women who read the series are more likely to be practicing unsafe behaviors than those who have avoided the erotic novels. The findings are currently available online in the Journal of Women’s Health and will appear in the September 5 print edition of the journal. The study did not distinguish whether women changed behaviors before or after reading the books; however, the researchers noted that their findings are troubling.

The investigators evaluated 655 female participants and found those who read at least the first novel were more likely to have had a partner who shouted, yelled, or swore at them. Women who reported reading all three novels in the series were found to be 65% more likely to engage in binge drinking and 63% more likely to have had more than five sex partners, compared to non-readers.

The authors explain that intimate partner violence affects 25% of women and impairs health, and current societal conditions, including the normalization of abuse in popular culture such as novels, film, and music, create the context to support such violence. The authors argue that the relationship is characterized by intimate partner violence, which is harmful to Anastasia.

For the study, all the authors read the novels and wrote narrative summaries to clarify themes. They conducted validity checks that included a double review of the first eight chapters of the novel to establish consistency in their analysis approach, discussions in-person and electronically to resolve discrepancies, and review of their analysis with other abuse and sexual practice experts. To characterize intimate partner violence, they used the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) definitions of emotional abuse (intimidation/threats; isolation; stalking; and humiliation) and sexual violence (forced sex acts/contact against a person’s will, including using alcohol/drugs or intimidation/pressure). To portray harm, they used Smith’s conceptualizations of perceived threat, managing, altered identity, yearning, entrapment, and disempowerment experienced by abused women.

The authors noted that emotional abuse is present in nearly every interaction in the novels, 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 regarding 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.

The authors concluded that their analysis identified patterns in the trilogy that reflect pervasive intimate partner violence, which is one of the biggest problems of our time. Furthermore, their analysis adds to a growing body of literature noting dangerous violence standards being perpetuated in popular culture.