In the last few years, few books have reached a higher saturation point than “50 Shades of Grey.” It has sold more than 100 million copies. It’s been translated into 52 languages. There’s a movie in the works, and the Daily Mail has trumpeted the erotic thriller by E.L. James as the “fastest-selling paperback of all time.”
Now a new study published Thursday in the Journal of Women’s Health says young women who have read the book — erotica with themes related to sexual dominance — are more likely to have abusive partners, use diet aids, binge drink and have multiple sexual partners.
“If women experienced adverse health behaviors such as disordered eating first, reading ‘Fifty Shades’ might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma,” researcher Amy Bonomi, a professor at the Michigan State University, said in a statement. “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 obvious shortcoming of the study is that it doesn’t determine whether the reported abuse proceeded the book — or came after. But either way, Bonomi suggests in her study, they’re linked.
Calling the study one of the first to analyze how popular fiction relates to health risks, the paper states the book’s protagonist, Anastasia, evinces “reactions typical of abused women” that include: “constant perceived threat”; “altered identity”; “yearning for health and normalcy in the relationship”; and “disempowerment and entrapment.”
“The book is a glaring glamorization of violence against women,” Bonomi asserted in an interview with U.S. News & World Report. The protagonist “begins to manage her behavior to keep peace in the relationship, which is something we see in abused women. Over time, she loses her identity.”
So Bonomi, who authored a previous study castigating the book for “perpetuating dangerous abuse standards,” set out to determine how the book relates to young women reading it.
According to the study, she had 655 women aged 18 to 24 at a large Midwestern university take an online questionnaire asking whether they had read “Fifty Shades.” Among the respondents, 219 had read at least the first book in the trilogy and 436 had never picked it up. The survey then asked whether they’d been with someone who had abused them, verbally or physically; whether they binge drink; about their sexual behavior; and if they had ever used diet aids or had skipped eating for at least 24 hours.
The survey found women who read the book were 25 percent more likely to have been in an abusive relationship in which the partner yelled or swore at them. They were 34 percent more likely to have been with someone who “exhibited stalking tendencies.” And were 75 percent more likely to have used diet aids or fasted.
What’s more, if the respondent had read all three books, they were 65 percent more likely to binge drink and 63 percent more likely to have slept with at least five people during their lifetime.
“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 said in a statement, adding that she’s not calling for a ban on the book or to restrict women’s reading habits. “The problem comes when the depiction reinforces the acceptance of the status quo, rather than challenging it.”