After 50 Shades of Grey became an unexpected (and somewhat inexplicable) worldwide phenomenon, it didn't take long for critics to begin pointing out the abusive dynamics in Ana and Christian's relationship or picking up on Ana's disturbing eating habits. Although fans and author E.L. James strongly denied these claims, it seems that the critics might have been right after all: according to a new study, 50 Shades of Grey readers are more likely to be in an abusive relationship or to have an eating disorder than people who have never picked up the infamous series. Yikes!
The study, which was published in The Journal of Women's Health, featured 650 women between the ages of 18 and 24. Researchers found that young women who had read the book were 25 percent more likely to be in a verbally abusive relationship and 34 percent more likely to have had a partner who exhibited stalker tendencies. And they were a whopping 75 percent more likely to have used diet aids or to have fasted for over 24 hours. In other words, all that talk about how the book is actually bad for women is actually right on the mark.
“If women experienced adverse health behaviors such as disordered eating first, reading ‘Fifty Shades’ might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma,” study author Amy Bonomi said in a statement. “Likewise, if they read ‘Fifty Shades before experiencing the health behaviors seen in our study, it’s possible the book influences the onset of these behaviors.”
To be clear, when people (myself included) talk about the abusive nature of Christian and Ana's relationship, we aren't talking about the BDSM. Many if not most of the people who practice BDSM do so in completely healthy ways — in fact, consent is taken very seriously in the BDSM community. When we talk about abuse in 50 Shades of Grey we don't mean it's bad that Christian Grey likes to tie women up and whip them. We mean it's bad that he (among other things) tries to control every aspect of Ana's life, disregards her express wishes both in and out of the bedroom, continually isolates her from her friends and family, and engages in near constant emotional manipulation to make her do what he wants. And all of that is very, very bad.
(And also not good for the BDSM community; to quote The Pervocracy, a BDSM blog currently doing some kickass 50 Shades recaps, the books give people "the idea that BDSM is 'abuse but they're perverts so it's okay.'" Which is not true)
Of course, depicting violence against women in books is not inherently bad, anymore than depicting things like war or murder is inherently bad. As Amy Bonomi also observes, "The problem comes when the depiction reinforces the acceptance of the status quo, rather than challenging it.” In other words, when the book treats troubling things as good things, rather than as problems, that's where the trouble arises.
And as someone who for some reason actually did read all three of these books, it's always been pretty clear that these books do reinforce the acceptance of the status quo when it comes to violence against women. Christian's abusive tendencies are not only never denounced, they are actually idealized and romanticized. In the world of the book, his abusive behavior actually makes him the perfect man.
And so it's not super shocking that there's a connection between these books and real-world abuse. The media we consume affects our understanding of what's normal and even what's desirable. And 50 Shades of Grey sends the message that abusive behavior is actually super-romantic and that things which ought to be warning signs are actually signs that you've met your prince charming. And that is a big, big problem.