No, Fifty Shades of Grey Does Not Cause Domestic Abuse


Everybody strap in, because it’s time for another round of your favorite game in the whole wide world: Is Fifty Shades Bad for Women? Fingers on the buzzer, kids!

The latest volley comes from Michigan State University’s Amy Bonomi, who’s just published a study in the Journal of Women’s Health on the matter. She led a survey of 650 women aged 18 to 24 and, according to the release from MSU:

Compared to participants who didn’t read the book, those who read the first “Fifty Shades” novel were 25 percent more likely to have a partner who yelled or swore at them; 34 percent more likely to have a partner who demonstrated stalking tendencies; and more than 75 percent more likely to have used diet aids or fasted for more than 24 hours.

But the study’s authors openly admit they can’t nail down the causality: “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.”

Bonomi’s opinion is clear, though—she thinks Fifty Shades is bad news. In a recent interview with U.S. News & World Report, she called the book “a glaring glamorization of violence against women.” In the press release for the study, she suggested: “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.”

But that sounds just as likely ass-backwards. I’m not going to pretend that, if you take Fifty Shades of Grey at face value, it represents anything remotely like a healthy relationship. It’s not a healthy vanilla relationship, and it’s not a healthy BDSM relationship, either. Christian Grey is a grade-A creeper and I can’t help but wonder whether maybe he’s hitting on a college kid because he’s been bounced from every reputable fetish club/meetup in the Seattle area. Picturing some 18-year-old girl with submissive tendencies being introduced to kink via Fifty Shades of Grey makes me anxious to the point of actual physical discomfort. Read almost literally any other book! You’d be better off getting your info from Reddit, for chrissakes.

Then again: The book is a fantasy. An inept one that doesn’t deserve its massive popularity, sure, but it isn’t trying to be realistic, any more than The Story of O. It’s specifically a fantasy about an insecure, vulnerable girl who merely needs sorting out by a big, strong, controlling man. It acknowledges (even luxuriates in) her messiness, turns it into a virtue that attracts Grey. It seems just as likely that young women who’re struggling in some way, dealing with disordered eating or a burgeoning drinking problem or a manipulative, abusive boyfriend, would be drawn to that narrative.

Even so, Bonomi worries about the book’s effect: “If women experienced adverse health behaviors such as disordered eating first, reading ‘Fifty Shades’ might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma.” The most frighteningly convincing scenario, to my mind, would be the young woman who brushes off warning signs from a partner after reading Fifty Shades and seeing controlling behavior normalized. After all, fantasy though it is, the book is written close enough to “realism” that plenty of readers could misread it.

But troubling as the book’s dynamics are, Bonomi is ascribing it a lot of power. Surely binge-drinking, disordered eating and abusive relationships involve many more risk factors than picking up one shoddily written piece of Twilight fanfic, no matter how popular or problematic.

Please God let the next big sex trend be something straightforward, like rim jobs or swinging.

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