‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ promotes violence against women, study says

A study in the Journal of Women's Health finds that the best-selling novel depicts characters whose behavior fits the definition of an abusive relationship.
(Will Oliver / AFP/Getty Images)

“Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t just a fun, racy read, according to a new study that finds the bestseller glamorizes violence against women.

Analyzing the naughty novel, psychologists at Michigan State University and Ohio State University concluded that its characters’ behaviors are consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official definition of intimate partner violence — and that the book perpetuates dangerous abuse patterns.

Intimate partner violence is pervasive in the novel, “occurring in nearly every interaction” between its protagonists, said Ohio State University researcher Amy Bonomi, lead author of the report, which was published Monday in the Journal of Women’s Health.


Written by British author E.L. James and published in 2011, “Fifty Shades” describes the relationship between multimillionaire Christian Grey and college student Anastasia Steele. The book contains explicit scenes depicting bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism, or BDSM. But the study had issues beyond the bedroom scenes.

After hearing all the buzz about the book, Bonomi and her colleagues decided to take a “systematic approach to understanding the abuse patterns” in Christian and Anastasia’s relationship, analyzing abuse tactics in the first 124 pages of the book to see how they measured up with the CDC’s standard.

According to the federal agency’s guidelines, intimate partner violence includes “physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse.” Physical violence includes acts such as slapping and choking, while sexual violence entails forced sex acts, often induced through the use of alcohol or other drugs. Psychological or emotional abuse can involve humiliation, social isolation and stalking.

The book depicts multiple elements of such abuse, Bonomi said. Additionally, Anastasia “suffers reactions typical of abused women,” changing her behavior to maintain peace in the relationship and, over time, becoming disempowered and socially isolated.

For example, the researchers pointed out, she withholds information about her plans to visit friends and family members and avoids social outings so as not to anger Christian. “That is exactly what we see in women in abusive relationships,” Bonomi said. “The abuser is very good at controlling social connections by intimidating the victim.”

Bonomi said also that it’s wrong to consider the book a depiction of a healthy BDSM relationship. In consensual BDSM relationships, partners take negotiations seriously and respect each others’ boundaries, she said. In “Fifty Shades,” she noted, Christian bullies Anastasia and plies her with alcohol to coerce her into sexual acts that she finds uncomfortable.


“Consenting BDSM relationships are fine,” Bonomi said. “But the relationship we see between Christian and Anastasia is different. What we see in them is a clear pattern of abuse.”

Cris Sullivan, who researches gender-based violence at Michigan State University and wasn’t involved in the study, agreed, explaining that Anastasia is in the relationship “not because she enjoys it, but because she’s trying to keep the man” — reinforcing a message “that is very pervasive in our society.”

“That’s not a message we want to keep sending to women or men,” Sullivan said. “I’m hoping [the study] will lead people to talk and think about the book a little more critically than just a hot little summer read.”

The study authors don’t call for the novel to be banned, but rather for “a greater societal awareness of the abuse occurring in the book,” Bonomi said. “This is really a teachable moment when we should be talking with young people about what abuse is and what are some of the strategies to prevent it.”

Intimate partner violence affects around 35% of women globally, the World Health Organization reported in June.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” is the first in a trilogy that has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide and ranks as the fastest-selling paperback of all time. A film adaptation is in the works.


Twitter: @mmpandika