Young women who read the popular erotic series Fifty Shades of Grey are more likely than non-readers to suffer eating disorders and experience domestic violence, a new study finds. While the direction of the relationship cannot be determined, researchers argue both contexts are troubling.
As of late, much of the national conversation surrounding fiction’s influence on developing brains has focused on video games. Psychologists have found little evidence to support the fear concerned parents nationwide have expressed: Violent video games breed violent kids. However, the same may not hold true for the written word, as the latest research upholds prior findings that suggest “experience-taking” — the immersion of the self in a story’s protagonist — may end in experience-reproducing, too.
Amy Bonomi, lead researcher and professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University, argues whichever way the results run, the picture that emerges is still problematic.
“If women experienced adverse health behaviors such as disordered eating first, reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma,” she 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.”
Bonomi and her colleagues collected data on 650 female participants aged 18 to 24. More than women who hadn’t read the books, consumers of Fifty Shades were found to be exposed to several unhealthy behaviors. They were more than 75 percent more likely to have used diet pills or fasted in the last 24 hours, 25 percent more likely to have partners who swore at them, and 34 percent more likely to have a partner who demonstrated stalking tendencies. They also tended to binge drink and have more sexual partners.
In a clinical sense, Bonomi says, this doesn’t necessarily mean portrayal of domestic violence is objectively bad. “We recognize that the depiction of violence against women in and of itself is not problematic,” she explained, “especially if the depiction attempts to shed serious light on the problem.” But problems arise when that portrayal doesn’t serve a productive purpose, when it reinforces the status quo instead of challenging it.
Unfortunately, a 2013 study performed by the same researchers found the series perpetuates ideas about domestic violence that aren’t necessarily conducive for progress. Many of the behavior patterns found in the series’ main character, Anastasia, reflect the telltale symptoms of someone who has been abused by a partner. Eroticism may be the crux of the book, Bonomi says, but that doesn’t mean domestic violence is being utilized to push the correct agenda.
Ultimately, she’d like to see schools emphasize the importance of reading fiction with a critical eye. Books may be based on real-life circumstances, but the treatment of those experiences may be unhealthy for the young adult who fails to question what is “normal.” If novels are to incorporate destructive themes, a character’s suffering must eventually turn to triumph.
“This book is perpetuating dangerous abuse standards and yet it’s being cast as this romantic, erotic book for women,” said Bonomi, at the time of the 2013 study’s release. “The erotic content could have been accomplished without the theme of abuse.”
Source: Bonomi A, Nemeth J, Altenburger L, Anderson M, Snyder A, Dotto I. Fiction or Not? Fifty Shades is Associated with Health Risks in Adolescent and Young Adult Females. Journal of Women’s Health. 2014.