It’s being hailed as a “provocative new study” worthy of Christian Grey himself — a group of researchers have just published an article in Journal of Women’s Health claiming that women who read “50 Shades of Grey” are at a higher risk for domestic abuse, disordered eating, a high number of sexual partners and even binge drinking. But don’t throw your romance novel to the curb just yet: The study is another example of the good old “correlation does not equal causation” trope.
During the study, a group of scientists surveyed 655 18-to-24-year-old women online, a third of whom had read some or all of the ’50 Shades’ series. They asked them questions about their personal sexual practices, their experiences of partner victimization such as sexual and psychological abuse, and binge drinking. When they adjusted their findings for age and race, researchers learned that women who had read at least the first book in the series were more likely to report partner victimization, cyberstalking, fasting and using diet aids. Women who had read all three books in the series were also more likely to report having five or more sexual partners in their lifetime. Their conclusion? There is an association between reading the series and negative health outcomes for women.
However, even the study’s authors admit that it’s hard to figure out which is the chicken and which is the egg here. Do women who have been sexually victimized come to the books as a reflection of their own experience? Do they read the books, then engage in unhealthy behaviors? Are the books simply a reflection of cultural norms? Does the existence of these books, in the words of the authors, “[normalize] these risks and behaviors in women’s lives”? Since the study didn’t ask women about what, specifically, the books do for women, it could be missing out on important information.
The media has been quick to spin this story into a “50 Shades is harmful to your health” lede, but only one thing here is clear — we don’t actually know what effects the books, if any, have on women. With overwhelming evidence that reading can actually improve health (on neurological, physical and psychological levels), one study on one series of books is unlikely to turn the tide of what health professionals believe about reading. And looking at one series’ impact on a subset of readers is interesting, but also dangerous. If medicine does decide that a single series or genre of books is connected with unhealthy impacts on women, what comes next? Will books about racy subject matter be banned, discouraged or stigmatized?
Until we have more information on the impacts of different series, it’s hard to see a concrete link between domestic violence and women’s fiction. But perhaps it’s the first in a line of inquiry on how books we read impact lives — or the other way around.
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