A new study suggests that the so-called erotic breakout novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” is contributing to a culture that encourages violence against women.
The book, a 2011 best-selling breakout novel by author E.L. James that spawned two sequels and a movie deal, has been controversial for its depiction of what the writer assures us is a relationship featuring BDSM (Bondage and Discipline and Sadism and Masochism) between lead character and new college graduate Anastasia Steele, and a young businessman Christian Grey.
While women have picked up copies of the book in droves, sparking a boom in what has become in itself a controversial genre known as “Mommy Porn,” the series has garnered a lot of commentary on whether the book’s themes are ultimately harmful to young women or in fact empowering. Central to that debate has been whether main character Anastasia, as a virgin, actually can give informed consent to a relationship that so broadly transgresses what might be termed the typical sexual experience or whether she is manipulated by the more world-wise Christian Grey.
Now researchers at Ohio State University working with the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University, and publishing this week in the Journal of Women’s Health, have created a systematic analysis of the novel to attempt to parse whether the relationship between Anastasia and Christian could be characterized as abusive.
Each researcher in the team undertook creating a written analysis of the book and its themes, comparing their analyses at certain points to guard against methodology divergence, and then compared that finished examination to the CDC’s criteria for intimate partner violence or IPV.
The IPV criteria include: emotional abuse as evidenced by intimidation and threats; isolation; stalking; and humiliation; sexual violence in the form of forced sex acts or contact against a person’s will; and use of alcohol or drugs or intimidation or pressure to coerce. For investigating the notion of “harm,” the researchers looked for evidence in the text of, among other things, the perceived threat, altered identity, and entrapment reported by abused women.
The researchers assert this analysis show that Fifty Shades of Grey depicts emotional abuse “in nearly every interaction” between the central couple.
The analysis offers some concrete examples, including the following under the heading of Emotional Abuse:
Within a week after Christian and Anastasia’s introduction during an interview Anastasia conducts with Christian for her college’s newspaper, and without any additional form of communication, Christian stalks Anastasia, by “appearing” at Anastasia’s place of employment, an independent hardware store located in Portland—173 miles from their original encounter in Seattle. As Christian asks Anastasia to help him locate various “odd items,” such as cable ties, masking tape, and rope, his “confusing double talk” (p. 29) and questions about “what else he might need” for his “do-it-yourselfer” home improvement project (p. 28) creates feelings of embarrassment and humiliation in Anastasia. Christian does not stop his innuendo after Anastasia’s body shows physiological signs of embarrassment, including a “recurring blush” and cheeks the color of the “Communist Manifesto” (p. 27–28). During this interaction, Anastasia even has the “uncanny feeling [Christian] is laughing at [her]” (p. 27). Midway through the hardware store encounter, Christian’s mood changes suddenly from “friendly” to “cold and distant” when Anastasia says hello to a male colleague; Christian “watches [Anastasia] like a hawk, his eyes hooded, his mouth a hard impassive line…his tone becomes clipped and cool…” (p. 30–31). In response to Christian’s abrupt mood change, Anastasia worries “Damn…have I offended him” and attempts to “diffuse the antagonism” by introducing Christian to her male colleague (p. 30–31). Christian’s anger and withdrawal during the hardware store interaction set the stage for future isolation of Anastasia from friends and family—specifically, his anger/withdrawal over Anastasia talking to a male colleague is an intimidation/threat intended to induce her withdrawal from connections with others [...]
The analysis also highlights examples of sexual violence, the first among many being:
The first sex scene occurs at Christian’s condominium 2 weeks into the relationship. Christian sets up the sex scene by offering Anastasia generous amounts of wine (which she accepts) and engaging her in a discussion of the BDSM contract. During their discussion of the contract, Christian learns that Anastasia is a virgin, instantly angers, and intimidates/threatens, “Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?” (p. 108). Christian paces, while Anastasia is alarmed and whispers “Why are you so angry with me?” (p. 110). Sensing Anastasia’s withdrawal over his concerns that she is a virgin, Christian quickly suggests he is angry at himself and that he should “teach her the basics” (p. 110) about sex. Christian asks Anastasia if she wants to leave (manipulation because it gives Anastasia the illusion she has control after he induces a tense situation that causes her distress), and then tells her he likes having her there, he wants to bite her lip hard, and they should “forget about the [BDSM contract] rules” (p. 111) reinforced with:
“I want you…and I know you want me…you wouldn’t be sitting here calmly discussing punishment and hard limits if you didn’t” (p. 111).
Christian further primes Anastasia by suggesting “I really want to make love to you…you are one brave woman…I’m in awe of you…please let me make love to you” (p. 111). But, at the same time, he intimidates/warns, “… this doesn’t mean I’ve come over all hearts and flowers…it’s a means to an end” (p. 110–111).
To be clear the study does not say, or even imply, that all BDSM relationships encourage intimate partner violence — indeed, the analysis argues the contrary: that, like many commentators who have actually engaged in a BDSM-inclusive relationship have already said, the relationship depicted in Fifty Shades of Grey misses key criteria for BDSM, namely a deepening of intimacy and feelings of mutual fulfillment, and that it lacks several key facets such as fully informed consent.
The study concludes:
Despite the pervasive abuse patterns we uncovered in our analysis, popular reviews have suggested the book is liberating for women’s sexuality, providing women with an “opportunity” to openly experience erotica in an otherwise hyper-repressed culture.54 Our analysis did not set out to unravel the validity of the popular claim that the book is liberating for women’s sexuality. However, what our analysis sheds light on is the following: While Anastasia is depicted as experiencing “pleasure” during some of the couple’s sexual interactions, our analysis shows she is simultaneously confused and terrified that she will be hurt in such interactions, and she yearns for a “normal” relationship; in addition, Anastasia’s consent in the sexual activities is coerced through the use of alcohol and intimidation/pressure.
Quite apart from the Religious Right’s concern that the book is pornographic, the study’s authors say there are valid concerns over the book’s subject matter and how it may feed into a normalization of violence against women in a culture where sexualization and objectification permeates a variety of media.
The researchers do not advocate for the book to be banned, but instead for a greater awareness of intimate partner violence, which the World Health Organization says affects 35% of women globally.
Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more than 70 million copies and has set the record as the fastest-selling paperback since records began. It has also made E.L. James the top earning writer of 2012.
As such investigations into the novel’s impact or potential impact are not unwarranted, and at the very least this analysis serves to highlight what several feminist commentators have already said: that society’s view of what might be classed as “empowering” to women may be skewed, and perhaps even dangerously so.
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