Fifty Shades of Grey is a Lesson in Fifty Shades of Abuse, Says Study

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.

Violence against women should never be tolerated, much less in a public manner. Sign this petition to tell the GOP this message and keep funds out of The Hillary Project.

Image credit: ellebnere.


Jim V
Jim Ven5 months ago

thanks for sharing.

Paul M.
Paul M4 years ago

The solution is to form a society where books, TV, Film, the Net, music video and lyrics, are just entertainment. Those who want to read or watch grim discussions of medical matters as drama do so, and those who don’t, like me, don’t; Joan Hickson, or John Nettles are my sort of TV detective.
A step along the road would be if everyone made a point of having discussions; just as is happening here. There’s nothing quite like dad or mum watching a CSI with the kids, and pointing out the moral issues and plot holes, to help them experience media with perspective; when the bloke shouts at his colleagues, it’s wrong; when the woman/man throws a glass of water/wine over someone, it’s wrong; comment when watching the football that someone has just assaulted a fellow player and they should be arrested for it. John Wayne regularly used the ‘king hit’ in his films … turning away then striking back.

Dysfunctional relationships: Sex & the City … Everyone Loves Raymond … According to Jim … Friends …

Paul M.
Paul M4 years ago

Karen H … I agree with the importance of “consensual”. I think you were a bit off the mark with Sandi O. “Claudius”, great series, was a depiction of the historic events, but those events were brought to life by film. So comments of comparison aren’t all that far from those for 50. I think Sandi’s point is a legitimate one, you can make that point not only for “countless books, …”, but for all things … that’s the human condition. I dislike football (Australian) because it encourages submissiveness, to the coach; aggression, often unbridled and abusive; elitism of the worst sort, based on having good genes for physical activity, not valuable enough in my view for the high paydays; and arrogance … just look at the way “stars” or “heroes” behave, although not all that surprising as most sports stars are young (men). I can make argument for virtually anything … if the toilet roll should be around the top, or round the bottom … whoever decides tends to be the household power.

Paul M.
Paul M4 years ago

I’m glad this article has landed in Care2. It brings up issues of free speech, creativity, social responsibility, social justice, and good taste.

Karen H … you are right, it is a primer for rape, and that needs pointing out, but it is for those who are already prone to thinking they should do rape. I don’t think, or at least hope, anyone who isn’t thinking “mmm, it would be good to rape and here’s how it’s done” will be influenced. As to those who do think that way, they can take their scenario from any of the clinical cop shows on film / TV; CSI, Criminal Minds, Prime Suspect, etc. Or they can read books by Jeffery Deaver, etc; or look up how it is done on the net. Some music is a much stronger influence with the young in my view as the clips accompanying them, let alone the words, are about the subjugation and abuse of (consenting) women.

pam w.
pam w4 years ago

A couple of points's interesting to see how many of us can speak with authority (?) about what BDSM is and is not! If you think of Care2 as representative of our society---it would appear many of us have some experience with this.

Secondly, Joanne D says "this book does not represent real people who are actually into BDSM (once again, "welfare queens" comes to mind.)"

WOW! Even though I've never been on welfare, I'm offended at the idea that we can all lump a group of women into a stereotypical ''niche'' (as ''welfare queens'') and then announce knowingly that they MUST be into BDSM.




Is this just another way to smear women who need public assistance?

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

it is FICTION.... I have not read it but either way it is a book. It is not a how to kill your girlfriend book, it is fiction. Are we to attack all fiction where abuse, war, drugs ect are present? Come on people censorship is for dictators, let people read what they want and draw their own conclusions. Grown women can read what they want about what they want, regardless of content. If you don't want young readers reading it well tough, that is up to their parents. now go read a book, geez. You might learn something

Silvia Steinhilber

I thought I must be one of very few people that haven't read the book. Obviously not.

JoLi Nevares

Whatever it takes to remind folks that violence against women (and men, and children, etc.) - study of a book, testimonies of live people, reports from those conducting investigations - should be used to keep this issue that plagues us all in one way or another at the forefront of our thoughts and efforts. Such concern does not impact the world in any other way but by one book, one act, one person, one thought at a time.

Shelli S.
Shelli S4 years ago

Haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey..not sure if I will or wont read it. Thanks

Lyn B.
Lyn B4 years ago

@Kimberlee W,

My opinion would remain the same.
The book does a horrible disservice to all safe, sane involvement with BDSM.
A woman can be just as much of a monster as a man.
All participants should respect each other, establish and respect boundaries/safe words/actions.