Reading "50 Shades of Grey" is linked to abusive relationships and eating disorders

Fiction can be an important tool in fighting sexual abuse -- but not if it reaffirms dangerous ideals

By Jenny Kutner
August 22, 2014 6:58PM (UTC)
main article image
(AP/Vintage Books)

Books can be dangerous; that's why they get banned. The following findings are not, in any way, meant to endorse book-banning, but rather to make the point that fiction really is powerful, as librarians are wont to say: A new study in the Journal of Women's Health finds that young adult women who read "Fifty Shades of Grey" were more likely than non-readers to exhibit signs of eating disorders and to have relationships with verbally abusive partners.

What's more, women who read all three books in the series also proved to be at an increased risk of binge drinking regularly and of having multiple sex partners. Whether women started showing signs of these behaviors before or after they read the book was not distinguished in the study. But, according to lead researcher Amy Bonomi, a professor at Michigan State University, it doesn't matter when participants experienced these behaviors; the link is problematic either way.


"If women experienced adverse health behaviors such as disordered eating first, reading 'Fifty Shades' might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma," Bonomi said in a statement. "Likewise, if they read 'Fifty Shades before experiencing the health behaviors seen in our study, it's possible the book influences the onset of these behaviors."

Bonomi and her colleagues polled more than 650 women between the ages of 18 and 24, and found that participants who had read "Fifty Shades" were significantly more likely to show similar signs of troubling behavior to one another:

Compared to participants who didn't read the book, those who read the first "Fifty Shades" novel were 25 percent more likely to have a partner who yelled or swore at them; 34 percent more likely to have a partner who demonstrated stalking tendencies; and more than 75 percent more likely to have used diet aids or fasted for more than 24 hours.

Those who read all three books in the series were 65 percent more likely than nonreaders to binge drink -- or drink five or more drinks on a single occasion on six or more days per month -- and 63 percent more likely to have five or more intercourse partners during their lifetime.

(The study doesn't note whether women who read the books were more likely to have unprotected sex with more partners over the course of their lives, which would make the last point significantly more worrisome. As is, let's just note that having sex with multiple partners -- especially unprotected -- obviously increases the risk of potential health threats, but isn't inherently shame-worthy or bad.)


In Bonomi's view, it's important for all women -- not just those who have read or might read the "Fifty Shades" series -- to note that each of the associated behaviors she discovered is also associated with relationship violence. The link between women exhibiting these behaviors and reading popular fiction doesn't mean that the "Fifty Shades" series should be banned, though; rather, Bonomi suggests, the findings show a need for parents and educators to discuss these "fictional" themes early and often. So long as young people read books such as "Fifty Shades" -- or any others that include depictions of violence against women -- with a critical eye, they can actually use the fictionalizations as helpful guides to identifying (and avoiding) dangerous relationships.

"We recognize that the depiction of violence against women in and of itself is not problematic, especially if the depiction attempts to shed serious light on the problem," Bonomi said. "The problem comes when the depiction reinforces the acceptance of the status quo, rather than challenging it."

Jenny Kutner

MORE FROM Jenny KutnerFOLLOW @JennyKutner