Menus Subscribe Search
shades

Fifty Shades' cover. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF VINTAGE BOOKS)

‘Fifty Shades’ of Sexual Abuse?

• August 11, 2013 • 9:00 PM

Fifty Shades' cover. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF VINTAGE BOOKS)

An analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey finds the novel perpetuates the notion that intimidation and emotional abuse are acceptable in intimate relationships.

Since its emergence as a pop-culture phenomenon, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy has been largely seen as either a curiosity or a punch line. But a new analysis of the first book in the series finds nothing amusing about the work, or what its popularity says about contemporary attitudes toward sexual violence.

The success of the series reflects, at least in part, “a continued underlying societal tolerance of abuse,” a trio of Ohio State University researchers write in the Journal of Women’s Health. Their analysis of the first volume finds it perpetuates “problematic abuse patterns,” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The three novels, which have spent 68, 69, and 72 weeks, respectively on The New York Times best-seller list, have been scorned by critics as poorly written. Nevertheless, the trilogy, which depicts an intense erotic relationship between Christian, a 28-year-old millionaire, and Anastasia, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, have a large and enthusiastic following.

Researchers report a gross imbalance of power between the male and female characters in the popular trilogy.

The sexuality depicted is of the BDSM variety (bondage/discipline-dominance/submission-sadism/masochism). But for Amy Bonomi, an associate professor of human development and family science, and her colleagues Lauren Altenburger and Nicole Watson, it isn’t the type of sex depicted that’s inherently problematic.

Rather, it’s the gross imbalance of power between the male and female characters.

“Christian’s manipulations of Anastasia into sexual interactions that are uncomfortable for her are inconsistent with what is known about consensual BDSM relationships, which involve reciprocal agreement, and sometimes a contract to ensure limits are respected,” they write. Indeed, recent research from the Netherlands finds BDSM practitioners are, in many cases, better adjusted than most people, in part because their sex play requires strong self-knowledge and clear communication.

In contrast to that sort of implicit equality and explicit care for the other’s welfare, “the power imbalance in Christian and Anastasia’s relationship” is “consistent with national definitions of intimate partner violence and associated reactions known to occur in abused women,” the researchers write.

“Emotional abuse was present in nearly every interaction (in the first novel), including stalking, intimidation, isolation and humiliation,” they note. “These strategies collectively served to control Anastasia. Sexual violence was also pervasive, including using alcohol and intimidation/pressure.”

The researchers concede that some readers see the book as “liberating for women’s sexuality.” While their analysis does not discuss that issue directly, it questions whether the activities described truly merit the term “liberating.”

“While Anastasia is depicted as experiencing ‘pleasure’ during some of the couple’s sexual interactions,” they write, “our analysis shows she is simultaneously confused and terrified that she will be hurt in such interactions, and she yearns for a ‘normal’ relationship.”

As for the BDSM episodes, the researchers’ analysis concludes they were not of the consensual variety described above. “Anastasia’s feelings as documented throughout our analysis clearly indicate she felt a sense of genuine danger in the relationship,” they write. “To interpret Anastasia’s feelings (of hesitation) as ‘not being ready’ for BDSM toes a dangerous line of classic victim blaming, where the tables are turned back on the victim as playing a central role in instigating abuse.”

OK, but does any of this matter? Isn’t the trilogy simply escapist fiction, in which female readers vicariously live out fantasies they’d never actually try?

The researchers don’t see it that way. Intimate partner violence is “one of the biggest problems of our time,” they argue, affecting well over 20 percent of American women, according to the Department of Justice.

“Underlying societal conditions create the context for such violence to occur,” they write, “including the normalization and romanticizing of violence in popular culture.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.