Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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