Fifty Shades: Glamorizing Abuse or Harmless Escapism?

Claims that the Fifty Shades books harm readers lack solid evidence

Posted Mar 07, 2015

The highly successful Fifty Shades Trilogy has provoked controversy not just because it contains kinky sex scenes but also because the story revolves around what some people claim is an abusive relationship harmful to the female protagonist. This has raised some concerns about any possible influence the story might have on its predominantly female readers, especially that it might glamorize the abuse of women. The authors of a recent study found that readers of the Fifty Shades Trilogy had higher rates of certain risky behavior compared to women who had not read the books, and argued that these books might have a harmful influence. However, their actual findings were somewhat inconsistent and did not allow for any definite conclusions. Women who enjoy certain kinds of risky behavior might be drawn to these books, but whether the Fifty Shades Trilogy has any subsequent influence on readers’ behavior remains to be seen. Erotic romance novels featuring abusive relationships have been popular among women for a long time. More research is needed to help understand why so many women are drawn to such stories and whether they represent mainly harmless escapism or something more sinister.

Wikimedia commons; public domain
Source: Wikimedia commons; public domain

The success of the Fifty Shades Trilogy (comprising Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed) has been a remarkable phenomenon. According to critics, the books hardly constitute high-quality English literature, yet in spite of this they have been extraordinarily popular among mainly female readers. The film based on the first book in the series has also been a commercial success. The Fifty Shades Trilogy has many features commonly found in the genre of women’s erotic literature, a genre with enduring popularity that is currently a billion dollar industry (Hawley & Hensley, 2009). Novels in this genre have a stereotypical formula in which a naïve young woman becomes involved with a sensual older man who forces his attention on her resulting in eventual pregnancy and marriage (Coles & Shamp, 1984). A consistent plot element is a struggle between the two for emotional and physical dominance, with the man eventually having his way. The storyline involves explicitly described sex scenes, some of them featuring bondage, forced sex and the like. Coles and Shamp note that the female protagonist in these books usually has stereotypically feminine qualities of passivity, dependence, and emotionality, while the male hero has stereotypically masculine qualities of being strong, silent, unemotional, and domineering. They also note that these books are “heavily laced with aggression, hostile sexual behavior, and lack of mature warmth and intimacy between the ‘lovers’”. I think it is fair to say that this more or less represents a reasonable synopsis of the plot and characters in the Fifty Shades Trilogy.

Since the books appeared, there has been a great deal of discussion about whether or not they glamorize abusive relationships. Proponents of the view that the books do promote social acceptance of abusive behavior include a group of researchers who have devoted a couple of scholarly papers to the subject (Bonomi, Altenburger, & Walton, 2013; Bonomi et al., 2014). The first paper (see here for related press release and interview) analyses the interactions between the two main characters in Fifty Shades of Grey and concludes that the story depicts stalking, intimidation, and emotional and sexual abuse of the female protagonist Anastasia by her love interest Christian (Bonomi, et al., 2013). Bonomi et al. also correctly point out that the books provide a rather distorted portrayal of the practice of BDSM noting that real-life practitioners pay much more attention to issues of consent and safety than the characters in the books. A number of people have disputed that the storyline does portray abuse, and have pointed out that the story is intended to be a fantasy involving BDSM rather than an accurate depiction anyway (see these posts here and here for interesting discussion). However, just for the sake of argument let’s accept for the moment that the story does portray abuse and victimization. Since the books are fiction, the more important question is what impact, if any, do they have on real-life readers. Bonomi et al. argue that depictions of abuse in the Fifty Shades Trilogy could influence the real-world beliefs and behavior of readers so that they come to regard interpersonal violence and associated risky behavior as normal and acceptable.

In order connect their analysis of the book with real-world behavior, the researchers (Bonomi, et al., 2014) surveyed women who either had or had not read the books and compared them on their experiences of emotional, sexual and other abuse in relationships, and in regard to risky behavior, such as binge drinking, dietary restriction, and having five or more sexual partners before the age of 24. The rationale for assessing risky behavior was that women who have experienced abusive relationships are more likely to engage in risky behavior such as problem drinking, sexual promiscuity, and disordered eating.

The participants, aged between 18 to 24, were divided into three readership categories: those who had read none of the books (non-readers), those who had read the first book in the trilogy but not all three (whom I will call one-book readers), and those who had read all three (three-book readers). About one-third of all participants had read at least the first book (18.6% were three-book readers, and 14.8% one-book readers).

Compared to non-readers, one-book readers were somewhat more likely to have had at some point during their lifetime a partner who shouted, yelled, or swore at them (a form of verbal/emotional abuse), and who delivered unwanted calls/text messages (considered a form of stalking). They were also more likely than non-readers to have engaged at some point during their lifetime in fasting for 24 hours and in using diet aids. Three-book readers, compared with non-readers, were more likely to report binge drinking in the last 30 days, using diet aids and to have had five or more sex partners during their lifetime. Neither readership group reported having experienced more physical or sexual abuse, being threatened by a partner, having a partner who tried to control their behavior, or who engaged in name-calling or other verbal behavior intended to hurt their feelings, compared to non-readers.

The authors acknowledge that because this study is cross-sectional it is not possible to determine what sort of causal relationship (if any) exists between reading the books and the participants’ experiences of relationship abuse and risky behavior. For example, they admit that they do not know if reading the books preceded any of the outcomes they measured or if the women had these experiences before they read them. Rather remarkably, they argue that the order of the causal relationship may be “inconsequential” as even if the women had experienced the risky behavior before reading the books, reading them “might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma” (Bonomi, et al., 2014).

They go on to argue that because the Fifty Shades Trilogy normalises abuse, women who are being abused might not recognise it as such and tolerate behavior that may be harmful to them. They also argue that reading the books might create a context that leads women to subsequently engage in risky behavior such as the ones described. In support of the notion that reading a book can influence real-life behavior they note that previous research they have done found that acceptance of traditional gender roles as depicted in the Bible created a context that supported severe violence among couples (Bonomi, et al., 2014).

Comparing Fifty Shades to the Bible seems like a huge stretch to me. While religious believers may regard the Bible as a sacred authoritative text that prescribes how they should lead their lives, I find it hard to believe that readers of an erotic romance novel would take it quite as seriously.

Although Bonomi et al.’s study does present some interesting correlational findings I would argue that their results are inconclusive and that there are a number of issues with their analysis of participant outcomes that need to be addressed. Firstly, there are inconsistencies between the outcomes for one-book and three-book readers.

The former group of readers were more likely to have ever had a partner who shouted, yelled, or swore at them, or who had engaged in stalking, but the latter group were not. In attempting to explain this difference, the authors mention that only 36% of one-book readers said that they liked the books “quite a bit/very much” compared to 70% of three-book readers. They speculate that one-book readers did not finish the series because they might have felt uncomfortable with the abuse in the book due to resemblance to their own experiences. This seems like a plausible explanation, although as they acknowledge, more in-depth research would be needed to confirm it.

However, as an explanation it seems inconsistent with their view that reading the books might impair a woman’s ability to recognise abusive treatment and may suggest the opposite. Additionally, in their discussion of their finding that three-book readers had higher rates of binge drinking and a higher number of sexual partners they note that in previous research such behaviors have been correlated with violence victimisation. However, three-book readers did not report that they had experienced higher levels of any form of abuse than non-readers. Furthermore, the one-book readers, who did report some emotional abuse and stalking did not engage in more binge drinking or having a higher number of sexual partners, indicating that abuse does not always result in these outcomes.

The authors acknowledge that women who engage in risky behavior might be more drawn to reading the Fifty Shades Trilogy than other women, but do not really elaborate on this. I think this needs to be explored further because it suggests an alternative explanation for some of their results. Women who are drawn to the Fifty Shades Trilogy may have certain personality traits that not only make such literature enjoyable, but also might predispose them to take certain risks.

For example, women who are high in personality traits such as impulsivity and sensation seeking (a desire for novel, intense and exciting experiences) tend to have more sexual partners and are more likely to engage in binge drinking than women who are low in these traits (Benjamin & Wulfert, 2005). Additionally, women who enjoy using pornography also tend to be more sexually permissive in their attitudes and behavior (Wright, Bae, & Funk, 2013), so it may be that sexually permissive women are more likely to enjoy reading sexually explicit material like the Fifty Shades Trilogy than more conservative women. There is also evidence that women who particularly enjoy sexual fantasies are more likely to read erotic romance literature.

A study comparing women who like reading erotic romances with those who did not found that the former group were more likely to say that fantasy makes sex better, that they liked to fantasise during sex, and that they had more frequent intercourse (Coles & Shamp, 1984). The authors also found that readers of erotic romances did not differ from non-readers in their beliefs about women’s roles in society. Thus, unlike Bible believers discussed by Bonomi et al. (2014), readers of erotic novels were not particularly likely to support traditional gender roles, and actually had fairly liberal views.

This seems to suggest that women who are drawn to the Fifty Shades Trilogy are those who particularly enjoy sexual fantasy. More specifically, some women particularly enjoy fantasies involving sexual submission and of being forced to have sex (Bivona, Critelli, & Clark, 2012) and these are themes that pervade women’s erotic romance literature. As I noted earlier, the Fifty Shades Trilogy shares many features in common with stereotypical erotic romance novels, including themes of aggression, hostile sex, and emotional conflict between lovers. Studies have found that women who report that they enjoy fantasies of forced sex tend to have generally open, accepting and guilt free attitudes towards sex. In a previous post I discussed a number of proposed explanations for such fantasies. To recap briefly, it may be that some women find such fantasies satisfying because they fulfill a desire to surrender to a powerful and attractive selected male, and evoke a sense of danger, excitement and passion.

However, nearly all researchers on the subject reject the idea that rape fantasies represent a desire to actually be raped in real life. The nature of such fantasies is that the character in the fantasy undergoes risk and danger and may be forced to do things against her will, but the woman having the fantasy is in no danger herself and can enjoy the excitement and drama without risk.

Wikimedia commons; public domain
Source: Wikimedia commons; public domain

To recap Bonomi et al.’s findings, women who had read all three books in the Fifty Shades Trilogy generally said they liked them a lot, and were more likely to binge drink and had more sexual partners than women who had not read any of the books. However, they were not more likely than non-readers to have been abused. This suggests that binge-drinking and having more sexual partners among these women are probably not related to abuse experiences but are more probably related to features of their personality, such as sensation seeking and an open guilt-free accepting attitude towards sex. In particular, they might enjoy fantasy stories involving themes of female submission because they find these erotically exciting but not necessarily because they condone such behavior in real life.

A more valid concern raised by the study is the finding that both one-book and three-book readers were more likely to have used diet aids than non-readers. The question about diet aids was used by Bonomi et al. (2014) as a proxy measure to assess possible disordered eating. Women who engage in dieting tend to be overly concerned about their physical appearance, and may engage in a variety of unhealthy eating behaviors which have been linked to a number of psychological problems. The study finding does seem to suggest that women who have read one or more of the Fifty Shades books may be unduly concerned with their physical appearance and could well have associated psychological and behavioural problems. However, the study cannot address whether reading the books has any effect at all on this issue. Bonomi et al. may or may not be correct in their concern that readers might have their body image concerns validated by these books, but only more research would confirm whether or not this is true. Furthermore, the relationship between dieting and psychological problems is highly complex, as there are many forms of disordered eating. A more detailed assessment of eating attitudes and behavior would be needed to determine whether readers actually do have higher rates of disordered eating and why. 

Discussion of the disturbing content in the Fifty Shades Trilogy forms part of a broader context of dialogue about depictions of abuse of women in literature and the media more generally. I think it is understandable that people would be concerned that so much material in the popular media does involve stories about suffering and cruelty and wonder what sort of influence this might have on consumers. While sometimes these concerns might be valid, I think this needs to be put in perspective by considering the nature of story-telling.

Historically, stories have generally been about “plight”, that is, the suffering or peril of the characters on their narrative journey. Stories allow readers to vicariously experience the full range of emotions of characters who undergo danger and risk. The characters may experience a wide range of unpleasant events and associated negative emotions, but by taking risks they also experience life more fully. Readers who follow their adventures may enjoy the thrill of experiencing risk and danger while remaining in the safety of their homes (Green, Brock, & Kaufman, 2004).

The appeal of stories like Fifty Shades might well be in the vicarious thrill of following the lead character as she undergoes the excitement and drama of a turbulent emotionally charged adventure. Whether or not the books and erotic romances more generally really do have a negative influence on women’s attitudes or whether they are harmless escapism is worth investigating. However, it would not be wise to overstate the case that they are harmful without adequate evidence.  

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Benjamin, L., & Wulfert, E. (2005). Dispositional correlates of addictive behaviors in college women: Binge eating and heavy drinking. Eating Behaviors, 6(3), 197-209. doi:

Bivona, J. M., Critelli, J. W., & Clark, M. J. (2012). Women’s Rape Fantasies: An Empirical Evaluation of the Major Explanations. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41(5), 1107-1119. doi: 10.1007/s10508-012-9934-6

Bonomi, A. E., Altenburger, L. E., & Walton, N. L. (2013). "Double crap!" abuse and harmed identity in Fifty Shades of Grey. Journal of Women's Health, 22(9), 733-744. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2013.4344

Bonomi, A. E., Nemeth, J. M., Altenburger, L. E., Anderson, M. L., Snyder, A., & Dotto, I. (2014). Fiction or not? Fifty Shades is associated with health risks in adolescent and young adult females. Journal of Women's Health, 23(9), 720-728. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2014.4782

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Green, M. C., Brock, T. C., & Kaufman, G. F. (2004). Understanding Media Enjoyment: The Role of Transportation Into Narrative Worlds. Communication Theory, 14(4), 311-327. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.2004.tb00317.x

Hawley, P. H., & Hensley, W. A. (2009). Social Dominance and Forceful Submission Fantasies: Feminine Pathology or Power? The Journal of Sex Research, 46(6), 568-585. doi: 10.1080/00224490902878985

Wright, P., Bae, S., & Funk, M. (2013). United States Women and Pornography Through Four Decades: Exposure, Attitudes, Behaviors, Individual Differences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 1-14. doi: 10.1007/s10508-013-0116-y

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