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Does "50 Shades of Grey" Make Girls Promiscuous?

A new study suggests readers of the best-seller engage in unhealthy behavior

The "Fifty Shades" series has sold 100 million+ copies.

A new study from Michigan State University suggests young women who read 50 Shades of Grey “are more likely than nonreaders to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner.”

The researchers, who interviewed more than 650 women, age 18-24, also indicated that women who read the entire three-book series were more likely to engage in binge drinking and have multiple sex partners.

Pretty bold statements, right? Except for one thing:

“The study did not distinguish whether women experienced the health behaviors before or after reading the books.”

Lead researcher Amy Bonomi says it’s a potential problem either way, but I have to disagree.

The distinction is quite important, because one interpretation suggests that girls who read the book already have a proclivity for certain behaviors, while the other suggests that the book creates such behaviors.

As a reader of two (!) out of the three books by E.L. James, I have a difficult time seeing the latter case.

  • Ana Steele, the dimwitted ingénue of the story, chooses to participate in a consensual S&M relationship with handsome stalker, Christian Grey. As far as I can recall, she enjoys (or is at least, open) to this arrangement. Furthermore, Christian has more of a predilection for physical spanking than verbal abuse, right?
  • For some reason, Ana forgets to eat. It is certainly never implied that she is purposely trying to lose weight or suffers from an eating disorder. The girl just doesn’t like to eat.
  • I haven’t read the third book, but I believe Ana gets drunk once in the first book (to the point of getting sick) and then gets tipsy a few more times. How does this behavior differ from any other 21 year old’s?
  • Ana’s only sexual partner was and is Christian, which hardly makes her as promiscuous as this study claims its readers to be.

Perhaps the reason why these readers have eating disorders, violent relationships, drinking problems and multiple sexual partners is because … they are women who live in this society.

It’s hardly fair to blame Ana Steele or a fictional book for the systemic violence against women.

Safe Horizon, a U.S.-based victims service agency, reports that one in four women will experience domestic violence during their lifetime, and women between the ages of 20-24 are at the greatest risk of becoming victims of domestic violence.

These are statistics that have zero to do with 50 Shades. And no where does it say anything about women who read softcore “mommy porn” as being likely victims.

Twiggy, the world's first super model, was 5'6, 112 pounds

Likewise, E.L James cannot be held responsible for the eating disorder epidemic that has been devouring this country since the 1970s. (Thanks, Twiggy!)

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders:

  • 91 percent of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting.
  • 86 percent of female students report the onset of an eating disorder by age 20.
  • The body type portrayed in advertising as the ideal is possessed naturally by only 5 percent of American females.

Eating disorders have been around long before Ana Steele and will continue to stick around long after she is gone. As long as Vogue, super models and Photoshop exist, so will eating disorders.

Moreover, on binge drinking, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports four out of five college students drink alcohol, and about half of college students who drink, also consume alcohol through binge drinking.

And thanks to hook-up culture trending on today’s college campuses, having multiple sex partners is the new normal.

The Bottom line: I don’t think any of these health risks have anything to do with 50 Shades of Grey.

In fact, some believe that the book actually inspires a better, more fulfilling love life. And many women appreciate the book for giving them a “way to talk about what they want without having to spell everything out”.

A lot of this criticism is reminiscent of the blowback against violent video games and films like The Matrix in the wake of the Columbine shooting. Keanu’s kung-fu skills were to blame, not the shooters’ mental health or upbringing.

But, a recent study from the University of Oxford, The University of Rochester and the company Immersyve, has found that playing so-called violent video games (e.g., Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto) do not give rise to real-world aggression. Rather, “it’s being bad playing difficult games” that could make a gamer violently lash out. Which means, losing a few rounds of Tetris could make you go off the wall.

It is important to note that Bonomi isn’t saying that the book should be banned or that women should not be free to read whatever books they like or enjoy a healthy sex life.

Instead, the study is meant to urge women to understand that the assessed health behaviors “are known risk factors for being in a violent relationship.”

If that’s the case, maybe Bonomi should be research ways to combat these very real, long-existing health risks instead of condemning a book that has nothing to do with them?

Think about it. Does anyone still condemn pornography for causing men to become more aggressive, sexist, or harmful for relationships? No. In fact, there are now articles that laud the benefits of porn for men and society.

Follow me on Twitter: @thisjenkim

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