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.”