Study: Reading “Fifty Shades” Says Bad Things About You

Aug 22, 2014 at 4:22 PM ET

Fifty Shades of Grey has been called everything from “mommy porn” to a “manual for sexual torture,” and in light of new study about the erotic novel’s effect on young women, we can now add really bad influence to the list.

According to research from Michigan State University, young women who read Fifty Shades of Grey are more likely than nonreaders to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner. Beyond that, women who’ve read all three of the books in the series were more likely to binge drink and have multiple sexual partners—all of which are behaviors commonly exhibited by women in abusive relationships.

“Fiction or not, millions of women are consuming messages in Fifty Shades that normalize and glamorize violence against women, under the guise of romance and eroticism,” reads the study’s introduction. The novel, written by British author E.L. James, traces the relationship between college graduate Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, a business magnate who introduces her to the world of BDSM—bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism.

Researchers surveyed 655 women between the ages of 18 and 24 and found that readers of the first Fifty Shades novel were 25 percent more likely to have a partner who yelled or swore at them, 34 percent more likely to have a partner who showed stalking tendencies, and more than 75 percent more likely to have used diet pills or fasted for more than 24 hours.

Readers of all three books were 65 percent more likely than nonreaders to binge drink and 63 percent more likely to have five or more intercourse partners during their lifetime.

It should be noted that the study, which appears in the Journal of Women’s Health, was not able to prove causation. But according to lead author Amy Bonomi, chairperson and professor in MSU’s Department of Human Development, the strong association between the novel and negative behaviors is concerning no matter how you slice it.

“If women experienced adverse health behaviors such as disordered eating first, reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma,” Bonomi says. “Likewise, if they read Fifty Shades before experiencing the health behaviors seen in our study, it’s possible the books influenced the onset of these behaviors.”

This isn’t the first time that the racy read has gotten flak. A previous study of Bonomi’s, which analyzed the relationship portrayed in the book according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions of domestic abuse, found that it perpetuated violence against women. And early this year, one physician proposed that the promiscuity it promotes could be to blame for the rise in sexually transmitted infections among people over 50.

As with rap music and violent video games, blaming a best-seller for societal ills can seem absurd and overzealous, but the study is corroborated by a wide body of literature that has found an association between entertainment mediums and real-life behavior.

“We’re all influenced by the broader social context that we live in,” says Bonomi. “We’re all exposed to music, TV, movies, hyper-sexualized magazines and fiction, and when those things normalize and glamorize domestic violence, it can make it difficult for young women to recognize signs of abuse in their own relationships.”

Even so, Bonomi isn’t advocating book burning. Rather, she hopes parents and schools will take an active role in educating youth about the importance of healthy relationships and body image. “We are advocating that kids and young adults be taught to consume fiction with a critical eye,” she says. “They need to be able to recognize the difference between healthy and unhealthy behaviors.”