Fifty Shades of Grey and Why It's Bad for Women

Fifty Shades of Grey and violence against women

Like a pack of cigarettes, perhaps the best-selling book Fifty Shades of Grey should sport a warning label, noting that the contents may be bad for women. Although that’s not the recommendation from the authors of a new study appearing in the Journal of Women’s Health, they are quick to point out that the book perpetuates the worldwide problem of violence against women.

Is this book a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Fifty Shades of Grey is promoted as an erotic romance, and given the high number of sales of romance novels in the United States and elsewhere in the world, it’s easy to initially see why the book had the potential to be a big seller. Yet according to Amy Bonomi, the study’s lead author and incoming chairperson of Michigan State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, “This book is perpetuating dangerous abuse standards and yet it’s being cast as this romantic, erotic book for women.”

Abuse against women and domestic violence are topics that need no encouragement. Bonomi and her coauthors point out that 25 percent of women in the United States are victims of abuse and violence by intimate partners. The National Institute of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that number includes 1.3 million women in the US who are victims of physical abuse by an intimate partner each year.


According to the World Health Organization’s “WHO Multi-country Study of Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women,” such abuse against women is even greater in some other countries. The WHO study, which included data from more than 24,000 women at 15 sites in 10 countries (Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Namibia, Peru, Samoa, Serbia and Montengro, Thailand, and the United Republic of Tanzania), revealed the following:

  • The proportion of ever-partnered women who had experience sexual or physical violence ranged from 15% to 71%, with the average ranging from 29% to 62%
  • Women experiencing the greatest amount of physical violence were mainly in rural parts of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, and Tanzania
  • Physical or sexual violence was lowest in Japan, at 15%
  • In Brazil, Peru, Samoa, Serbia and Montenegro, and Thailand, more than 20% of women ever injured by intimate partners had been hurt more than five times
  • The prevalence of injury among abuse women ranged from 19% in Ethiopia to 55% in provincial Peru
  • More than 25% of injured women in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru, and Samoa said they had lost consciousness as a result of partner violence

Findings of the new study
Bonomi and her team used the CDC’s definitions of intimate partner violence and related information to evaluate Fifty Shades of Grey. The researchers concluded the book’s main character, Anastasia, presents traits and reactions consistent with abused women, including feeling constantly threatened, loss of self-identity, making behavioral changes to avoid a partner’s anger, and increasingly mechanized reactions to a partner’s abuse.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a work of fiction, and like many other media forms (e.g., magazine articles, movies, television shows, and so on), it depicts violence against women. While E.L. James and others have a right to express themselves, there is also the concern that popularization of such abuse against women somehow legitimizes it and celebrates the inhumanity of it all.

Bonomi AE et al. Double crap! Abuse and harmed identity in Fifty Shades of Grey. Journal of Women’s Health. Epub ahead of print. DOI:10.1089/jwh.2013.4344
Michigan State University
World Health Organization

Image: Morguefile


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