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Warning: Reading 'Fifty Shades of Grey' May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Beth Greenfield
Senior Writer
August 22, 2014

Model Claudia Romani had better be careful with that reading material! Photo by Corbis

Beware, Anastasia wannabes: A damning new study has linked young women who read the “Fifty Shades of Grey” series to higher incidences of eating disorders, binge drinking, promiscuity, and abusive relationships.  

“It doesn’t show whether reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ causes the behaviors, or whether exhibiting the behaviors cause you to read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’,” the study’s lead researcher and Michigan State University professor Amy Bonomi told Yahoo Health. “But that’s inconsequential.”

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If the behaviors came first, she explained, the book could reaffirm women’s experiences and potentially “aggravate trauma.” Likewise, if the book came first, it could potentially cause the problems. “So in either case, we see the normalization of extremely problematic and violent behaviors,” she said. 

The study, published online Thursday in the Journal of Women’s Health, was inspired by her systematic analysis last year of abuse patterns in the novel, including intimidation, stalking, verbal abuse, and sexual violence. “We found it to be normalizing and glamorizing violence against women,” said Bonomi, who disagrees with the opinion of some that the book simply portrays a BDSM relationship dynamic. “In a BDSM relationship, if there is any alcohol or substance abuse involved [as there is in the book],” she explained, “that essentially negates consent.”

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Bonomi, who is chair of the university’s department of human development and family studies, surveyed 650 women ages 18 to 24 — 219 of whom had read at least the first novel in the E.L. James trilogy, and 436 of whom had not read any. She and her colleagues found that those who read the first 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 had stalking tendencies; and over 75 percent more likely to have resorted to extreme dieting. Further, those who had read the entire trilogy were 65 percent more likely than the others to binge drink, and 63 percent more likely to have had five or more sex partners.

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But the study is not meant to push for the books to be banned or to dissuade women from reading them, Bonomi stressed. Instead, it’s to serve as a reminder that “all of us exist within a broader social context,” influenced by images — healthy or unhealthy — from movies, TV shows, ads and pop-culture novels alike. “They’re maybe not equal influences, but all have a role in women’s beliefs about themselves, as well as possibly the behaviors they act on,” she said. She suggested the healthiest response to her findings might be to simply consume media with a critical eye — and teach kids to do the same.

“Parents and schools can be powerfully involved in this process,” Bonomi noted, “leading discussions about what it means to be in a healthy relationship and have a healthy body image.” With or without James’s trilogy on their nightstand, that is. 

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