50 Shades Of Grey is still a thing people are talking about, I guess? But the latest news isn’t casting rumors for the big screen adaption of E.L. James’ kinky sex trilogy — it’s a pearl-clutching new study that warns 50 Shades “perpetuates” abusive relationships.
The Journal of Women’s Health published a study earlier this week entitled “Double Crap! Abuse And Harmed Identity In 50 Shades Of Grey” by professor Amy Bonomi of Michigan State University and two other professors. The study, which focused on the first eight chapters of the first book in the series, found, according to Bonomi, that “50 Shades Of Grey perpetuates dangerous abuse patterns.”
Out of context, it’s hard to discern what she really means — surely she can’t be drawing a causal link between 50 Shades and actual, real life incidences of domestic abuse? Here’s a direct quote from the study in which the researchers explain their conclusions:
Our systematic analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey, the first novel in the trilogy, reveals pervasive emotional and sexual violence in Christian and Anastasia’s relationship. Our analysis also shows Anastasia suffers significant harm as a result — including constant perceived threat, managing/altering her behaviors to keep peace in the relationship, lost identity and disempowerment and entrapment as her behaviors become mechanized in response to Christian’s abuse.
Christian uses an interlocking pattern of emotional abuse strategies–stalking, intimidation, isolation, and humiliation– to manipulate and control every aspect of Anastasia’s behavior. These strategies are consistent with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions of intimate partner violence.
Having read all three books, I don’t disagree that Christian Grey’s jealous and controlling behavior towards Anastasia at times fits the definition of IPV. As a reader, you really have to give the characters a long, long rope to tell their somewhat ridiculous story with in order to enjoy it with a straight face. Perhaps because I gave them so much rope myself while I was reading, I have endless frustration with 50 Shades getting called out as glamorizing or sexualizing violence against women. People, it’s intended to be BDSM erotica enjoyed in the realm of fantasy.
As I’ve argued before, the sexual activity between the two is always safe, sane and consensual — the three tenets of BDSM sex. In their out-of-bed relationship, his jealousy, control and intensity all serve the purpose of creating the tension that carries the love story throughout the three novels: Christian Grey is “taming” his willful but vanilla lover and bringing her into his lifestyle of kinky sex. In many incidences in the books (admittedly, perhaps not the first eight chapters that were in this study), Anastasia Steele is a willing and happy participant in her submissive relationship with her mysterious, dominant, sexy lover. They don’t just practice BDSM in the “Red Room Of Pain,” but she submits to him in a dominant/submissive dynamic in their daily lives. As I wrote last year about allegations of abuse in 50 Shades, “Kinky play does not have to halt at the bedroom door.”
Yes, some aspects of Christian Grey’s controlling behavior would be troubling, perhaps even illegal, if they occurred in real life. However, in the books, that what-will-he-do-next? tension is what carries the plot along and actually magnifies the D/s relationship between the two main characters — which, frankly, is what these readers find hot. That fantasy is the book. I’m not down with policing other people’s fantasies, especially when they’re based on (frankly, one-dimensional) fictional characters.
Ultimately, I know these researchers mean well with their study. They hope to raise awareness about what intimate partner violence actually is, which is always a noble deed. As Bonomi explained to the Detroit Free Press:
“We do not want to ban the book. What we do want is for people to understand abuse patterns. Just knowing the patterns exist and calling it out is important. I can’t tell you the number of students I’ve had in my classrooms who’ve told me they had no idea what they were experiencing was abuse. Simply being aware is the first step in potentially improving things in your situation.”
That point is taken. But I would hope most readers would understand that just like the emotional manipulation and trickery in Gone Girl or the lies upon lies in Beautiful Ruins, the power play in 50 Shades is just … fiction.
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