The Story: A new study published in the Journal of Women’s Health finds a connection between health risks in adolescent and young adult females and the series of best-selling porn novels that began with Fifty Shades of Grey.
The Background: The study found that compared with nonreaders, females who read at least the first novel were more likely than nonreaders to have had, during their lifetime, a partner who shouted, yelled, or swore at them and who delivered unwanted calls/text messages; they were also more likely to report fasting and using diet aids to lose weight at some point during their lifetime. Compared with nonreaders, females who read all three novels were more likely to report binge drinking in the last month and to report using diet aids and having five or more intercourse partners during their lifetime.
Problematic depictions of violence against women in popular culture—such as in film, novels, music, or pornography—create a broader social narrative that normalizes these risks and behaviors in women’s lives. Our study showed strong correlations between health risks in women’s lives—including violence victimization—and consumption of Fifty Shades, a fiction series that portrays violence against women. While our cross-sectional study cannot determine temporality, the order of the relationship may be inconsequential; for example, if women experienced adverse health behaviors first (e.g., disordered eating), reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma. Likewise, if women read Fifty Shades before experiencing the health behaviors assessed in our study, it is possible that the book influenced the onset of these behaviors by creating an underlying context for the behaviors.
Why It Matters: The Fifty Shades series of books (and the forthcoming movie) has been described as “mom porn” because of its popularity with older women. But the target audience for the books is young women between the ages of 18 and 25. The effect of targeting this young audience can be that it conditions them to accept abusive relationships in the future or to justify abuse they’ve already suffered at the hands of older men. Many critics of the series make the convincing case that the books normalize pedophilic abuse. As Richard Swier explains,
Yes, 50 Shades is pornography. Like most pornography, the story line is weak, the characters one-dimensional, while the sex itself graphic, detailed, but formulaic. The underlying theme to 50 Shades is something far more sinister and appalling though than your mere run-of-the-mill porn. It is pedophilia. It is child porn. Kiddie porn.
Now I know after saying that, many female fans of 50 Shades, many of them mothers, will naturally put up a defense against that kind of description. These women, being mothers, are naturally wired to protect kids. People like Jerry Sandusky are viewed with hatred, revulsion, and disgust. Rightfully so. What mother would want to condone anything having to do with the sexual abuse of children? Of innocents?
But that is exactly what 50 Shades of Grey is really about. It is a story of a girl being sexually molested, over and over again, by a male figure with all the power, all the control. It is the classic abuse scenario. And mothers are, in some cases, quite literally getting off on it, which takes the disgust of this phenomena to a whole other frightening level.
Fifty Shades is also the latest blockbuster series to celebrate the attraction of young women to older, abusive predators. In an earlier era of fantasy stories, the goal of a hero was to protect a woman from evil by slaying the dragon. In many of today’s fantasy stories, the hero is the dragon, whose mission is to seduce a woman by his evil.
Fifty Shades originated as fan-written fiction based on the Twilight series of novels. Twilight is a “love story” between a literal older, abusive predator (Edward Cullen, a 107-year-old vampire) and his underage prey (Bella Swan, a 17-year-old high school student). Gina Dalfonzo notes how the predator-prey relationship plays out in the first book:
For one thing, the scent of Bella’s blood tortures Edward, who drinks animal blood to keep from killing humans. His restraint is meant to look noble, although courting someone who smells like food could be seen more as a sign of mental instability.
And Edward behaves like a predator in nearly every other way possible. He spies on Bella while she sleeps, eavesdrops on her conversations, reads her classmates’ minds, forges her signature, tries to dictate her choice of friends, encourages her to deceive her father, disables her truck, has his family hold her at his house against her will, and enters her house when no one’s there — all because, he explains, he wants her to be safe. He warns Bella how dangerous he is, but gets “furious” at anyone else who tries to warn or protect her. He even drags her to the prom against her expressed wishes. He is, in short, one of modern fiction’s best candidates for a restraining order.
So of course, Bella falls “unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him,” deliberately endangering her life whenever she has to be separated from him. Millions of real-life teens have also fallen in love with him. Girls and young women describe Edward as “beautiful,” “sweet,” and “mysterious,” and love the way he “takes care of Bella.”
Candice Watters explains the problem with pop culture that “turns the moral universe upside down” by casting traditionally evil characters as good:
It’s as if the authors of such fiction want to numb their readers to the idea that real evil exists and is consistently recognizable. If you’re convinced a dragon, or vampire, can only be deemed bad after you’ve gotten to know him, you’re more likely to give all the dragons and vampires a chance to prove their character before making a judgment. Sadly, the time that passes between meeting a new and as yet unjudged dragon/vampire and deciding whether he’s of the good sort, or bad, is a time of extreme vulnerability.
This is problematic because we know there is a dragon, Satan, who’s goal is to devour what’s good, all the while “masquerading as an angel of light.” In the world we inhabit, even a dragon that appears good is evil. O’Brien writes, “Evils that appear good are far more destructive in the long run than those that appear with horns, fangs, and drooling green saliva.”
To those of you who would say, “lighten up, it’s just a story!” O’Brien shows that stories are an essential part of what informs our moral universe. In his introduction to O’Brien’s book, David Sloan writes, “[O’Brien] maintains that, without exposure to a literature springing from authentic spiritual sources, a society will be ill-equipped to detect the influences of false culture.”
Social science continues to show us the connections between normalizing abuse and risks for young women — a connection that shouldn’t be surprising to Bible-believing Christians. The question is, what are we going to do with the information? Are we willing to do what it takes to expose the pop culture apologias of predatory violence, or will we join the choir of voices telling young women they can find satisfaction by surrendering to an abuser?