News Column

'Fifty Shades' of Abuse: Study

August 13, 2013

When it comes to hot romance fiction, it doesn't get much hotter than "Fifty Shades of Grey."

It has dominated worldwide best-seller lists for two years with more than 50 million copies sold. It's the top-selling book in British history, beating out even Harry Potter.

And the movie world is all abuzz with talk of who will play the main characters _ sweet, but plain Anastasia Steele and mega-rich, but twisted hunk Christian Grey.

They aren't the only ones hot.

The book is getting some heat from a new study that says the novel is rife with emotional and sexual abuse of women.

"'Fifty Shades of Grey' perpetuates dangerous abuse patterns," said study author Amy Bonomi, incoming chair and professor of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University.

The abuse prevalent in the book include stalking, intimidation, threats, isolation and humiliation _ all consistent with intimate partner abuse as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Bonomi who conducted the study earlier this year with two other professors at Ohio State University where she then worked.

Their study, titled "Double Crap! Abuse and Harmed Identity in 'Fifty Shades of Grey,'" is being published this week in the Journal of Women's Health.

In the U.S., 25 percent of women are victims of intimate partner abuse, Bonomi said. Worldwide, the number is 71 percent.

"We do not want to ban the book. What we do want is for people to understand abuse patterns," she said. "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."

Various critics have described the trilogy, full of erotic sex scenes, as sensual and sadistic.

It's important for people to recognize that the relationship in the book is abusive and dangerous _ even though the series and soon-to-be movie are fiction, she said. Popular culture and the media images, real or not, that glamorize or belittle violence against women perpetuate a serious global problem, Bonomi said.

A representative for E L James, the book's British author, said James is not doing interviews at this time. But James has previously addressed criticism that her trilogy of books promote sexual abuse.

"People who think that are sort of demonizing women who actually enjoy these kinds of relationships," James said in an interview with Katie Couric last year. "What people get up to behind closed doors, providing it is safe, sane, consensual and legal, is completely up to them and it's not for you, I or anybody to judge."

But Bonomi sees it differently. It's that kind of thinking that allows men to get away with violence against women, she said.

"We think if it goes on behind closed doors, it's nobody's business. How many murder-suicides do we have to continue to see? If people see someone beating a child hard, they're likely to step in, say something or report it. That's not so true when people know a woman is being beaten."

The relationship between Anastasia and Christian is problematic because there is an unfair balance of power, boundaries are not respected and substance abuse negates consent, Bonomi said.

Several metro Detroit women, who are among those who have made the book a best seller, say they don't view the relationship as violent or abusive.

"It's engrossing. You can't put in down once you start, sort of like watching a car accident," said Alejandra Villegas, 25, of Detroit, who works as a bookseller at Book Beat in Oak Park, Mich., where she has seen a variety of women scoop it up.

"It's more like role-playing," she said. "I don't think it's real violence."

Another reader, Jackie Lindsay, 60, of Detroit, said she believes too much emphasis is placed on the sex in the book, though she acknowledges there is a lot.

"I saw it as a man having his likes and dislikes as far as sex," Lindsay said. "It's not like he was kidnapping or raping her.

"There were some parts where I thought, 'Oh, no, I wouldn't do that, but some people do. It was a light novel with some quirky sex that we don't talk about, but we know goes on."

She said she was more intrigued by the way the characters' pasts influenced them later in life.

"I saw it as a love story, I really did," Lindsay said.

But Cris Sullivan, director of the Research Consortium on Gender-Based Violence at MSU, applauded the study.

Sullivan said she read "Shades of Grey" to see what all the fuss was about.

"I was rather dismayed," she said. "It symbolizes society's tolerance for violence against women and lack of awareness, even when they see it.

"This issue is bigger than the book," said Sullivan, who also chairs the state of Michigan's domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and treatment board. "It shows that we have a very long way to go (in recognizing sexual violence). I hope people use this study as an opportunity to further understand and think about this book, especially with a movie coming."

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