Don't Worry About Women who Read Fifty Shades

By Laura Vivanco on

Earlier research on Fifty Shades of Grey had

coded the behaviors in the book according to the CDC’s guidelines for interpersonal violence (IPV). They found pervasive patterns of violence and abuse within the work. This included ‘‘intimidation, stalking, humiliation, forced sex, use of alcohol to lower resistance and isolation’’.

The presence of these behaviours, combined with the massive popularity of the series,

created both confusion and worry in a generation of feminist scholars. We have asked ourselves why this book has succeeded. Is this really what women want? (van Reenen 2014 ) We have worried that the popularity of this story is evidence that the older generation of feminists has failed to inspire feminist attitudes in our daughters, younger sisters and perhaps within ourselves. [...] We have worried whether the characterization in the books reinforces heteronormative patterns of sexuality that may create harm for young readers.

However, as Case and Coventry observe in their recently published paper,

What we have not accomplished to date is to ask men and women what they think about the behaviors of the characters in the book. We make the argument that this series romanticizes abuse and that it should be investigated from this perspective. However, does this necessarily mean that American men and women, especially those that identify as feminists, are longing to engage in abusive behaviors as either the abused or the abusive.

They therefore set out to discover whether Fifty Shades describes behaviours women want in their own relationships and

the answer is ‘No and neither do men’. While the behaviors associated with Christian Grey may have been popular reading for women in the US, this fiction does not translate into acceptability of these behaviors in their real life. These behaviors are also not supported by men.

Furthermore, "both men and women appear to expect to give up relatively equal levels of control to the control that they exert."

One caveat I thought I'd better add is that the people involved in the research were not asked about whether or not they'd read Fifty Shades. However, the popularity of the series and its notoriety were such that I think (a) it might be possible to assume some of the people surveyed had read/heard about the series and (b) nonetheless this research suggests that "the behaviors associated with Christian Grey" have not become widely acceptable in real life.


Case, Patricia and Barbara Thomas Coventry. "Fifty Shades of Feminism: An Analysis of Feminist Attitudes and 'Grey Behaviors'." Sexuality & Culture, 2017.  [Abstract here.]

Anonymous (not verified)

Saturday, 2 December, 2017

I think a failure of many people when approaching romance is to assume that it's a reflection of women's immediate desires and reality. It's fantasy. Especially erotica. There is a lot of menage erotica. Does that mean that monogamy is dead or that threesomes are a common fantasy? The answer seems obvious.

Yes, I agree. One has to be careful about drawing conclusions about what readers draw from any kind of fiction. I do think there are some areas where romances reflect particular social beliefs and/or are trying to give the readers certain kinds of information (e.g. medical romances will often deal with real diseases and their associated issues) but, particularly when it comes to larger-than-life protagonists who have a lot of emotional baggage, one does have to be very cautious about assuming that readers want to be like one of the protagonists or be married to/have sex with someone exactly like them.

Merrian (not verified)

Sunday, 3 December, 2017

I also wonder if romance reading = processing not just fantasy? Or, rather fantasy is meta, serving and serving up. Processing a set of feelings and experiences is not the same as wanting them.

That's what the ancient Greeks thought about theatre, isn't it, that it can provide catharsis? I think it's usually associated with tragedy, but I don't see why it couldn't also work via tragic/disturbing elements in non-tragic plots.