By Sophie Frank
In 2011, British fan fiction writer E.L. James published her novel Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic adaptation of Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series, as a print-on-demand ebook under the pseudonym “Snowqueen Icedragons”. The story is simple enough: virginal Washington State college student Anastasia Steele meets billionaire Christian Grey when Anastasia consents to filling in for her roommate to interview Grey for her school’s newspaper. A connection is established between the pair, and when Grey pursues her further, it is revealed that he is interested in establishing a Bondage and Discipline/Sadomasochistic relationship with Anastasia as his submissive partner. Grey devises a contract which summarizes the demands which must be met by Anastasia. If she signs, Anastasia must agree to sexual intercourse and foreplay using various pain inflicting toys and instruments, is forbidden to make eye contact with her dominant partner, and is instructed to only eat designated foods. Throughout the rest of the text, Anastasia and Grey continue to see each other, and on multiple occasions, Grey takes great effort to get Anastasia to sign the contract, as well as tries to demonstrate what would be required of her in the BDSM relationship. In the end, Anastasia is so disillusioned with Christian’s kinks after an encounter which pushes her over her sexual boundaries, that she leaves Christian, and returns to live with her roommate. The adventures of the couple continue with James’ second and third installments to the trilogy: Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed. Come 2015, the former e-book, (now distributed as a paperback by Random House) has sold 100 million copies worldwide, with sales in the United States leading these numbers significantly, and has now been adapted into a wildly popular movie franchise, grossing $102 million its first week in the States, and $300 million worldwide.
There is no doubt that the story of Anastasia and Christian is now more influential than ever. In an age of ever increased media exposure, how much can this immensely widespread narrative affect society, if it has not already? In this paper, I look to explore how the Fifty Shades of Grey books and film adaptation have influenced American culture by illustrating a very controversial sexual niche, for better or for worse, and how these ideas have had such success in finding such a large audience in the United States. My findings have brought me to the conclusion that James’ work displays a relationship based on intimate partner violence, and I hypothesize that the consequences of such misinformed portrayals of BDSM could lead to an alarming shift in the way that the American public views and attempts to practice sexual fetishism and kink.
Abusive Behaviors Within the Text of Fifty Shades of Grey
In a study done by Amy Bonomi and colleagues at The Ohio State University, researchers analyzed the nature of Christian and Anastasia’s relationship by comparing interactions of the characters to typical indicators of intimate partner violence (IPV), experienced by 25% of American women at any point in their lifetimes, according to the U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention. Using the definition of the organization, IPV is characterized by intimidation and threats of violence made towards a partner, mental or physical isolation, stalking, and humiliation. This also includes sexual violence, which is defined as using alcohol or drugs, and intimidation or pressure to force intercourse between partners. The researchers also defined the reaction’s of the abused partner to be marked by a change in identity which results from remaining in a relationship which contains qualities of IPV. Also included in descriptions of these reactions are the perceptions of feeling entrapped within the relationship, as well as the “disempowerment experienced by abused women.” The researchers summarize that Fifty Shades of Grey, although marketed as “romantic literature” or “erotica”, falls into the fathomless paradigm of normalizing violence against women, frequently seen in pop culture. Their findings conclude that nearly every interaction between the protagonists contains different aspects of signs of IPV: Christian tracks Anastasia’s whereabouts by using signals from her phone and her laptop, threatens her by violent means if she does not comply with activities she is uncertain about partaking in, and bribes her with alcohol (possibly compromising her ability to consent), when trying to coerce her into signing a contract with which Christian would use to affirm his sexual dominance over her. Bonomi et al. also makes note of Anastasia’s inner dialogue during the relationship, where she constantly feels isolated from family and friends, and longs for normalcy in her encounters with Christian. It is important to note that the researchers claim the history of this country’s inherent support of violence of against women in media began with the era of Playboy magazine, and the making of the feature film Deep Throat in 1972, as well as the rise of other pornographic outlets in the late 20th century. And although the modern defense for the widespread accessibility to internet pornography (as well as descriptions of sexual relationships in literature like that of Fifty Shades of Grey) has been that it is nothing more than fictional fantasy, one cannot deny that millions of Americans have already consumed this work, and therefore, researchers try to examine if there exists an empirical correlation between reading E. L. James’ work, and possible health risks. Participants of the Bonomi et. al study, 1,950 females aged 18-24, were divided into two groups: those who had read the trilogy, and those who had not. Using an online survey, participants were answered questions pertaining to their experiences in dealing with sexual abuse, as well as questions on the individual’s dietary and drinking habits. The findings from the study show that participants who had read the first book of the series were at a higher risk for remaining in a relationship with an abusive partner, by not recognizing patterns related to IPV. The data also found that participants who had read the first book had a higher probability of using dietary means to monitor their weight, and engaging in “intensive body surveillance”. Furthermore, in understanding the problems of the sexual power dynamic within the novels versus healthy depictions of BDSM, psychotherapist Meg Barker analyzes the approach in which consent is presented in Fifty Shades of Grey. She begins by stating the ways that which various online communities have defined the importance of consent of both partners in any type of BDSM practice, and how in the text, Christian frequently takes advantage of Anastasia’s limited sexual experiences to persuade her to trying new techniques. He is the orchestrator of creating the boundaries by which the relationship operates, and he continually tries to convince her to be open to his ideas by buying her expensive gifts, such as a laptop and a car. And while Anastasia wants to help Christian to become a “better person” by hinting at having a “vanilla” romantic exchange, Christian uses Anastasia’s inexperience to tempt her into consenting to the activities in his “Red Room” where he keeps all his tools and toys. Meg Barker explains the influence that Fifty Shades has upon defining consent in what is presented as BDSM:
“Fifty Shades reflects broader heteronormative understandings of consent whereby men initiate and women comply or resist, having the agency and self-understanding to easily do so. Consent is only regarded as relevant to the sexual context, and trying to shape and change one another is acceptable within wider relationships. Recent BDSM blogs about abuse have shifted the locus of responsibility from isolated individuals to communities who are seen as having collective responsibility for creating consensual cultures and engaging in open dialogue about abuse. Consent is regarded as an ongoing, relational, negotiation in which the conditions under which a ‘no’ is possible need to be created, by everyone involved, in order for a ‘yes’ to count.” (Barker, 2013, 207)
Thus far, we have established that the relationship within Fifty Shades of Grey is one where proper consent in order to fulfill the standards of healthy BDSM activities is abandoned, and coercion forces one partner to submit to the will of the other. We have also been shown that the tactics used by Christian to seduce, and later, control Anastasia are rooted in the behaviors of IPV. And while the Bonomi et al. study gives clues to the ways that Americans could regard these glamorized portrayals of abusive relationships as the new normal, psychologist Scott A. McGreal adds in his piece for Psychology Today that these texts could be beneficial, in finally starting conversations around sex, of which the like has never been fully discussed in American culture. No matter how complicated the dialogues are on whether these novels are “harmless escapism” or uniformed illustrations of sexual misconduct, when going back the statistics of the success of the franchise’s first movie, it would be unwise to not pursue the truth about how audiences could respond to this narrative. Now, through the film, BDSM is being introduced to a larger audience than ever before, with the consequences of neglecting to demonstrate proper etiquette in establishing consent between partners becoming even more apparent.
Effects of Misleading Information in Mass Media
On February 24th, 2015, just ten days after the United States release of Fifty Shades of Grey, University of Illinois student Mohammad Hossain was arrested on charge’s of raping his classmate, with whom he had been previously intimate with. In trying to reenact a scene in the movie, Hossain bound his partner’s hand to his bed with a belt, used another belt to tie her legs, stuffed a necktie into her mouth, and covered her eyes with a hat. He began to start to strike his victim with yet another belt, even as she began to cry and shake and begged him to stop. He continued to strike the woman with his fists, and held her arms while he sexually assaulted her while she pleaded for her release. Shortly after untying her, the victim informed the campus authorities, and Hossain was arrested later that evening, and admitted to detectives from the University that he had only been trying to recreate a scene from our film of subject. Later, Hossain was cleared of the charges against him, due to the lack evidence presented by the prosecution. The defense won by stating that the victim had consented at first to her partner’s idea, but there remained little to show the jury to conclude that Hossain had violated the boundaries set up before the encounter, which were decided upon consensually.
Noting this example of how negatively impressionable viewers can be influenced by mass media, I will now explain further the correlations between social behaviors and how violence and abuse is rendered in popular culture. Taking a look at Elliot Aronson’s The Social Animal, the author devotes a whole chapter to provide evidence for the hypothesis that mass communication metaphorically has a significant part of our society within its hands. Aronson uses examples in his text to emphasize how largely media trends can have effect on social attitudes and behaviors: the extensive coverage on the events of 9/11 by various big-name cable networks, which called for retaliation against the supposed perpetrators of the attacks, provided the American public and congress with almost common ground in supporting George W. Bush’s decision to seek revenge in Iraq. Using another example from the book, Aronson cites the 1974 CBS film Cry Rape as an illustration on just how strongly media impacts social behavior. The film depicted sexual assault cases as seemingly futile in trying to seek justice by reporting the crime to the authorities, which resulted in a dramatic decrease in rates of reports of rape, which lasted for months after the movie was shown on television.
Referring back to the immense success of Fifty Shades of Grey and the assault at the University of Illinois that occurred only days after the release of the film, can we infer that these misleading depictions of BDSM could inspire even more copycat crimes? Could the widespread consummation of this story put more of the impressionable American public at risk of accepting these portrayals as “normal”? According to Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman’s concept of the availability heuristic, that just might be the case. Tversky and Kahneman’s research explores how the individual makes decisions by taking mental shortcuts by evaluating what is available. In other words, when making choices, the individual is directed by availability bias, which influences an outcome of a decision by assessing what is frequent within the experiences of the psyche. Although this theory provides us baseline reasoning, more specific clarification is needed in determining the extent to which the rising popularity of E.L. James’ work could possibly have disastrous reactions. For this, I turn to the work of Neil M. Malamuth, social psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research concerns the acceptance and effects of exposure to violence against women in mass media, as well as exposure to aggression based pornography. In a study done by Malamuth and colleague James V. P. Check at the University of Manitoba, researchers evaluated the responses of 65 females and 50 males after being shown two films which characterized sexual violence against women as having positive consequences. Results attained from survey questions on attitudes towards sexual violence and “rape fantasy”, distributed before and after the screenings, showed the significant increase in male arousal towards situations in which sexual assault was depicted in the films. Inversely, the results showed high intolerance and criticism of such scenes from female participants. Malamuth and Check conclude that even though participants acknowledged that these incidents were fictional, their findings recorded two days after the screening found that large amounts of deviation from this previously held truth had occurred, although subjects still retained much of the information presented in the films. The researchers also add that even though questions could be raised surrounding the ethicality of exposing participants to these scenes knowing they could have negative effects, the blame lies within the media for setting up sexist ideologies involving female sexual subordination that have existed since the first publications of Playboy: “The information often conveyed in such mass media communications is that even if women seemed to be disinterested or repulsed by the pursuer, the allegedly basic need to be dominated will inevitably result in their becoming “turned on” to overpowering by the male assailant”. (Malamuth & Check, 1981)
In another article from Malamuth, titled “Rape Proclivity Among Males”, the researcher compiles the existing empirical data (including the previously referenced Malamuth et al. study) pertaining to the theory first introduced by second wave feminists like Gloira Steinem, that aggressive pornographic media was more likely to influence aggressive sexual behaviors in men, than in women. Malamuth goes on the provide various studies to support his conclusions that men are also more likely to accept and normalize rape myths surrounding the act of sexual assault itself, as well as the reactions of the victims. Malamuth clarified that there is little evidence to show in trying to understand the correlation between aggression and sexual arousal, but he adds that in media, especially in pornography, the representation of the reaction of the victim to sexual assault is key to understanding how the enforcement of “rape myths” can lead to disastrous ends. Malamuth and Check’s 1981 study at the University of Manitoba is used to support this theory. Scenes shown to participants that delineate victims becoming sexually aroused during their assault, can be cause for self reported sexual arousal in viewers. Oppositely, scenes shown from pornographic movies that depict vocalized or physical resistance from the victim had little effect on the arousal of viewers. Malamuth explains,
“The data reviewed above indicates that [likelihood-ratio] scores are associated with rape myth acceptance, acceptance of interpersonal violence against women, and sexual arousal in a theoretically accepted manner. However, it remains to be demonstrated that LR reports can predict aggressive acts. Obviously, it is impossible to examine rape within an experimental setting. An alternative is to determine whether LR ratings predict acts of aggression that can be studied within an experimental context. While it is not suggested that such aggressive acts constitute an actual analogue to the crime of rape, it is suggested that rape is an act of violence related to other acts of aggression against women. (Burt, 1980; Clark & Lewis, 1977). Therefore, measures that assess rape propensity should predict other acts of violence against women.” (Malamuth, 1981, 147)
Furthermore, Malamuth refers back to the findings within feminist literature, like the work of Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will (1975), which deviates from the strategy of psychotherapists to “treat the pathology of individual rapists”, and focuses on finding ways to rebuild the foundations of a society in which rape is supposedly caused by the enforcement of traditional sex roles, and misogynistic anxieties around masculinity.
In retrospective, this examination of the social phenomenon created by the popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, begins with detailing the facts representing the success of the book trilogy, and the more recent movie adaptation in the United States. Through analytical studies of the literature at hand, we gleaned that the relationship between Christian Grey, the handsome and mysterious millionaire, and Anastasia, the timid college student, is one based on many instances of intimate partner violence (IPV). Christian uses his power and money to try and coerce Anastasia to agreeing to the terms of a contract that entails the arrangements of a sexual exchange in which she would completely submit to the sexual demands of Christian; something that Anastasia seems far from comfortable in doing. Among other things, Christian isolates Anastasia from her family and friends, claims that he needs to know about her whereabouts at all times, and threatens her with punishment if she does not comply to his demands, even before the contract is signed. Contemporary psychologists like Meg Barker and Amy Bonomi et al. agree that it is largely misleading to claim that the text shows a healthy BDSM relationship. Fifty Shades of Grey draws its audience a glamorized of illustration of an abusive relationship, in which the boundaries of consent are almost completely controlled by the dominant partner. Using the example of the case at the University of Illinois as a warning to how influential this misguided narrative can become to be, the research of Neil Malamuth et. al shows us just how easily such copycat crimes could occur again. Unchecked descriptions of abusive or aggression based sexual intercourse showed in mass media can further enforce the paradigm with which we view sexual assault in America, by using the patriarchal notion that a victim is always aroused during any kind of intercourse; this justifies the motivations of the rapist. And while the spotlight on this story could provide a rare opportunity to create open dialogues about the benefits of a consensual BDSM relationship, Fifty Shades forfeits its chance to become a teaching tool for the sexually ill-informed American public, by portraying the “romance” of an inexperienced heroine and a man who uses his attraction to get away with using abusive tactics go assure his sexual dominance, without consequences. Fifty Shades of Grey no doubt made history by becoming so widely celebrated across the world, regardless of its controversial subject matter. But, maybe it is time for a new film or narrative to properly educate the public on less frequently discussed areas of sexual pleasure, and be willing to claim responsibility for the repercussions that could result from the misuse of the power with which mass media has the United States in its grip.
- Aronson, E. (1972). Mass Communication, Propaganda, and Persuasion. In The Social Animal. San Francisco, California: W.H. Freeman.
- Barker, M. (2013). Consent is a grey area? A comparison of understandings of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey and on the BDSM blogosphere. Sexualities, 16(8), 896-914. Retrieved from Web. May 1, 2015 .
- Bonomi, A., Altenburger, L., & Walton, N. (2013). “Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in. Journal Of Women’s Health, 2(9), 733-744. Retrieved from Web. May 1, 2015.
- Demarest, E. (2015, March 19). Not Enough Evidence Against UIC Student in ’50 Shades of Grey’ Case: Judge. Retrieved from Web. May 1, 2015, from http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20150319/university-village/50-shades-of-grey-rape-trial-starts-thursday-with-uic-students-testimony
- James, E.L. (2011). Fifty shades of Grey. New York, New York: Vintage Books, a division of Random House.
- Malamuth, N. (1981). Rape Proclivity Among Males. Journal of Social Issues, 37(4), 138-157. Retrieved from Web. April 31, 2015. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/malamuth/pdf/81Jsi37.pdf
- Malamuth, N., & Check, J. (1981). The Effects Of Mass Media Exposure On Acceptance Of Violence Against Women: A Field Experiment*1. Journal of Research in Personality, 15, 436-446. Retrieved from Web. April 30, 2015.
- Malamuth, N., & Donnerstein, E. (1982). The Effects of Aggressive-Pornographic Mass Media Stimuli. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 15, 103-136. Retrieved from Web. May 1, 2015.
- McGreal, S. (2015, March 7). Fifty Shades: Glamorizing Abuse or Harmless Escapism? Retrieved from Web. May 1, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unique-everybody-else/201503/fifty-shades-glamorizing-abuse-or-harmless-escapism
- Mendelson, Scott. “Box Office: ‘Fifty Shades Of Grey’ Tops $100M US, $300M Worldwide.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 19 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from Web. April 14, 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2015/02/19/box-office-fifty-shades-of-grey-tops-100m-us-300m-worldwide/
- Schmadeke, S. (2015, February 24). Prosecutors: UIC student charged with assault said he was re-enacting ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from Web. May 1, 2015 http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-50-shades-of-grey-uic-sex-charge-20150223-story.html.
- Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability. Cognitive Psychology 5, 207-232. Retrieved from Web. April 30, 2015.
- “E.L. James | Biography – British Author.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Retrieved from Web. April 14, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1888109/EL-James
- “Fifty Shades of Grey – Number of Copies Sold Worldwide 2014 | Statistic.” Statista. N.p., n.d. Retrieved from Web. April 14, 2015. http://www.statista.com/statistics/299137/fifty-shades-of-grey-number-of-copies-sold/
 Ray, M. (n.d.). E.L. James | biography – British author. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1888109/EL-James
 Fifty Shades of Grey – number of copies sold worldwide 2014 | Statistic. (n.d.). Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.statista.com/statistics/299137/fifty-shades-of-grey-number-of-copies-sold/
 Mendelson, S. (2015, February 15). Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2015/02/19/box-office-fifty-shades-of-grey-tops-100m-us-300m-worldwide/
 Bonomi, A., Altenburger, L., & Walton, N. (2013). “Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in. Journal Of Women’s Health, 2(9), 733-744. Retrieved from Web. May 1, 2015
 Barker, Meg (2013). Consent is a grey area? A comparison of understandings of consent in 50 Shades of Grey and on the BDSM blogosphere. Sexualities, 16(8) pp. 896–914.
 McGreal, S. (2015, March 7). Fifty Shades: Glamorizing Abuse or Harmless Escapism? Retrieved April 28, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/unique-everybody-else/201503/fifty-shades-glamorizing-abuse-or-harmless-escapism
 Schmadeke, S. (2015, February 24). Prosecutors: UIC student charged with assault said he was re-enacting ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-50-shades-of-grey-uic-sex-charge-20150223-story.html
 Demarest, E. (2015, March 19). Not Enough Evidence Against UIC Student in ’50 Shades of Grey’ Case: Judge. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20150319/university-village/50-shades-of-grey-rape-trial-starts-thursday-with-uic-students-testimony
 Aronson, E. (1972). Mass Communication, Propaganda, and Persuasion. In The Social Animal. San Francisco, California: W.H. Freeman.
 Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability. Cognitive Psychology 5, 207-232. Retrieved from Web.
 Malamuth, N., & Check, J. (1981). The Effects Of Mass Media Exposure On Acceptance Of Violence Against Women: A Field Experiment*1. Journal of Research in Personality, 15, 436-446. Retrieved from Web. April 30, 2015.
 Malamuth, N. (1981). Rape Proclivity Among Males. Journal of Social Issues, 37(4), 138-157. Retrieved from Web. April 31, 2015. http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/malamuth/pdf/81Jsi37.pdf