Young adult women who read EL James' bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey are more likely than non-readers to exhibit signs of eating disorders and have a verbally abusive partner, according to a new study.
Led by Michigan State University, the study is one of the first to investigate the relationship between health risks and reading popular fiction depicting violence against women.
"All are known risks associated with being in an abusive relationship, much like the lead character, Anastasia, is in Fifty Shades," said lead author Amy Bonomi.
The study did not distinguish whether women experienced the health behaviours before or after reading the books.
"If women experienced adverse health behaviours such as disordered eating first, reading 'Fifty Shades' might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma," said Bonomi, chairperson and professor in MSU's Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
"Likewise, if they read the book before experiencing the health behaviours seen in our study, it's possible the books influenced their onset."
The researchers studied more than 650 women aged between 18 and 24 - a prime period for exploring greater sexual intimacy in relationships, according to Bonomi.
Compared to participants who did not read the book, those who read the first Fifty Shades novel were 25% more likely to have a partner who yelled or swore at them; 34% more likely to have a partner who demonstrated stalking tendencies; and more than 75% more likely to have used diet aids or fasted for more than 24 hours.
Those who read all three books in the series were 65% more likely than non-readers to binge drink – or drink five or more drinks on a single occasion on six or more days per month – and 63% more likely to have five or more intercourse partners during their lifetime.
Bonomi added she is not suggesting the book be banned or that women should not be free to read whatever books they wish or to have a love life.
She said it was important for women to understand that the health behaviours assessed in the study are known risk factors for being in a violent relationship.
Toward that end, Bonomi added that parents and educators should engage children in constructive conversations about sexuality, body image and gender role expectations.
Children and young adults should be taught to consume fiction, television, movies, magazines and other mass media with a critical eye, Bonomi said.
"We recognise that the depiction of violence against women in and of itself is not problematic, especially if the depiction attempts to shed serious light on the problem," Bonomi explained. "The problem comes when the depiction reinforces the acceptance of the status quo, rather than challenging it."
The study was published in the Journal of Women's Health.