According to a new study, young women who’ve read some or all of the Fifty Shades of Grey series exhibit more and stronger sexist beliefs than those who haven’t. The finding held particularly true among those who’d read the books and considered them “romantic.”
The study, published late last month in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, gave 715 women between the ages of 18 to 24 a survey based on the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory, an exercise that measures attitudes that correspond with both benevolent and hostile sexism. The former, evinced on the survey by statements like “A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man,” holds that men should take care of and provide for women; the latter, á la “Women are too easily offended,” regards women as straight-up inferior to men.
Women who’d read the entire first book showed a higher propensity for sexism than those who hadn’t finished the book or never picked it up in the first place. Those who read part or all of the series and interpreted it as “hot” and “romantic” ranked higher in hostile sexism. Women who described it as “romantic” were more likely to hold beliefs that correspond with benevolent sexism. The survey participants who called the series “degrading” ranked lower on the sexism scale.
Despite the thousands of words that have been employed to justify Fifty Shades of Grey’s feminist bona fides, the series’ depiction of BDSM is closer to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse than a positive homage to consensual kink: The main character, Christian, ignores his partner’s safe words, stalks and isolates her, and coerces her with intoxicants and threats. The books have been called empowering for women because they’re mainstream novels about sex with a female narrator, but the books conform to the same traditional, old-timey gender roles popularized by nearly every romance novel and film since the dawn of the damsel in distress.
“Anastasia’s sexual pleasure is achieved only when she submits to traditional gender roles, in which Christian initiates sexual encounters for the purpose of meeting his own needs,” the study’s authors write. “[Anastasia] is depicted as weaker, less assertive, more emotional, and less intelligent.” That, along with Christian’s characterization as an aggressive, in-control mastermind, is a strong indicator of hostile sexism. The contract the two characters sign, which requires Anastasia comply with Christian’s instructions on what to wear and how much to eat and sleep, carries an air of benevolent sexism, as does the fact that he pays for everything and she doesn’t know what she wants in bed—she’s literally a virgin when she meets him—until he gives it to her.
The study did not determine whether its participants developed sexist attitudes by reading Fifty Shades of Grey or already had those beliefs and were thus drawn to read the novels, but previous research suggests that consuming media with sexist undertones can help shape beliefs about gender and relationships. These new findings follow a 2014 study conducted by many of the same researchers, who found that Fifty Shades of Grey readers were more likely to exhibit destructive behavior and accept abusive behavior from a partner. Young women who’d read the first book, but not all three, were more likely than nonreaders to fast, use diet aids, and to have had “a partner who shouted, yelled, or swore at them and who delivered unwanted calls/text messages.” Women who’d read all three novels were more likely than nonreaders to binge drink and use diet aids.
The Fifty Shades franchise has been called “mommy porn”—a term that’s insulting to both mommies and porn—for its appeal to middle-aged women with vanilla sexual tastes, but young women who haven’t had decades of relationship experience might be more vulnerable to its sexist influence. Even so-called benevolent sexism can inhibit a woman’s capacity for self-determination. “Benevolent sexism can undermine women’s resistance to social inequality by reinforcing subservient societal functions for women,” the study’s authors write. “Women who score high in benevolent sexism are more likely to accept a male romance partner’s sexist restrictions, to prefer intimate relationships with men who have high resources, and to have diminished self-efficacy.” Handcuffs alone are perfectly benign, but paired with retrograde gender roles, they can do some real damage.