Let’s Not Start Blaming Books for Dangerous Behaviors

Recently, Salon reported on a study in the Journal of Women’s Health that found young adult women (ages 18-24) who had read Fifty Shades of Grey to be “more likely than non-readers to exhibit signs of eating disorders and to have relationships with verbally abusive partners.” They are also “at increased risk of engaging in binge drinking and having multiple sex partners.” Multiple sex partners! Young adult women? Well, gee, I never!

50ShadesOfGrey_Trilogy

According to the study:

Compared to participants who didn’t read the book, those who read the first “Fifty Shades” novel were 25 percent more likely to have a partner who yelled or swore at them; 34 percent more likely to have a partner who demonstrated stalking tendencies; and more than 75 percent 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 percent more likely than nonreaders to binge drink — or drink five or more drinks on a single occasion on six or more days per month — and 63 percent more likely to have five or more intercourse partners during their lifetime.

Ignoring this weird sexism (when has having had five sex partners ever been held against 24-year-old men, I wonder) and the fact that using diet aids or fasting for more than 24 hours does not a eating disorder make, it’s important to point out that the study did nothing to discover whether these behaviors pre-existed the naughty reading habits or not. But apparently, it doesn’t matter. In a press release, lead researcher and Michigan State University Professor Amy Bonomi said, “If women experienced adverse health behaviors such as disordered eating first, reading Fifty Shades might reaffirm those experiences and potentially aggravate related trauma… Likewise, if they read Fifty Shades before experiencing the health behaviors seen in our study, it’s possible the books influenced the onset of these behaviors.”

Look, I’m no Fifty Shades of Grey apologist, but really? Setting aside the point that (from what I’ve heard) the abuse in the novels is consensual sex play, not actual abuse, this is just the old causation/correlation argument again. Does Fifty Shades of Grey make women engage in or accept abusive relationships? Does it make them binge drink? (Perhaps they need to binge drink because of how bad the book is.) Or perhaps it just turns out that sometimes, the kind of young woman who engages in these behaviors is also the kind of young woman who enjoys reading trashy, S&M-lite literature. Who knows?

Fortunately, novels have long been mostly exempt from the perennial argument that media can induce young people into dangerous behaviors. In fact, more often than not, you see books held up as a counter-example to those concerned about negative influences (mostly violence) in video games, movies or music. Last year, when Jim Carrey “distanced himself” from the violent Kick-Ass 2 in the wake of Sandy Hook, executive producer Mark Millar said he “never quite bought the notion that violence in fiction leads to violence in real life any more than Harry Potter casting a spell creates more boy wizards in real life.” Shakespeare is another one that gets held up a lot — Shakespeare is violent! Is he causing school shootings? Well, of course not — in part because literature is less visceral in some ways than film and video games and even music, so the arguments tend to be less visceral too. Books sometimes get mentioned as part of the list of media that could be a “risk factor,” but have mostly been off the hook. And that’s a good thing. If we start banning books with violence and sex in them (er, again), we’ll lose more than if we ban violent video games. Not that we should ban either, mind you.

“We recognize 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 also said. “The problem comes when the depiction reinforces the acceptance of the status quo, rather than challenging it.” Well that’s definitely true. But let’s not make these sweeping claims about women based on their reading habits — it doesn’t help matters.