Reading 50 Shades of Grey with a hammer

Posted on September 23, 2014


50-shades-of-bad-boysI haven’t read them myself (obviously not being the target audience), but 50 Shades of Grey seems to be a popular book series (I have been reliably informed it is the best book series ever written, and who am I to argue…). For those of you not familiar with the series, here a short synopsis:

Rich and handsome guy meets girl. Guy is a d*#k, she likes it, (*spoiler alert*) it all ends well.


Surprise! But it turns out not everyone is a fan. More specifically, through PubMed I found a number of articles from a group of US researchers who particularly dislike the series and decided this would really need some attention from academics. Two of the papers have been published in the Journal of Women’s Health and the aim of the papers is to link 50 Shades of Grey to intimate partner violence (I assume that is more or less the same as domestic violence) and to health risks in adolescents and young adult females.

*** First of all, this post has nothing to do with (research on) domestic violence. I don’t know anything about that, so am not qualified to discuss it ***

Being a blog about epidemiology and public health research I’d like to discuss methodology…or more specifically over-interpretation of data. I assume the authors of both papers have a deeper meaning in mind; probably something along the lines of “changes in norms and values in society reflected in contemporary literature”; but at face value I don’t see what the value of both papers is…aside from the entertainment value.

You can probably see where this is going since the authors also refer to the Twilight series (same synopsis, but with a vampire…who is also rich and handsome) as another series that “normalizes abuse within the context of a romantic relationship, including stalking, physical and sexual assault, emotional manipulation, threats, and intimidation” (other scholarly work I am not going to bother with linking). “Edward, the vampire, routinely orders Bella (the lady in question) around, growls, snarls, shouts, and uses aggressive looks and physical gestures, such as aggressively grabbing her; some of its physical control strategies cause bruising”. Now again, I am probably very naïve, but (a) this is a work of fiction, and (b) stalking is what vampires do, and aggressive looks and growls are really the least of your worries if said vampire is on your tail…

So similarly 50 Shades seems to be similarly worrying. Probably a bit more because it involves aspects of power, pain and a whip or two. The first paper (link) employs a qualitative, thematic analysis of book 1 of the series (Fifty Shades of Grey) in which the three authors all read the book and identify themes. These themes have been derived from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s definitions for intimidate partner violence (IPV). So far so good; although methodologically you can probably imagine that this approach will likely be controlled “no pun intended) by the quote “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”; or as we would call it: confirmation bias. And indeed that is exactly what happens.

…and it is quite entertaining…

The paper is essentially a collections of quotes from the book, and I’ll just put a couple of interesting ones here for you to ponder about, so that after that we can move to the complementary quantitative study:

Christian tracks down Anastasia’s home address and mails original volumes of Tess of the d’Urberville (value $14,000) to her as a form of stalking. Within the CDC’s definitional framework, gifts are used to stalk by means of reminding the victim of the abuser’s presence and control.”

Now I assume that is correct, aside from the fact this seems to be at the start of the book. Just after they first met. So in the absence of an abuser or a victim, is this really correct, or is this just something that looks like a nail. “It’s a completely over-the-top gift. I can’t accept it.” Seems to be evidence of abuse…

later that evening Anastasia drunk dials….arriving just in time to “save” Anastasia from Jose, a friend who tries to kiss her while she is intoxicated….after Anastasia passes out at the club, Christian isolates her by bringing her back to the hotel where he is staying, rather than taking her home to her apartment. Anastasia is alarmed when she wakes up…she wonders if they had sex [to re-assure everyone, it seems they didn’t]… Christian further sets the stage for Anastasia’s isolation from friends and family by repeatedly reminding her that Jose put her at risk by “[getting] out of line” through his attempts to kiss her. “

So using a hammer, this is all very bad behaviour from Mr Grey. In addition, when she flies out to see her mother he also “bumps Anastasia’s airline seat up to first class, where the seat next to her is mysteriously [?] Unoccupied”……the bastard.

According to the authors this is a form of stalking again because he reminds her of his presence and control over her through an upgrade to first class. A nail…maybe? A bit of over-interpretation…? At this point I’d like to remind you that this is a fictional book, intended to create story arches and be exciting and entertaining.


There are much more of such quotes and interpretations, but I will leave this to you to read if you are interested. The crux of the matter, or the hammer and nail so to speak, with respect to the methodology is the following quote from the paper: “Despite the pervasive abuse patterns we uncovered in our analysis, popular reviews have suggested the book is liberating for women’s sexuality, providing women with an “opportunity” to openly experience erotica in an otherwise hyper-repressed culture. Our analysis did not set out to unravel the validity of the popular claim….

In other words; we decided on the conclusion and all we had to do was selectively quote material that fitted the conclusion. It’s a shame, because the actual question about “changes in norms and values in society reflected in contemporary literature” and which causes which is an interesting and quite important one.

Luckily…for us…the authors also did a quantitative study (link) in which they gave a cross-sectional online survey to 122 18-24 year old female students from “a large Midwestern university” who read the whole 50 Shades series, 97 who read at least one book but not all three and 436 who hadn’t read anything. They asked them all about intimate partner violence victimization, binge drinking, sexual practices, and using diet aids or fasting, and compared the result between the 3 groups. So first quickly the results as described by the authors:

  • Reading 1 book, but not the whole series is associated with:fifty-shades-of-grey
    • Having a partner who shouted, yelled or swore at them
    • Having a partner who delivered unwanted calls/text messages
    • Being more likely to report fasting
    • Being more likely to using diet aids

Now that sounds pretty serious.

However….and this is where you may want to start thinking about causality…..

  • If the women had read all three books (thus completed the series), compared to non-readers they:
    • Were more likely to report binge drinking
    • Reported using diet aids more frequently
    • Had five or more intercourse partners during their lifetime

Do you notice that the only thing that overlaps in both lists is the use of diet aids?!? In other words, the main conclusion from these analyses is that women who have read at least one 50 Shades book more often than those who didn’t read it used diet aids (there is no increased risk with additional books). Because it is a cross-sectional study we also don’t know whether women who diet more often more often read the books or whether reading the books leads to more dieting…or maybe they are just correlated by chance…

If you want to over-interpret (similarly to the authors, but with a different intention) you could even  suggest that if you have read the first book, it is important to finish the whole series to avoid violence victimization (because the statistically significant increased risk only occurs for 1 book, but disappears for 3). Just never just read one book of a series!!

So what do the authors conclude?

Moreover, our findings that readers of Fifty Shades (a novel that perpetuates hypersexualization of women) seem preoccupied with body image (through their reports of disordered eating) are consistent with recent longitudinal studies showing that female consumption of sexualizing magazines predicts their internalization of physical appearance ideals over time, including valuing appearance over competence, and a tendency to engage in intensive body surveillance”.

Really? Is that what the data of this particular study confirms? Do you think the female university students who read the 50 Shades of Grey series for fun would agree with the fact they “value their appearance over competence”? I don’t know the answer to this questions (and neither do the authors), but I suspect this would generate quite a lot of letters to the editor if they knew what happened to their questionnaire results….

As a further illustration of my hammer and nail argument. Quite a lot of participants only read the first book, but couldn’t be bothered finishing the series. The authors suggest that this may well be because they “…were less motivated to continue reading the series because of their abuse experiences”.

Alternatively, I would suggest they may just think it is a shit book series…

…and indeed the authors indicate that from their data they know that only 36% of women who only read one book 1 like it “quite a bit/very much” compared to 70% of women who read all three books.

So that’s settled then. Oh no, not according to the authors, who just do not want to give in: “…it is possible that their lack of draw to the books related to their discomfort with abuse in the book.”

…or well, they just thought it was a shit book.


We are all slaves to over-interpretation of data; especially when it fits what we believe to be true (some more than others, obviously). In previous posts I would now have described a, hopefully funny, example to illustrate the point of confirmation bias. However, in this particular case this has already been done in a brilliant paper by two colleagues from UCL in London:

The hobbit – an unexpected deficiency”, published in the Medical Journal of Australia’s Christmas crackers/Research section (link).


Basically, the two authors employed the same qualitative methodology as was used in the 50 Shades paper. They read The hobbit by JRR Tolkien and used textual analysis to code diurnal habits, dwelling, light exposure and diet.  In addition, and again comparable to the methodology in the above paper, they coded protagonists as good or evil and as victorious or defeated on binary scales by consensus. Sun exposure was scored from 3 (lots) to 0 (none at all) and diet was scored as 1 or 0 depending on whether any vitamin D-containing item was mentioned. These were then summed to give a vitamin D score. A couple of quotes from the paper, just to show how comparable the results are to the 50 Shades study (which, I would like to add, was not published in a “Christmas crackers” issue of the journal…as far as I could work out):

  • “The hobbit diet is clearly varied as he [Bilbo Baggins] is able to offer cake, tea, seed cake, ale, porter, red wine, raspberry jam, mince pies, cheese, pork pie, salad, cold chicken, pickles and tart to the dwarves who visit him in the business of burglary.”
  • “The dwarves…have plenty of sun exposure during the initial pony ride in June that begins their trip to the Lonely Mountain.”
  • “At the Battle of the Five Armies, the strongest goblins are defeated by Beorn, a vegetarian who can assume the shape of a bear. His diet is largely cream and honey, but he spends much time outdoors.”

Importantly, the vitamin D scores were significantly higher among the victorious (mean 3.4; SD 0.5) than the non-victorious (mean 0.2; SD 0.4), with a p-value <0.001. These are the results of their analyses:

Characteristics of inhabitants of Middle Earth
Inhabitants Good Victorious Vitamin D score
Hobbits Yes Yes 4
Dwarves Yes Yes 3
Beorn Yes Yes 3
Men Yes Yes 4
High elves Yes Yes 4
Wood elves Yes Yes 2
Eagles Yes Yes 3
Smaug the dragon No No 0
Trolls No No 0
Goblins No No 0
Gollum No No 1

As the authors rightfully point out; the absolute concordance between goodness and victoriousness precludes an assessment of this as an independent effect. As such, their analyses (including a set of limits I am not getting into, but you can find in the paper) are more thorough than those of the 50 Shades articles. Moreover, they did not try to distil any societal recommendations or implications from this work of fiction. I would say these authors have made the point I was trying to make rather well for me. In fact, I would say they made it much better than I could have.

THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEYThat leaves me with one final point about the 50 Shades articles that needs a bit of consideration. As described by the authors, the rationale for doing these analyses is that “…Fifty Shades has been banned in public libraries in several U.S. states, suggesting widespread perceptions that the novel may be harmful to readers”. They mention this in both articles, but is this a good rationale? The U.S. is known to be rather enthusiastic with banning literature (as outlined here (link)), but just to illustrate what a stupid argument this is, these books are also banned in some states in the U.S. (from link):

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, for using the “N” word (even though  it was to illustrate the awfulness of the word)
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, for using the “f”word and for promoting youthful rebellion and disrespect of authority.
  • Where’s Waldo? by Martin Handford. Seriously. For a drawing of a beach featuring a woman lying on the sand with part of her breast showing.
  • TheHarry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. No idea why…
  • Little Red Riding Hood, for the use of alcohol (one of the items in Red Riding Hood’s basket is a bottle of wine).
  • Sleeping Beauty, for promoting witchcraft and magic.


Do the above books suggest widespread perceptions that the novel may be harmful to readers???


Posted in: Public Health