Feeling Grey About Fifty Shades

By Aimee M. Gallagher, MPH, MS

The much-anticipated release of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie and its novel series precursor struck chords of concern among women's health advocates. While the book sold over 100 million copies worldwide and has been heralded as an erotic romance novel that is sexually liberating, the nature of the protagonists' relationship is troubling because of its multiple aspects of domestic violence.

Domestic violence affects approximately one in three women [1]. Stalking, manipulation, intimidation, and rape all are forms of domestic violence and abuse. Anastasia Steele, the lead character in the Fifty Shades series, encounters all of these. Throughout the story's plot, Anastasia experiences feelings of being threatened, entrapped and disempowered as character Christian Grey exerts more and more power over her and limits her contact with and support of her friends and family [2]. Anastasia begins to alter her behavior and identity in order to become the submissive woman that Christian desires: She yearns for a connection, even if it is violent.

The fictional relationship between Anastasia and Christian is particularly unhealthy because it has shifted the very real perceptions of young women into believing that violence is normal. A 2014 study showed young women who have read at least one novel in the Fifty Shades of Grey series were more likely than similar-aged non-readers to have experienced a form of domestic violence and to engage in habits like binge drinking and having multiple sexual partners [3]. Still, this is only one study, and it's clear that more research deserves to be done in this area.

Unfortunately, it isn't just bruises and broken bones that victims sustain from their violent encounters. The repercussions of any form of domestic violence have the possibility of affecting a woman, and her children, throughout the course of her life. Women in abusive relationships may experience health problems including hypertension [4], diabetes [5], asthma [6], and substance abuse [7]. Similarly, children exposed to domestic violence may suffer from anxiety and depression, and may also display limited social and learning skills [8].

The effects do not end when the violence ends. It is essential to understand how society reacts to -- and normalizes -- the behavior and actions that they have read and watched. In 2013, the Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR) formed an interdisciplinary network of experts to address the link between domestic violence and chronic health diseases. This May, SWHR, its network members, and Gratitude Labs will launch a public service announcement video, which includes the stories of several domestic violence survivors, including details of their ongoing struggles with various chronic diseases. In addition to the video, an informational website to raise awareness for women and the general public on this crucial link between domestic violence and chronic diseases will also go live. With your help, we can share these resources, spread the message, and help women receive the support and services that they need.

If you or someone you know may be a victim of domestic violence, or if you want to learn more about domestic violence and how to help, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline: www.thehotline.org or 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).


  1. Black MC, Basile KC, Breiding MJ, Smith SG, Walters ML, Merrick MT, Chen J, Stevens MR. The national intimate partner and sexual violence survey: 2010 summary report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011, Atlanta, GA.
  2. Bonomi AE, Altenburger LE, Walton NL. "Double Crap!" Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey. J Womens Health. 2013;22(9):733-744.
  3. Bonomi AE, Nemeth JM, Altenburger LE, Anderson ML, Snyder A, Dotto I. Fiction or Not? Fifty Shades is Associated with Health Risks in Adolescent and Young Adult Females. J Womens Health. 2014;23(9):720-728.
  4. Jones RF, Horan DL. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: a decade of responding to violence against women. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 1997;58(1):43-50.
  5. Mason SM, Wright RJ, Hibert EN, Spiegelman D, Forman JP, Rich-Edwards JW. Intimate partner violence and incidence of hypertension in women. Ann Epidemiol. 2012;22(8):562-7.
  6. Breiding MJ, Black MC, Ryan GW. Chronic disease and health risk behaviors associated with intimate partner violence-18 U.S. states/territories, 2005. Ann Epidemiol. 2008;18(7):538-44
  7. Campbell JC, Lewandowski LA. Mental and physical health effects of intimate partner violence on women and children. Psychiatr Clin of North Am. 1997;20(2); 353-374.
  8. Brown BV, Bzostek S. Violence in the lives of children. Child Trends Databank. Cross Currents. 2003; 1.