'Fifty Shades of Grey': Expanding the Conversation From Sexy to Safety

Although media coverage of the Fifty Shades series has died down, the book remains at the top of bestsellers lists. But the readers driving the series' popularity may surprise some. While shopping in a bookstore recently, one of us watched a mother and her young teenage daughter giggle secretively together as they placed something in their baskets... two copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. The expected demographic for the Bondage Discipline Sadomasochism (BDSM) series was married women over age 30. However, given the intense media coverage and the books' immense popularity, they have found a fan base in a much younger demographic.

Much of the media attention thus far has focused on the BDSM relationship between the two main characters. What's missing, though -- in the media, probably in our book clubs and certainly in our conversations with our teenage daughters -- is a discussion of a serious and dangerous aspect of their relationship.

Let's be clear: We're not talking about BDSM. Our concern is that the interaction between the characters outside the bedroom has been ignored.

From the beginning of the series, Christian Grey's need to control Ana Steele is unmistakable. He gives her a laptop and BlackBerry so she can be instantly available and shows up at her house when she doesn't respond quickly enough. He flies thousands of miles to her mother's house, unexpected and uninvited. The examples go on and on. These events are explained away as romantic, as products of Christian's intensity, his wealth, his need to control, his childhood abuse. But they are not romantic, nor are they justifiable. They are hallmarks of intimate partner violence (IPV).

Christian's actions exemplify two specific types of IPV: intimate partner stalking and coercive control, both common forms of violence against women. Intimate partner stalking includes repeated and unwanted contact or attention that causes the victim to fear her own safety or the safety of others. Over 16 percent of women have experienced stalking during their lifetimes, and two-thirds of those have been stalked by an intimate partner, such as a boyfriend, spouse or girlfriend. Although alarming, these rates likely underestimate the actual prevalence, as most instances of IPV are not reported to the police. The most common form of stalking is repeated and unwanted phone calls or text messages; Christian's first gifts of a laptop and BlackBerry may not be coincidental. Ana responds with a combination of negative and positive feelings and ultimately accepts his behaviors. This ambivalence can be common in victims of IPV, and it in no way makes the behavior acceptable.

While the series is replete with examples of stalking, Christian's other method of IPV is coercive control. The purpose of coercive control is to gain power in the relationship, to assert dominance, or to change the behavior of others. Christian is forthcoming that control -- including control of Ana -- is of utmost importance to him; it is impossible to find a chapter in the series that does not include an example of coercive control.

The violence in Fifty Shades is not overt physical abuse. However, IPV extends far beyond physical or sexual violence. Although emotional abuse and other behaviors like controlling access to money, isolating or intimidating the victim, or even using children as pawns may be less clearly recognized as abuse or assault, there is no doubt that they are equally dangerous forms of IPV.

Ana and Christian's story has a happy ending, but many similar relationships do not. In 2000, 1,247 women were killed by an intimate partner, and in 2001, 20 percent of violent crimes against women were perpetrated by an intimate partner.

Some may argue that this would never be the ending for Ana and Christian; after all, Christian never severely hurt Ana. But while many abusive relationships don't start with physical violence, it often becomes part of the pattern. Over 80 percent of women who experience intimate partner stalking are physically assaulted by the perpetrator.

The sobering truth is that the more likely outcome for Ana would include injury to herself and her children, substance abuse and high-risk sexual behaviors, health problems, and possibly even death -- not blissful marriage and enormous wealth.

Acknowledging the risks of an intimate relationship with someone like Christian Grey is extremely important to the safety of the more vulnerable readers ofFifty Shades: adolescents and young women. Women between the ages of 16 and 24 are more likely to experience IPV than women of any other age, and college women are at an increased risk of experiencing intimate partner stalking. Nearly 25 percent of college women have been victims of IPV.

Without including IPV in our discussions of Fifty Shades, we risk that young women may enter into relationships thinking that these behaviors are normal or even romantic. Providing young women with an awareness of IPV -- and an understanding that these behaviors are dangerous -- will leave them safer and stronger.

Peggy Andover is an assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University and a Public Voices Fellow at The Op-Ed Project. Colleen Jacobson is an assistant professor of psychology at Iona College.

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