Is reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy hazardous to women's health? A Michigan State University study released last month suggested as much; it found a link between reading the best-selling novels about a sadomasochistic relationship and eating disorders, binge drinking, multiple sex partners, and being in a verbally abusive relationship.
That's quite a wince-inducing list. But the study couldn't say whether the books actually inspired such behavior, or whether women attracted to such unhealthy behaviors were more likely to read the novels.
Another recently published study, from Illinois State University, suggests the books' impact is a lot more benign. It further finds that, at least among one group of college-age women, the novels actually appear to be something of a turn-off.
"We did find that those who chose to read Fifty Shades had stronger sexual desires than those who had not read the books, specifically those who highly identified with the main character," psychologists Marla Reese-Weber and Dawn McBride write in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
"However, we did not find an increase in sexual behaviors or desires after reading the books. Instead, we found a decrease in sexual behaviors after reading the books, particularly for those who did not identify with the main character."
The study featured 91 female university students who reported that they had read the books, and another 49 who agreed to read the first two of the set specifically for this experiment. All filled out a detailed questionnaire about their sexual experiences and desires, including how often they had engaged in 15 specific sexual behaviors, including being tied up, spanked, and blindfolded. Those in the second group filled it out twice, before and after reading the first two books. All participants also expressed the degree to which they could relate to the central female character.
"Our results showed that those who had read the books reported higher sexual desires than those who had not read the books," the researchers write. "However, our results did not show differences for sexual self-esteem or sexual behaviors between those who had chosen to read the books and those who had not."
Furthermore, those who read the books for the purposes of the study did not report a lot of erotic fires were lit. "We found a decrease in sexual behaviors after reading the Fifty Shades books, and no change in sexual self-esteem or sexual desire," the researchers write.
The researchers speculate that participants "who did not identify with the main female character may have judged her sexual behavior negatively, and decreased their sexual behavior as a response."
So literature -- and, yes, we're using the term very loosely here -- affects different people in different ways. But in spite of CNN stories about spikes in sales of sex toys, the assertion that these very popular books have actually inspired a significant number of people to discover the joys of S&M is, at this point, highly questionable.