What's Wrong With '50 Shades of Grey'

The difference between BDSM and what’s portrayed in ‘50 Shades of Grey.’

Copies of the book 'Fifty Shades of Grey' by E. L. James are seen for sale at the Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC, August 3, 2012. The first part of an erotic trilogy, the book has spent the past 22 weeks in the number one spot of the New York Times bestseller's list for fiction.
By + More

There's nothing "grey" about it. "50 Shades of Grey," E.L. James' racy best-seller that's now in movie production, portrays a relationship steeped in intimate partner violence, according to a study published Monday in the Journal of Women's Health.

"The book is a glaring glamorization of violence against women," says Amy Bonomi, chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University and lead author of the study. Bonomi explains that Christian Grey, the copper-headed business tycoon for whom James' book is named, controls his young conquest, Anastasia Steele, through stalking, intimidation, isolation and humiliation. In response, Steele "begins to manage her behavior to keep peace in the relationship, which is something we see in abused women," Bonomi says. "Over time, she loses her identity" and "becomes disempowered and entrapped."

The trilogy is known for its depiction of BDSM – a sexual practice that stands for bondage and discipline; dominance and submission; and sadism and masochism. Despite the power differential inherent in BDSM, practitioners take the rules of consent and negotiated boundaries seriously, according to those familiar with the practice. Yet Bonomi points out that "all those things are violated in the book."

[Read: Why the Fascination with Twilight?]

With the generated interest in BDSM, sexuality experts have expressed concern about a popularized view of the practice that's distorted and potentially harmful. "Lots of people read things that sound sexy in fantasy, but are not so safe or fun in reality. Or they are only fun for the technically skilled," according to Russell Stambaugh, who chairs the AltSex Special Interests Group of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. "I do worry that new participants won't get the education they need," he says.

Critical to the practice of BDSM is detailed and candid communication required for boundary setting between partners to establish the rules of their game. To provide further protection, partners also establish an opt-out signal, known as a "safe word" – often a color, since "yes" or "no" may be scripted into the role play.

Such transparency may account for the results of a recent study that found, when compared to a control group, "BDSM practitioners were less neurotic, more extroverted, more open to new experiences, more conscientious, less rejection sensitive, had higher subjective well-being, yet were less agreeable." The authors concluded that "BDSM may be thought of as a recreational leisure, rather than the expression of psychopathological processes," with which such behaviors have been associated. As to Grey's dominance being related to childhood abuse, Stambaugh says, "There is no scientific evidence that childhood physical or sexual abuse are more prevalent in the histories of kinky folk than vanilla. Abuse histories are sadly prevalent for everyone, not just kinksters."

[Read: Love and Sex: An Erotica Author Shares Her Story.]

What happens in a BDSM encounter might include a range of behaviors from gentle biting to full-on whipping in medieval regalia. In other words, one man's kink is another's so-called vanilla, the term therapists used to describe traditional sex. And what's healthy for one person may be harmful for someone else.

But the antics belie a bigger purpose, says Amir Afkhami, a psychiatrist for the Center for Sexual Health at George Washington University's Medical Faculty Associates. "People get too caught up in the pageantry and don't realize the emotional aspect to all of this." The desire to be sexually dominated cuts across both genders and provides an erotic high "that people don't get from the typical vanilla sex experience," he says. "It's titillating. It's kinky, and it involves trust" – the linchpin of romantic relationships, he notes. "When you're giving up control, what is that a statement of at the end of the day? It's a statement on trust."