The Fifty Shades Effect: Disempowerment of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It

By Amanda Grossman-Scott

“What people do in private is their own business.” But what happens when Hollywood makes a movie glorifying, promoting and normalizing violence against women and coerced sex? It becomes the business of everyone to examine the message our kids are receiving from it.

In 2013, social scientist Amy Bonomi, Ph.d published a study which assessed the Fifty Shades series for qualities of intimate partner violence. It used the CDC’s standards for emotional abuse and sexual violence. The study concluded: “Fifty Shades—a blockbuster fiction series—depicts pervasive violence against women…” (Bonomi, A., et. al, 2013-emphasis added)

This study connected the dots for us as a society and as parents. And yet… most of the population refuses to see the danger in ignoring the normalization of mixing violence and sex. Of muddying the waters of consent and equality in a relationship. For decades we have endured this and it’s time we questioned… Why?


Why do we refuse to see the results of our blindness? Why do we not recognize that “depictions of violence against women in popular culture —such as in film, novels, music, or pornography—create a broader social narrative that normalizes these risks and behaviors in women’s lives.” (Bonomi, A., et. al, 2013-emphasis added)

“Our study showed strong correlations between health risks in women’s lives—including violence victimization—and consumption of Fifty Shades, a fiction series that portrays violence against women.” (Bonomi, A., et. al, 2013-emphasis added)

“Emotional abuse is present in nearly every interaction [between the two main characters in Fifty Shades], including: stalking…; intimidation…; and isolation. … using alcohol to compromise Anastasia’s consent, …Anastasia experiences reactions typical of abused women, including: constant perceived threat…; altered identity (describes herself as a “pale, haunted ghost”); and stressful managing (engages in behaviors to “keep the peace,” such as withholding information about her social whereabouts to avoid Christian’s anger). Anastasia becomes disempowered and entrapped in the relationship as her behaviors become mechanized in response to Christian’s abuse.” (Bonomi, A., et. al, 2013-emphasis added)

I grant that there is a certain percentage of the population who engage in BDSM (bondage, domination or discipline, sadism or submission and masochism) type behavior. That’s their right (as long as it’s consensual). But my right, as a mother and as a sexually healthy human being is not to be made to feel like BDSM is what the average person does. How am I to teach my sons that it’s not okay to strike someone to get what they want? How will I teach them that tenderness and kindness are true representations of love when Fifty Shades teaches young boys that they can do whatever they want to a girl: so long as they buy her expensive gifts first? How will I teach my daughter that men should treat her with respect and equality when the best selling book of all time tells her that she should obey and acquiesce to keep her “lover” calm and happy? Not to mention the fact that she should be ready to be whipped (among other abuses) to prove her love and dedication to another person?

Because the BDSM in Fifty Shades goes so far beyond sex- and into the realm of domestic violence-it’s particularly damaging to a society that continues to push love and sex further and further apart.

The popularity of this movie is perpetuating the myths that control=love, that coerced consent=actual consent; that violence=love and that, apparently, every young person should understand this.

We as parents can take this opportunity to educate ourselves and our children. Talking to our kids about sex is the best way to begin establishing healthy sexual attitudes. Some things that will help negate the information our children might learn from outside sources are:

  • Discuss the characteristics of a healthy relationship like equality, dignity, mutual respect and boundaries.
  • Explain consent; that everyone has the right to say “no” and what it means for both parties.
  • Talk about the beauty of sex; that it can be a natural physical expression of emotional love.
  • Examine the messages your kids receive from the media. How these messages attempt to normalize behaviors that are abnormal and atypical in a healthy relationship.
  • Teach your child to think critically and examine their feelings about the media to which they are exposed.

We have a powerful influence on our children’s standards and ideals. We as parents can set the example in our relationships and in the media we bring into our homes. We can say “this isn’t love, this isn’t healthy” to our children. We can take a stand against domestic violence. We can say “we won’t be misled by your distorted version of sex and love” to Hollywood-all with one action: talking to our kids. For additional guidance, look to our recently released book series . The more you talk about these topics, the more you will arm your children with the knowledge and confidence they need to combat the negative and damaging messages they are exposed to every day. They will make better decisions in future relationships and feel more self-confident in their understanding of the world around them.

See our book   for ages 3-7, 8-11 and 12+ to find ways to start conversations about topics like this; including lessons and activities to empower your child with knowledge of sexual intimacy!

Great lessons, quick and simple discussions.


Amy E. Bonomi, Lauren E. Altenburger, and Nicole L. Walton. Journal of Women’s Health. September 2013, 22(9): 733-744. doi:10.1089/jwh.2013.4344.


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