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What do psychologists think of ‘50 Shades of Grey?’

Jul 25, 2014

Dr. Audrey Ervin

Credit: Delaware Valley College. Dr. Audrey Ervin, a counseling psychology faculty member, analyzed the popular '50 Shades' series and held a discussion on the series at a national psychology conference. She looked at the books through various feminist lenses.

When E.L. James’ erotic novel “50 Shades of Grey” hit shelves it created a national phenomenon. Just from March through December 2012, Random House sold more than 70 million editions worldwide, making it the fastest-selling series in the company’s history. Universal Pictures is releasing a much-anticipated movie version of the book, which is due out in February 2015. On Thursday, July 24 the trailer for the upcoming movie was trending on Twitter.

The book is the first in a three-part series about a naive young literature major who falls for a controlling, wealthy CEO and gets caught up in his world of sexual dominance and submission.

As Dr. Audrey Ervin, academic program director of the graduate counseling psychology program and assistant professor of counseling psychology at Delaware Valley College, watched the book grow in popularity, she wondered what the craze meant from a psychological standpoint and what it said about the state of women. Was it liberating or another modern example of oppression?

To answer that question, she examined the book through various feminist lenses with Dr. Julie Shulman of Sonoma State University. They used their research to lead a discussion at the Association for Women in Psychology’s national conference in March 2013.

“Feminists usually agree around issues of work, political freedom, access to resources and health care,” said Dr. Ervin. “Sexuality is an issue that feminist viewpoints diverge radically on.”

Depending on the feminist lens, the book can been seen as liberating or oppressive.

Some argue that focus on dominance and submission really only perpetuates violence against women, objectification and inequality.

Others feel there is a double standard for women who are sexual and that problematizing any sexual desire, even submission, feels like a form of oppression.

Dr. Ervin facilitated a discussion on the series at the AWP conference that included professors, psychologists and students.

The love interest in the book, CEO Christian Grey, is obsessive and controls his partner, Anastasia Steele’s career, money and time. These traits are concerning to Dr. Ervin because this type of behavior is common in unhealthy relationships.

Dr. Audrey Ervin

Credit: Universal. The first official poster for the upcoming '50 Shades of Grey' movie. 

“It is an example of the cycle of violence,” said Dr. Ervin. “In the world of sexual fantasy that’s OK, but it’s how you analyze that. In many cultural contexts, that’s probably not a healthy template if equality is a value.”

Dr. Ervin also finds it troubling that Anastasia “saves” a moody, unpredictable man who has a hard time controlling his anger in the book. 

“We need to untrain women that they are going to save this emotionally-flawed male,” said Dr. Ervin, who feels this idea contributes to the cycle of violence.

So what made the book so appealing?

“The appeal is not that it was a well-written novel or a literary masterpiece, but that it opened the door to aspects of sexuality that are probably widely practiced and interesting to people because they are out of the mainstream,” said Dr. Ervin. “What the book does say for sure is that there are women who want to explore sexual themes that aren’t mainstream and that books are giving those women who are curious an avenue to do that.”

The e-reader allowed women who might have felt uncomfortable buying the books in stores to privately purchase electronic copies, which Dr. Ervin feels also helped boost sales.

“People want a simple answer to a very complex phenomenon,” said Dr. Ervin. “The book is sort of like a symptom and the causes may involve systems of gender, sexual and economic oppression.”

She said the popularity of the series raises more questions than it answers, but it does say for sure that women’s sexual selves are seeking an outlet.

“If it’s curiosity, it does, to some extent, comment on how women’s sexuality is still largely controlled and pathologized,” said Dr. Ervin.