Fifty Shades of arousal misattribution and cognitive associations: How Christian Grey is making us believe that women find BDSM “hot”


Does Fifty Shades of Grey make you wonder if BDSM is arousing? If women secretly want to be spanked? This post explains how Fifty Shades readers may develop this belief, how it may affect their behavior, and how it may increase sexual aggression against women.

Fifty Shades of Grey, the film, is set for release February 2015 and the buzz is building. Partly due to downloading to private e-readers, the trilogy has now sold over 100 million copies worldwide (Kellogg, 2014). As a result, Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism (BDSM) may also continue to grow in popularity and as a market (Elejalde-Ruiz, 2012). Hardware stores have even had trouble keeping cotton rope on their shelves.

Some believe that the Fifty Shades phenomenon represents sexual freedom for women and others argue that it normalizes sexual violence against a “willing submissive” female target (Bonomi, Altenburger & Walton, 2013).  It is likely that the film will further spread the social belief that women find it arousing to feel pain as a “submissive” during foreplay and sex. This logic is problematic and dangerous, and fails to take into account more reasonable alternative explanations for the high sales of the books.  

Erotica is New for Women and Provides an Emotional “Jolt”

A more parsimonious explanation for the high sales of the book is that aside from mind-numbing-soap-opera romance novels, women have not had access to sexually explicit erotica. It has not been a socially appropriate genre for women to read or view. Now that the Fifty Shades trilogy is one of the best-selling series, women (and men) may feel that it is both appropriate and even expected that they read it or see the movie in order to participate in water cooler conversations.

As a new medium for women, erotica (explicit descriptions of sex) is intriguing, surprising and arousing. Surprise, like violence, provides a stimulating and physiologically arousing “emotional jolt” (a term used in the media violence literature).  Just because it is surprising (as is watching someone be chopped up) does not mean that that is what we want to do or have done to us. Consuming erotic content can be empowering, but the problematic thing about Fifty Shades is that it cognitively and physiologically couples sexual arousal with pain, fear and humiliation.

Forming Implicit Associations between Erotic Arousal and Pain/Humiliation

The reader is likely to repeatedly feel arousal from detailed descriptions of Christian Grey kissing, caressing and teasing Anastasia Steele with “vanilla” (normal, nonviolent aspects of) sex that typically initiate their encounters. Then, as Christian begins to administer hard spankings and use implements of pain (such as a riding crop on her clitoris), the reader “hears” Anastasia’s intrapsychic descriptions of the surprising pleasure that she feels from the pain and the dissonance she experiences because it is not supposed to be pleasurable, but it is. Thus, the reader feels pleasure due to the explicit descriptions of sexual contact, then is introduced to the protagonist being pained and humiliated through submission, and then reads how the protagonist makes sense of the integration of sexual arousal and pain/humiliation. Consistent with Zillmann’s (1998) Excitation-Transfer Theory, the reader may misattribute arousal associated with erotic, nonviolent sex to images of a woman being hurt as a BDSM “submissive”. The characters rationalize this arousal for the reader, such as “spanking increases blood flow”, which supposedly increases sexual sensitivity and makes the sex more enjoyable. Anastasia also repeats his phrase that pain is “just a state of mind.” The reader may therefore develop the belief that pain increases sexual pleasure. Of even greater concern, the reader may develop implicit cognitive associations between: (a) male dominance, female submissiveness and pain and (b) sexual pleasure.

Effects of Power- Arousal and Pain- Arousal Associations

Cognitive associations of power and sex in men, especially in men who endorse rape-supportive attitudes, are associated with a propensity to aggress against women (e.g., Zurbriggen, 2000).  Further, men who watch violent pornography that depicts a woman enjoying being hurt are more likely to engage in sexual aggression (Malamuth & Check, 1980). Men may implicitly learn from Fifty Shades that acting as an aggressive sexual dominant will make them good in bed, please their mate and even gain power in their relationship. Women’s implicit and explicit acceptance of hostile sexist beliefs, such as men should be dominant and women submissive, are also associated with increased acceptance of rape supportive beliefs (Zurbriggen, 2000). Women may likewise learn sexist beliefs from Fifty Shades, which may support victim-blaming and perpetrator-excusing beliefs.

Therefore, Fifty Shades could, on a worldwide scale, endorse rape-supportive beliefs that women find male BDSM dominance and violence sexy. Heterosexual male readers of the books and viewers of the film may be more likely to think that their female partners desire rough sex and use aggression (with or without her consent) in the bedroom. Women may also form this belief, which may increase their likelihood to agree to or request violent sex. Although BDSM proponents clarify that the administration of pain is consensual, it is likely that women may agree to being hurt (particularly when their partner is domineering and insistent) without a full understanding of what they will subsequently endure.


Bonomi, A.E., Altenburger, L.E., & Walton, N.L. (2013). “Double crap” abuse and harmed identity in Fifty Shades of Grey, Journal of Women's Health, 22(9), 733-744. doi:10.1089/jwh.2013.4344

Elejalde-Ruiz, A. (2012, July 24). Pull down the shades, pull out the toys: As Fifty Shades goes mainstream, sex toy sales are heating up too. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from

Kellogg, C. (2014, February 26).‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy tops 100 million in worldwide sales, Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Malamuth, N., & Check, J. (1980). Penile tumescence and perceptual resonses to rape as a function of victim’s perceived reactions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 10,528-547.

Zillmann, D. (1998). Connections between sexuality and aggression, 2nd Ed.  Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, Associates, Inc.

Zurbriggen, E. L. (2000). Social motives and cognitive power/ sex associations: Predictors of aggressive sexual behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 559-581.