Is 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Bad for Teenage Girls?

 This time the Fifty Shades trend story skews a bit younger: Teenagers are reading the book, too! 

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You have to congratulate The New York Post for staying on top of the so-called Fifty Shades trends—they were there from the very beginning, discussing the erotic trilogy's success way back in February, talking about how book sales had inspired a run on rope in early June. Just when we thought all the possible angles had been done, up pops another one. This time the trend story skews a bit younger, though: teenagers are reading the book, too, apparently! Via the Post's Doree Lewak:

Fifteen-year-old Jessie loves Zumba, biology and classic Disney movies such as “Beauty and the Beast” — but lately, her favorite activity has been reading. While she spent her school year slogging through classics like “Ethan Frome” and “The Tempest,” you won’t find Jessie’s favorite book on her 10th-grade-English summer reading list. That’s because she’s been reading the kinky sex trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey” — “during school, out tanning, in bed, everywhere,” she says — on her Nook e-reader.

Oh dear. Jessie (not her real name and, by the way, kids are still tanning?) goes on to say that the book is totally popular among teens, and Lewak goes on to talk about the "Lolita-esque literati" who are not only reading the book, but are reading it because their moms loaned it to them. One 16-year-old actually "takes notes so she could practice with her boyfriend.” Hm.

There's a lot of handwringing about this and probably more to come, with the parent police saying a "Mature" warning label, which Vintage puts on the books, isn't enough and that reading this series is bad for girls, who will think that the relationship depicted within is "normal." The idea of teens "taking notes to practice" from this book is a little disturbing indeed, both practically and factually, but, of course, trying to dub any relationship, sexual or otherwise, as "normal" presents problems in itself. On the upside, at least these girls are reading, and hopefully talking about what they read. They could be Googling instead. And didn't we sort of get this paternalistic conversation already, but with women, who might "take the wrong lesson" from the unrealistic relationship and sex depicted within?

It's not surprising that kids are going to read (or, if it's on TV or in the movies, watch) whatever's being talked about and read by their parents—especially if it seems forbidden and/or sexy, and especially if everyone else is talking about it, too. Twenty million copies are out there, being sold at bodegas and in supermarket checkout lines; of course kids are going to get a look at a few, and of course, if parents forbid it, they're going to try even harder to get another look. Remember sneaking copies of Clan of the Cave Bear or Flowers in the Attic from your mom back in the '80s? Sex sells for teens, too, and the publishing industry knows this; that's part of why they've been "revitalizing" their covers of some much-loved classics read by high schoolers.

As with anything else that adults worry may be bad for kids, it probably depends on the kid. But in this writer's view, more than the supposedly erotic content of the books is the fact that the reading level and, actually, the writing caliber of the Fifty Shades books is well below anything in the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series. That may be the most concerning issue about any of this. (A better pick is Judy Blume's Forever, which is an e-book now, too.) At the same time, we would be wise to remember that Fifty Shades all began, quite humbly, as the fan fiction of yet another book that teens (and adults) devoured: The Twilight series.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.