This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
This Friday, 50 Shades of Grey fans will finally be able to see a physical, tangible Christian smack a physical, tangible Anastasia with a riding crop. Nauseatingly close to Valentine's Day, the film adaptation of E. L. James's best seller hits cinemas on the 13.
This has riled a number of women, who are now planning to boycott the film, furious at what they believe to be a glamorization of violence. In the UK, the 50 Shades Is Abuse campaign has rallied supporters for a protest of this week's premiere in Leicester Square.
"We want to challenge the romanticization of abuse," says Natalie Collins, the domestic violence worker who founded the campaign. "We want to give people the skills and resources to have conversations with their family and friends about these books, and use them as an opportunity to raise awareness about abuse, which could help women who are currently experiencing violence.
"People assume we're prudish or moralistic, but we're not anti-sex, we're not anti-BDSM," she adds. "We have a lot of supporters from the BDSM community who are outraged and disturbed by how the books misrepresent their lifestyle."
The official trailer for 50 Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades has angered some with its implication that BDSM is rooted in trauma (Christian Grey was abused as a child) rather than being a healthy sexual expression. But for the 50 Shades Is Abuse campaigners, it's not even really the sex itself causing the most concern.
"For us, the most concerning bits relate to the controlling behavior that Christian exhibits outside of the bedroom," Collins says. "He stalks her, he tracks her phone, he finds her workplace, he takes away her independence. Those things are much more concerning in terms of modeling what a healthy, romantic, sexy relationship should be—especially for young girls who will see the movie."
The North American equivalent is #50DollarsNot50Shades, jointly launched by Stop Porn Culture and the London Abused Women's Center in Ontario. The campaign is encouraging people to boycott the movie and instead donate the cost of the ticket to a women's shelter.
Dr. Gail Dines is a professor of sociology and the president of Stop Porn Culture. She says donations are coming in from around the world, with people emailing her messages of thanks.
"I started this because I'm so incensed that you can take a major social problem of violence against women and glorify it, dress it up with a few whips and fancy underwear, and rebrand is as romance," she tells me. "It speaks to women's lack of understanding about how violence against them happens. All those women who love the book and fawn over it, I think if they were to read a few books on domestic violence they'd have a different view.
" Fifty Shades tells a story of what is really grooming by a stalker—a seasoned perpetrator going after a much younger, more immature woman," Dines continues. "She doesn't know her own body, she doesn't know what an orgasm is, she doesn't know what the clitoris is—she's never had sex. She's barely articulate. She's overwhelmed by this wealthy guy. Let me tell you, if this guy was living in a council house on welfare, he would not be so attractive."
Dines has her own take when it comes to the BDSM debate. "Everyone's talking about how the BDSM community doesn't like 50 Shades, and the reason is because it reveals what's going on," she says. "A lot of BDSM is actually just 'S': It's sadism. Sadistic men on the hunt for young, traumatized girls who are easy pickings. Now, that's not everyone, but I do have trouble with BDSM. In a society where one in four women are sexually abused, in a society where men get off on raping, mutilating, torturing, and murdering women—I do think we have to put BDSM in that context. Sexuality never exists outside of the culture in which it's happening. As violent porn becomes more mainstream, we have to talk about why BDSM is becoming more mainstream."
But what about the thousands of women who freely choose to engage in BDSM? Doesn't this perspective detract from women's hard-won sexual liberation?
"Choice is complicated," says Dines. "What is choice when you're socialized to see yourself as a subordinate? From the moment you're born into a patriarchal society, you've been socialized to think of your sexuality as being subordinate. It's about being on offer to men, it's about being fuckable—because you have to look fuckable to be hot. Choice is not something that just drops out of the sky; the choices you make are culturally constructed."
Clearly not everyone agrees with Dines's standpoint: Some would argue her assessment of female sexuality is slightly patronizing, and when it comes to 50 Shades, at the height of its popularity two copies of the book were being sold every second. It also inspired a line of sex toys and a baby onesie reading: "Nine months ago my mommy read 50 Shades of Grey."
Everyone you knew was reading it, everyone was talking about it, everyone was copying things from it. It also allowed women a space in which to talk about sex and their own sexuality, which is so often sidelined or overwhelmed by male desire. There can be no doubt that these movie protests are going to piss off some of the (millions of) die-hard fans who see both the book and film as a bit of harmless escapism.
"Oh yes, of course," agrees Dines. "They come at me in a very hostile way, saying, 'I love this book.' But when we start to talk about it, the hostility goes right down. We talk about the character, how she's always scared of him. That's the key to knowing you're in a battering relationship, when you start to measure the mood of the man you're with and carefully moderate yourself. If you look at the lists in battered women's shelters of signs to watch out for, Christian Grey actually matches them all."
Collins says highlighting women's sexuality is a good thing—but 50 Shades doesn't do that in any meaningful way. "The books don't bring women's sexuality to the fore in their representation of sex; they bring a male desire to the fore, and a male shaping of what women should want," she argues. "The book's all about what he wants, what he finds sexually pleasurable. Her desires aren't encouraged or asked about; she's just expected to be part of his lifestyle."
Feminist.org has a list of domestic abuse hotlines and national organizations for donation.
50 Shades Is Abuse is protesting on February 12—more details on Twitter.