In late January, a hashtag campaign emerged on Twitter urging moviegoers to boycott the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey and instead donate $50 to a women's shelter. #50DollarsNot50Shades was created by Gail Dines, a controversial anti-pornography activist and author who is often accused of being more concerned with inciting outrage than informed change. Dines claims that Fifty Shades glorifies violence, saying, "Battered women's shelters and graveyards are full of women who had the misfortune to meet a Christian Grey."
First off, we can't argue with raising funds for such a necessary service and drawing awareness to the very real issue of abuse. Still, Dines' message seems a lot more anti-kink, anti-porn, and anti–Fifty Shades than pro-woman. "[This] is a movie that is straight out of porn culture," she said. "It tells the lie that if you get this sadistic predator — which is what Christian Grey is — and if you just love him enough out of this, then in fact you will love him into being a good man, a good father and you'll have a happy ever after ending in a beautiful house with a couple of kids. It is a complete lie." That's where things get troublesome.
For starters, BDSM is not abuse. It's a common sexual practice that, when done right, involves a healthy level of trust, communication, safety, and preparation. And, for millions of people, it's a whole lot of fun. The main issue with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it skips all those not-so-sexy parts and goes straight to the red room.
"There's quite a bit about the story that's very problematic," says Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, PhD, a sociologist specializing in sexuality and gender. "You see a lot of isolation and not a lot of consent — practices that are not at all reflective of what goes on in consensual BDSM." On the other hand, the book led a lot of readers to a new curiosity and understanding about sexuality, bringing kink out of the realm of shame and into the mainstream. It was never meant to be an instruction manual, but a fantasy that anyone could indulge in, regardless of their own sexual tastes. Though the novel may be a cheesy bodice-ripper, Tibbals adds, "You cannot ignore the cultural significance. Many people had no idea what BDSM was, much less that people in their neighborhood were doing it, and now it's everywhere. That awareness is a good thing, but it's a double-edged sword."
As is a hashtag like #50DollarsNot50Shades. "If people want to donate money to a shelter rather than support this problematic narrative, that's fantastic. The problem, though, is to write it off as all bad or all good," says Dr. Tibbals. Campaigns like this feed into polarized thinking, turning the conversation into a fight rather than a critical discussion. Of course, we must all be more conscious and supportive of abuse survivors (in ways much bigger than a hashtag), but we must not conflate BDSM with abuse or Fifty Shades of Grey with healthy BDSM.
For better or worse, Dr. Tibbals asserts, Fifty Shades is the current face of BDSM in mainstream media. And, we can be supportive of a sex-positive message while still being wary of the messenger.