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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A U.S. grassroots movement is urging people to send $50 to women's shelters rather than see "Fifty Shades of Grey," while a Midwest child protection league argues the film blurs the lines of what is healthy or harmful in sex.
With its whips and chains and a sexual relationship based on domination and submission, the first film in author E.L. James' "Fifty Shades" erotic romance trilogy appears headed for the same kind of runaway success as the books that have sold 100 million copies worldwide.
Its arrival in U.S. theaters on Friday, however, comes in the midst of a national debate about sexual violence and domestic abuse, sparked by high-profile incidents plaguing the National Football League and U.S. colleges last year.
Just four days ago, President Barack Obama appealed to musicians and their fans at the Grammy awards to help stop abuse against women and girls.
To be sure, "Fifty Shades" is a tale of consensual sex between two adults.
Formed out of "Twilight" fan fiction, the story follows naive college student Anastasia Steele, 21, who undergoes a sexual awakening at the hands of seductive 27-year-old billionaire, Christian Grey, a practitioner of bondage and domination.
But some activists say the message is still wrong.
"This is about a seasoned predator who is a stalker and an abuser and sadist, honing in on a much younger woman," said Gail Dines, professor of sociology at Boston's Wheelock College. Dines founded the "50 Dollars Not 50 Shades" campaign that urges people to donate to women's shelters, rather than buy a movie ticket.
"It's a fairy story in the sense of it's not real, but in reality, it's a horror story that many women live."
Dakota Johnson, the actress who plays Anastasia, said people should see the film before coming to that conclusion.
"Everything that Anastasia does is completely her choice and it's consensual and no person is abused in the movie and I think it's kind of a closed-minded outlook," Johnson said at Wednesday's "Fifty Shades" premiere at the Berlin Film Festival.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson said she feels like "I empower this woman and I give her the final word and the message is very strong.
"That end message is really 'no' when someone crosses a line," she said.
Major women's groups have been silent when it comes to the Universal Pictures film. But hashtags such as #FiftyShadesisAbuse is gaining traction on Twitter and campaigners are using social media to organize protests at local movie theaters.
The Minnesota Child Protection League on Wednesday said the film "glorifies emotional and sexual abuse as love'" and launched the campaign "50ShadesThePledge" to offer resources for parents to dissuade their children from seeing the film.
British campaign group "Fifty Shades is Domestic Abuse" plans a protest at the London premiere of "Fifty Shades" on Thursday, and is encouraging people to boycott the movie and donate money to local charities for abuse victims.
Universal declined to comment when asked if the studio was concerned about a backlash.
Despite the controversy, Boxoffice.com projects the movie will open with $89 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales from Friday through Monday, which would be a record for the U.S. Presidents Day holiday weekend.
As with the books, dubbed "mommy porn" for drawing a mainstream female audience into the world of erotica and kink, the sex industry is hoping to capitalize again on the spotlight given to bedroom paraphernalia.
But some of those immersed in the sub-culture of bondage, discipline, dominance, submission and sadomasochism, known as BDSM, don't believe Christian and Anastasia's relationship is an accurate representation of their community.
While the film skirts explicit sex scenes with artful close-ups of faces and props, Christian in one scene whips Anastasia as a punishment, to her visible distress.
"Is this a dynamic (Anastasia) really wanted? I don't think it was, so it does come off as something that was unwanted and not enthusiastically desired," said Susan Wright, spokeswoman for the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, a group advocating equal rights for adults engaging in alternative sexual practices.
Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Rollo Ross in Berlin; Editing by Jill Serjeant, Andrew Hay and Alan Crosby