50 Shades of Grey as COLLEGE Class?

"Now class, please turn to page 197 and read out loud about Ana's first blow job."

That would make for a pretty entertaining and red-faced college class! However, Professor Stef Woods' spring class at American University, entitled "Contemporary American Culture: The Fifty Shades Triology," is not about titillation. Some students may be disappointed to find out that the course has a heavy reading load and much analysis and critical thinking about sexuality, gender, sexual health, addiction, and domestic violence in American society, as well as lessons in writing, editing, marketing, advertising, and public relations.

News of her class has been picked up internationally in the media, with comment sections flooded by attacking remarks. I've noticed that people love to get on their high horses about "what we pay for our children to learn," or "what our tax dollars are used for." Don't get your panties and boxer shorts in a bunch, folks. Much of the valuable role of college is guiding teenagers into adulthood and offering skills in business, critical thinking, relationships, and the world. A course like this creates a context for real life learning...learning and navigating the media-saturated and sexuality-saturated world that these students inhabit.

I have personal experience teaching a class like this. Back in 2004 and 2005 I taught a course at Cal State San Marcos about Eve Ensler's play "The Vagina Monologues." We decontructed sexuality, gender, race, and bodies. There was also a strong experiential component, as students wrote their own personal monologues and presented a Vagina Fest with three performances of the play. They learned critical thinking skills, public speaking, personal reflection, and compassion.

I know Stef Woods personally; I interviewed her in 2011 for my In the Den with Dr. Jenn video series and also presented with her at the 2012 Momentum Conference in Washington, DC. Gratetfully a recent interview on MSNBC allowed Stef to speak to the academic content and media skills development that are foundational to her class. Take a look at the MSNBC video below:

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sex Therapist, Sociologist, Sexuality Speaker, Sexologist

50 Shades of...Condoms, Butt Plugs, & Periods?!

Are there safer sex messages in the hit trilogy "50 Shades of Grey"? With so much controversy around the books, let's look at a few messages around condoms and appreciation of women's bodies.

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sociologist, Sexologist, Sexuality Speaker

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50 Shades of Grey - Dr. Jenn interviewed on San Diego Living by Kristen Mosteller

I was excited for my first appearance on San Diego Living. What a great crew of folks over there. Kristen Mosteller interviewed me about why the 50 Shades of Grey series is so popular with women, and how to bring a little of that into your own bedroom. I also wrote a sex & love blog about this recently if you'd like to check that out.

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sexologist, Sex Therapist, Sexuality Speaker, College Sexual Health Speaker

50 Shades of Grey - Why This Book Feels Good

I don’t get it,” my gay friend Sean stated at my video shoot recently. “Why are women aroused by the fantasy of being submissive and how is this new or controversial?” We were discussing the contentious bestseller, Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. This book, a fan fiction homage to the Twilight Saga, has been labeled “mommy porn” due to its unexpected popularity with married suburban mothers, and its erotic theme of dominance and submission.

Sean poses a good question. Why has this book struck a cord with so many American women? While the United States has a thriving BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, masochism) community, most of the female readers are not likely already participating in BDSM. In addition, the book is not well written, even by the author’s own admission. Yet somehow it became a word of mouth hit online, long before it was even available in a bookstore. I propose there are several important factors in the success of this book, including beautiful characters, strong personalities, titillating sexuality, taboo dominance and submission, and the romantic evocation of “feeling special.” But before I delve into my analysis of the book’s success, let me offer a brief summary of the plot.

Anastasia Steele, a 21-year old virgin and graduating college senior, meets Christian Grey, an incredibly hot, wealthy, successful 27-year old. They quickly fall for each other, and then she learns of his sexual tastes – to fully dominate the woman he is involved with, both physically and mentally. As well, he has an in-house dungeon where he demands submission. Anastasia waffles between giving in to his whims and fighting his control. Her willful confidence amidst her naiveté is new for Christian, which further arouses him to break his own rules. She feels special, valued, and aroused. However, Anastasia is also disturbed and struggles with his mood swings, controlling sexual tastes, and love of inflicting pain. This novel is just the first of the trilogy, and I have only read one volume so far.

I personally discovered that crappy writing is not as noticeable if the content is turning me on! Despite cringing at the writing style, rolling my eyes at the gender stereotyping, and wincing through some descriptions of pain infliction, I did find much of the content arousing and stimulating. It even made me feel more confident and sexually aggressive. I think I was channeling the attitudes of the characters. This is the power of written fantasy – to embody a new way of being for the reader.

A fantasy of perfection and beauty is pervasive in Fifty Shades of Grey. Anastasia is young, white, innocent, intelligent, slender, attractive, and outspoken yet humble. She’s the quintessential Disney character. Christian is a little bit older than her, wealthy beyond imagination, successful, mysterious, bright, with a hot body and beautiful face. The first time Anastasia has sex, she is easily orgasmic. The first time she performs a blow job, she’s a champ. Christian has never slept in the same bed with a woman or introduced one to his family, yet he quickly breaks all his rules for Anastasia. This all adds up to Anastasia being that “special” girl, who wins Christian’s affection, a la “Pretty Woman.”

And I think that’s a large part of the power of this book. We all want to feel special and desired. Being the object of desire feels good. It’s validating to experience unbridled passion from another; let alone being willing to change your identity due to this passion, and have another willing to change for you. This seems to create an emotional context that grants Anastasia (as well as the female reader) permission to be naughty and explore the boundaries of good girl and bad girl, pleasure and pain, control and surrender. If the reader at home is a powerful, confident woman, Anastasia’s submission means the reader can also experiment with letting go, feel the freedom of surrender, and still be true to her values.

Do I think it is dangerous for our society to have a popular erotic novel with sex tied to violence? Is it sexist, disempowering to women, and rolling back the sexual liberation clock? This is a large part of the controversy, and I’m honestly conflicted in responding. If we lived in a society where sex was open, healthy, and normalized, I could accept the novel as fantasy for fun and stimulation. But we don’t. Sex is much too often mixed with shame, embarrassment, exploitation, misinformation, and abuse. So I think it may be difficult for some to separate pure fantasy from their reality. That being said, I love that we’re talking about women’s arousal and discussing taboo sex. And I enjoyed some arousal of my own. If you have read Fifty Shades of Grey, I would love to hear your opinion about what tickled your fancy or turned your stomach.

(This blog was first posted as part of Pacific San Diego Magazine's Sex & Love Blog.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sex Therapist, Marriage Counselor, Sexologist, College Sexual Health Speaker