50 Shades

50 Shades Class in AmWord Magazine

Earlier in the semester, Alex Korba, a writer for the American University literary magazine, asked if she could interview me regarding my 50 Shades trilogy class. Alex's article is available in the latest issue of AmWord Magazine and reprinted with permission below. (Fellow bloggers might find the last paragraph to be especially relevant!) Hope you enjoy the piece as much as I did!

Fifty Shades Risque? American University's Newest Class

By Alex Korba

Professor and sex educator Stef Woods came up with the idea for the course based on her interest in the double standards regarding female sexuality.

When asked why she picked Fifty Shades as the subject for the course, Woods responded passionately.

“My background is as an attorney, so I started thinking about copyright issues with books on the computer and fan fiction,” she said. “I am also a sex educator; I do a lot of health advocacy and health education. I read it and I immediately thought, this is an abusive relationship.”

It is not uncommon for college courses to use polarizing books as a lens to study cultural facets.  For example, Twilight and The Wire have both been utilized in classes as case studies to examine issues that transcend the books themselves. In the case of Fifty Shades, the very real topics of abuse and mental instability are at play. Just behind the glossy love story these issues beg for attention and they deserve to receive more of it.

Though she believes fervently in the goals of the class, Woods has no delusions as to the literary merit of the book.

“You’re not reading them as you would read a Shakespearean sonnet,” Woods said with a laugh. “You don’t have to analyze every word, or even every chapter.” As an exercise in literary criticism, the class has to edit the first chapter of the book. Woods believes this to be good practice for future careers where employers will need documents proofread promptly.

When asked her opinion on whether the Fifty Shades books give American girls an unrealistically rosy image of BD/SM relationships, Woods replied that she believes this current generation knows better.

“My entire class agrees that there are glaring control issues. The author wrote it as her fantasy and it was targeted at women of that same demographic,” she said. “Their idea of a perfect man on paper is one who takes control of everything when at the end of the day they’re just looking for a man to take out the garbage.”

Because of the controversial subject of the class, opposition is inevitable. Since its publication, the series has been dubbed “mommy-porn” and received scathing reviews by many reporters. This didn’t stop hordes of women from flocking to the bookstores and firing up their Kindles. If anything, the taboo reputation served to increase the book’s popularity.  Like these women, Woods is not fazed by the book’s repute.

 “It’s not a book club,” Woods asserted, “There are 60 other resources. My syllabus is 11 pages single-spaced. I stand by my work product; I stand by this course idea. If you think it’s an easy A, that’s not my class.”

When asked whether she would consider teaching the class again next semester, Woods shrugged and responded, “It’s a short shelf-life class.” She continued on to say that she is very interested in teaching a course with the topic of blogging as a social force. In a world where technology is ever changing, Woods is a professor unafraid to adapt to the changes, even if it means embracing a subject that she could potentially catch flack for.

“Opposition? Ok, that’s fine,” she said dismissively. “For every compliment there’ll be a hundred criticisms, especially in an anonymous online world.”

How She’s Doing in There?

At my bi-monthly sonograms, I continue to smile and laugh out loud at what Little Bit does. She clearly does not wish to be disturbed in there and will do her best to evade the ultrasound wand. During recent appointments, she again tried to swat the wand away. When the technician didn't move the wand, she put both hands up in front of her face in "Put Up Your Dukes" fashion.

Using 4D ultrasound technology, the technician has tried to obtain a clear look at the front of her face on numerous occasions. She hasn't cooperated, though, only showing us 2/3 of her face.

When no one is bothering Little Bit, she’s actually very calm. She flutters at times, which feels like popcorn is lightly popping in my stomach. She's already 15" and three pounds so she does shift positions from time-to-time. I've felt her hiccups and gas bubbles, but I generally don't notice much activity.

In almost 30 weeks, I've only felt her truly kick a total of three times. Friends who are moms describe feeling their babies-to-be kick as the best feeling in the world. I just find it odd and jarring. When I initially felt her kick, I was teaching a class on Feminism as part of my 50 Shades Trilogy course. I let out an, “Ohhhh!” because the sensation caught me off guard. (And, yes, I have to chuckle that the first time I feel a hard kick from her is when I’m talking about feminism. She really is my daughter!)

Thankfully, my pregnancy has been uneventful…with one exception…

On the last day of our vacation, my neurological issues were in full effect. I awoke throwing up and couldn’t stop for several hours. I was so dehydrated that I started having false contractions, also known as Braxton-Hicks contractions. As the day progressed, the contractions lessened, but the experience still concerned me. I feared that something was wrong and that I would end up having to deliver in an island hospital. (Granted, the island had a very well-respected neonatal department, but at the time, I didn’t find that comforting.)

As I boarded the plane back to DC that evening, I said a prayer that I would be home soon and she would be okay. I happened to have a sonogram already scheduled for the following day so I learned that all was indeed well. I hope not to get dehydrated again in the future, but if that happens, I know what Braxton-Hicks contractions feel like.

There's typically not a correlation between a fetus' activity inside the womb and how a child is outside of the womb. Nonetheless, I still find myself wondering, if she'll be stubborn like she is during the sonograms or calm like she is the rest of the time. If she's healthy when she arrives on May 31st, though, that's all that matters!

50 Shades Class in WTOP

I joke to my students that The 50 Shades Trilogy class is on its last few seconds of fame. Once people began to realize that the class is academic in nature with a rigorous curriculum, media interest in the story understandably died down. 

WTOP recently posted an article about The 50 Shades Trilogy, after reporter Natalie Plumb attended a class. The full article is available here, but an excerpt follows:

“There’s a lot of misperception that I’m a sexologist who wants to talk about sex with the students, teach BDSM, which in my opinion would be completely inappropriate,” Woods says. “That’s not what my class is about, and I don’t think that’s what a challenging liberal arts education such as is offered here at American is about.”

Woods says when she read “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the first book in the series, her initial thoughts were far from teaching a course on it.

“When I first read the book, I kept saying how ridiculous it was since I personally don’t know of any 22-year-old virgin, who meets a 26-year-old billionaire, who then engages in a controlling relationship with her,” she says.

Have you read any of the trilogy? What were your thoughts on Anastasia and Christian’s relationship?

50 Shades Class on The District Dish

I always have a great time being interviewed on The District Dish with Kate Michael of K Street Magazine! This month, I was featured on the show for my class on The 50 Shades Trilogy. I thoroughly enjoyed having the opportunity to speak at length abut the class and help debunk some of the misperceptions about sexuality studies and what I'm teaching. You can catch the full interview here:



I learned at the interview that I was the only guest to be featured on The District Dish three times! Some of you might recall my first interview as an anonymous relationship and sex blogger with my face pixeled out. Sixteen months later, I was back at The District Dish table talking about my breast cancer journey and the Komen Race for the Cure. My, how things have changed!

Hope you enjoy the interview!

50 Shades Class on SiriusXM Radio

I had such a wonderful time talking to Moll Anderson on her radio show for SiriusXM earlier this month! We chatted about the 50 Shades class, the success of the book series, and what I would do to improve the trilogy!


Catch my segment starting at minute 13 of the podcast.

Podcast Powered By Podbean

Hope you enjoy the show! And, Moll, you have an open-ended invitation to attend any of my classes if you happen to be in DC!


50 Shades Mania

I’ve never been one to shy away from controversial topics or criticism. It thus seemed appropriate to acknowledge and respond to some comments that have appeared below the USA TODAY College, Daily Beast and Daily Mail UK articles about my upcoming class on The 50 Shades Trilogy.

Comment: The class isn't academic in nature because the book series is porn or fluff.

Response: If I only required the students to read the three books in the trilogy, then that statement would be valid. However, that's not the case. The students in the class will be required to read 60 additional sources. Those sources range from a law journal article regarding whether Internet fan fiction violates copyright laws to chapters of human sexuality textbooks to public relations reports. This is an upper-level class, and the assignments reflect that.

Comment: It is erroneous to claim that “no other contemporary text on sexuality has transformed American culture the way that this series has.”

Response: One commenter regards a "contemporary text" as all texts since World War II. While that's one valid interpretation, I view contemporary as the digital age. Would the resounding commercial success of EL James’ books have been possible before the advent of e-readers and social media marketing? I personally don’t think so, but that’s for the class to debate in light of our other readings on the topic.  

With respect to whether or not the trilogy “has transformed American culture,” 20 million copies of the book were sold in four months. The series’ popularity has inspired the publishing industry to alter marketing strategies and the types of books that are being promoted. The trilogy has led to a sexual resurgence, a myriad of perspectives on “mommy porn,” and a 50 Shades of Grey baby boom. The media speculates on a daily basis about which stars will be cast as Anastasia and Christian Grey in the movie version of the trilogy.  The writing in the books has also sparked discussion about what has literary or artistic value. There’s a subjective element as to how one defines “transformed,” but I maintain that there’s ample evidence to support the books’ significant influence on present-day American culture.

Comment: Stef Woods doesn’t belong in academia.

Response: You're obviously entitled to your opinion. Nonetheless, my student evaluations, receipt of AU's Teaching with Technology Award and involvement with campus organizations demonstrate that teaching is a good fit for my skill set. If you’ve attended one of my past classes, panels or presentations and have any suggestions for improvements, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Comment: As a parent, I would view this class as a waste of my tuition money.

Response: This class will have value for the students taking it, and that value will be evident to parents and potential employers alike. Learning outcomes for the class involve improving students' critical thinking, writing, editing, and public speaking skills. Students will also learn how to analyze and implement effective marketing and communications strategies. The lengthy reading and writing assignments will help to further these course objectives. 

Comment: Students enrolled in The 50 Shades Trilogy will be unable to find jobs after they graduate.

Response: My students have fared incredibly well in the job market. That’s a testament to their commitment to their schoolwork, extracurricular activities and internships. One-fifth of my Activism and Social Media students leveraged their final projects for my class to obtain paid positions in their desired field. 

I hope and expect the same for my students in The 50 Shades Trilogy. Over the course of the semester, students will be required to write a sexual genogram and three papers for a total of at least 25 pages. I crafted the paper questions to provide the students with strong writing samples regardless of their majors.

Have any questions or thoughts about my upcoming class? If so, feel free to comment.

50 Shades of GrAU

Over the summer, I was interviewed for an article on YourTango regarding stereotypes and misperceptions about female sexuality in light of the 50 Shades phenomenon. As I began talking and writing more about the trilogy, I started thinking about how to frame the books in an academic light. Could the 50 Shades series be used as a case study in a college class? Could the issues that the trilogy raises be examined in a critical and intellectual way?

Ever the optimist, I decided that the books could serve as an effective case study. I thus drafted the following course description:

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is a publishing phenomenon that has dramatically impacted American culture and sexual health. Using the series as a case study, this course examines the interplay of sexuality, health, public relations and marketing. Topics covered include feminism, addiction, social media marketing, sexual expression versus sexual repression, targeting the mom demographic, domestic violence, literary criticism, and relationship and identity forming. The course also relies on academic texts, online resources, lectures, and guest speakers.

I'm happy to report that The 50 Shades Trilogy class is on the books for the spring semester at American University!

AU student, Chloe Johnson, recently wrote an article about the class for the campus newspaper. In compiling information for the article, she asked me several questions related to the substantive nature of the course. Those questions and answers are posted below for those who are interested in more details about the class.

1. Why do you think the 50 Shades trilogy has become such a cultural phenomenon?

The 50 Shades trilogy was strategically marketed to a target demographic of women. These women, predominately in their 40s and 50s, responded to the fantasy world that the book presented. As word-of-mouth spread, the audience for the book did, too. The trilogy has impacted the fields of public relations, social media marketing, health, publishing and sexuality. It has also opened up dialogue about previously uncomfortable topics.

2. What sort of connections do you wish to make with the text in class? What do you think students will learn from using this specific text, as opposed to other contemporary works concerning sexuality?

There are many connections that I hope to make with the text in class. To name a few:

a. Double standards abound with respect to female sexuality. Does referring to the book as "mommy porn" further belittle women's sexuality? Are men's publications subjected to the same judgments about sexuality?

b. A common criticism of the book is its poor writing style and editing. What are our expectations when it comes to reading fiction? Do we expect less from online writings? Would E.L. James's writing have been judged to the same extent, if she wasn't a female writing an erotic trilogy? How would you revise an earlier chapter of the first book to sustain a more discriminating reader's attention?

c. Evaluate the relationship in the book in light of our readings on domestic violence. Are the leads in the trilogy in a healthy or abusive relationship? Why or why not?

d. Why is the trilogy a public relations success story? Would sales have been as high if e-readers didn't exist? Given the studies we looked at regarding the buying power of the mom demographic, do you think the book series would have been as successful if the mom demographic hadn't been targeted?

e. What was the role of social media in perpetuating the trilogy's success? If you were in charge of marketing the upcoming movies, how would you utilize social media?

20 million copies of the 50 Shades trilogy were sold in less than four months. No other contemporary text on sexuality has transformed American culture the way that this series has. It never crossed my mind to use another book for a case study.

3. How was the curriculum designed?

I'm still developing the curriculum, but I'll be incorporating historical texts regarding female sexuality, journal articles, marketing studies regarding the mom demographic, and health textbook chapters. Students will be required to write a sexual genogram and three papers, totaling 25 pages.

I'm excited for the spring semester already, and I look forward to seeing how the curriculum and class discussions evolve. I promise to keep you posted every step of the way!

50 Shades Musings

I hadn't heard of 50 Shades of Grey, until my friend mentioned the book to me.

"It's really hot," she said. "It's the type of book I would have thought you would have read already…or written!"

A few days later, I received a press release from Fun Factory about the trilogy. Apparently, the main characters use the company's Smart Balls and as a result, sales of this versatile toy have skyrocketed.

The following week, my doctor brought up the book during my appointment. Every staff member in the office had read the trilogy.

With three mentions in a row, I knew that I had to download 50 Shades. As I read the first book, I found myself simultaneously turned on and frustrated by the poor editing and unrealistic sexual dynamic between Ana and Christian.

When a freelance writer, Rachel Khona, asked me for my opinion about the book, I happily provided her with my thoughts. Her questions and my answers follow:

Q: Why do you think 50 Shades of Grey has been hit with the label “Mommy Porn”?

A: Labeling the book as “Mommy Porn” is great marketing. It heightens the appeal, as women whisper about the book and its sensual contents to one another.

We are all sexual creatures on some level. We just don’t live in a society that encourages candid dialogue about human sexuality. A recent study revealed that more than a half of the women surveyed had used adult toys, and yet, the thought of going into a sex boutique makes many women blush.

Most mothers would prefer to download a book onto their Kindles or purchase a book to read after their children have gone to sleep to other more overt forms of pornography. Thinking about sex is healthy, and 50 Shades provides a safe and private way to explore to do that.

Q: Is BDSM only relegated to people with repressed natures, ie mothers? Or is it something that all kinds of people are engaged in but just not talking about?

A: BDSM has little to do with sexual repression and more to do with sexual expression. It’s a form of kink or role-play. In every relationship, one partner is more dominant in the bedroom than the other. The extent of that domination is defined subjectively, as it is very couple-specific. Hair pulling or using furry handcuffs could qualify as BDSM for some couples. For members of the kink community, though, that wouldn’t.

Q: Is calling 50 Shades mommy porn a way to demean women’s sexual fantasies? After all don’t most romantic/erotic novels attract various types of women? What makes 50 Shades is different? Or is there another reason behind calling the book Mommy Porn?

A: The difference between 50 Shades and other romantic/erotic novels is that this book has mass-market appeal and has achieved enormous commercial success. Calling the book, “mommy porn,” heightens that appeal, while simultaneously demeaning women’s sexuality and fantasies.

We live in a Puritanical society – in the United States in 2012! Open discussion about our sexuality is viewed as crass, and our education about sex typically stops around the age when we’re just starting to have sex.

Women’s sexuality may be less taboo than it was in past decades, but many women still feel the need to hide their desires and fantasies, even from their own husbands and best friends. Referring to 50 Shades as “mommy porn” only exacerbates that shame, guilt or uncertainty.

Q: Why is there no such thing as Daddy Porn? If 50 Shades were geared to men (and men found romance novels appealing) do you believe there would be so much hoopla?

A: Human sexuality is traditionally viewed through the eyes of a straight man. Men are more visual creatures by nature. As such, it’s not surprising that most men favor an overtly sexual movie, magazine or website, instead of a romance novel. Pornography has always catered to the male market. There isn’t a need for additional Daddy Porn since men’s needs and fantasies are already satiated. As a society, men are expected to be sexual creatures. If “Daddy Porn” existed, it wouldn’t receive as much criticism or controversy.

Most women’s sexuality is inextricably linked to their mind and their emotions. Candles, music, and soft sheets help to set the stage. Females require foreplay and more stimulation to reach orgasm. A book like 50 Shades of Grey straddles that delicate balance of eroticism without being so overtly sexual that it loses its desired readership.

Q: Critics have panned the writing, but why is it that the writing in “Debbie Does Dallas” not criticized for being terrible?

Critics will always find something to pan. A book that discusses sexuality or encourages women’s fantasies is subjected to criticism from numerous vantage points. Stronger writers will focus on how poorly written 50 Shades is, labeling the book as porn, instead of chick lit. Feminists will focus on how the relationship described in the book is controlling and borderline abusive. People who aren’t comfortable with their sexuality will regard the book as scandalous at a minimum or worth banning from libraries at a maximum. Active BDSM participants find the book too tame.

“Debbie Does Dallas” and other pornography movies don’t receive the same level of press, and thus, they don’t receive the same level of criticism. People don’t talk openly about porn, and the media isn’t paying the same attention to pornographic movies.

A copy of Rachel Khona's article, "The Problem With 'Mommy Porn,'" for YourTango is available here.

And, for what it's worth, I actually enjoyed the second book in the 50 Shades trilogy. My inner goddess squealed at the better editing and stronger character development!

Have you read 50 Shades? What did you think of it?

Laters, baby!