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'50 Shades' in the Ivy League: Academics versus BDSM sex clubs

On Monday the New York Observer ran a sensational story about BDSM sex clubs popping up in the Ivy League. They can be found at Harvard, Columbia and Yale -- all Ivies -- as well as Tufts, MIT and the University of Chicago. The group at Harvard is called Munch.

"The popularity of 50 Shades of Grey has accelerated a mainstreaming of the BDSM subculture already underway — the initials stand for bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism—and the trend has been especially pronounced in our more elite institutions of higher learning," the Observer writes.

E.L. James' bestselling trilogy began as a fantasy, fan fiction written to imagine a version of "Twlight's" characters all grown up and in adult situations. "50 Shades of Grey" and its sequels have engendered other fantasies among readers, some of whom have found an outlet on their college campuses.

The university clubs are intended to be a safe space for experimentation. As the Observer puts it, "the scene’s mantra — 'safe, sane and consensual' — is heard so often it might as well be translated into needlepoint." But sometimes fiction and fact have intersected in uncomfortable ways. A representative from Columbia's group says that for all their safeguards, when it comes to sexual play that involves dominance and submission, the line about what constitutes consent can blur.

A safer way to experience "50 Shades" on campus might be to enroll in a class. One at American University is about the E.L. James trilogy and its cultural importance. The course description reads, "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."

Once completing such a course, students who wish to continue their research could take the next step and write an academic paper. The Journal of Popular Romance Studies has a call for papers for a special issue, "Before and Beyond 50 Shades of Grey: New Approaches to Erotic Romance Fiction." The peer-reviewed journal is looking for "essays, interviews, and pedagogical materials on the subject of erotic popular romance fiction, now and in the past. Essays on individual authors and texts are encouraged, along with work on the business side of the genre — its publishers, its marketing, etc. — and explorations of its reception, including fandom, censorship, and the public debates surrounding erotic romance." Its deadline is Feb. 1, 2013.

With more than 25 million copies of the "50 Shades" trilogy sold, it's only going to find more traction in academia. Maybe E.L. James herself will venture in that direction.

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