Archive for September 2008
God, he was lovely. RIP, Mr Newman.
On Erotica Cover Watch this Thursday, we’re taking a break from our regular snarking (so soon!) to bring you some good stuff: erotica covers we love! Or at least, erotica covers we quite like because they’re moving away from the single hot female default and are making a stab, however slight, at offering candy equality. (Men! Men! There will be men!) It could be quite a short post.
And don’t forget, you too can play Man Candy Monday. Flash some muscle on your blog today and let us know about it in the comments here. And if you want to join our growing army of supporters, please check out ways to Beef up your Blog. Trust us, we’re getting beefier every day!
Watched by Mathilde Madden
Okay, everyone at Erotica Cover Watch thinks Susie Bright is awesome. I know the BAE series is ground breaking and amazing. (For my review of the content of the 2007 book go here). And, yes, I am sad it has ended after 15 years. And, no, I don’t think Susie Bright chose this cover herself or is responsible for it. This really isn’t about that.
Be clear: this is a flagship erotica book. And that is what this post is about. The fact that from the trashiest erotica collections right to the pinnacle of progressiveness we find exactly the same thing on the cover. A woman.
Now this blog isn’t about specific covers. It’s about the absence of men on covers in general. This cover features yet another woman so it qualifies.
However, to delve deeper and look at this cover with its picture of a woman who is reading and masturbating (as well as being, we ought to note, not exactly white and not exactly thin) I know some readers will be thinking: what’s not progressive about that?
It might be a more radical image than normal, but it’s hardly challenging the idea that erotica cover images are always aimed squarely at the enjoyment of straight men. It’s hardly challenging the idea that only images of women’s bodies can be erotic images. Don’t be distracted by the fact she is wanking.The fact is women masturbating has been a mainstay of straight male porn since forever. Yes she’s getting pleasure but only at a price. The price is being a body to be consumed too. Female pleasure has always been allowed in straight erotica (far more so than male bodies) – but as a product to be consumed by men. What’s the big difference here?
Oh, sure, I can identify with her – how come women have to always draw the short straw of identifying? Why can’t we just stand back and enjoy sometimes? Identification might be all very well, but why is that *all* I get with the cover images of erotica? Sometimes I want to be offstage getting to lust and desire. Where’s my desire? Where’s my lust object?
And isn’t it even vaguely patronising that the cover is giving me ‘permission’ to wank over this work? I know what to do with porn. Don’t give me an instruction manual in place of a bicep. No one would suggest that a male reader needs such an obvious invitation.
Because you know and I know that I will die of old age before I see a general purpose erotica book with a guy diddling himself silly on the front cover.
And it feels like that’s the price I have to pay as a woman to be part of the world of erotica writing. I have to accept that I am part of a world that will only present female bodies as signifiers of the erotic. I’m not American so I’ve never been part of this series of books even in the loosest way – but I know enough erotica writers to understand that this prestigious series is considered a career high point for any US author who has their work included.
When I told Maxim Jakubowski in an earlier post that I preferred not to submit stories to anthologies that I thought might have sexist covers he was slightly incredulous.
“I think you’re just damaging your own editorial prospects, as this would preclude you submitting to Alison, Rachel KB, Violet Blue, Mitzi S, X-Cite Books or myself, and we right now probably account for going on 90% of the admittedly restricted erotica anthology market…”
And he’s quite right. Although a lot of editors are quite understanding and talk to me about how I feel about covers (I know they don’t pick them). I’m in Alison Tyler’s ABC books which have exclusively women on the covers. But I do try and stay away from naked arses, headless women in PVC and the covers I am so sick of seeing or find sexist and unfair. It’s not science. And it’s certainly true that I have to compromise or I would never be published.
This cover, well it’s just a bit disappointing really that the best of the best is still only represented by a picture of a woman. It doesn’t really matter what kind of woman she is or what she’s doing. It’s still the same message. Women’s bodies = erotica. If no revolution here then where?
Yeah, I’m sure this cover was picked out in the marketing department of the big publishing house where this volume was forged. And doesn’t that just tell you the real truth about erotica? Forget how progressive we think erotica is these days – the publishers don’t seem to think that. Because even when the content of erotica books is ground breaking, the ground-breaking-ness doesn’t start until page 2. The inside might say sexuality is for everyone – the outside says different. No matter how crisp and honed the prose. No matter how the stories challenge the status quo. It might as well be a crumpled jizz rag for the dirty mac brigade as far as what sort of images the publishers and book sellers think will sell.
So while the content of some erotica might look all progressive these days with the themes it covers and its championing of real female voices (as opposed to the men putting on squeaky voices that used to be its mainstay) – and there is no question that erotica has been revolutionised by the inclusion of women as editors writers and consumers – it’s still as reactionary as ever when it comes to being pretty on the outside.
And BAE is about erotica. As a book it’s general purpose. All erotica. All kinds of people with all kinds of desires. So how come the cover of this book reflects only the desire for one sex? The desire for women. Surely *some* of the Best of Best America Erotica is about desiring men. Surely some Americans desire men.
A MAN’S ARM – I AM DOING CARTWHEELS!!!!
And in fact let’s trawl back through amazon and find some of the previous covers.
Six years of covers and I count: a woman’s clothed arse, a woman’s naked arse (okay, if you want you can argue with me about whether or not that is clearly a woman but it’s pretty fucking feminised), the only obviously masculine bit of anatomy – a man’s arm!!!!! A MAN’S ARM – I AM DOING CARTWHEELS!!!!, a woman’s airbrushed made up face, two woman’s legs complete with lowered knickers, and one single woman’s leg, three high heels and a partridge in a pear tree – oh, no, I mean an apple. (And the arm holding that apple is surely a woman’s if it’s enacting the scene I presume it’s enacting.)
It’s an interesting mix. If I wanted to start wading in that subjective mire that is matters of taste I would say that these covers are nicer, more fun, better designed and less obviously dated than those of other anthologies where it is just another year, another woman’s arse.
But it’s still woefully short of featuring anything approaching man candy. Of anything representing to the casual consumer the idea that desire might be directed towards men. One arm in six years! How would you feel if you cracked open an anthology like this and found every story inside was about the desire for female flesh? Pretty surprised, right? So how come that’s okay on the cover? And face it, the cover is seen by way more people than ever read the contents of these books.
Do you maybe see our point now? It’s not about this book or that book, this editor or that one, this author or that one, this publisher, this type of image. It is about an overwhelming imbalance in who gets to be on the cover of erotic books. On who plays the role of looked-at. And what happens to those of us who like to look – but like to look at the gender we are not allowed to see on mainstream non-romance erotica?
Not everyone’s pick is looking at women. Women are not what I think of when I think of an erotic image. If for you they are, great. Don’t panic, I don’t want to steal all your candy – I just want fair shares.
After Thursday’s frantic debating take some time out and gaze at this restful scene.
Isn’t he lovely?
Then come back on Thursday and see us take on the covers of Best American Erotica.
PS If you want to support Erotica Cover Watch why not post your own Man Candy Monday picture. Drop us a link in the comments so we can pop over and lick him. And for more ideas take a look at Beef Up Your Blog. We need your help. We can’t handle all this man candy alone – our teeth will rot.
On an aesthetic level, I (Kristina Lloyd) like this cover. It’s sensual and rich, its colours picked from the warm palettes of autumn and toffee. It’s modern and knowing, the self-proclaimed dirtiness of its women echoed in a title font that looks shabby and poorly printed. Similarly, the cover model’s bling and heavy make-up is deliberately, brazenly sluttish – more high class hooker than trailer trash because, my goodness, what a lovely couch. And, woo-hoo, she has a head – something of a rarity in erotica.
But this isn’t about aesthetics. After all, we could discuss the presentation of the male form on erotica covers in terms of aesthetics, font, knowingness etc. Except, obviously, we can’t because these covers don’t exist (except in the fevered imaginations of me, Mathilde and a handful of others).
Dirty Girls is, as the strapline says, ‘for women’. Having a naked babe on the cover seems such a wasted opportunity here.
Why not an image which, in keeping with the contents, is for women rather than the usual: an image of a woman?
Editor, Rachel Kramer Bussel, says, ‘the stories are written by women, and it’s being published by a feminist press, so if you ask me, putting a man on the cover would’ve been totally antithetical to what the book is ostensibly about.’ 
This sounds dangerously close to the notion than feminism is anti-men. It’s not. Feminism is anti men ruling the world. Why shouldn’t a sexy book aimed at women feature an image of the thing most women find sexy, a guy?
Time and again, women are put in the position of ‘object of desire’ rather than ‘subject actively desiring’. And the object of our desire – a man – is missing from the picture entirely. For a woman to say she wants a sexy man is not, as is sometimes thought, a weakness, a chink in the armour of female liberation. Expressing your lust, claiming your right to sexual satisfaction, being a person who is actively desiring is poles apart from the caricature of a needy, dependent woman who yearns for a man because without him she is a moony, ditzy sap foundering in her own inadequacy.
In rejecting this caricature, let’s not chuck out the baby with the bath water (or the penis with the patriarchy). Let’s not be afraid to say, as women, ‘I want a hot guy.’ We can retain our autonomy and do this without adding the usual fucked-up twist – I want a hot guy to want me, to find me attractive, to look at me with lust as I lie on this couch in a sultry mish-mash of availability and aloofness.
‘BUT THIS COVER IS DIFFERENT’
Dirty Girls is, I’m sure, a wonderful book. I know many of the writers with stories in the collection and I’ve probably diddled myself silly over their words before now. There are lots of names new to me and when I read their bios and interviews, I am genuinely excited. Their voices sound fresh, intelligent, honest and sexy. I don’t have a problem with the fiction. It’s the cover that rankles.
The original subtitle for Dirty Girls was erotica by women. When the book was launched, Kramer Bussel was at pains to point out that men would love this book too. But really, she needn’t have bothered. That cover says it all.
But, but, but argues Kramer Bussel, this cover is different. This cover is not like all those others with a passive model being served up for male eyes. Hell, no.
‘What I love about it is that she’s both subject and object,’ says Kramer Bussel. ‘I like how she’s staring so defiantly at the camera, reclaiming the gaze and showing that “dirty” in this context is not only about what’s done to you but about what you do and think and feel. She embodies that spirit, in my opinion, and her nudity is powerful and sexy.’ 
RKB asserts that our dirty girl is both looking and being looked at. This is true. Also that she stares ‘defiantly’. This is sort of true though you could make equal claim she has a come-hither gaze. But let’s be generous and say Dirty Gerty is not your archetypal coquette with eyes askance. She has a relatively bold fuck-you face. But if this is an image which purportedly speaks to woman, on a book aimed at women, then why is she defying me? Why is she giving me, a woman, that fuck-you face? What did I do? I’m not the patriarchy.
Dirty’s alleged defiance only makes feminist sense if this image is being looked upon by men (or via the male gaze). And really, why are we even bothering with this? It looks suspiciously like clutching at straws. Dirty’s defiance is, what, 5% of the picture? And crikey, if she really were reclaiming the gaze and challenging those who look at her, you’d think she might at least try opening both eyes. Shall I make that defiance a more cycloptian 2.5%? Whatever the maths, this is mainly a softly-lit hot babe sprawled naked on a couch. I’ll bet you my last gay porn mag that most viewers of this cover are not remotely challenged by her defiance.
For heaven’s sake, can’t women just look? Can’t we dodge the range of that pesky viewfinder and feast our eyes on what gets us hot? On beautiful men. On finely sculpted bodies. On the sweet swoop of his back, the strength in his arms, the stubble on his jaw?
That, surely, is erotica for women.
CAN YOU IMAGINE A BOOK CALLED RUDE BOYS?
I’m guessing the publishers of Dirty Girls, in aiming a book at women, are thinking of all women – straight, bi, lesbian. Can you imagine a parallel book, let’s call it Rude Boys, being marketed at all men – straight, bi, gay? It simply wouldn’t happen. Male sexuality is sharply delineated in het culture and homophobia is rife, quite a contrast to the diffuse, fluid, up-for-anything sexuality which constitutes the dominant idea of ‘liberated’ woman.
This disparity suits erotica covers very well. Female sexuality is treated as a job lot, an all-accommodating hunger that will not merely accept but *embrace* its woman-loving side. It will happily sit down with the straight guys who’ve been enjoying tits and ass on their porn for years and say, ‘My, ain’t she hot?’ And the guys will say, ‘Welcome to the party! I love your open-minded radical sexuality. Will you be kissing your bestfriend later? Mind if we watch?’
And once again, so many women are sidelined and made invisible; are forced to go and gatecrash the gay guys’ party because that’s the only place we can get cock.
WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?
I confess, Dirty Girls makes me more uncomfortable than most erotica, because it claims to be more feminist than most. The strapline says ‘for women’, the publisher promotes its feminism, and yet the book still seems to be talking mainly to men, most likely without even realising it. The message on the cover (‘Hello Boys!’) is reinforced by the books’ publicity blurb and intro.
What do women really want? To be sensually seduced or pressed up against the wall for a quickie? To be tantalized by a peep show or the chance to join the mile high club?
Reading this collection […] will give you a glimpse into what makes women wet, what makes us feel and act dirty, what makes us slick our lips and spread our legs. Maybe, just maybe, their stories attempt to answer Freud’s infamously infuriating query: “What do women want?”
Freud’s question is infuriating not in and of itself, but because he posed it. It’s infuriating because it encapsulates how Freud and patriarchal society excluded women and made them other, subjects to be examined, described and defined from a position of male power. It’s not infuriating because it attempts to generalise when we are all unique and precious snowflakes. The issue is far bigger than that.
Unfortunately, this book seems to be making a bid to answer Freud’s question, when it really ought to be elbowing it aside and moving into the 21st century. As Dirty Girls thinks fit to tell the dead doctor (or maybe Mel Gibson):
They [ie women] want to be worshiped, they want to be ordered around, they want to be sent spinning into ecstasy and then come crashing back down. They want strangers bearing ice cubes on a hot day, and to be a party favor passed around among guests. They want hot vacation sex, visits to peep shows [etc] 
Who, exactly, is being addressed here? If it’s women, shouldn’t it be we, we, we, not they, they, they? Sure, it’s the authors of the stories being referred to but the implication is these individual women are representative of all women. And, in a ‘for women’ anthology, should we even be explaining ourselves to ourselves at all? Can’t we just have an erotica book, please, that boldly appeals to women; that allows us to enjoy sexy fiction and ogle a sexy men; that doesn’t make us feel as if we’re reading a pornish guide to women over the shoulders of our boyfriends?
I realise I’ve gone a leetle bit off track in delving behind the cover but I do find it striking how the introduction to Dirty Girls seems to reinforce the message underpinning the predominance of women on erotica covers: that in erotica, women are the subjects under scrutiny, the looked-at, the product, the package; men are the audience, the lookers, the consumers. And while I have no doubt many women will adore this cover and feel this book is for them, isn’t that because we’re always having to accommodate ourselves to the male view? Because we’re so used to being excluded and ignored that we don’t even notice it? That sometimes – oh horror! – we actually do it to ourselves, we render our desire insignificant by allowing it to be lost in those pushier representations of male desire?
That’s not my feminism. That’s not my sexy. That’s not the way we want erotica to grow.
Welcome to Man Candy Monday. Our blog just got a whole lot hotter!
Come back on Thursday when we’ll be looking at Dirty Girls, the ‘for women’ anthology edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. Until then, keep licking the screen. And if you’re backing BICEPS, why not take a moment to check out how to Beef up your Blog? There’s candy!
Welcome to Erotica Cover Watch!
Erotica Cover Watch is part of our spanking new campaign to Banish Inequality on Covers in Erotica, Porn and Smut (BICEPS). It began after a massive row heated debate on the wonderful Jeremy Edwards‘ blog – where Jeremy was very gracious and didn’t complain once about the hijack. (Thanks Jeremy, we love you!)
But we think this issue needs to be examined further. So Kristina Lloyd and I (Mathilde Madden) have decided to take the debate and start our own blog to explore the problematic topic of erotica covers and moan about why we never get to see so much as a beefy bicep when women’s arses are pretty much required. Because we’re women. We’re women who like men. We find them sexy.
And we know we’re not alone.
Below are the edited highlights of our original discussion, a healthy exchange of ideas which culminated in Maxim Jakubowski promising to buy Kristina Lloyd a beer in order to secure his physical safety.
It’s quite long so feel free to skip to the end if you’re desperate to tell us what you think (please do!). And don’t miss our answers to the most frequent excuses for sexist erotica covers
I am so tired of seeing covers which completely ignore a readership of straight women. Erotica still seems to be stuck in the 70s, its target being primarily het men. And the argument used to defend this goes round in self-fulfilling circles – straight men are (always have been) the main audience, therefore we must market to them if we’re to make any money … therefore men are (still) the main audience.
I really wish there was an erotica publisher willing to move forward from this. […]
Kristina, I haven’t seen demographics on erotica readers, but I’m willing to bet the current numbers skew toward the women these days. After all, there is a reason there are so many “women’s erotica” anthologies being published– not to mention the popularity of erotic romance!
I’d be willing to compromise: give me a sexy couple… or threesome…
Women are increasingly buying and writing erotica. They may even be the majority consumers in some areas (though I’m willing to bet a significant number of men are highly interested in ‘women’s anthologies’).
Similarly, women are increasingly drinking beer, learning how to use powerdrills and riding motorbikes (no, not at the same time!). None of these are ever marketed at women because to do so would be to ‘feminize’ the product and risk putting men off. It seems erotica works on similar lines ie don’t put the blokes off. The only ‘safe’ place for beefcake to appear is on the covers of gay fiction or erotic romance – two areas where straight men don’t stray. Occasionally, a couple will feature on an erotica cover (usually with most space given to the woman) but the default is a sexualised female body. […]
In short, more clinches! More het couples on het erotica. That really ought to be the default.
I agree. It is peculiar that the TOCs of most erotica anthos are predominantly women, and yet the covers are clearly meant to appeal to men. But I don’t think that erotica in general is stuck in the seventies. Erotica is much, much more mature now, and that is largely due to the fact that many of the movers and shakers in erotica are women. Perhaps the covers reflect a seventies ideal, but in defense of Maxim, this is not just true of his anthologies.
It is indeed time to mature the approach to Erotica covers, and the idea of couples is an outstanding one. Erotica is about contact and action; covers should reflect this.
I gave a talk recently at the South bank centre and demonstrated the point that mainstream erotica covers ignore straight women by showing Rachel Kramer Bussel’s Yes Ma’am and Yes Sir covers. People actually *gasped*.
May I plead both innocence and publishing reality. As an editor (and sometimes author) may I point out that we are rarely consulted about the covers we get and, conversely, although there is a degree of sexism involved in always having undraped women on covers (although when it comes to my titles I would hope somewhat tasteful ones…), it’s something the chain and supermarket buyers who wield the purchasing power would insist on.
Unless it’s a vampire or supernatural piece of erotica, a male figure on the cover would spell out ‘gay market’ to the (conservative) book trade, and would be the kiss of death to a book. I actually have a couple embracing in the altogether in next month’s Mammoth Kama Sutra volume, but the nature of that book is different.
So, I understand Kristina and others’ feelings, but it’s a question of getting the book into shops/published that’s more important in my eyes.
The ‘reality of publishing’ argument is one that’s often cited by publishers and editors, and I really don’t think it’s a satisfactory answer. Publishers, in focussing solely on profit margins, are complicit in perpetuating this sexism. It’s well known in women’s magazine publishing that a black cover model results in a drop in sales. Magazines should be prepared to take an occasional drop in the hope they can bring about gradual change and counter racist attitudes. And some do.
Change has to come from the publishers. They are the ones making the covers.
The idea that a half-dressed man = a gay man is very prevalent and deeply entrenched in our society. Why shouldn’t an eroticised man be seen to appeal *also* to women?
Go on, Maxim. Give us a bicep for 2010!
This attitude, that only women are allowed to represent ‘sexy’ outside the ghettos of gay male and romance fiction is getting so tired it positively creaks. And in bed next to is the lame implication that male hetness is so fragile and delicate that it must be protected from naked men at all costs! Are men really meant to be still so scared of homosexuality these days? None of the men I know are.
The erotica publishing industry is not some remote powers that be dictating what can be on covers – it is all of us. We can change it. We all need to raise our voices and keep on saying that this is not okay. Because it isn’t. It really isn’t okay that erotica publishing (which so often like to place itself at the cutting edge of liberal thinking on sexuality) cannot grasp basic equal opportunities.
Ah, worthy words and sentiments, Brighton ladies…
Might I be malicious and point out that many of the covers you’ve been given yourselves by your publishers have also displayed their quota of naked female skin (unless they were in the paranormal sub-genre, which appears to be ok as I mentioned earlier), or whenever there has been a token male torso or more, it has been of buff models which few of us compare favourably with and could well raise the opposite problem/attitude from potential straight male readers.
I’d also point out that there is no erotica publishing industry, just a single publishing industry in which erotica forms just a minute island.
I’ve worked in publishing for 25 years […] and can assure you from experience that if a publisher were to go radically against the grain, they would just be committing commercial suicide. The chains and supermarkets are just too powerful and if they (wrongly) believe that such images can sell the books, they will turn down all experiments attempting to prove the contrary
I strongly believe that some of the best erotic writing of the last decade or so has been by women writers, and I have always championed it and them even if it meant accepting cover artwork for my anthologies that doesn’t always reflect the contents accurately and I am unwilling to go to battle with my publishers to change this. Neither do I believe that publishers’ attitudes are going to change. It’s not so much the quest for profits, more the desire to stay afloat and pay wages, advances and royalties which motivates them. So, in that sense, I can’t see this status quo changing. […]
Call me unprincipled if you will, but I’d still prefer to see the writers I like get published in my anthologies rather than not published at all. Many of the points you raise are good ones, and this is a debate that could go on for ages. I’m not sure there is a clear cut answer to it.
*whenever there has been a token male torso or more, it has been of buff models which few of us compare favourably with and could well raise the opposite problem/attitude from potential straight male readers*
Goodness, I don’t think any of the women speaking here have argued we dislike images of women on covers because they make us feel insecure about our butts! To suggest that’s our concern trivialises this debate and overlooks the important political points we’re making about gender bias. And that’s not being ‘worthy’. That’s wanting to live in a world where women and men have equality.
But as you say, this discussion could run and run. Some people are guided by their principles, some aren’t. And those who aren’t usually don’t need to be. They are the lucky ones.
So what do you think of the cover of Mammoth? Is another naked woman hiding her naughty bits the way to sell smut in the 21st century? Or should she budge up and let a hot guy show us a bit of brawn? Or might that stop anyone wanting to read or write about sex ever again?
For the full picture on the covers of Mammoth Best Erotica – a very well thought of collection which features a lot of female authors – go here. Prize of a thousand million dollars if anyone spots a hairy chest.
And tell us: