Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

Erotica Cover Watch: Dirty Girls, ed. Rachel Kramer Bussel

with 39 comments

Dirty Girls, ed Rachel Kramer Bussel, pub Seal Press

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.’ [1]

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.


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.

Here's looking at ya!

Reclaiming the gaze

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.’ [2]

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.


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.

Straight women forced to attend gay orgies for kicks

Women forced to attend gay orgies for kicks

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.


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?”

Hot vacation sex

Hot vacation sex

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] [3]

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.



[1] RKB on Dirty Girls

[2] RKB on Lust Bites

[3] The intro to Dirty Girls


Written by Kristina Lloyd

September 18, 2008 at 7:16 am

39 Responses

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  1. I have to confess that when I saw this cover my instinctive interpretation went something like: “This book is dirty erotica for women but the picture isn’t supposed to attract women so the ‘dirty girls’ are the female writers so the hot woman on the cover must be the ideal of a female erotica writer.” And my instinctive response was “Well I don’t f***ing look like that and I rather object to being told I should do.”

    Yes, I know that probably doesn’t make loads of sense but I’m just a dumb writer. One with self-esteem issues by the looks of things; ha ha ha.

    And as I said that was my *first* response.

    Janine Ashbless

    September 18, 2008 at 12:11 pm

  2. Never mind opening the other eye, she might make a better show of defiance if she sat up and put some clothes on. Personally, I’ve never sprawled backwards on a sofa naked to show my defiance. For other reasons, sure. Defiance-schmiance; give me a break. Why do people insist on making up reasons to defend bad choices which were never reasons in the first place?

    But as you so aptly point out, the defiance only makes sense in terms of the male gaze. Similarly, the corrolary of the male gaze – being instructed to “identify with” everything I see instead of just bloody looking at it is intensely irritating to me. I do not identify with the bling “high-class” hooker look. God help me if I ever do. If I want to identify with someone, I’ll aim a bit higher, on a slightly different yardstick, perhaps based on someone’s thoughts. What are we supposed to be – imprinted ducklings? Show us a woman, any woman, and we peddle our little feet and quack excitedly “ME! IT’s ME!” Not it sodding isn’t and if I want to look at me I have a mirror. If something’s being aimed at me, and it’s something to look at, I would also like something I like to look at. Not some kind of reverse-aspirational trollop.

    Olivia Knight

    September 18, 2008 at 2:29 pm

  3. Oh – and all of the above goes for the title as well. “Dirty Girls”? Jesus. No doubt I’ll momentarily be assured that this is giving me permission to be dirty.

    What if I don’t need permission?
    What if I don’t want to be dirty?
    What if I don’t think sex or erotica are dirty?

    What if I’m not actually a girl, but a woman, and my sexuality has nothing whatsoever to do with dirt?

    I cannot imagine the person who can honestly think this was aimed at women. No wonder they had to write “for women” on the cover. How else were we to tell?

    Olivia Knight

    September 18, 2008 at 2:34 pm

  4. Editors almost never have cover approval. I have written 25 novels and edited 50 anthologies, and the only cover approval I’ve ever had was on the books I’ve published by Pretty Things Press. Yes, Rachel may have defended the cover, but my guess is that she had no direct input in selecting the image. She may not even have had approval of the title. (My first Virgin book was pitched as “Anatomy of an Orgasm.” The title was changed to “Learning to Love It.” I didn’t mind the change, but I had nothing to do with the selection.)

    I think it would be interesting to contact Seal Press with your concerns to see what their response would be. They do pitch themselves as a feminist press with “groundbreaking books by women, for women.” Maybe they would do an interview with you.

    Also, I think Rude Boys sounds like an excellent companion book!


    alison tyler

    September 18, 2008 at 4:57 pm

  5. Am I the only one that’s bothered more by the typography than the dichotomy of a woman on the cover?

    Dave C.

    September 18, 2008 at 5:54 pm

  6. Yes.


    September 18, 2008 at 6:02 pm

  7. Janine, Olivia, agreed. The extent to which we’re expected to identify is infuriating. And time and again, it’s used as an excuse to justify putting yet another woman on the cover.

    Alison, I know editors, like authors, rarely get any say in the matter of covers. But RKB is a fairly vocal supporter of this cover so I do think my criticism is valid. Because while RKB may not have chosen the cover, she’s implicitly taken on responsibility for it.

    And, of course, with this blog, we’re trying to highlight the bigger picture as well. It’s not merely about pointing the finger at individuals. We’re also asking everyone to question the way het-sexy is portrayed and take a look at the dearth of eye candy for women.

    Can I be cover consultant for Rude Boys? That might just be my ideal job!


    September 18, 2008 at 6:18 pm

  8. The cover looked quite right to me.

    However, I confess, that as a feminist leatherdyke, bsdm-erotica-writing type, living in the middle of Vancouver, Canada (an urban queer hotspot) and spending most of my time indulging in queer goings-on with queer friends at queer events, after reading queer literature… well, it took me a second to imagine that erotica for women might contain stories or images of anything *but* other women.

    Embarrassing, but there it is.

    Sorry, my het and bi sisters.

    I probably should get out more.

    Elaine Miller

    September 18, 2008 at 6:20 pm

  9. Hmm…my reaction when looking at this cover for the first time was “Hot chick. Cute title. Fun book.”

    I don’t really see the problem here. I don’t feel offended or belittled in any way because there’s a nekkid girl on the front of a book. In fact, I think it’s kinda cool to show a picture of a woman looking so free and uninhibited and proud of her sensuality.

    I wish there were more men on covers, but apparently not for the same reasons listed on this blog. Not because a woman on a book cover threatens my femininity or because I think pics of nekkid men would be less misogynistic. I just wanna look at ’em. *shrug*


    September 18, 2008 at 6:33 pm

  10. I find that cover to be incredibly sexy – I find the eye contact to be sexy and frankly I think having a man on the cover would lessen the impact of saying it’s a book about women’s fantasies – not all women fantasize about men and not all erotica bits even about straight women, have men in them. A woman on the cover is far more relevant, in my perspective, to a book for women, than a man on the cover because having a man on the cover assumes all women are heterosexual.

    My biggest issue with this cover is the nudity, not because I think I know what defiance means to anyone but myself and she’d be more defiant is she put clothes on, but when a cover inhibits readers from being able to take the book in public and affects bookstore placement, it’s a marketing problem for the author. I like looking at handsome men too, but I don’t want a naked man on my covers either. Not that I have much of a choice, nor do most authors when it comes to covers.

    I respect the view that having a woman on the cover of a collection of dirty girl stories is somehow anti feminist. I don’t agree with it but I certainly respect it. I like that as sex writers and readers, we can have a discussion about these issues. There’s more than one perspective just like there’s more than one kind of feminist. I’m not fond of the dismissive way a differing opinion is being treated, I personally don’t find it very conducive to discourse. Surely, if you’re “not the patriarchy,” an utterly dismissive wave of your hand at the opinion of another woman is, well, sort of similar, is it not?

    By way of observation – I get letters from readers all the time about my covers – when they have men on them, I get complaints that they are all beefcake and biceps. when I have women on them I get complaints about her body type, she’s too thin, she’s too fat, she doesn’t “look” like the heroine. If it’s a couple I get letters if they’re in too explicit a position and if they’re not touching at all. One cover, widely complained about will get odes to how fabulous and sexy it is on the same day. Each one of us, all of our readers, will see the exact same thing and react to it totally differently.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that there’s no direction in covers or erotica “we” want to take. There are directions I want to take, you want to take, that woman over there wants to take. Frankly, I find that sexuality is far more complex.

    Sorry this got so very long!

    Lauren Dane

    September 18, 2008 at 7:07 pm

  11. Whut? If one women disagrees with another woman then that’s ‘sort of similar’ to being a patriarchy.

    Also, KL, I am so glad you write this. That cover had bugged me since forever. It’s is like, what sort of fiction does an erotica book have to contain for it to have a man on the cover. Christ. Unless it’s for gay men or a romance then the perceived consumer is a straight man and the product he demands is feminised and that product is us. And I am sick of being the product not the consumer.


    September 18, 2008 at 7:36 pm

  12. Also, I am really looking forward (in my imagination) to Rude Boys the imaginary companion book to Dirty Girls. Funny how when I imagine this book I can only see it as aimed at women.

    Not sure why the opposite of Dirty Girls should be *that*… maybe I’m getting confused.


    September 18, 2008 at 7:38 pm

  13. Elaine – ha! It’s true that it’s frequently impossible to distinguish between lesbian fiction and bi or het fiction. Apology accepted. It’s an easy mistake to make!

    Jen B, we want to just look at guys too! But that’s a pretty big ‘just’ because the men aren’t there, it ain’t happening. And we’re trying to show *why* that isn’t happening. Sometimes, it’s a difficult argument to make. When we say there are too many images of eroticised women (because there *must* be too many if there aren’t enough of men), some people make a huge leap and conclude we must be anti-women. Which kinda stops the argument dead in its track and we’re back to square one. Why on earth would we be anti-women? That’s crazy insane. We *are* women! And we would just like our gender to *have* some eye candy instead of always being eye candy.

    @ Lauren *a man on the cover assumes all women are heterosexual*. Then current representation assumes all women are bi, no? Which, of course, they are not. But say they were, don’t bi women also like cock? Where are the guys?


    September 18, 2008 at 7:41 pm

  14. Most of the erotica I see here at my local bookstores and on my shelves at home has men on it. Often a woman and a man together. I don’t see all that many with *just* women.


    September 18, 2008 at 8:11 pm

  15. JenB, I’m guessing you’re referring mainly to erotic romance here. And that you live in the States?

    Pure erotica (ie with emphasis on the smutting, rather than the loving) occasionally features couples but it’s mainly a sexy woman alone. I don’t know of a single het erotica title featuring a bloke alone. If anyone knows of any, please send a link! Erotic romance, however, is full of images of semi-nekkid guys (aka mantitty). And it’s a much, much bigger category in the US than in the UK.

    I wrote a little more about this on Lust Bites, pointing out that sexy men only appear on covers in sections of the bookshop where straight men never venture ie in gay fiction and romance.


    September 18, 2008 at 8:36 pm

  16. I’m a professional book reviewer, and Random House novelist. I’ve reviewed several of Bussel’s books for Bookslut. I’m a little surprised by this post mainly because Bussel is the finest erotica editor putting out collections. Her collections are always eclectic, surprising and well-written. The stories are balanced in their themes and focus and the audience appeal is remarkable.

    She herself is a lovely person who has made incredible strides in bringing frank talk about sex and sexuality to mainstream America. The impact editors like Bussel, Violet Blue and Alison Tyler are making on the web, and in creating women-centered erotica should not be underestimated.

    What I find remarkable is that you haven’t even read the collection. I understand this is a blog about book covers, but as two self-proclaimed erotica writers it would behoove you read Bussel’s work and take time to show her the respect of carefully reading her response instead of twisting it to suit the argument of this blog and doing a hit job on a woman who works her ass off every single day creating forums and audiences that you yourselves will benefit from.

    As to the cover, erotica, for the most part, is fantasy. Perhaps the fantasy extends to the cover. Perhaps, like so much fiction, we as readers are to insert ourselves into the story and the cover too. Would I think it was hot to lie on a sofa like that with nothing on but my pretty shoes and rhinestones? Absolutely. Do I want a man to see me just like I see that woman? Dirty, horny and hot as hell? Yes. And furthermore, when I fantasize about men, do I day dream about the guys who spend more time in a gym staring at themselves than they would ever spend looking at me? Or, worse, demand that I spend the same amount of time in the gym? I do not.

    I agree with Alison Tyler, I think Rude Boys would make for a great collection. As long as Bussel or Tyler or Blue were the ones editing it. Because, thank god, we’ve reached a point in third wave feminism where a few women can approach sex with humor and ease and without analyzing every little thing surrounding the female sexual experience. Sometimes sex is just sex.

    As one of my favorite lovers once said (a man who was not ripped or sand-covered, but rather 5’7″ with a flat ass), “It’s just fucking.”


    September 18, 2008 at 10:17 pm

  17. Haha – *where a few women can approach sex with humor and ease* That’s such a classic attack on feminism: ‘you should lighten up and get a sense of humour, love’.

    Hey, we are both very funny women. You should take time to read our fiction. Because, um, we are a tad more than ‘self-proclaimed’ erotica writers. We are well-established, published novelists (Virgin Black Lace, part of Random House) (see links to our personal blogs in sidebar). And we are here because we have something to say about the sexism in the sphere in which we make a living.

    I think Kramer Bussel is professional and smart enough not to take this as a personal attack. And why on earth would I read Dirty Girls for the purposes of this blog? It’s not a review site. The clue is in the title. (Although, actually, I would quite like to read the collection but the cover has always put me off.)

    You kinda lost me with ‘sex is just sex’. Well, yes. And sometimes a banana is just a banana, and sometimes it ain’t. But we’re not here to talk about sex, or our favourite lovers or our true secret mission to force all men to go to the gym five times a week or be banished to the Kingdom of the Spiders.

    Again, clue is in the …

    Oh god, I give up.


    September 19, 2008 at 6:34 am

  18. Actually, I haven’t given up! Sorry!

    Another point: it’s interesting to note the amount of times we’ve been accused of ‘biting off the hand that feeds’ since we started this debate. We’ve been told that we lack gratitude, that we’re jeopardising our careers, that our books won’t get published if we insist on pushing our point. Two fairly powerful, well-placed male editors let us know that our campaign had given them ‘a chuckle’.

    It feels like an attempt to silence us by rather sinister means. In other industries there are laws on equal opps and anti-discrimination to prevent this kind of thing happening.

    I love erotica. I love exploring my own sexuality via writing and learning about other people’s. I love reading and writing hot, dirty filth. I don’t wish to be effectively told I should accept the sexism in my workplace or take a hike. We have the right to speak out against gender bias in our business. And we are doing it.


    September 19, 2008 at 10:58 am

  19. I think the sheer amount of hostility that a fairly commonsense premise has provoked indicates how deeply ingrained in our culture this is.

    Commonsense premise: erotic books for heterosexual women or mixed audiences should feature hot men as well as hot women.

    Backlash: you’re ungrateful, anti-feminist, missing the point, not a writer, attacking the wrong person, anti-lesbian, sexist, destroying your own industry, bitter, obsessive, objectifying…

    Does anyone else see a slight imbalance between the premise and the backlash?

    Olivia Knight

    September 19, 2008 at 11:53 am

  20. I am just waiting to see what deranged barbs get thrown at me next thursday. I am hoping to be called anti-matter.


    September 19, 2008 at 12:13 pm

  21. Oh – and Lauren – I agree that one shouldn’t assume all women are heterosexual. But it would be nice if someone somewhere might assume that some of us are. And perhaps complex sexuality’s full complexity could be more fully expressed with a wider palette of bodies?

    Olivia Knight

    September 19, 2008 at 12:18 pm

  22. What if I don’t want to be dirty?
    What if I don’t think sex or erotica are dirty?

    What if I’m not actually a girl, but a woman, and my sexuality has nothing whatsoever to do with dirt?

    I came up with a book title for you in the middle of the night, OK:

    *Clean, Freshly Showered Men*

    Hmmm. Maybe KL would like that one, too.

    I don’t have a problem with the title at all. I love the words dirty, filthy, raunchy. But that issue did come up on my blog awhile back. For some people the word “dirt” really only relates to actual dirt. (Of course, it’s not shocking I like the title, as I have a book called “Bad Girl” out, and I wanted to call my anal sex collection “Dirty,” but the publisher went with “Luscious.”)

    Still, I do think that while you’re on the mission to point out covers you find sexist, try to remember that people’s feelings may get hurt. Which I have to believe is not your point at all.

    I fully expect some of my covers to find their way to your chopping block. I’m just saying that the erotica world is small. If you attack a Cleis cover, you should know that Cleis is not a huge corporation, but a sweet San Francisco office of three women who work their asses off to put out fabulous smut (and other books, too). If you were to take a hit on a PTP book, you’re looking at me and Eliza Castle.

    That’s not a threat to keep you quiet in any way. I just think that sometimes people can forget that actual feelings are involved in many debates like this one.


    alison tyler

    September 19, 2008 at 1:38 pm

  23. You know, I’ve never really thought about the covers until reading these posts. In the case of “Dirty Girls,” I actually thought it had a predominance of girl-on-girl stories. That’s how that cover read to me.

    Usually though, when I see a woman on the cover of erotica my unconscious visceral reaction to that is that the stories inside are about women being liberated sexually. I identify with the woman on the cover in that she represents all the women inside those stories being totally fine with their sexuality and who aren’t afraid to express it.

    If I see a man and woman on the cover, I’m thinking more along the line that it’s a romance. Or the stories will be more romantic in nature.

    If I see a man on the cover, my first reaction is that all the stories are going to be man centric/POV in the fantasies and I don’t want to read that. Or that many of the stories will be m/m. Not that that is true, it’s just what first comes to my mind.

    I’m not saying that any of what I think is right or wrong, or that what you’re saying is not valid, all I’m saying is this is how I actually react to covers and that I would buy those books accordingly.

    MB (Leah)

    September 19, 2008 at 2:07 pm

  24. I think Kramer Bussel’s partly right–this cover positions the woman more as a participant; she has more agency than on, say, Mammoth. But you’re right that it’s still an image in which “women are the subjects under scrutiny, the looked-at, the product, the package”. I’m not sure whether men or women are “the lookers, the consumers”.

    I do appreciate your point that the blurb is for men, which does seem to tilt the balance so that the marketing, taken as a whole, is strangely male-focused. However, I have some differences with your piece.

    • I find this statement rather retro, which I’m sure is the opposite of your intent: “Why shouldn’t a sexy book aimed at women feature an image of the thing most women find sexy, a guy?

    That seems rather constraining. Women can’t be sexy without focusing it on a man? Women can’t feel sexy about themselves, alone, or with a toy, or fantasizing about an alien, a man, another woman, random people met during the day, a conveniently-shaped piece of fruit, …? Why can’t sexy be a self-centered state of mind instead of having some external focus?

    • Along similar lines: “Then current representation assumes all women are bi, no?

    Well, no. The current representation seems open to women who identify with the model and to women who like to look at women (and I don’t assume that makes them gay or bi). Sure, add some eye candy for women who like to look at men, but the other possibilities aren’t as narrow as you portray.

    • I think I agree with much of what you identify as a problem, but so far I’m not agreeing with your solutions. I’m not against men on covers in principle, but I’m tired of mantitty on US romance covers and not jazzed about the images you’ve posted either. Given I seem to differ with you on aesthetic points, it bothers me that I hear overtones of “All right-thinking feminists see things our way”. Perhaps it’s a matter of emphasis and I’m hearing more sweeping statements than you intend.

    • I’m skeptical about what sounds to me like a call to “fix” the problem by shoving men onto covers. Without a fundamental change in the aesthetic, what difference will it make? For example, one could view the male models pictured here (and Monday’s post) as wrapped up in themselves, not the watcher. In that case they’re not being the powerless gazed-upon, they’re peacocking: yet another male-controlled action.

    That’s part of my problem with romance cover mantitty: often the man is positioned (and unclothed) to catch the eye while the woman is merely an admiring accessory. To me that’s not feminist, but to someone else it may represent women appropriating the male right to ogle. Different strokes. Pun intended.

    I feel rude, coming over here and disagreeing with the fundamental purpose of your blog. I’ll leave you to it.


    September 19, 2008 at 2:26 pm

  25. Yes, your post and your comments and especially your vitriol make me want to rush right out and buy your Black Lace titles…and recommend them to others. Well done.

    Is my being ironic an attack on feminism too?

    Good luck to you all. Maybe re-title this blog, Two Hard-Headed Feminists Save Women…one erotic book cover at a time.


    September 19, 2008 at 3:43 pm

  26. LOL, Alison – “Wet Men” would do me just fine! On the subject of hurting feelings, I would hardly dare to speak for Kristina or Tilly, but it’s hard to know, in this debate, where to direct criticism, if not just at covers themselves (small cardboard oblongs). The potato gets past very fast from editor to publisher to marketing demand (a bit of a self-perpetuating myth, I think) and I’ve yet to hear anyone who says “I choose covers” – but someone does, surely? They don’t just spring fully-formed from their father’s thighs? I think Adam, at Virgin, has a good deal of input on covers; I’ve no idea how other publishing houses make these decisions. If any of the editors in the crowd have some information on the process, that would be great to know. (Not so we can lynch the designers, mind! And an eerie sense of foreboding says the potato will be passed on from designers to marketing boards to…?)

    MB – I think you’re spot-on about how these things are currently used, although there’s a host of other details beyond the gender of the two people on the cover – the style of photography, etc. And RfB, please don’t run away! If all dissenters did, it would just be me bobbing my head enthusiastically.

    (Okay, I’m starting to feel like K&T’s fluffly little mascot. Really, I’m not. No, really. I have independent thought and everything!)

    Something that deeply troubles me, though, is that everything seems to be constantly recuperated and buckled back into the position of WE MUST HAVE WOMEN ON COVERS. Whatever the argument, it seems contorted back into that. A picture of a woman is bold, in control of herself, something to identify with, etc, etc, but a picture of a man is “peacocking” – women shouldn’t need men for their sexuality – (sorry – WHAT? Why is heterosexual female sexuality suddenly in such short supply? Has it become politically incorrect when my back was turned?) – having a man narrows the possibilities of female sexuality – etc etc etc etc.

    One would think the arguments for having men might echo those for having women – but no, everything’s attacked from a different angle to bring it back to just one thing: THOU SHALT NOT LOOK AT MEN.

    Economically (market forces)…
    Socially (cover expectations)…
    Personally (hurting feelings)…
    Philisophically (theories that a woman’s image is empowering but a man’s makes our sexuality dependent on men)…
    everything returns to THOU SHALT NOT LOOK AT MEN.

    Why? What is so fundamentally shocking about this request?

    I thought the blog would have nothing to say. The debate floors me.

    Olivia Knight

    September 19, 2008 at 3:52 pm

  27. When me and KL were starting this up I was very much of the opinion that there wouldn’t be much to say to us. We would say: Look – all erotica books have women on the covers. And we’d show some. And people would say, ah yes they do. And nothing would change for ages and ages but it would have been said. And people would start noticing it more. That was my only aim.

    Next week’s choice is probably even more contraversial (we are going for the sacred cows of erotica first – frankly we’re spoiled for choice.)

    Anyway thanks O, I would make you our offical mascot – but I just got off the phone with David Beckham


    September 19, 2008 at 3:59 pm

  28. What follows is certain to be disjointed.

    I’ve often heard the saying that women get dressed for other women and I think the nature of erotica book covers reflects this. Book covers are about marketing more than they are ever about the contents of a book and editors and writers rarely get much choice insofar as cover design is concerned.

    I, personally, really liked this cover. I found it hot. I woudln’t mind draping myself over a settee like that. I never gave this cover a critical thought because I think there are far more egregious threats to feminism that we could be talking about.

    I don’t know that many people would be interested in seeing a man on the cover of a book because our society, for the most part, equates sexuality with the female form.

    I also think there are multiple ways in which we could interpret this image. We cannot see the object of her gaze so we cannot say, for certain, that she is being objectified.

    There is, indeed, an alarming trend of the wanton display of the female form on book covers but it is a trend that is by no means limited to the world of erotica. For every person who says that’s not my idea of sexy, there are 20 people who will disagree. The glossy, airbrushed, sexually available woman is an image that pervades our consciousness. This is problematic and frustrating for those of us who don’t fit that glossy image or aren’t turned on by that glossy image. But, I think it is somewhat unfair to lay all the blame at the feet of this book cover. This issue is more complex than that.

    I’m sure several people with respond that they’re all about the male form and physique and would love to see a hot, ripped man on the cover. I certainly wouldn’t mind. I like a hard body. But I don’t think its an anti-feminist conspiracy that we continue to see women on the cover of erotica books.

    Its a capitalist conspiracy because the cover image is all about the bottom line. If publishers thought for one second that putting men on the cover would sell, they would be rushing to do it. This is a convoluted way of saying that this is an interesting conversation but its not the right conversation.

    Caveat: I have a story in this book but this would be my opinion regardless.

    Isabelle Gray

    September 19, 2008 at 4:50 pm

  29. All right, I’ll respond since I think Olivia’s taking up a number of my points with interpretations that are far from what I intended. My main point was that there is a variety of feminist perspectives, and my largest disagreement is with the persistent “No one can disagree with us” tone. It undercuts the sincerity of “please don’t run away! If all dissenters did….” For example:

    “everything seems to be constantly recuperated and buckled back into the position of WE MUST HAVE WOMEN ON COVERS”

    Well, yes. Along with men, couples, phallic objects, abstracts…. I’m not advocating *only* women on covers, but I don’t support a monolithic viewpoint that women on covers = always bad.

    “A picture of a woman is bold, in control of herself, something to identify with, etc, etc, but a picture of a man is ‘peacocking'”

    Nice lack of context. I prefaced that with “For example, one could view the male models pictured here… as… peacocking”. It was another attempt, apparently futile, to communicate that there are other viewpoints (feminist ones, in my opinion) than yours.

    “women shouldn’t need men for their sexuality – (sorry – WHAT? Why is heterosexual female sexuality suddenly in such short supply? Has it become politically incorrect when my back was turned?)”

    I didn’t say that. At all. I was trying to get *away* from that kind of normative “should” statement by suggesting that covers be more inclusive about different modes of sexuality–including differences in heterosexual women’s sexuality. How does that translate into “heterosexual female sexuality [being] in such short supply”? That leap comes across as to me as incredibly defensive as well as generalizing your particular preferences to everyone else. I’m heterosexual, but that doesn’t mean all hetero women share my turn-ons.

    “everything’s attacked from a different angle to bring it back to just one thing: THOU SHALT NOT LOOK AT MEN”

    No, I acknowledged that from one perspective, men on covers “may represent women appropriating the male right to ogle”. I wouldn’t argue against looking at men. I like looking at men. Just not always the men, and poses, pictured on mantitty romance covers and on this blog. Which is why I think there’s a strong argument to be made that the aesthetic of the covers is more than simply model demographics.

    What’s difficult for me in this exchange is that I’m all for the kinds of gender equities that I think are your concern… but when I disagree on specific remedies the reaction seems to imply that I’m anti-feminist or gay, or at least somehow anti-heterosexual.


    September 19, 2008 at 4:54 pm

  30. Alison, I take your point and I know editors and publishers (esp small ones) are very invested in the books they put out so I can understand a fear they might respond emotionally to criticism of a cover. I think Mathilde and I are being pretty professional here in sticking to the topic. I hear your call for caution but I think we’re doing okay. I hope we are.

    If it helps, in the near future we’ll be doing a post on erotica covers that are getting it right by moving away from the usual pic of sexy woman. We’ll be featuring great covers from Cleis, including some of yours and RKB’s. And yes, as you know, at some point we’re going to do you (and me, a heterosexual!) but hey, still love ya!

    @ MB: * You know, I’ve never really thought about the covers until reading these posts. That makes me very happy, thanks. The problem is so widespread it’s invisible. I doubt you’re alone.

    Isabelle, wow, yes, feminism has many issues to tackle as well as erotica covers. But this is our field so this is our focus. Cos there are only so many hours in a day!

    RfP, you make some interesting points – and I’m not over keen on mantitty either (I think Mathilde might be keener, I’m not actually sure). And, fair enough, you’re not a fan of the pics I posted here. That’s merely a matter of personal taste. I don’t think a book cover or photo exists that everyone would agree on. But I think part of the problem is that many of the images we might like to see on covers aren’t out there, so it’s hard to imagine a solution. I went on a major google for sexy images of couples to put on the blog – but pretty much drew a blank. Most pics seemed to portray a horribly sanitised version of sex – white bathrobes, white bedsheets, white bathtubs etc. Seriously, they looked more like ads for panty liners than potential erotica covers.

    And we’re not saying shoving a man on the cover will fix it. Part of what we’re trying to do here is raise awareness of the problem, is trying to change meaning. I know we can’t do it ourselves but we can be part of that slow, slow process that leads to change. I think most of us know what a female body signifies (het sexy), what a male body signifies (gay sexy). And we’re trying to say it doesn’t have to be that way. In Beef up your Blog, we’re asking for people to take part in this, to post pics of sexy men, to join us in Man Candy Mondays.

    The romance community is great at eroticising the male body. In the erotica community, it can actually feel as if there’s a taboo on the male body. Which is odd when erotica likes to position itself as taboo-busting.


    September 19, 2008 at 7:27 pm

  31. Why couldn’t it be that the hot lady on the cover just read the dirty stories, sexed herself up afterward and is now laying/basking in the glow of her own self-love. Why can’t the woman on the cover be an example of us…even if she doesn’t look exactly like us?

    Women are sexy. Men think women’s bodies are beautiful. Women think women’s bodies are beautiful. Because they are.

    I, honestly, don’t get all hot and bothered looking at men’s torsos. Or their cocks. Maybe their asses…but, even then…the guys I always find the sexiest are not the ones gracing the latest Calvin Klein billboard. They are usually pale, skinny, tattooed. I end up looking at their eyes and their lips instead of their cocks.

    Maybe it’s just easier (lazy?) to put a naked chick on an erotica cover…but, at the end of the day, I would rather have HER on my shelf than some buff greased up dude. But, maybe I’m in the minority, here.


    September 19, 2008 at 8:09 pm

  32. hello- I think I owe you an apology. In my roundabout response to this discussion elsewhere I didn’t have a chance to read your original critique. My response about marketing realities didn’t at all address the discussion of intent and responsibility you’re having, and I’m sorry.

    However… I’d stand by my assertion that the marketing department of any publishing house OR the buyers at chain bookstores aren’t going to rush to the leading edge of gender representation at any time soon. The required shift in what our bodies are understood to signify is not going to come from them in the course of doing their jobs, whatever their espoused collective or individual politics. Certainly I think they, along with the rest of us should be made more aware of the issue, and I applaud your work in that direction. Change, though, might need to happen as much in how we occupy our bodies as in how they’re seen.

    As a photographer of explicit sexual content, I find most men (especially men who sleep mostly with women) afraid to admit we look at ourselves or each other (or to admit that we generally seem to have body-image issues deeper and less discussed than most women). Bulimia and anorexia, gym-obsessed self-criticism and generalized dissatisfied denial of the beauty of our bodies are rampant among the men I’ve encountered. Combined, perhaps these factors are as responsible as editorial choice in feeding both the use of women as standardized icon of sexuality and the self-perpetuating invisibility of guys as sex objects in much of erotica publication. I wonder how many of the art departments putting together book covers even have a range of male bodies in their catalogs to choose from…

    I’ll work on beefing up my sites as opportunity permits, and I’ll continue to watch this fascinating discussion.

    David Findlay

    September 19, 2008 at 8:44 pm

  33. Oooh, David, could I personally encourage you to embrace your visibility as a sex object…? As I said elsewhere, I like to express my sexuality with naked men. (And wet men. And even, when I’m really off piste, dirty men.) The marketing thing: yes, but marketing is acculturated. (After all, there’s nothing inherently cheap about red and yellow, but when you look for good olive oil you want the dark green, marroon and gold bottle, right? Same diffs.)

    Spicy – part with you. Kristina’s taste in men is much beefier than my own & I habitually look primarily at eyes & lips, although under her tutelage I’ve started to cast an admiring eye over other muscles, which hasn’t been disappointing. (And distinctly not under her tutelage, discovered the joy of the twang of underpants as a cock bounds out, and then realised I like looking at that even when I’m not sitting in front of that very literal cock but getting the same vibe from the photographer.) That long parenthesis was partly about one’s erotica tastes being shaped in specific directions, for better or worse, but cultures (there are many) sure shape ’em. By which logic, they can be reshaped. Slowly. Like good slow sex after a lo-o-o-ong time…

    RfB – it was sincere, so thanks for taking me up on it. I agree that it’s not a case of woman-on-cover=bad. There are some photos, like the 2 so far excerpted on the blog thus far, that I violently react against — but not all. I loved the cover of The Ten Visions, my own novel, and found it beautifully representative. That’s the difficulty of arguing about a statistical inequality from example – neither correlates to each other. So no, not always bad. Like you, I’d prefer a far wider range of subject matter. (I think Cover Watch should have a submit-your-own-cover day to see what we would have put on our own covers! Not sure my design would have sold to target audience, but it was neither hot men nor hot women.)

    I’m sorry if my other comments came across as personally attacking yours, I didn’t mean to. I was scanning up and down the blog for the different reactions that were troubling me, without taking the time to analyse properly what was bothering me as I would have for a more academic environment. (I’m used to analysing this sort of thing in a very academic environment.) Your comments didn’t come across as anti-feminist, anti-gay, or anti-heterosexual – at least not to me – but rather as thoughtful and sincere and to be respected. The only thing I would still feel the need to take issue with is heterosexuality. It does seem, when all other arguments are exhausted, that the discussion returns to that. Given that most of us are writers, the base position is not market forces (to which we do refer) but ideological, at which point it’s very easy to say that having men would be oppressively heterosexist. (This isn’t aimed at you specifically, RfB, although I do think you touched on this.) There is no doubt that heterosexism is rampant – but not from the female point of view. Female heterosexuality is grossly underrepresented; the sheer fact that a blog promoting it in covers is so aggressively articulate is a case in point. Defending the oppression of female heterosexuality with “don’t be unfair to lesbians” is bizarre. (Again, I’m not singling anyone out – I’m referring to arguments repeated both last week and this.) Or to put it another way – saying it has to be a woman, because a man would suggest all women were heterosexual…? You see what I’m saying? Heterosexual female sexuality is still not getting a look in, except this time it’s being attacked from the far left, even though all these arguments are wildly contradictory. (Those who expound market forces are surely not those who promote easy accessibility for lesbian readers are surely not those who know 70% of fiction buyers are heterosexual women.)

    Olivia Knight

    September 19, 2008 at 9:25 pm

  34. P.S. Perhaps all this could be better expressed as… A thousand arguments all pointing towards one thing would be a helluva lot more convincing if all thousand arguments didn’t contradict each other.

    Olivia Knight

    September 19, 2008 at 9:46 pm

  35. “Like you, I’d prefer a far wider range of subject matter. (I think Cover Watch should have a submit-your-own-cover day to see what we would have put on our own covers! Not sure my design would have sold to target audience, but it was neither hot men nor hot women.)”

    One of the neat things about self-publishing is that you get to put what you want on the cover of the book. In my case, it was the cover to Mummy’s Girl (self-pimping, I know) which was exactly what I wanted and paid for.

    That cover means so much to me, mainly because it is applicable to the book and really points out the entire purpose fo the story, a girl and her mummy. It also has the romantic elements (the strap around her) and it just… resonates with me because I always prefer sketches over pictures (even of big, beefy, wet men that highly distracting shower scene up there).


    September 20, 2008 at 4:21 am

  36. Well said.


    September 20, 2008 at 11:27 pm

  37. Thanks, David. I’m thrilled someone in the image industry is backing BICEPS. Please send us your beefed up links when they’re done.

    Olivia, yes all over! And I’m with you, the cover of The Ten Visions is completely gorgeous. This is my cut out and keep: *heterosexism is rampant – but not from the female point of view*. In campaigning for man candy, we’re all too often regarded as colluding with the patriarchy, as being a bit square, a bit old school and reactionary, a bit fuddy-duddy because we’re straight. But, as you say, there’s a massive imbalance between the representations of male and female het sexuality. And sure, many women like to identify with other women, but many women also like to look. That option ought to be available to us.

    And I’m honoured to know I helped you look lower than his lips! I don’t think it took much though, did it? If anyone else is nervous about going down (with your eyes), you could try starting with The Beauty of his Armpits.

    Shawn, much appreciated. Ta!


    September 24, 2008 at 6:53 am

  38. […] people arguably put too much thought into them, with results like the feminist arguments over Rachel Kramer Bussel’s new books of erotica — which are ostensibly intended for […]

  39. […] seems to be following in that tradition as do numerous other erotica books with titles such as Dirty Girls, Kinky Girls, Hot Women’s Erotica, Ultimate Curves etc. Women aren’t just looked at on […]

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