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