Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

Erotica Cover Watch: Best of Best American Erotica 2008, ed. Susie Bright

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Best of the Best American Erotica 2008, ed. Susie Bright, pub. Touchstone

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.

My Pleasure
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?

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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.

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.


Written by mat

September 25, 2008 at 6:45 am

6 Responses

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  1. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has come out on our side – describing a belief in impersonal market forces as “idolatry” and pointing out the inescapable truth that at every stage it is people, making decisions.

    The church is on our side, the church is on our side… Unexpected, but nonetheless delightful!

    I love the loltitz. More, please!

    Olivia Knight

    September 25, 2008 at 12:39 pm

  2. P.S. 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.
    Um – scroll up a bit. I can see one. And very nice it is too, my compliments! Now we just need to get it into Waterstones…

    Olivia Knight

    September 25, 2008 at 3:19 pm

  3. Yes, fair shares! Well said. It’s really quite a simple idea. I hope it catches on.

    BAE 1996 was the first erotica book I bought where the quality of writing and subtlety of thought and expression just blew me away. Prior to that, all that seemed to exist in the UK was wank fodder and erotica from Black Lace full of throbbing members and honeypots. I was so excited by my discovery. It gave me the encouragement to write the kind of stuff I wanted to write. Oh, and the cover was unusually phallic with some sort of carved asparagus on it. I think.

    It’s such a shame the 15th year is the last. And, yes, such a shame the final cover fails to convey what a wonderful, groundbreaking series it’s been.

    Glad you like the loltits, Olivia! I’m sure there’ll be more. It’s horribly addictive.


    September 25, 2008 at 9:31 pm

  4. Let’s face it, straight women are so uninterested in other women that sometimes they don’t want them to feature anywhere in the action. One of sub-genres of erotica and erotic romance that has seen a marked increase recently is M/M. With M/M you get two heroes (minimum) and as close to iron-cast guarantee of a bloke on the cover that you’ll ever get.


    September 27, 2008 at 8:15 pm

  5. @Tumperkin – Two heroes? I’ll take Sylar and Peter Petrelli please.

    Girl with a one track mind

    September 28, 2008 at 8:10 am

  6. Oh god, GWAOTM, what a fabulous choice… Now there’s a Thought For The Day. And yes, Tumperkin, it does rather wrongside the “but women get off on women, bless their squidgy little breasts” school of thought.

    Olivia Knight

    September 28, 2008 at 10:11 am

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