Archive for October 2008
Watched by Kristina Lloyd
‘What’s the one thing all women want in erotica? They want it hot and that’s what this book delivers.’
Um, then shouldn’t it be called Women’s Hot Erotica? So, you know, that all-important adjective – hot – is applied to the erotica rather than to the women.
If you’re uncertain about this, try using the structure on sentences of your own. How about ‘big men’s dicks‘? I think we can all agree that this refers to the penises of large men and tells us nothing about the size of those penises. ‘Men’s big dicks‘, however, means something entirely different: lots of happy women!
But, once again, let’s be generous for a moment. Let’s say ‘women’s erotica’ is such a commonly used phrase it practically functions as a noun, a single grammatical unit which ‘hot’ then modifies. You could just about justify the choice of title with this syntactical chicanery if it weren’t for one problem: the cover image. Because here we have a (hot) sexy woman dressed in red (hot) skimpies. There’s no two ways about it: ‘hot’ refers to the women. And since this book bills itself as ‘erotica for women, by women’, then hot is a description of its writers and readers.
This doubly pisses me off. As an author (although not one in this collection), I deeply resent the suggestion that my hotness, my sexual desirability is even relevant. Judge me by my work, my literary abilities, my skill at creating sexy fiction. Judge my writing. Leave me and my body out of it. Don’t demean me by rating my tits above my talent.
Now I’ve nothing against hot. It’s nice to enjoy looking good and to have that acknowledged and appreciated; and there are many different ways a person can do hot (and, to be honest, some straight men would do well to put a bit more effort in). Looking hot is not dependent on having legs to your armpits and lashings of mascara. We all have our styles. (And I think it’s safe to say when we’re talking about someone being hot, we’re talking about other people’s (primarily visual) perception of them; it’s different from that inner glow you might have of feeling sexy, irrespective of anyone else’s opinion.)
So, I am not anti-hot. However, let’s not turn hot into something bigger than it is. It’s fun. It’s lipstick and a good bra. It’s the way your hair looks so purty when it’s gunked up with come. It is nothing very much and, above all else, it is not, not, not female sexuality.
Hot Women’s Erotica, in title and cover image, implies that it is. And that’s the second reason I’m pissed off. Most erotica covers are guilty of equating female sexuality with being the object of male desire, although rarely do the titles make it so starkly obvious. But my sexuality is not about my desirability; it is not rooted in my physical appearance. It is active, not passive. It’s about me desiring, me lusting, me choosing, me looking and liking. In that sense, it’s much like male sexuality. The big difference is, male sexuality is constantly being offered the goodies to satisfy it while female sexuality is ignored. On erotica covers, my desire is corrupted and co-opted to such an extent that it actually becomes the goodies. Erotica – women’s erotica – which is supposedly talking to me, is actually talking right over my half-naked body and directly to men. It then has the brass neck to tell me I like it like this, that his desiring me is actually my desire.
In terms of the message of its cover, this book really ought to be called Men’s Hot Erotica.
We need more sexy guys on sexy books. As the publicity blurb for this anthology says, women want it hot. And that really ought to mean that sometimes we get to have the hot, not that we always are the hot.
I could look at this picture for a long, long time. Well, actually, I already did – and intend to do so again.
I promise to tear my eyes away from him for Thursday when I’ll be looking at language and lingerie on the cover of another anthology billed as ‘by women, for women’.
Ooh, crossdressing. Don’t mind if I do. Bit of guy-liner does tend to turn my head. This sounds like a great idea for an erotica collection.
Here’s the blurb from Amazon, and I still like the sound of it: From femmes who channel Marlene Dietrich in the sexiest of suits to men who love nothing more than the feel silky panties stretched tight against their skin, these characters boldly indulge their fantasies of being a girl — or a guy — for a night. Drag queens get dolled up for a night on the town, a dyke packs a special surprise beneath her dress, and a devoted husband puts his dress-up skills to the ultimate test in this seductive new collection.
But, it would seem this subject matter was something of a tricky problem in the sexism department at Cleis Press. Crossdressing usually makes me think of a guy looking startlingly masculine whilst surrounded by frills. Your mileage may vary, but essentially I’m thinking the default image is a guy in women’s clothing- just type it into google image search.
But, obviously, we can’t have that on the cover.
A man? On the cover of an erotica book? No freaking way.
Okay, well, how about a woman cross dressed as a man. That can be kind of hot too.
But no say the suits in the sexism department. A woman in men’s clothing sounds far too enjoyable to straight woman – they might squint and manage to mistake it for man candy. How about this? A woman in woman’s underwear. Okay we’ll make it a sort of boyish looking woman – but clearly a woman.
Which is what we get. A woman wearing women’s clothes. It’s not actually crossdressing in any way, but at least there are no men or any men’s clothing on the cover of the book.
And, god, this is an erotica collection about crossdressing and even that panders to the unreconstructed straight male buyer who would piss his pants if he saw a man on the cover of his book. Or even a woman in a pair of men’s undies – which surely wouldn’t turn off lesbian consumers so I think we have pretty hard evidence right here that this bias is for the guys.
I am thinking of making this a regular feature. Erotica book covers where the sheer effort put into the sexism just makes me *headdesk*.
The Erotica Project, Lillian Ann Slugocki and Erin Cressida Wilson, pub. Cleis Press
Watched by Kristina Lloyd
I stumbled across The Erotica Project the other day and thought, ‘Oh, dirty book! Where have you been all my life?’ It wasn’t the cover which grabbed me. Why would it? I’ve seen ten bazillion naked babes on smut covers already and that was before we set up this blog.
No, what grabbed me was the blurb. Listen: ‘The Erotica Project was started when the authors realized there is very little heterosexual erotica written by women. They began composing erotic vignettes that embraced male-female sex while turning traditional male erotic literature on its head.’
Wow! So many things had me dancing here, not least that someone was promoting female heterosexuality. In erotica, this rarely happens. Sure, there’s plenty of space devoted to women and our sexuality but the assumption is most women are bi, even if only passively. And this assumption is used to justify the prevalence of sexy women on erotica books. It allows the publishers to say: See? We’re pleasing the male and female reader.
So anyway, I’m reading this blurb and you know what I’m thinking, right? I’m thinking ‘Why the hell doesn’t this book feature a man and woman on the cover? It’s about male-female sex. So howzabout a cover representing this?’ But I bite my mental tongue and continue to read: ‘The Erotica Project features hot, literate, and emotionally charged stories that redefine sexual relations and broaden parameters of acceptable behavior.’
Again, wow! This books sounds like it’s doing something fresh and challenging. It was published several years ago and I don’t know how I missed it. It feels like it’s really talking to me. Excitedly, I read on: ‘The authors combine sensual short stories in the tradition of Best Lesbian Erotica -‘
Wuh? Hang on! In the tradition of *what*? Best Lesbian Erotica? Lesbian?
What on earth has Sapphic sexuality got to do with male-female sex? Straight women get off on men. They don’t get off on women. It’s quite simple to understand. I can’t think of any reason for a book celebrating female heterosexuality to be compared to a lesbian anthology, unless it’s to dilute the straightness of straight sexuality. And the only reason I can think of for diluting that straightness is to expand the catchment area of the book’s potential readership. In other words, the book has been ‘sapphed up’ to make it more marketable, and the actual truth of the sexuality depicted has been compromised.
Marketable to whom? I can’t imagine many lesbians wanting to read about straight women and their lust for man-muscle so they’re hardly going to be swayed by the comparison. And straight women are presumably perfectly happy to read straight smut and don’t need persuading by implicit extras. So we’re back to men again, erotica’s traditional readership, the force to which the industry can’t stop pandering.
BRILLIANT AND EDGY
The Erotica Project is published by Cleis Press, a wonderful US independent publisher championing queer and marginalised sexualities. It was founded as a lesbian press in 70s San Francisco and now thrives while other indies have fallen. It’s regarded as a progressive, radical publishing house, its output a challenge to patriarchy and heteronormativity. Cleis publishes a range of brilliant, edgy writers and works with some of today’s top erotica editors. I’m in several of their anthologies, and am always thrilled by how beautifully presented their books are. In many ways, Cleis Press really is doing something different – except in one particular area. Yup, got it in one: general erotica. Here, Cleis are doing precisely what male-aimed pornographers have been doing for decades: they are packaging their books with images of women.
The comparison of The Erotica Project with Best Lesbian Erotica is just a phrase in some publicity blurb, one I might have turned a blind eye to were it not for the fact that it’s so telling. In intent, this phrase is a clear echo of the intent underpinning all those hot women covers. It’s a bid to ensure straight male readers will stay onboard. Let’s take a look at some of the covers from Cleis’s well-established ‘Best’ series.
As you can see, all the covers of Best Lesbian Erotica feature two women embracing. This is because lesbians find other women hot and would therefore be able to relate to an image of a lesbian couple and also find it sexually appealing. Lesbian desire is not similar to straight female desire, and vice versa. No, really, it’s not.
Best Gay Erotica follows the same Best format and features two guys embracing. This is because gay men find other men hot and would therefore be able to relate to an image of a gay couple and also find it sexually appealing. It’s not rocket science, is it? So let’s take a look at Best Women’s Erotica.
Best Women’s Erotica breaks from the format and features single sexualised women, most of them without heads. This is because women prefer not to have sex with anyone and would rather loll around in the altogether, making whoopee with the camera. And women, although most of them fancy men and get their rocks off on cock, would be able to relate to an image of another woman twiddling her nipps, feet in the air, and also find it sexually appealing.
No, I don’t think so either.
Actually, there’s a deliberate mistake in the above line up of books. Did you see what I did? Yup, I snuck in a couple of cuckoos: Best Bisexual Women’s Erotica and Hot Lesbian Erotica. But from the cover art, you wouldn’t know there was a difference.
Now, I don’t wish to imply a lesbian-based press are in bed with the patriarchy but there’s a point here at which het fem sexuality is getting squeezed out by two apparently opposite forces, male heterosexuality and lesbian sexuality. And that’s because those two forces overlap in one particular area, their mutual lust for women. Most lesbians are probably hopping mad about the constant falsification of their sexuality for the titillation of straight guys. And rightly so. But here’s a thing: I’m also hopping mad about the falsification of my sexuality for the titillation of straight guys.
Because it’s false if the object of my desire, the male form, is never seen. It’s false if my sexuality is represented as my sexualised body – because this is what’s going on when I’m expected to identify with a cover model. My desire is seen to originate in how I appear, my attractiveness to men, my capacity to seduce the viewer. My desire then is actually someone else’s. My desire, in fact, is absent.
WOMEN HAVE EROGENOUS ZONES ALL OVER THEIR BODIES
There’s a strong assumption in contemporary, liberal culture that female sexuality is all-embracing, amorphous and free of the rigid homophobia that characterises conventional male sexuality. ie if you’re a woman, you must be bi – or at least curious. We hear sentiments such as ‘women have erogenous zones all over their bodies’ (as opposed to blokes, the poor saps, who only feel it in their cocks); that our sexuality is more diffuse and open. This openness is generally regarded as sex-positive and the inference is that women are ahead of the guys in embracing the fullness of their sexuality. But look at it from a different angle: openness also means lack of definition. Other sexualities get defined: lesbian, gay, straight male. But women? Ah, they’re great, they’re just into everything and everyone.
There’s a stage show of The Erotica Project which received the following review in The Guardian: ‘For a show that purports to be about women’s sexuality, [these] monologues are extraordinarily phallocentric, and almost entirely heterosexual’. Jeez, even when women are being deliberately, avowedly heterosexual they get taken to task for their lack of Sapph.
I’m very in touch with my sexuality. I know what it is, I know how to make it flourish and work for me. I am kinky, perverse, het and sexually submissive with a side order of degradation and masochism (but hold the mayo). And I’m very happy with that. Depending on your relative criteria, you might call me a tad kinky or a straight-oriented queer. Again, I’m happy with that. When your desires are twisted, you don’t get to be comfortable with them overnight. I’ve thought long and hard about my sexuality and I can confidently state: I am not bi, I am not lesbian. I’m just not. If you are, that’s totally fine with me. But I ain’t.
I wish they would stop suggesting I was. I wish I didn’t feel so frequently ostracised by erotica and the sexy women on its covers. Why aren’t Cleis Press, champions of the marginalised, reflecting my sexuality on their books? Or reflecting more than just one aspect of bisexual orientation? Why don’t their covers feature hot guys? It might seem odd that I, a straight person, feel marginalised. But I’m not simply a straight person, I’m a straight woman. Time and again, my sexuality gets elbowed out of the way by its far more powerful counterpart, male heterosexuality. The result is covers like this:
Cleis Press are sometimes accused of publishing erotica merely to fund their less profitable LGBT publications. They deny this. Says Felice Newman: ‘The implication is that if you do something commercial in the realm of the erotic, you’re doing it for money, and you’re cynical. And it’s not true. Because I’m most proud of the fact that, as I said, in one generation, we’ve helped change the way people think and speak about sexuality and gender. For me, this is personal. My mission is to help people create authentic and fulfilling sex lives.’
MAN CANDY FOR WOMEN
If Cleis really are committed to change, to assisting in the creation of authentic sex lives, then we really ought to be witnessing them making changes in their erotica covers. I can see how an erotic imprint of, say, Random House or Simon and Schuster, might operate on more cynical, profit-oriented lines and keep on using semi-naked women on their books because that sells. But Cleis aren’t beholden to the suits in Accounts. Sure, they need to be commercial to stay afloat but is it right that they’re sacrificing representations of authentic female desire in order to do that? And is the sacrifice even necessary? Are we to think that Cleis would go under if it dared offer something other than sexy women on its erotica covers? If it dared to include some eye candy for the female viewer? Surely not. Surely erotica readers in the 21st century are not that fragile.
It’s important to remember in all of this that asking for man candy is not un-feminist. We live in a society where men still hold the balance of power. They make a forceful presence but, as individuals, they are very rarely sexualised. Women, on the other hand, are sexualised left, right and centre. Cleis Press, the biggest independent queer publisher in the US, would do well to acknowledge that in continually using women on their erotica covers, they are catering to male privilege, shoring up the patriarchy and perpetuating the status quo.
If anyone’s going to break this impasse, it has to be a brave, forward-thinking publisher; one engaged with gender politics and aware of all the insidious ways in which the dominant ideology sustains itself; a publisher with integrity, passion, determination and belief. Cleis Press, where are you? Can you hear us?
Watched by Mathilde Madden
I’ve been looking forward to this one.
Because Xcite Books are somewhat interesting. They are relative newcomers to the erotica scene in the UK and when they began they appeared to be courting a very clear market.
I spoke to founding editor Cathryn Cooper around the times the books began (We were both being photographed for a newspaper article on erotica writers that ended up being titled ‘We Think About Sex All Day!’) and she was very clear about the gap in the market for short, sweet erotic stories that appealed to women. (I’m paraphrasing wildly – it was some time ago – but I’m pretty sure she said something like this.)
And when the books appeared, Xcite did seem to have a clear idea where their slice of the market lay.
The book jackets were pretty ice cream colours – a world apart from the erotica staple of black and red and more black. The emphasis was on sexy, kinky stories, with a leaning towards the ever popular women’s fantasy of female sexual submission.
Oh, and spanking. There was quite a lot of spanking. All good as far as I’m concerned.
In so many ways Xcite were a breath of fresh air in erotica publishing. (They even offered reasonable money for a reasonable word length!) Particularly in the design of the books. Or at least their designs were fresh and new in many ways except one. Can you guess which one?
Shall we take a look at some more of their covers at random?
Xcite books peepl – that’s all very pretty, but, hey, you ever heard of menz?
The X Factor
Oh Xcite books, Xcite books, Xcite books, how did you miss refreshing the clunkiest cliche of all? Every cover is a picture of a woman! When you went for that women’s erotica market did you never think of us poor straight women? And surely you know that in erotica books the ‘women’s arse = erotica’ connection is as dog tired as I am of seeing it.
I mean, look at these more, ahem, traditional erotica covers – these are no way as pretty as Xcite’s covers – but one thing connects these three to the last three covers above.
That last one is a Black Lace book. Now I’m not saying they – or anyone – can’t do a naked woman’s arse on the cover. Because sure maybe someone’s hot fantasy is wearing gloves and heels and sitting on a bullwhip. It’s just that rather more women’s fantasies (which is what BL books are meant to be about) might involve – huh? – a naked man.
And although BL do do that – sometimes, when they are calling themselves erotic romance – if they’ve ever done a man this naked on the cover, I missed it. Not saying bullwhip sitters shouldn’t have their representation too, just that maybe some of us with that outlandish sexual deviance of female hetness might get the odd look in too.
Fair shares – that’s all I’m saying. And if your books are aimed at women – well – you might want to let your designers know that.
But, nah. Want a naked male arse on an erotica cover – pretty much one place only.
Yep, pretty. I’d say prettier than ice cream stripes. And strictly for the boys.
The disembodied woman’s arse is probably my least favourite way of ignoring straight women when it comes to designing erotica books. The fact that so many erotic books feature a naked woman’s arse has to be the biggest insult, because there’s no way women are even identifying here. How can we? It’s just an arse. What? I’m going to aspire to be like the arse? No, the arse says (um, ‘scuse the mental image) if you are sexually attracted to men (unless you are a gay man) you can fuck off, dearie. Now move out the way so we can check out the cheeks on her!
And getting back to the particular cover under discussion. Yes, I see how if the book is about spanking a picture of an arse sort of makes sense. But if the book is aimed at women who get off on a ‘I’ve been a bad girl’ fantasy – does it really make all that much sense?
Now, I am assuming from the declarations on Xcite’s website that the books are aimed at women, that this means the books are, well, aimed at women. So how come if us women want to fantasise about some hot spanking session it is assumed we want to look at a woman’s arse for that? I don’t need an illustration of how spanking works.
If you are a guy reading this book, a guy who gets off on the idea of spanking a woman, then yes, looking at a woman baring her arse makes perfect sense. But if you are a woman who likes the idea of being spanked… well, I just don’t get it.
And who is the title ‘Spank Me‘ addressing? When it’s put together with a cover shot like that, this book seems to be overriding its female friendly colour-scheme to ooze male fantasy fulfilment. Pretty little arse asking for a spanking. What has that got to do with books for women?
Big Hard Hands and an Expansive Lap
So why aren’t the subjects of these covers more relevant to the female end (forgive the pun) of the fantasy they are selling here? (And, before I forget, I’m certain the stories inside are wonderful and do just that.) Why don’t they, in fact, feature a picture of a man? A man with big hard hands and an expansive lap? Why doesn’t the cover snarl at me with Over My Knee or Who’s For Spanking?
And when, in their blurb and their author guidelines, Xcite say they are for women (but can be enjoyed by men), isn’t a lot given away in those parentheses? Is that a bracketed promise that male customers can enjoy the books too code for ‘because Xcite won’t put any man flesh on the covers that might make poor male tummies feel a bit funny’.
Have I missed something? Would that make, erotica books like, explode, or something? Or would it put men off buying them in a way ice cream colours just don’t? Because you know, I’m pretty sure that not putting off male buyers is the real reason why erotica covers are they way they are. I just wish someone would admit it. And then maybe we could work out a way to move on. (Maybe stopping under-estimating male consumers could be a start.)
Back to Basics
Incidentally, Xcite recently brought a non-ice cream coloured book. They changed the covers back to erotica’s usual black ‘n’ red ‘n’ black for this memoir. Guess what cover element they kept the same though.
So what do you think? Do you like the Xcite covers? They are certainly new and different – but did they change the right things? And what would you like to see on the cover of a book about spanking?
Coming Soon: Two weeks ago I watched the covers of Best American Erotica. We’re thoroughly delighted that editor Susie Bright has been in touch to say this ‘scandalous’ and ‘depressing’ issue has been on her mind for years. And she’s offered an interview spilling the inside story on the state of erotica covers. Keep Watching!