Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

Erotica Cover Watch: Yes Sir AND Yes Ma’am, ed. Rachel Kramer Bussel

with 26 comments

yes-s1Yes Sir, ed. Rachel Kramer Bussel, pub. Cleis Press. Yes Ma’am, ed. Rachel Kramer Bussel, pub. Cleis Press

Watched by Mathilde Madden

In the world of sexist book covers, way back before there was that “Mammoth” cover that set us screaming and registering a new blog with wordpress, there were these covers. Covers that make the problem of only women and no men on erotica covers so clear we couldn’t not talk about them on cover watch.

Covers where the sexism is so blatant, in fact, that I am not sure I even need to write a post to go alongside them. But, okay, let me see what I can do without just repeating what is totally obvious and in front of your eyes or just being too angry or too cruel. (Because – trust me – I really would just rather write ARRRRRGH! YOU FUCKERS! for 50 words).

Firstly I ought to say that this is a publisher we’ve covered before and an editor we’ve covered before. And normally I’d qualify and say that this isn’t personal or about anyone’s work in particular, this is about erotica book covers in general – as a whole – and how if you look at a bunch of them you start to yes-mfeel very, very depressed about the lack of man candy on the covers and the sexist underlying reasons for that. And while this isn’t personal, and this isn’t about anyone’s work in particular I do have to say, that these two covers on their own are enough to make me depressed about the sexism in erotica book publishing. I mean really, does anyone think that this is okay? Really?

And poor old Rachel Kramer Bussel seems to have been saddled with terrible covers yet again! She commented after my last post that she didn’t understand why I thought the book cover was sexist. Well maybe this is easier to understand. Does anyone not understand why this pair of covers is sexist?

I’m not the first to point this out. The jaw-dropping sexism of the covers of this pair of books has already been the subject of more than one internet furore. Over on the wonderful Lust Bites the promo post for these books got diverted a little when someone asked the obvious question;

“Okay so the book with stories from the point of view of a submissive man has a picture of a dominant woman on the cover and the book with stories from the point of view of a submissive woman has a submissive woman on the cover. OMGWTFBBQ!!!!????” I paraphrase, but, you get the idea.

And it’s that fact that here are two covers: straight women ignored on both, that makes it rankle so much. Last time I checked the population was roughly half men and half women, so two books (books aimed at a general audience of erotica buyers) why the fuck have a (headless) woman on both?

And I don’t want to get too technical here – there’s not much need – but just for a second, note the viewpoint. The position of the gaze. The role we are cast in if we look at the covers of these books. If you look at the cover of Yes Sir you are instantly the dominant man, glowering down at your submissive woman’s bare arse cheeks. If you look at the cover of Yes Ma’am you are instantly the submissive man gazing up at a dominant Amazon.

What a man on a book cover could look like

What a man on a book cover could look like

Last summer I spoke at the London Literary Festival as part of a show called Dirty Books (hosted by James Lear who I am delighted recently took my crown as The Erotic Award’s Writer of the Year – no one deserves a big golden cock statue more than him – except me) and I showed these covers as part of my talk about how surprisingly unusual it is for straight women to sexualise men in erotica. When people saw these covers one after the other they gasped with horror.

It turned out someone from Cleis Press was in the audience (they publish James Lear) and she spoke to me briefly about my complaint. Bluntly, she told me that women had to be on the covers of these books or lesbians wouldn’t buy them.

Yes really. The argument in favour was basically: Oh but won’t somebody think of the lesbians!

I’m a writer. I got the submission call for these books. It specifically requested heterosexual stories. But, despite that, the girlie covers? For lesbians! Huh?

Won’t somebody think of the lesbians – the more PC than thou shut up smackdown for straight women in need of man candy everywhere.

Most erotica book covers feature a picture of a woman. And it passes simply because, well, if there is one person on a cover it might as well be a woman. It’s only when you look at several covers you begin to see the problem – it is always a woman – or when you see a pair of companion volumes like this. When are publishers going to address this problem? Sometimes it feels like the ‘elephant in the room’ of erotica. So obviously a big smudge on modern erotica’s radical egalitarian sex-positive image – but no one mentions it. Sometimes on cover watch it feels like just by showing covers and saying that all the pictures are of women we are being overtly radical – strident and even mean. When all we are doing is showing erotica publishing the covers of their own books.



Written by mat

November 6, 2008 at 10:00 am

26 Responses

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  1. Thank you for pointing out the position of the gaze. Gaze is something that appears to be ignored, or at least unacknowledged these days, because, hey, women are, like, ’empowered’ now, yeah?

    Having the ‘but what about lesbians???’ argument thrust in our faces as some kind of justification for this sexism undermines those of us who still fight for real equality for all. This is not about straight versus gay, this is about the male gaze being the default norm, and women having to either put up with it, or, more sadly, embrace it willingly whilst shouting about how fucking “sex positive” they are.

    I totally reject this. You can still be pro-sex but be anti-sexism. Why is this so hard to grasp? And why are we still having to explain why women being the OBJECT of desire is *very* different to women DESIRING men?

    Sometimes it makes me want to scream. But then, of course, I just go and wank off to pictures of naked men and feel much calmer afterwards.

    Girl with a one track mind

    November 6, 2008 at 10:25 am

  2. um…well, when i saw the Yes Sir cover, i put myself in the position of the subby chick. just saying. at the same time, i’d LOVE to see sexy men on the covers of books, just as i’d LOVE to see publishers like Black Lace publish writers regardless of what gender they are. sexism. otherwise termed marketing. hard to believe in this day and age, these old fashioned notions of readers are still in place. makes you wonder when the last marketing study was…1970?

    amanda earl

    November 6, 2008 at 11:32 am

  3. I would have thought the reason was obvious. Men don’t exist. They’re just a figment of our imagination. So obviously we can’t take pictures of them and put them on covers. That’s right, isn’t it? Isn’t it?

    Oh. No. It isn’t.

    Olivia Knight

    November 6, 2008 at 1:00 pm

  4. P.S. And as long as I have a head, I have a hard time identifying with all the headless chicks on these covers.

    Me: head.
    Them: belong on horseback in Sleepy Hollow.

    Olivia Knight

    November 6, 2008 at 1:02 pm

  5. P.P.S. No Sir.


    Rolls around laughing

    Olivia Knight

    November 6, 2008 at 1:11 pm

  6. P.P.P.S. Cleis Press? This is how it’s done. It’s really not that hard. Man on the cover and no-one even died and the publisher is even still going and the bookshops are even stocking the books and – oh, damn. I just looked outside and saw a mob of outraged lesbians burning their copies. But hey, at least they bought them to burn!

    Olivia Knight

    November 6, 2008 at 1:17 pm

  7. Ah, I see Olivia beat me to the punch. Yes, on Lust Bites today we feature a collection of vampire short stories (in which stories by Kristina and Mathilde appear, and a story by me, too, but not one by Olivia, which makes her plug ever so much more pure than mine)
    called ‘Lust at First Bite’ and on the cover – the FACE of a wet MAN.

    When our Black Lace editor was interviewed on Lust Bites, there were some snarky comments questioning the appropriateness of a male editor heading up an imprint of books written ‘by women for women.’ I think this cover answers back nicely. Someone has been listening to us…even before BICEPS began.

    The two covers you present today also speak for themselves, as you noted in your accompanying piece, MM. It’s all about what the MAN (or lesbian woman? do I have that right?) sees when he is the Dom or the sub. Yet (do I have this right) the books are aimed at hetero women…

    I suggest that all women readers of erotica purchase ‘Lust at First Bite’ and make it an erotica best seller. Yes, the stories are first rate. I’ve read them all. But maybe someone somewhere might think, ‘I wonder if it sold so well because it has a hunky wet man face on the cover?’

    If it would make everyone feel better, they could publish books with headless men on the covers…it would be a start, anyway…

    Madeline Moore

    November 6, 2008 at 2:40 pm

  8. Thanks all. Yes the cover of Lust at First Bite is wonderful (not sure the title is so wonderful – a double pun? confusing…) but of course that is because Black Lace started putting men on the covers when they decided to be ‘erotic romance’ – and ‘romance’ means no male readers so we can have men on the covers. (It also means women can lust after men so long as they have their eyes on an HEA)

    Interestingly though, BL books are now shelved back with erotica rather than with romance (in the UK at least) so in that way we do have some man candy in the erotica section of the bookshop – if only due to an admin error. And I think BL seem to be drifting back to women on the covers now – not sure…


    November 6, 2008 at 2:57 pm

  9. Hiya

    I do wholeheartedly admire you two for having the balls (urm … probably not the best way to phrase it, eh) to stick your necks out with this campaign. All power to you. And thank you.

    Looking forward to the day when we’ve got men on erotica covers and male writers in Black Lace. Hey, we’re going to have a black president in the White House so who says anything’s impossible?

    Janine Ashbless

    November 6, 2008 at 4:32 pm

  10. Thx Janine. I’m really glad we started this blog too – much better than the huge amounts of private *fuming* we used to do instead!


    November 6, 2008 at 4:43 pm

  11. I think that there are a couple of good reasons why to have women on the covers.

    First of all, everyone thinks a hot woman is sexy. Men think women are sexy, women think women are sexy, gay men, lesbian women, trans-sexuals, all think women are sexy. Not all of these categories think men are sexy.

    Second, the primary audience of romance novels are women, so of course you’re going to want the picture on the cover to be from the woman’s perspective. Reading the book about female dominance, a woman is going to want to be imagining herself in that role of being dominant. Reading a book about male dominance, the woman is going to want to imagine herself in the role of the submissive. This also explains the facelessness since it’s easier to imagine yourself being in this role if there’s no face.

    This isn’t sexism in the eyes of the book publishers. This is “sexism” in the eyes of consumer. Publishers are merely trying to maximize profit. Even so, I think it’s a major stretch to call it sexism.

    By putting a male on the cover, they would be alienating men, lesbians, and plenty of straight women as well who don’t want to see that (yes, they exist, a lot of women are turned off by seeing a random naked guy, you know it’s true). By putting a female on the cover, they’re really only alienating you and a small majority of women who give feminism a bad name by constantly crying wolf and not accepting the fact there will always be inherent genetic differences in the sexes hardwired into the human brain.


    November 6, 2008 at 4:52 pm

  12. I’m glad that you feel that starting debates about sexisms ‘give feminism a bad name’. Whereas your point that there are hardwired differences in the human brain that mean that straight women actually fancy women is proper clever science!


    November 6, 2008 at 5:01 pm

  13. Hammer, you’re a man. Don’t presume to tell women what they like. I read a bit of your blog to establish your sex, so if anyone wants an example of sexism, I’m happy to point them to innumerable ones.

    Yours sincerely,
    The Small Majority

    Olivia Knight

    November 6, 2008 at 5:03 pm

  14. @Hammer – Have you actually read this whole post? Some points:

    1) Not “everyone” thinks a “hot woman is sexy”. Some women – SHOCK! HORROR! – find men sexier! Yes, we prefer men! Outrageous, I know. And I think you’ll find that gay men prefer men too. The sexist turncoats!

    2) The books referred to are not “romance novels”; they are erotica. You know, to read and wank to, an’ that. And given most women are straight (I’d quote a statistic, but hey, you didn’t, so why should I?) it figures that we’d like the objects of our desire – men – to be reflected in our fantasies, written, graphic, or otherwise. As for facelessness, that’s a non-argument. Women’s bodies have been disembodied and sexually objectified in every media and medium – for the pleasure of men – so arguing that a faceless body make it “easier” to imagine ourselves in the role is, to put it bluntly, total crap.

    3) A lot of women are “turned off by seeing a random naked guy”, ‘eh? Find them for me, please. I know none. Straight women like to fuck men, fantasise about men, and look at naked men to get off.

    But, you know, thanks for informing us that we’re giving feminism a “bad name”. That’d have nothing to do with sexism in the world at all then, nope.

    Girl with a one track mind

    November 6, 2008 at 5:04 pm

  15. Sometimes I think we should do a Sexism 101 on here because it’s quite difficult arguing with people who can’t even grasp the basics. Hammer, it’s not sexist to say men and women are different. Feminism is not about trying to erase difference. It’s about trying to erase differences in *power*.

    I fully accept there are gender and sex differences. I’d take issue with you on the extent to which these are natural and genetic (um, especially the gender stuff) but, yes, men and women are different. Bizarrely, you seem to have missed this in your claim that everyone has the same sexuality.

    Anyway, I think it’s outrageous that gay porn doesn’t feature more tits. This is discrimination against the majority.


    November 6, 2008 at 6:00 pm

  16. Thanks to the Girl for directing me to this site. I really like the points you’re making. I was going to write a comment but wrote a blog post instead. Hope you don’t mind if I add the link here:

    I have a story in this year’s Best Women’s Erotica – and there’s a woman on the cover of that. I’m hoping that next year they can feature a couple or a guy.

    Ms Naughty

    November 7, 2008 at 1:24 am

  17. i wasn’t meaning to be snarky when i commented about the irony of the editor of BL being a male while the authors must be women, i simply found it funny, as in funny ha ha and funny strange and illogical for the same reasons that the excuses of publishers who refuse to put men on their covers are illogical and silly. in the case of women authors only, the belief is that women want to read erotica by women only; in the case of women on covers only, it’s the same rationale…women don’t want to see men because that would be too blatant or because it’s lesbians who read erotic fiction (even the straight stuff). all of those attempts to justify sexist practices are complete nonsense, clearly. i whole heartedly support the idea of having more men on the outside of the books and also on the inside of the books as both characters and as authors. i want them anyway i can get ’em. as to being headless, well…i can see the point that Olivia made and i was laughing at the idea of the headless horsewoman; however, for me the lack of a face or just showing the back is the way in which one can put oneself in the place of the person on the cover. i think it would be disingenuous not to consider that possibility. i have seen male covers without heads too or with men with their backs showing rather than their faces, especially for the best gay erotica series; i haven’t heard that practice referred to as sexist here. in fact, these are covers that are touted as being better than the headless female covers.

    amanda earl

    November 7, 2008 at 5:02 am

  18. Great to have your support, Ms Naughty.

    Amanda, I could talk a lot about Black Lace. The reasons why they have an all female author policy are quite complex I think, but certainly a case can be made for erotica often being a feminised product for straight male consumers with female pics on the covers and authors being women or men writing under female pseudonyms. And it is certainly ironic in the case of Balck lace with it’s ‘by women for women’ cred that the actual editorial power is held by men. But that isn’t what this blog is about. Black Lace currently calls itself ‘erotic romance’ and does feature men on it’s covers.

    I am quite wary of letting cover watch move to a different debate – no matter how interesting – when I feel the point we are trying to make here is so crucial.


    November 7, 2008 at 9:13 am

  19. Hi,
    This blog and campaign is great, wish you the best of luck!
    Hope ya’ll don’t mind me chipping in my thoughts!

    right, so a few responses to some of the posts here and previous; it always seems to me that when someone falls back on arguments; like ‘most people’ like ‘this’ or ‘that’ is to me a sign that they are defending an assumption and ultimately their own view, (unless of course they themselves have done research and come to a conclusion based on their findings! which I doubt)…Also pictures of hot women on erotic books sell? Really? That is like saying the wheels on the bus goes round? Surely it’s not a stretch to imagine that pictures of hot men on erotic books would sell too?
    I say hats off to Kristina and Mathilde for raising a really interesting point and supporting it with some great examples. Hilarious and indefensible!

    Shock Horror, as a straight male I personally get a bit tired of pictures of semi clad women over everything! Just walk into the newsagents! It is a shame that this extends to the covers of erotic books not aimed specifically at men.

    Lee Christien

    November 7, 2008 at 3:21 pm

  20. Oh you horrible radicals you! Don’t you know hetero women are the outcasts of the world? Don’t you know your place in the grand scheme of things? You should be standing in a corner hanging your head in shame while the rest of the world gets its rocks off on whatever the hell it damn well pleases!

    Yeah, right.

    And this is why I draw pictures of naked men and post them on my website. If I want to see a naked woman, I will strip and look in the damned mirror.

    Helen E. H. Madden

    November 10, 2008 at 11:19 am

  21. […] might be depicted as muscle, army boots and a sneer. But the world is not fair and I usually get women’s arses. Oh, and corsets. Everyone gets […]

  22. […] of titles. Funny how when you get a pair of linked books the sexism can be so much more obvious. (Who could forget…?) So here we have Violet Blue’s Ultimate Guide to Cunnilingus and her Ultimate Guide to Fellatio . […]

  23. […] we feel like we are always complaining about Rachel Kramer Bussel’s Cleis covers – she has had some stinkers! So it’s really nice to see […]

  24. […] What? No. Really? Really, Cleis Press? Really? Deja vu, anyone? […]

  25. […] fiction who, paradoxically, have been responsible for creating some of the industry’s most sexist book covers. Our issues with Cleis have been compounded by the refusal of two of their top-name […]

  26. […] looking at anything else in a picture. It’s a crazy concept that’s right up there with the radical idea that women might actually want to see images of men on the covers of erotica books. Kind of blows certain stereotypes about women right out of the water, doesn’t […]

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