Erotica Cover Watch: Confessions: Admissions of Sexual Guilt, ed Sage Vivant and M Christian
Confessions: Admissions of Sexual Guilt, ed Sage Vivant and M Christian, pub Thunder’s Mouth Press
Watched by Kristina Lloyd
Look, look! A man’s ear! Now you might think this makes us happy because Whaddawewant? MEN ON THE COVERS! Whendowewantit? NOW!
But if you thought that, you’d be wrong. The point is we want sexy images of men and that ear, well, not so much, thanks. However, my gripe isn’t about men appearing on erotica covers only as token body parts. I’ll save that for another day. My big problem with this cover is that its image pretty much sums up erotica’s deepest sexism: that women are both product and package while men are the beneficiaries, the buyers.
Look at the image. She is speaking, he is listening, and if you were in any doubt about what she might be telling him (because book covers sadly lack that auditory dimension), the designer has helpfully added the word ‘stories’ (with a neat little fellatio twist in the way her luscious lips hover at the head of its horizontal). Phew, glad that one’s been cleared up. Stories! For a moment, I thought she might have been narrating the history of Emmeline Pankhurst.
According to the blurb, Confessions features stories from both men and women. However, as is usual in general erotica, its cover emphasises the female aspect. It is telling us visually that the voice of erotica is female. Now before anyone jumps up and tells me this is empowering to women, please stay still while I shoot you down. Sure, it’s wonderful that more and more women are writing erotic fiction and finding a voice. That in itself is radical, empowering, liberating and really fucking great – and I’m having some of it, if you don’t mind. After all, not so many decades ago, women were expected to be silent on this matter, and ‘lie back and think of England’ was the lynchpin of female sexuality. However, when these new contemporary expressions of female sexuality, aka our voices, are then sold on the same basis as old-school porn – as titillation for men – then our gains really don’t seem so great.
In what is regarded as the first erotic novel in English, Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (pub 1750), the author, John Cleland (a bloke), presents an epistolary tale of a woman’s sexual adventures, told from the female point of view. Now as then, the female voice is enormously popular in erotica, especially when that voice is held to be true. In memoirs and confessionals, the narrator takes the reader into her confidence and shares some sexy secrets. Society’s double standards which (still!) celebrate men putting it about while criticising women who do likewise means the female confession has much more currency than the male. It’s deemed more interesting, for starters, because traditionally the female experience has not been articulated. (Female sexuality, wrote Freud, scratching his head in bafflement, is a ‘dark continent’. Huh-huh, and you wanna colonise it, do you Big Boy?) It’s also more potent because, in baring all, a woman stands to lose a lot more than a guy ever would. (For shame, the slut!)
Thankfully, this is changing, and it’s changing fast. Women are speaking out and (ahem) taking it in. We are the challenging voice and the quiet consumer (ah, the power of the quiet consumer!). In blogs, mags and books, we are declaring and exploring our sexuality for ourselves. We’re happy to write material which gets us and others off, and also happy to read one-handedly, an activity once the preserve of men. We’re refusing to be cowed by the slut/stud dichotomy and by the shame associated with appetite because, hey, we want to have a good time too! And that good time might be anything from vanilla sex with a different guy every night to hardcore pervery with the love of our life to a jolly nice wank while watching gay porn.
In short, female sexuality has at last found its voice. You can see it expressed directly in the hugely popular blog-to-book authors such as Zoe Margolis, (aka the super-smart Girl With a One Track Mind); in the growing numbers of female erotica authors and editors; and in those anonymous bloggers with something new and interesting to say. And these voices are poles apart from the ‘female’ voices which have dominated erotica from Cleland’s Fanny Hill to contemporary Nexus authors such as Ray (‘I very often centre the story on a young lady’) Gordon. They’re real, they’re true, and their raison d’être is not simply to give men hard cocks. However, when publishers package up our voices in covers featuring half-naked babes, the implication is that nothing has changed. Female sexuality is being mis-sold as female sexiness, and it’s being sold directly to men. Sure, women buy this stuff too because we’re very adept at compromising and accommodating ourselves to a man’s world. There’s no alternative to erotica packaged in this way and, as we know, women aren’t put off by other women on the cover in the way that men, scared they’ll catch the gay, are put off by male models, a disparity publishers merrily exploit.
In the debates surrounding Erotica Cover Watch, we’ve heard from a few disgruntled men complaining they’re often discriminated against in the field of erotica. They can’t get published as easily as women, they claim, and sometimes, they’re even obliged to write under female pen-names. This, say the Disgruntleds, is sexist! Well, yes, but not in the way you think it is. Because sexism is more complex than men and women being treated differently on a case for case basis. It operates on the societal level and is a deep-rooted, systemic bias which strives to keep women in a place of inferiority. If men struggle to get published as men in erotica, or if fewer opportunities are available to them (and I’m not even sure this is true), this ain’t because women have more power; it’s because men have more power. It’s because men, the consumers of porn and erotica, the dictators of market demand, want to hear female voices.
That men, the main market, are so keen to hear the female voice is for me one of the prime justifications for ‘women-only’ erotica imprints (such as Black Lace, publishers of my and Mathilde’s fiction). It’s not to give women a hand-up because we struggle to get published (we don’t); it’s to create a space where we can feel free from the standard ‘horny honey’ sexist marketing angles and where we don’t feel we’re simply dishing up smut for the satisfaction of straight guys. I doubt I would ever have started writing dirty books if it weren’t for imprints such as Black Lace. Nexus, BL’s companion ‘general erotica’ imprint, doesn’t actively exclude female authors but I take one look at those covers and I think, yeah, you’re not talking to the likes of me. Nexus guidelines say as much: We know that Nexus books are read by both men and women. However, our covers are designed to appeal primarily to men; we know that some female readers find the cover pictures off-putting. Since it’s impossible to please everyone, we target our books at the majority.
Well, at least they’re being honest. But the upshot is, as reader and writer, I’m going somewhere more female-friendly. I do wish Black Lace would take the next step and actively carve out its space as women-only erotica by featuring more guys on its covers while simultaneously easing up on its insistence we write erotic romance. I want sex not sunsets. To date, it seems we can’t have one without the other; we can’t have man candy on our covers without candlelight content. Because when BL positions itself as erotica (not romance as it did do for a couple of heady/irritating years), we get women on the covers again, often solo. It seems even women-only erotica can’t help pitching itself at the male consumer.
Ironically, one of our Disgruntleds, a budding erotica author, asserted he preferred to write from, and read about, the female POV – as if he were doing feminism a favour, whereas in fact, what he’s doing is himself out of a job. Historically, women have had to write as men in order to get published (think George Eliot, Currer Bell, not to mention the deliberate gender neutrality of JK Rowling). Romance and erotica are probably the only genres where a female author-name (real or pseudonymous) holds greater sway, and it’s plausible that now more women – actual ones with vaginas and stuff – are writing porn, men and men masquerading as women take second billing. But that women (as writers) fare well in erotica is really only comparable to the way women fare well in porn movies and prostitution. Women have something men want: sex. And so women as writers are turned into women as product. And this sucks, big time. If women-only spaces arise to counter and evade this sexism, then I really don’t think it’s the guys, the Disgruntleds, who are suffering here.
MY DIRTY DREAMS
It doesn’t have to be this way. If erotica can shrug off its old habits and start addressing men and women as consumers, then female desire can find a true place from which to operate. More men on covers is the biggest, most important change erotica can make right now. This move would shift the emphasis away from female sexiness. It would position women as desiring rather than desired and give a whole new context to female-penned porn.
In recognising women as consumers, it may even mean that the Disgruntleds get a fairer stab at publication because after all, plenty of women (and I raise my hand) enjoy reading quality fiction centring on the male sexual experience. The massive rise in popularity among women readers of gay fiction and m/m in erotic romance puts paid to the notion we need a female figure to identify with. And in erotica, the reason the authentic male voice is heard less than the female is because women are not its targeted consumer. I don’t think I’m alone in enjoying male-authored fiction about male characters. However, men ‘dragging up’ in order to write male-pleasing porn about ‘a young girl pulling her panties down and exploring her femininity‘ (© Ray Gordon) does significantly less for me.
I love writing smut. It gets me hot and I’ve learned so much about myself and my sexuality from sitting at this keyboard and from dreaming my dirty dreams. I love to think of other people – men and women – reading my work, getting equally hot, and maybe learning something too. However, this cover of Confessions: Admissions of Sexual Guilt depicts what I utterly loathe: the idea that my sexy fiction is little more than honeyed, horny words poured into his ear, entirely for his pleasure, paid for from his pocket.