Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

Erotica Cover Watch: Confessions: Admissions of Sexual Guilt, ed Sage Vivant and M Christian

with 18 comments

confessions

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.

FANNY HILL

fannyhill5In 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.

malemodel10_22In 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.

DISGRUNTLED MEN

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.

mccloudcelbridgemorgangordonjensenthurlow1ashton2ashton1shelly

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.

naughtinessashblessshame1raymond1knight2lloyd2maddenbellemaddenboy1

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

joeoppedisano_selfIt 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.

Written by Kristina Lloyd

November 13, 2008 at 8:44 am

18 Responses

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  1. …and that’s without even addressing the issue of why sexual guilt, from women, is considered so sexy. Don’t you just love the passive tense? “is considered”… by WHOM, dammit? Because I for one love nothing more than for my sexual experience to be wracked with guilt and then wake up the next morning loathing myself and feeling dirty. That really rocks.

    I’m generally against burning books, but I do feel Ray Gordon’s Schoolgirl Lust, a touching tale of village paedophilia, sexual abuse and self-loathing, should be burnt. It exploits exactly that idea – “female guilt about sex is dead sexy” – so the teenage protagonist, in the course the grooming for abuse and actual abuse she undergoes, feels immensely guilty, for the delectation of the reader.

    But yes: one battle at a time: “having a voice” is bullshit, as I learnt in my studies of postcolonialism – having a short story published in a journal is “having a voice” and it’s sure as hell not the same as actual empowerment or agency. Erotica by women for women marketed at men; deeply odd.

    Of course the powers that be, fondly known as the Right (“There it is, essential; well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous, it invents itself ceaselessly. It takes hold of everything, all aspects of the law, of morality, of aesthetics, of diplomacy, of household equipment, of Literature, of entertainment…”) will not allow anything as evidence or as possibility or as conceivable unless it is already itself proven, in existence, mainstream – in fact, itself, part of the Right. In short: they won’t believe it sells until it’s already selling (which as they won’t sell it, it can’t do). Thank heavens the world is not so homogenous as that, and blogs exist as a market-free space (as opposed to the laughably named “free market”), and we can all yell “Women are visual!” and “Men look hot!” until we’re blue in the face and wave our flags of hot men and one day they’ll say, “But of course they are, look I’m putting a whole range on my new covers now, what are you making such a fuss about?” and we will have carved out a new shape of reality, in at least this way.

    Olivia Knight

    November 13, 2008 at 10:19 am

  2. P.S. On a lighter note – can we collect all the covers with bits of men on them until we have the full set and self-assemble our own man candy?

    Olivia Knight

    November 13, 2008 at 10:56 am

  3. Kristina, I can attest that your work is very effective for the male reader. At least this male reader.

    I’m currently reading the very sexy X: The Erotic Treasury by Susie Bright. Its simple, classy cover represents yet another approach seldom taken in erotica: subtle, more suggestive covers.

    I work in a business that leans heavily on its covers (direct marketing.) In our business we sometimes test our covers by sending out different versions of our catalogs to similar customers. Of course, we are mailing this direct, so it’s easier to target similar groups and measure response, but I wonder if such a test could be executed with books. Attempt to send different versions to different outlets (Waldenbooks, B Dalton, etc.) Read sales across each outlet, which would probably be positioned in similar demographics.

    I have enjoyed being “part of the fray” since BICEPS began. As an emerging author of erotica, my desire is to see all erotica flourish and come further from the shadows. I think the point of view that you are presenting points to an important factor in maturing that growth.

    I don’t have the answers, but I enjoy being part of the questioning.

    Craig Sorensen

    November 13, 2008 at 11:23 am

  4. Olivia, yes. Having a voice doesn’t necessarily translate into having power and being able to effect change. If it were just about being vocal and visible, slim sexy white woman would be the most powerful player in porn and erotica. Heck, if it were just about visibility, she’d probably be the most powerful player in the Western world and beyond.

    And Craig, I wish we could do tests! I think if erotica could steer itself away from such male-aimed covers, it would gain an awful lot of new readers. And Olivia is right. It will only change when they see the profit in it or when there’s pressure from consumers. If you think back not so many years ago, the environment was only of interest to a few cranks on the periphery. Now it’s practically mainstream and retailers have had to get on board by making out they care too (whereas truth is, they’re just following the money and doing their level best to not allow green isssues to become anti-consumerist cos otherwise, they’re fucked. Oooh, look! Rainforest bubble bath!)

    Sorry, seem to have gone a bit off-message there. Man Candy! And yes, Susie B’s cover is gorgeous.

    kristinalloyd

    November 13, 2008 at 12:14 pm

  5. I think I am allowed to say that I am wrangling Susie Bright into an interview for Cover Watch right now. I am hoping she will let us know how come the cover for X doesn’t have a sexay babe on the cover? How do people know it is ‘rotica?

    This post is so great. I’d love to be able to buy high quality erotica that foregrounds male voices and experiences (and COCK). I always thought it was odd that in the Black Lace guidelines they say that at least one of the viewpoint characters has to be a woman. Er, why? When almost every Nexus book is about a woman’s sexual adventures. And don’t even get me started on the lack of m/m – did BL ever miss the boat on that one!

    mathildemadden

    November 13, 2008 at 1:21 pm

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful and excellent essay. What a pleasure to read! I don’t have anything interesting to add, but I agree with all these points.

    Carolyn Jean

    November 13, 2008 at 3:11 pm

  7. LOL – that “stories” on the cover is just plain naff. How embarrassing!

    As a slight counterbalance, I’d point out though that I have never ever been pressured into writing in a manner that will appeal to men – but I have frequently had my work censored in order to make it “appeal to women”. The missing c-word, for example…

    Janine Ashbless

    November 13, 2008 at 4:40 pm

  8. Thanks, Carolyn! (Or is it CJ?)

    And Janine, yes. BL are a long way from perfect and this notion that smut needs to be toned down or romanticised if it’s to appeal to women makes me mad as hell. And their previous stance on m/m is just appalling.

    I am going to set up my own press: Feminist Filth. It will be hot, literate, smart, pornographic, and it will feature sexy men on the covers. (Obviously, I’m not. I’m just dreaming.)

    I really can’t wait to hear what Susie has to say.

    kristinalloyd

    November 13, 2008 at 5:26 pm

  9. I always wondered what would happen when/if BICEPS talked about a book I’m in, and now it’s happened. Having already lost favour with one terrific editor, I’m terrified at the mere possibility that I might get blacklisted by any more. Plus I like Sage and M.Christian. I know, I know, it’s not about liking people, but still…I don’t feel comfortable messing with the dilemmas of editors/publishers when I’ve never been either. So – no freakin’ comment! Except i love the hirsute man candy and I didn’t know, until Monday, that I could look at a pic of such a hairy dude without saying ‘Ugh’ so once again I learn something.

    Also, I haven’t even attempted to be a book reviewer because I can’t stand the idea of having to say something negative about another writer’s work. Yeah, I know, Madeline Moore (or de Chambrey, if you’re wondering where I am in Confessions) is a suck.

    I’d say I’m proud of you, M and K, except it’s not my place to be proud of you and I kinda hate it when people who have NO BUSINESS being proud of me say they are, so I’ll say I’m impressed that you are willing to stick your necks out so far in order to attempt change, in that you are published by Black Lace. You are, of course, two of BL’s most popular authors, so it would likely take more than a stroke of a pen to extinguish your names. But it wouldn’t take much more than that to get rid of me, I’m afraid, (I’m afraid!) so I’m going to stick to admiring your man candy and more or less avoid commenting any further.

    Madeline Moore

    November 13, 2008 at 5:27 pm

  10. Feminist Filth: I’d buy every book published under that imprint, for sure.

    Thanks for the shout out! Thanks, also, for Monday’s picture: I adore it.

    Girl with a one track mind

    November 13, 2008 at 8:50 pm

  11. Thanks, Madeline!

    And I completely understand your stance. Although, just to clarify, I’m not for a moment pointing the finger of blame at SV or MC. I doubt they even had a say in the cover design.

    But yes, as writers we’re in a very vulnerable position, and if you piss off an editor in this small world of smut it can, of course, affect your chances of getting published with them. It’s quite awful. In most other industries, there are rules and regulations which mean people are allowed to speak out against perceived discrimination and injustices without fearing they might be jeopardising their careers. Who knows where Mathilde and I will be as a result of this. Career-wise, I really don’t think we’ve done ourselves many favours.

    I *wish* I knew the photographer for Monday’s photo then I could credit him or her. I’m such a greedy right-click-bitch that I often forget to record these details.

    kristinalloyd

    November 13, 2008 at 11:39 pm

  12. It’s true, the editors are not the ones with the say over the covers, so really you’re critisizing the publishers. That doesn’t make me feel braver, for some reason…

    Madeline Moore

    November 14, 2008 at 10:21 am

  13. I think our biggest criticism is of society and the way it views women and female sexuality. But I think the publishers do bear responsibility for continuing to perpetuate these outdated notions in their cover designs. They, of course, say they have no choice since they’re held to ransom by the big bookstores. The bookstores, in turn, blame the consumer, saying we won’t buy anything too weird (like OMG, guys on the covers). So actually, since we’re all consumers, it’s *our* fault (apparently). But since we can only buy what’s on sale it surely then loops back to the publishers and the choices *they* are making.

    kristinalloyd

    November 14, 2008 at 10:44 am

  14. I know, off topic but the photos by Joe Oppedisano above are gorgeous! If there was a book with his work on it, as you have above, I’d buy it. No looking at blurb! He is seriously clever!

    Sarah

    November 19, 2008 at 8:23 am

  15. I’m pretty sure there is a JO book called Testosterone. Must put that on my wish list…

    mathildemadden

    November 19, 2008 at 10:58 am

  16. Yep. There is and another coming soon. I have several in my wishlist at the moment, including Exterface’s books. Fab photographers!

    Sarah

    November 22, 2008 at 4:50 am

  17. […] fact this taps right into the issues we raised in an earlier post  about the idea of books of sexual ‘confessions’ and the reasons why these books are always […]

  18. […] is not just for women on its covers but also for the female voice; the female revelation and confession; the authentic female experience. Erotica (like porno) often wants evidence of women having a good […]


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