Erotica Cover Watch: Erotic Fairy Tales by Mitzi Szereto
Watched by Mathilde Madden
This is one of those covers where I guess I have to say upfront, yes, it is a nice picture. Of course, I did think that most fairy tales had men in them – Prince Charming, etc. But instead of any glimpse of a prince we get another ‘instructional’ book cover. Look she’s reading a book. That’s how to read this book, women, it’s smut – hold your tits whilst reading.
Of course, as ever, men don’t need to be told visually how to enjoy porn books.
So nice cover – if you aren’t sick to death of erotica covers featuring solo women. It’s a classy image. Tasteful and sepia toned. And I think – in declaring our desire to see men on the covers of erotic books, the war against ideas of tastefulness is one of our hardest campaigns. Because a lot of people want erotica to be nice and look nice (nice in a dirty/sweet kind of way) and being a woman and saying you want to look at naked men, is – in sophistication terms – a bit like saying you want to eat a Pot Noodle while wearing a ratty dressing gown and picking your nose.
Let me explain. There is something of a notion that for a woman, being turned on by images of sexualised men just isn’t very clever. Or maybe that “Nice girl’s don’t”. Perhaps even with a touch of “It’s all a bit non-U, darling“.
Bared Super Muscley Bums
Here’s an example of the perceived trashiness of women looking at men. In my novel Peep Show (which has a woman on the cover – naturally – for a book all about a woman who likes to spy on gay men having sex. Sheesh) the main character, Imogen, remembers a time when she went to see a rather trashy male strip show
When I was in my late teens I went to see one of those male strip shows, with some of my friends in the Upper Sixth. It wasn’t my idea. It was a birthday treat for someone else in our gang, who had just turned 18.
It was sort of The Chippendales, but not, one of those so-similar-they-might-as-well-be, rip-off acts.
All my friends pissed themselves laughing all the way through the show. And so did I. Except, well, except. See, I did find it funny. Who wouldn’t find trousers with Velcro-ed seams and enormous oiled up men, with bared super muscley bums, tres amusing? But, at the same time, this other part of me, the part I was just getting to know back then, found it the single hottest thing I had ever experienced.
Strip. Tease. Oh yum yum.
Male striptease for women, man titty erotic romance covers. How come in the ghettos where men’s bodies are served for female consumption it is always utterly crass? Why is female desire for manflesh only allowed to be at the seediest trashiest end of the sexual market. The equivalent of the men in flasher-macs kerb crawling. There we are next to them, drooling over some orange, over worked out bloke, with shaved pecs and a mullet.
So I can understand why a lot of people howled when we started this blog thinking that we were campaigning for more trashy Fabio style book covers to cross from the women only world of romance into the more generalised world of erotica. But we’re not asking for that. We’re campaigning for as wide and interesting a variety of images of sexualised men as there are of sexualised women.
In fact, talking of variety, let’s not throw the man titty out completely. Sometimes – when it comes to prime beef – you actually want a hamburger not a steak. I only think the covers pumped out by Ellora’s Cave and the like are a bit much because there’s no subtler man candy aimed at women to balance it out. So there’s two things here. One is why can’t women like looking at men in that totally seedy trashy way without that making us dumb or shallow? And the other question is why, when we do look at men, do we only get that seedy trashy stuff that is currently perceived as dumb or shallow?
I want the seedy trashy to lose its stigma and also for women to have eye candy that is seen as properly sophisticated, even arty. But the only images of men that are allowed to be arty, sophisticated, black and white, are ones aimed at men. Quick index: if a picture of a naked man is black and white you can bet your life it will be labeled homoerotic.
But this artlessness around sexualised male imagery for women is more than just a bit annoying – it is actively contributing to the shameful dearth of man candy on erotica books covers. These days erotic fiction is experiencing a Renaissance and this nu-erotica is very concerned with shedding its old school trashy, pulpy image. Rather like the growth in Burlesque, titillation with a heritage – smut that is aware of its history – is stepping out of the shadows and claiming its place as art. As erotic fiction becomes more mainstream (yay) and the top end of the market fights to be called literature, it becomes impossible for it to put non-gay sexulised men on the cover. Because the covers have to be sexy but classy – they have to look like literature – and really, could anything in a man titty cover be called literature?
And so if women want nice, classy, arty imagery on book covers representing their desires – well, it’s solo woman how-to-get-off. Or…
Sapphic Love is Far Nicer
Really, there’s only one kind of female desire that can ever be thought of as grown up and sophisticated in the world of erotica book covers – and that is the desire for other women. Sapphic love is far nicer. And this gets prettier pictures.
Use erotic book covers as your guide and it almost seems as if lesbian desire is much more proper and grown up. Wanting men is immature and lazy (get thee to the romance section).
When we criticise covers that only display women as sex objects a lot of the criticisms we get feel like they’re deriding us for being immature. Like we can’t see that she (random cover model) is pretty. Like, if we can’t get our jollies looking at a picture of a pretty lady we must be sexually stunted in some way.
Not stunted – just straight. Just how it is.
Right now, if you want nice, subtly suggestive (possibly black and white) soft focus sexual imagery aimed at women, lesbian erotica serves it up in spades. But why aren’t any – of the admittedly few – arenas where men are served up for women, doing anything even approaching this level of tastefulness?
Female Bodies are Used to Sell Everything
Some people point out to us the female bodies are used to sell everything. That the idea of the feminine symbolising the erotic is hardly confined to erotic books. Why then, they ask, should we expect erotic fiction to be any better? Here’s why: because erotic fiction tells us it is better. Modern erotic fiction tells us all the time how it embraces all kinds of sexualities. It is published by hip, feminist, diversity-aware publishers. Submission guidelines tell us anything goes. Boundaries are pushed and the reclaimed land is marked out for all to enjoy.
And the fact is, modern erotic fiction enjoys its position as liberal and progressive rather too much to be still making these kind of simplistic glaring errors on gender equality.