Erotica Cover Watch: Asking for Trouble by Kristina Lloyd (German translation)
Watched by Kristina Lloyd
Truly, I get eye-bleed if I look at this cover for too long – eye-bleed and heartache, for the book is mine, my second novel and most treasured of my dirty darlings. And oh, Gott in himmel, that cover’s rotten!
As we’ve said before, authors and editors (freelance rather than in-house) are rarely consulted on cover design. We get what we’re given. And when I was given this cover, part of me thought it must be a joke, a parody, an ironic commentary on all those covers featuring headless women in unlikely underwear. Oh, you know the ones I mean. There are classy ones and crass ones but they follow the same basic pattern: eroticise the woman by focussing on her body; focus on her body by excluding her head.
Erotica, however, is not big on irony, and this cover is clearly someone’s sincere attempt to represent my book with this vile objectification of a woman (who I take to be my narrator, my central character, someone whose kinks are much like mine). You might think it doesn’t count because this book is in Foreign but sexism in erotica covers (as in life) doesn’t end with the English-speaking world. Women, not men, still provide the erotic/erotik/erotischer eye-candy while male models primarily get their pecs out for gay smut and romance. In fact, the only real difference I can discern between UK/US covers and those on the continent, is that the latter are often more explicit. So if your dirty book’s translated into, say German or Dutch, there’s a good chance your new cover will feature tits, arse or a full-on beaver-shot. Actually, I jest. Just tits and arse. Occasionally, the arse might even be a guy’s.
Now I’m not against objectification per se and it seems appropriate that sex (erotica in this instance) is sold or represented via sexy bodies. (Contrast the inappropriateness of using bodies, primarily female, to sell cameras or MP3 players or shampoo, and how this widespread objectification means our culture views women as having mainly a sexual meaning, and so ‘sexy’ is signified by women’s bodies, and on it goes, looping round and round.) Much of erotic desire is about flesh and skin, about wanting this sort of body or that body, about wanting to touch, taste, fuck, inhale, embrace, so using sexy bodies to represent this is fine by me. Sure, the erotic is about a thousand and one other things as well: the hinted at, the unseen, decaying lilies, seedy alleyways, and the catch in his voice when he says ‘Suck it, bitch.’ (Um, OK, so maybe that was too much of a dip into my psyche. But you get the gist, and I’m sure you have your own angle.)
Erotica covers would do well to recognise the more subtle, sensual and intangible aspects of sex. But far more pressing is the need for them to recognise that the desire to touch, taste, fuck, inhale, embrace is not specific to men. Women want too. Lots! And me, in my wanting, well I’m more than happy for men to be objectified. This isn’t some tit-for-tat revenge on the patriarchy for its ceaseless objectification of women. This is about wanting to see men for the sheer, knee-weakening sexiness of them.
A SLIDING SCALE
It seems to me there’s a sliding scale in all of this. We start off with sexualisation, depicting people in ways which are hot by emphasising his or her body rather than, say, something which represents the unique and precious snowflakeness of an individual personality. Keep going in this direction and you end up objectifying someone by making their body, in particular the obviously sexy bits, the prime focus. Erotica frequently achieves this by decapitating its women.
Now, I’m not trying to insist that erotica covers feature heads, faces and personality. I can see the value in sometimes keeping these things off stage because if the face doesn’t float your boat, it can detract from the physique. Or if you’re one of those strange women content merely to identify, then if the cover model’s lippy is, like, so not your colour, you may struggle to slip into her skin. So, you know: heads. Over-rated.
However, erotica’s frequent and unimaginative chopping off a head by cropping an image, invariably of a woman, is really quite unpleasant. Again, keep going in this direction, keep removing parts of the female body that are surplus to requirements, and you end up with what looks like erotica’s logical conclusion, covers such as Gib’s Mir. (I’m told it translates as ‘Give it to me‘ or possibly (please, no) ‘Sock it to me‘.)
While I don’t want to bandy around words like ‘misogyny’, I fear we’re getting perilously close with my monstrous cover. Take a look: it’s not merely that her head has been cropped from the image, it’s that the design actually draws attention to the unimportance of her head (and so of her identity, her autonomy, her self). And it does so not once but twice. First off, her head’s been bagged so its ‘not-thereness’ is actually really rather ‘there’. And secondly, jesusfuckingchrist, did they do this with free software? Was the designer on lunch? On crack? Could they not find a compass or pen-knife to scratch out everything above shoulder level? Was it too much effort to create something that might actually look like a bit of BDSM kit?
So, head off (as cheaply and easily as possible, thanks) and tits out. And the tits here are neatly spotlit so we know exactly where to look, exactly what’s important about this woman. And, yup, she’s wearing a corset, universal signifier of the erotic. I don’t have a problem with explicitness. I am pro-porn (I just wish it was better) and I’m mighty happy looking at naked people (especially, but not exclusively, at men). So my problem with this book isn’t that her breasts are bared. I don’t find nipples controversial. I think it’s important to clarify this because it gets a teensy bit annoying when people respond to our feminist argument for more cock as if ours is the repressive, anti-sex voice of illiberalism insisting everyone get dressed. We want to see more sexy men on erotica covers which means (because this is how maths works) less of what currently dominates the covers: sexy women.
Gib’s Mir seems an exaggeration or encapsulation of what all those hot-babe covers are saying. It disregards female agency and desire. It blinds the woman; she is the looked at, never the one looking. It demeans, degrades and objectifies by reducing female sexuality to a pair of tits, to flesh to be ogled. It’s just awful.
But here’s the rub: I kink for female submission. I get off on being demeaned, degraded and objectified. I like the thought of being used and de-humanised, treated as a piece of meat, a fucktoy, a mere body for his pleasure. (And, incidentally, in fantasy I’m often being used by some anonymous, swaggering brute who, in many ways, is as much a piece of meat as I am.) Having no control, no power, no responsibility rocks my sexual world. I like to play passive and be the one who is done to – but, of course, my desire isn’t actually passive because I know what it is and I’m perfectly capable of saying to him, ‘Hey, I like to play passive, will you help me fulfil that desire?’ I don’t write much ‘lifestyle’ smut so my characters aren’t usually as kink-aware and demanding articulate about their sexual needs as I am. However, they do know what they like (though they may be conflicted about communicating it or uncertain how to get it) and in the narrative they’ll say stuff like:
Go on, check out the goods. Objectify me to your heart’s content … Make me meat, merchandise, cunt for sale – a cunt so greedy I’ll do it for free.
I like being objectified. It takes the heat off having to be yourself.
But there’s a world of difference between a woman actively *choosing* to be objectified to get her sexual jollies and women (as a sex, as a whole) being objectified left, right and centre without their consent. Unfortunately, some people struggle with this concept. They think if my feminism is about striving for female empowerment and gender equality, I must be hot on cuffing him to the bed and making him suffer. But I don’t get off on that, so why would I? I want to be the one who is cuffed and suffering – me, me, me! And feminism is surely about allowing and enabling women to own their sexuality, whatever it is. (And as a corollary to this, I believe a guy can dom and degrade a woman and still have impeccable feminist credentials.)
So my sexuality entails some sort of playing out or mirroring of our society’s gender-based power imbalances. In short, he tops me in bed. And there it ends. I try hard in my writing to convey that women can have M/f sex without being blind or indifferent to the ideological and social structures which make for a world which favours men; that women can have kinky submissive sex without that reinforcing the status quo, without them being plagued by some misplaced feminist guilt; that women can actively participate in their own sexual subjugation and find it super-hot. Actually, I don’t try hard. This stuff is in my ink. I just try hard to make it sound less soapboxy and more complex than I did in this paragraph.
And that’s why the cover of Gib’s Mir stings so badly. The English cover of Asking for Trouble (above) is fine. I got a guy because my publisher was marketing the book as erotic romance. (Heck, I’m surprised we haven’t been sued.) But Gib’s Mir turns the ideas I’m trying to express into their very opposite. It makes my sexuality part of the oppressive, disempowering structures I’m at pains to reject. It positions the book as just another in a long line of smut where man is the consumer, woman the consumed.
It’s extremely difficult to visually represent female submission as an active choice by using imagery of solo women. Images including men would do a lot to offset this. Better still, images of sexy dom men would show that wanting to submit is also, inevitably, about wanting to be dominated. No, really, it is. You can’t do it alone. And so for women, he matters in all of this; him with his big beautiful muscles, his hard hands, cruel eyes and that sadistic little sneer.
I want to communicate, in my writing, my belief that women can kink for dominant men while rejecting a male-dominated world; that we can embrace female submission without fearing we’re shoring up patriarchal notions of female passivity, of women as the ones who are ‘done to’ and desired, never the do-ers and desiring. Feminism is about equality, meaning women have the same rights as men to sexual pleasure. If there’s such a lumpen thing as a ‘message’ in my writing, it’s this: that women can be sexually submissive without reinforcing sexist constructions of men and women, without perpetuating gender inequality. The cover of Gib’s Mir, with its flagrant objectification and degradation of a woman for mass-market male consumption, tells us we can’t.
Erotica Cover Watch has been criticised in the past for hurting people’s feelings by holding their book covers up as examples of erotica publishing’s sexism. We’ve been accused of being negative and unsupportive of the erotica community. Asking for Trouble is mine. I’m proud of the contents but I utterly loathe this German cover. It’s ugly, sure, but far worse than that, it negates the politics which for me, and many others, are fundamental in reconciling female sexual submission with modern, aware feminism. And trust me, that negation, that massive misrepresentation, damages a lot more than my feelings.