Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

Erotica Cover Watch: Venus in Furs, Harper Perennial

with 14 comments


Venus in Furs, pub Harper Collins Perennial

Watched by Kristina Lloyd

It took me days to work out what this image was. Days! It reminded me of a chicken wing – but I knew Venus in Furs wasn’t chicken porn. I asked a bunch of friends and they were equally stumped so I wrote to Harper Collins, asking if they could help me out. While I awaited their reply, I kept returning to stare at the book cover.

You know those defamiliarised images where you think you’re looking at, say, a moon orbiting a planet then the camera pans back and you realise it’s actually a shot of a dippy egg? I thought maybe it was a similar piece of visual trickery. Or maybe it was comparable to one of those optical illusions which are two things at once, old woman /young woman, rabbit/duck etc. Or was it like those sodding 3D dinosaurs that everyone – everyone! – except me could see in the early 90s? If so, then I just needed to keep looking at the picture for long enough and everything would click into place.

But no. Nothing clicked.

And Harper Collins didn’t reply.

This edition of Venus in Furs is part of a new line of ten Forbidden Classics from Harper Collins’ Perennial imprint, released in time for Valentine’s day, says the publicity. All the covers feature bits of a body, some images more abstract and puzzling than others; and the colours are drawn from a rich, warm palette of Belgian chocolates and truffles melting by the fireside. In short, sumptuous, subtle and sexy. And from what I could tell, the range depicted nine women and a chicken wing.


My guess was it was actually an image of man – there was something muscular and less than silk-smooth-skin going on – and my friends agreed. But which bit of him? Was that a shaved armpit? Is that an elbow at a funny angle? Did it even matter? Because, I fumed, if that’s a pic of a guy, then what’s the effing point if we can’t actually tell it’s a guy? We’ve seen (or rather, not) invisible men on Cover Watch before and we’ve scoffed at claims a women in her skimpies could feasibly be a cross-dressing bloke (therefore rendering the man, if indeed he was one, invisible once again).

Then I asked another friend who said, ‘Um, but it’s so obvious’ and proceeded to explain the image in precisely three words. Doh! I slapped my forehead. Of course, of course! What a glorious pic. No wonder Harper Collins hadn’t got back to me. They thought I was an idiot!

And so happily, my suspicions were confirmed: this was an image of a guy. One in ten isn’t a great ratio of men to women but hey, it’s a helluva lot better than what we’re used to seeing in erotica publishing. So I took my hat off to Harper and took my hat off again when I checked out other editions of Venus in Furs.


It seems male masochistic, submissive desire is generally depicted as tits, boots and corsets. In a fair world, my own female masochistic, submissive desire 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 corsets.

So hurrah to Harper Perennial for using an image of a guy on Venus in Furs. Being able to understand the image made me look more closely at the other covers. And OMG, what’s going on in The Way of a Man with a Maid? That’s surely a pic of a bloke. Can you see stubble on the chin? Are those fingers too broad to be female? (Click on the title to see a bigger, clearer picture.)

maid1I could be churlish and say ‘This is not enough’. Two ambiguous images of men don’t have much impact, especially when people may not actually realise these are guys. And it’s interesting to note that the two books featuring men on the cover are those with narratives on male submission. In particular, the image on The Way of a Man with a Maid suggests uncertainty and coquettishness, a flirty sort of submission more traditionally associated with women. A man less maid-like wouldn’t have gone amiss. And I’d have been thrilled to see a hint of muscle and swagger on Walter’s My Secret Life, one of my favourite erotic books. But perhaps overt masculinity was deemed too much. And while none of the ten images are explicit, those depicting women are clearly of women. So perhaps what we’re seeing is man candy by stealth.

And I’m not going to complain too much because the point is: this is how change often starts. Softly, softly, catchee monkey. Sure, we want sexy guys on erotica covers to counterbalance the prevalence of sexy women but we know this won’t happen overnight. Part of the publishers’ problem is trying to appeal to readers who’ve been socially conditioned to think semi-nekkid babe = hetsexy and semi-nekkid guy = gay or romance. Another problem, so we’re told, is convincing booksellers to stock books whose covers stray from the sexist norm.

But look, Perennial seem to have done it effortlessly. And remember, this is an imprint of Harper Collins. They are major players. I doubt they were motivated solely by an impulse to challenge the usual gender bias. They’ve revived these classics by doing something different within their new line. My guess is they’re aiming the books at straight men, women and couples. The feel is romantic and sensual; the books were released pre-Valentine’s day; and men are included on the covers meaning women are included as viewers. And why go to all this trouble to broaden smut’s usual audience? Because Harper Perennial think there’s money in it, why else?

And so the world didn’t end, the horses weren’t frightened and nobody got confused over where to shelve the books. After all, only a fool would pick up Perennial’s edition of Venus in Furs and think they were holding gay porn. Or, um, that its cover featured a chicken wing.

So what do you think? Could you tell what the image was immediately? And do you agree that it is a pic of a guy on The Way of a Man with a Maid? Or am I seeing things once again?

Let me know. And I’ll let you know if Harper Collins ever get back to me.

Written by Kristina Lloyd

February 19, 2009 at 9:46 am

14 Responses

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  1. It is the upper body of a man. Top is the jawline, extending down to the throat and it terminates just above his nipples. Front of the shoulders are at the right bottom most edge.

    Craig Sorensen

    February 19, 2009 at 10:04 am

  2. And yes, I was able to identify it right off. 😉

    Craig Sorensen

    February 19, 2009 at 10:07 am

  3. Yes. Very good, Craig. You won.

    God, I bet you were one of those people who used to go ‘Just relax your eyes. Focus beyond the picture. All those dinosaurs! But you *must* be able to see them! It’s so easy!’



    February 19, 2009 at 10:34 am

  4. Adam’s apple! Throat! Bitey bitey!

    I didn’t see it straight away, no. I cycled through body parts until I hit on it.

    And yes, I think the man on the Maid and the man is a man. Unless it’s a woman (like me) who has good rough stumpy worker’s hands. Aar.

    I like those covers. Sexy, subtle, pretty. And two males out of ten covers is … better than none.

    I do find pics of women sexay – but I’m omniverous, so perhaps/probably not in the majority, and also I like mens’s too.

    (Men’s whats?

    Oh, you know. Everything. Just call me a greedy fucker.)


    February 19, 2009 at 11:16 am

  5. – and what I meant by that was *not* that because I find women’s bodies sexy that I think it’s cool that every single ‘sexy’ image is only and always a naked chick.

    What I meant was that I am one of those people referred to in the arguments that go along the lines of ‘women find women sexy too’, but I still don’t enjoy the relentless, repetitive use of women as sex objects.

    God, I’m not good at explaining myself. I’ll just sit here and look at the pictures, okay.


    February 19, 2009 at 11:43 am

  6. Makes sense to me, Nikki. You can still find women sexy but object to the persistent sexism that denies us choice and equality by denying us man candy.

    Because as you say, men are sexy too! I do hope you had a nice cycle through his body parts.


    February 19, 2009 at 12:31 pm

  7. Adam’s apple gave it away for me, though the title threw me a moment. It’s not instant-recognition as the other covers are, but once you’ve clocked it, it becomes *so* much more fun. Because that’s a bloke, so suddenly it’s MY point of view, and his head’s flung back, so he’s certainly feeling something, and I’ve just had a rather dazzling time trying to work out possible positions where he’d end up like that and that would be my angle of vision. My imagination is now happily corrupted!

    Olivia Knight

    February 19, 2009 at 1:05 pm

  8. It’s a nice Adam’s apple too. There is such a thing as Too Big, I reckon. There, anyway!

    Janine Ashbless

    February 20, 2009 at 10:01 am

  9. I faltered for a few seconds and figured it out.

    I like female images on erotica covers. I see enough naked men in romance. And there’s something not very masculine (IMO) about smoothly waxed male-model perfection. Which is what I see a lot.

    But, yeah, I kind of like the Adam’s apple image. Not sure why that part of a man is sexy. It’s always bobbing when they’re agitated. In my books, anyway!

    See you.

    Jill Sorenson

    February 20, 2009 at 5:33 pm

  10. This reminds me of my confusion over my ‘Wild Card’ cover. I was upset that the parts of the woman on my cover were so…muscular…and…jeezus, hair on her arms? WTF? It took me a loooong time to figure out that, duh, there was a woman AND a man on the cover.
    I am like you Kristina. I can’t see that stuff, the old lady and the young lady, the vase and the two faces…and I usually get irritable if I spend much time trying. So, thanks Craig!

    It’s possible that a woman is nibbling the fingers of
    a man on ‘The Way of a Man with a Maid’ but the bit of face we can see does seem a little…masculine.
    Definitely a man on ‘Venus in Furs’ tho. The Adam’s apple tells all. Which is way cool, no?

    Madeline Moore

    February 20, 2009 at 7:36 pm

  11. It took me fucking ages to work out what part of whose anatomy that cover showed. Once I’d grasped it, I quite liked it: I seem to be developing quite the fetish for men’s ‘adam’s apples’.

    That’s by the by though; I don’t want to have to spend time deciphering the ambiguous images on a cover, I just want to see a few more male bodies on them, that’s all.


    Ooh, adam’s apple…

    Girl with a one track mind

    February 22, 2009 at 12:21 am

  12. Jill, thanks for stopping by. You might like to check out this early post where we talked about the significance of men *only* appearing on romance covers, never on erotica ie the implication is women are only allowed to lust over a guy if love is on the horizon. We’re not allowed to lust for the sake of lust (and by extension to have sex for the pleasure of sex itself).

    All those book covers tell us that erotica’s for the guys, romance is for the gals. We’re here to challenge that!

    Harper Collins still haven’t got back to me, btw. *sniff*


    February 23, 2009 at 9:17 am

  13. Isn’t this slightly academic – at least in terms of having male flesh on the covers, and men then being perceived as gay when reading it; – I mean after all, how many men read this sort of stuff in public!

    But yes to men on covers, also what about some size 14s women while we’re on the subject…


    April 1, 2009 at 1:24 am

  14. […] Watch, recently they have started a debate on why, given a large market share are female readers, only women appear on erotic book covers. They also have Man Candy Monday, soon it’s going to be dangerous to start the working […]

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