Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

Erotica Cover Watch: SexMagick: Women Conjuring Erotic Fantasy, ed Cecilia Tan

with 6 comments


SexMagick: Women Conjuring Erotic Fantasy, ed Cecilia Tan, pub Circlet Press

Watched by Kristina Lloyd

Mirror, mirror, on the wall,
Who’s the narcissistickest of them all?

Why, women, of course!

What else could justify imagery which asserts we conjure up erotic fantasies by gazing at our own reflections? What else could explain why hot babes on erotica covers are there at the expense of hot men? What else could make sense of the notion that what women want to look at is not actual, phwoarrr, yum, supersexy dudes but at themselves all pretty and dreamy; at themselves as seen through their own eyes and by extension, through the eyes of others?

The concept of female narcissism explains this SexMagick cover – and so many others – very neatly. Women like looking at women because we’re in love with ourselves; because we’re enthralled by our own charmed bodies; because our desire is entirely self-directed. We don’t want. We just want to be wanted. And we can only be wanted if we want ourselves; or at the very least if we’re paying more attention to our lippy than to him. When we conjure up our fantasies, we’re not thinking about what might get us hot and bothered; we’re thinking about how we might be seen and how we might be wanted.

What rot!

If this really was sex magick, you’d think we might be able to look into a lake and see something, well, magic! Like a cock or a guy or a well-endowed dragon or a water sprite with an evil grin and a pair of handcuffs. But no, the amazing hoodoo is: women are content to get off on themselves.

Age-old clichés about supposed female narcissism (hello, Sigmund!) unfortunately segue into contemporary, populist ideas of female empowerment. Freud compared narcissistic women to cats (always useful to compare female gendered roles to domestic animals): they are remote and have ‘self-contentment’. These women are also, typically, beautiful and fascinating to men. Yes, a narcissistic woman may sound like a stereotypical wank fantasy dominatrix figure but please, let’s not even go there. The point is, onto these cat/woman notions are mapped more positive ideas many modern women aspire to: self-sufficiency, independence, being in need of no other to complete them. Wow! Isn’t that one of the goals of feminism? To stand alone? To be free from the prison of dependence – economic, social, emotional? For women to love themselves and live meaningful lives and not need men to provide validation, self-worth and regular mortgage payments?

Yay, this is strong stuff!

But Goddammit, it shouldn’t follow that, in rejecting an oppressive society in which men, historically, have ruled over women, we – women – must also reject men. Historically, desiring has been a male privilege. Isn’t it time we got what was ours? The equal right to lust and look?

We frequently hear of women declaring they’re asserting their right to express their sexuality. All too often what that actually means is: Hey, look everyone! I’ve got my tits out again! (Ain’t it funny how this version of ‘feminism’ is the one that’s gained the most ground in recent years; the one that’s slipped easily through the filters of patriarchy, a system which would far rather keep women disempowered.) But see this: here’s a picture of me expressing my sexuality:

beautiful_brandon_mills_joe_oppedisano1OK, so it’s not actually a picture of me. But much of my sexuality is about my desire for men. And to the left is a picture of a rather hot man. I found him, I lusted, I showed you. There: that was an expression of my sexuality.

The cliché of female narcissism as expressed through erotica-cover imagery works (supposedly) to please both women and men. If women aren’t directly in love with reflections of their exact selves, they’re in love with an approximation: reflections of other women. Maybe we could scale down the narcissistic aspect and say women just like to identify with other women. Or maybe we could develop it and prey on ideas of narcissism to conjure up ‘magick’ ideas of female bisexuality being the female norm, the favourite fantasy of men everywhere.

Because women’s so-called narcissism justifies both these injustices.

Or maybe we could dispense with this whole crock of shit and say female narcissism is a psycho-social construct which ought to have been put out with the trash decades ago. But it still lingers. Why? Why do we see it reflected (ha!) on erotica covers? In representations of female sexuality? Because it suits the status quo, that’s why. Because erotica still targets men – or women who like to see themselves through men’s eyes, who like to identify, who like to be perceived as sexy. And the reason many women are comfortable with this is because ours is a culture which ignores female desire and practically forbids us from looking at guys. Sometimes it can seem like women’s only option to look to themselves. Freud saw this lack of object-love as a typically female dysfunction but of course, it’s our culture which is dysfunctional.

sexmagick-for-menThere’s a companion volume to this collection: Sex Magick 2: Men Conjuring Erotic Fantasy. Unfortunately, the image is teensy. But it looks to be a pic of a guy on a couch ie in a state of dreaming or fantasising, and quite possibly bound. Standing by the couch is a woman. He has conjured her up; she is there for his pleasure.

Wouldn’t it be magical to have a parallel pic on the female fantasy cover? To have an image depicting a woman desiring what most women desire: a sexy guy.

Actually, it wouldn’t be magical at all. It would simply be fair and equal. But erotica publishing doesn’t do fair. Erotica publishing likes to claim it’s offering something for majority viewers: for men, for bi women and for women who like to identify. It likes to claim its hands are tied and it can do nothing but reflect consumer taste. Erotica publishing is so steeped in sexism, it can’t see itself for what it is.


Written by Kristina Lloyd

March 19, 2009 at 9:02 am

6 Responses

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  1. Another ploy of the female narciccism bind: to express your sexuality overtly and *at men* is “not very attractive, darling” (cue Mother’s voice). To express your availability is another matter – lick those lips, swing those hips, glance back over your shoulder invitingly, etc. I can see the counter-arguments marshalling force even as I write this, because a) this prevailing meme has so much power we mistake it for the way the world is and it becomes invisible (trad right wing myth), and b) it’s intertwined with so many cultural norms and behaviours of sexuality that it’s near impossible to disentangel, and c) nothing is ever homogenising – no cultural law is followed 100% – but the norm does remain.

    Do you know, even Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze was used to push women back into their chairs? “Yes, but you LIKE to look-at-being-looked-at, that’s what you identify with, Mulvey said so!” So a theoretical observation of a horror becomes the theoretical justification of performing a horror. The descriptive becomes prescriptive.

    All the more reason to describe the reverse. (Reactive.) Hell, we’ll get there in the end! Fantastic essay, KL.

    Olivia Knight

    March 19, 2009 at 9:29 am

  2. P.S. Can I add – I don’t want to be denied the pleasures of narcissim any more than I want my sexuality to be reduced to that alone. It is present; it does appeal to both sexes (after all, the original myth relates it to a man); it is not the thing itself or the whole of the thing, as at the moment it posits itself – in mainstream visual culture, anyway.

    Olivia Knight

    March 19, 2009 at 10:11 am

  3. This is such and important and tricksy issue. I know we have been talking a lot about the offensiveness of the idea that women love to ‘get hot in front of a mirror’ – as if that is the be all and end all of female desire.

    Great post!


    March 19, 2009 at 12:15 pm

  4. Fantastic post! Have you read the recent article in the New York Times Sunday magazine about female sexuality? I’m posting about it this week on my blog. Here’s a link to the original article:

    My post about it goes up on Wednesday. Come on over and vent.

    Jessica Freely

    March 23, 2009 at 4:04 pm

  5. The NYT article had me hopping mad. Glad you are venting. I’ll try and pop over on Wed.


    March 23, 2009 at 6:48 pm

  6. […] Another great entry at Erotica Cover Watch. […]

    Links « Stuff

    March 25, 2009 at 9:57 am

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