Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

Erotica Cover Watch: Please, Sir AND Please, Ma’am, ed. Rachel Kramer Bussel

with 28 comments

Please, Sir, ed. Rachel Kramer Bussel, pub. Cleis Press. Please, Ma’am, ed. Rachel Kramer Bussel, pub. Cleis Press

Watched by Mathilde Madden

What? No. Really? Really, Cleis Press? Really? Deja vu, anyone?

I mean, you do realise that it’s possible to take photographs of men, don’t you? You haven’t got them confused with, I dunno, vampires or something.

Well, I guess the best that can be said about this. And it’s accompanying book is that it is some kind of improvement on those last ones. Now instead of black rubber corsets we have coloured corsets. Plus, the women have heads: w00t! Women get to have heads, party!  Except that we don’t count that on Cover Watch. Nah, see, we count trashy women on covers the same as sophisticated women with vaguely hip make up. Still women. Still covers featuring women and only women. This is an erotica book and in the erotica publishing industry only women can represent the erotic. No, strike that, it’s not quite true. Only the desires of straight men can represent the erotic.

Like I said before, think about the gaze. Think about whose shoes you are being invited to fill as you look at these covers.

Now, do I need to come right out and say it: this, men and women of the web, is sexism at it’s simplest.

Since these books are about sex and power, let’s talk about sexism and power. We live in a patriachy. Men have power; women have power only where men allow it. So, say, women get to have the “power” of sitting on a book cover looking sexy, but we don’t get to have the (real) power of having our desires represented on book covers. Can you see how different those levels of power are?

What’s particularly unfair is how much artistic energy women sink into the erotica publishing industry. Women make up the bulk of the writers and editors and reviewers for these books, often for very little financial rewards. Wouldn’t it be nice if the result of all this work and enthusiasm was a product that acknowledged their right to desire on the packaging? Instead of just presenting their labours as a delicious treat for straight men to pick up and enjoy?

Again and again we see this idea that women who want to be part of sexual culture have to become performers. Have to be on display. Only men get the privilege of watching from the shadows, comfortable that their desire will be presented for them without them having to offer anything of themselves in return.

That these books, like the previous two in the series, refuse to acknowledge female desire (the books are explicitly heterosexual) on the goddamn covers is shameful. It’s 2010, women have eyes and hearts and minds. Erotica publishing’s continued obstinate ignoring of that simple fact is sexist, nasty and, actually, in these tough economic times, probably downright dumb.


Written by mat

February 11, 2010 at 11:05 am

28 Responses

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  1. […] *sigh* […]

    New Post « Mathilde Madden

    February 11, 2010 at 11:07 am

  2. Oh dear.

    That calls itself ‘Erotic Stories of Male Submission’?

    It’s a ‘Women who are attracted to male submission, fuck off! This is not for you!’ cover.


    February 11, 2010 at 11:20 am

  3. Where’s Bitchy Jones when you need her? She could have written this post, only she wouldn’t have been as nice about it.

    (I don’t want to spam links, but Google “Bitchy Jones’ Diary” if you aren’t familiar with her stuff.)


    February 11, 2010 at 6:02 pm

  4. Y’know, with the exception of out gay male adult models/actors, it’s actually surprisingly hard to find men who are willing to show their faces for any type of alternative sexuality modeling – particularly male submissive modeling, while if you hop onto Twitter for five minutes gifted female fetish models will just fall into your lap.

    It may have been a decision born of logistics.

    Sabrina Morgan

    February 11, 2010 at 6:14 pm

  5. It may have been a decision born of logistics.

    Nope. It’s ignorance and sexist prejudice. The erroneous notion is that dominant women don’t exist. Only performers – see the chosen cover image. So who would want images of submissive men?

    Actually, we exist and we do. The images exist too:


    February 11, 2010 at 6:54 pm

  6. Whereas the second erroneous notion is that submissive men who like positive, attractive representations of their own sexuality don’t exist either. Wrong assumption, too.


    February 11, 2010 at 7:12 pm

  7. I’m familiar with maymay’s site (and a fan).

    That said – have you tried to get male submissive men to model lately? It’s actually somewhat difficult. The first thing they’ll say is “We can do it without showing my face, right?” It is a pain in the ass. Yes, even when they’re getting paid to indulge in their kinks with a Domme of their choosing. The exception is crossdressers, and arguably they’re somewhat disguised.

    I think you’d also be pretty hard-pressed to state that Rachel Kramer Bussell thinks dominant women (and our desires to see hawt, hawt men tied up and pleading) don’t exist.

    But then, you’ve pretty much decided that the simplest and most logical explanation is less likely than the most extreme, so my only suggestion is this: Start an imprint. Get some authors. Hire some models. It should arguably be easier to find male submissive models willing to show their face on a book cover than on a strapon site or in a plot-driven erotic video. With all my heart, I wish you better luck than I’ve had.

    Sabrina Morgan

    February 11, 2010 at 7:15 pm

  8. Ugh at “male submissive men.” My kitten stepped on my mouse before I could backspace that…

    Sabrina Morgan

    February 11, 2010 at 7:17 pm

  9. I’d like to know: The men you unsuccessfully asked to model, were they professional / semi-professional models? Amateurs who had done erotic photoshoots before? Or men with no modelling experience?


    February 11, 2010 at 7:51 pm

  10. Oh I think we need this excuse for our But, but, but page. You can’t have men on the covers of erotic books because men don’t exist. Sorry.


    February 11, 2010 at 8:04 pm

  11. I put out an open modeling call. I got responses from amateurs and men with no modeling experience, who then backed out for the reasons stated above. I didn’t receive responses from pro or semi-pro models. For those projects, I was specifically looking for semi-amateur or new models, but in the future I would likely modify my requirements as well as my model call distribution.

    Of course, that might not have helped. Indie porn producer FurryGirl recently put out a call for male models that was blasted all over the pervy internet, and she had almost exclusively the same results I did. That’s part of why I appreciate maymay’s site so much; I know that for every guy who bravely showed his face, there are hundreds who never, ever will.

    I think it’s very possible that small imprints with limited or no print distribution might get a different response from aspiring or curious male models than an imprint that’s stocked in bookstores across the country, and obviously it’s something I’d like to see happen someday.

    I think that working to change this perception in our culture that feminine people model and masculine people don’t is better accomplished at the personal/community level than the person vs. corporation level, unless of course one were to start one’s own corporation (change from within). It’s probably in large part generational. If we get the next generation of men raised on the idea that male submissive bondage modeling is hot, then hopefully…

    Interestingly, queer porn producers have run into the same issue with butches appearing on film; there’s a demand there, but it’s surprisingly hard to get butches in front of the camera because of the perception that it’s a femme/feminine thing to do. Head, meet wall. There are those of us out there trying. It’s just taking a while…

    Sabrina Morgan

    February 11, 2010 at 8:44 pm

  12. Great post, insulting covers.

    Comments have gone in quite a specific direction. I think it’s important to clarify that on ECW, we’re not simply complaining about the failure to acknowledge female desire within a certain kink. It’s erotica covers’ failure to acknowledge female desire, full stop, that enrages. Both those RKB covers are wrong. I kink for femsub. I am tired of my sexuality forever being represented as a woman in bondage or baring her butt for a spanking. I’m tired of being expected to identify. I like to be done to. I get off on the guy who is doing the mean stuff to me. A big sexy brute looking down at the viewer on the cover of Please Sir would make me very happy indeed. I’ve moaned about this before in relation to one of my own book covers.

    Taken as companion volumes, all things being equal, one of those ‘Please’ covers should depict a guy, the other a woman. But as erotica keeps on proving, things are not equal. The default representation of ‘sexy’ is a woman. Both those covers suck. And taken side by side, they illustrate exactly how much erotica publishing sucks and how resistant it is to moving on from the old model which says porn is for the male consumer and sex is for men.

    Sabrina, welcome to ECW. We didn’t start our own corporation (damn, why didn’t we think of that?) however we have had some amazing successes since we started campaigning over a year ago, and they go well beyond the local/community level. You should check out our site some time!


    February 11, 2010 at 11:23 pm

  13. A big sexy brute looking down at the viewer on the cover might make some people think of serial killers in a way a similar picture of a woman wouldn’t though, some people get really uncomfortable about men acting sexually aggressive. Not women who are into that obviously, but Barnes & Noble managers & the like. You’d have to be kind of careful how you presented that image I’d think.

    El Squidge

    February 13, 2010 at 4:56 am

  14. I think the “beautiful woman on the cover” caters to the antiquated idea that men are visually aroused and women “need” plot or more than a pretty picture. I am very visual and images can really rile me up.
    I think it also has something to do with the idea that everyone finds women beautiful. Even straight women can appreciate the female form. I don’t necessarily agree. But I do feel that it is much more difficult to provide images of men that aren’t corny or like ’70s porn. It’s like the speedo. I love looking at naked men. I can appreciate their lines and forms. But put that tight piece of Lycra on them and I am turned off. I would much rather see a man in boxers than briefs or a g string (I wish male strippers were
    aware of this) maybe if the major erotica corps updated what can be attractive about a man we would have more luck. He doesn’t have to have a bushy moustache or have a cowboy hat to be erotic. Images of men as dominants or the figures of lithe men are very hot. But now I think that images like that would be seen as intimidating to men. A tight-minded man might worry buying something with an image of a man on the cover might imply he is gay even if the subject is heterosexual.
    I think, at least the major producers of erotica, need to reevaluate what is sexy and put the old stereotypes away.
    Does this make sense?


    February 13, 2010 at 5:36 pm

  15. El Squidge, I think B&N managers are wary of images of sexualised men, full stop. And the erotica publishing industry in general doesn’t much care about explicitly appealing to what women are into. As Mat said, that seems increasingly dumb when more and more women are working in this arena and are buying the books. But hey, ‘you can’t have men on the covers because they commit more murders than women’ is a new one on me. I’ll file it under ‘Miscellaneous’ along with Sabrina’s ‘men are too shy’.

    Srsooudi, I think there are many ways to eroticise men and a quick glance around the internet will show you that a wealth of stuff exists beyond the cliches. But yeah, you’re totally right on some of the reasons underpinning the current dearth of men on covers – women supposedly aren’t visual, publishers don’t want to deter the traditional male consumer. These are all arguments we’ve shot down time and again on ECW. As you imply, it’s time erotica publishing moved on. Explaining the sexist status quo doesn’t justify its continued existence.


    February 15, 2010 at 9:04 am

  16. The use of a lone, naked or semi-naked female as the sole possible signifier for ‘erotic’ or ‘sex’ is so bleak and desperate it makes me feel ashamed to write porn and very sad, really, that the world is so skewed.

    Nikki Magennis

    February 16, 2010 at 1:54 pm

  17. In comics depicting mandom-femsub fantasies, pretty nubile female captives are often found in contrast to strikingly unattractive captors (see Gary Roberts’ drawings for example).

    Artistic freedom, to each their own, and all that, but if I were a dominant man I’d get pretty tired of my sexual role being depicted by sketchy blots or Quasimodo types. And if I were a hetero submissive woman erotica consumer, I’d sure be happy about some handsome dom male eye candy to ogle. Perhaps they’ll start a some day?

    Positive dom men modelling examples:

    I don’t have a uniform fetish, but for those who like uniforms, Twisted Monk does a fine bad cop here Check out Delano’s toppish pics on

    @ El Squidge, it’s even possible to go beyond physical stereotype assumptions.

    The big sexy brutes are also very welcome to be the hot chained-up and cage-rattling prisoners, whilst young slender male models are also capable of modelling suave dom men who command with the irresistible force of a stern glance.


    February 17, 2010 at 1:10 pm

  18. Ranai,

    Thank you very much for the mention. One of the reasons I do what I do on my site is to offer an alternative view to the normal depictions of BDSM. There are so many sites and publications out there (mostly “hetero”) which deliver gorgeous woman tied by schlumpy men or dumpy men dominated by classy women. I don’t want my appearance to be less striking than that of the person with whom I am playing/shooting. That would be a disservice to that her (and sometimes him) — and a disservice to whomever is viewing my site.




    February 18, 2010 at 11:31 am

  19. I decided a little while ago that I won’t buy erotica with solo women (or couples w/heavy focus on the woman) on them anymore. If those publishers want my money, they will have to actually market their books to me, the straight woman what buys them. There aren’t as many books out there with yummy men or neutral covers as there should be, but there’s enough now (partially thanks to you, it seems ^^) that I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.


    February 19, 2010 at 3:52 am

  20. […] hot fiction who, paradoxically, have been responsible for creating some of the industry’s most sexist book covers. Our issues with Cleis have been compounded by the refusal of two of their […]

  21. As the photographer of the photographs on the covers of the books posted above, perhaps I can take a moment to say that you are completely and utterly incorrect.

    See, the model on the cover of PLEASE, MA’AM is, in fact, Raja. Who, indeed, has a penis. So get your facts straight.

    And, furthermore… If you don’t like them, don’t look at them, and don’t buy them. Your choice.

    Christine Kessler

    March 5, 2010 at 10:48 pm

  22. CK, if the model is a person who has a penis, which is not in view, what difference does it make with regard to what the photo shows and says?

    And what difference does it make with regard to what the cover omits to show, i.e. male submission?


    March 6, 2010 at 7:00 pm

  23. Christine, I’m not quite sure what to say except – Congratulations! In our 18 month history, you surely win the award for the dumbest, most bizarre defence of a cover we’ve ever had! And, boy, we’ve had some doozies!

    What are you trying to say? That Please Ma’am is Trans porn? Huh? Srsly, how the fuck does that cover cater to the het female viewer? You may as well pencil in a cock on the copyright pages and say, ‘There you go, gals! Equality! Now quit your moaning!’

    Anyway, if you disagree with me, don’t read this comment. Your choice.


    March 9, 2010 at 8:16 am

  24. @Christine Kessler:

    A trans domme with an invisible penis is not even in the same ballpark as a submissive man. This seems really obvious to me, and I’m not a professional fetish photographer or anything.


    March 12, 2010 at 7:35 am

  25. What I’m trying to say is that it doesn’t matter. Insulting me (or Rachel, or Cleis, or THE MAN) doesn’t matter.

    It’s business, for fuck’s sake. They chose a photograph that they felt represents the book. They chose it based on a number of factors, including sales. Gorgeous girls (be they genetically female or not) catch people’s eyes and generate income. That income allows the company to stay in business and publish future books. I’m sure that if photos of submissive men would make them more money, that’s what they would have requested from me.

    If you don’t like it, don’t buy the book. Easy enough.

    Perhaps you’re so mired in anger that you don’t see the other side of the coin. You COMPLAINED about “how much artistic energy women sink into the erotica publishing industry. Women make up the bulk of the writers and editors and reviewers for these books…” How about celebrating the fact that women are getting these jobs? That their talents are acknowledged and rewarded? How about that they chose to publish cover photographs taken by a woman and not a man? There are WAY more male photographers out there, you know. They could easily have chosen one of their photographs.

    And, finally, you hardly speak for womankind. I am a woman. I date men. I’d rather see hot women than any of the garbage I’ve seen publicized as “by women, for women”. I guess that stuff works for some people, but it sure doesn’t for me. So, what? I’m supposed to waste my time complaining about how “women’s erotica” does nothing for me and how it’s all some great conspiracy? I’ve got better things to do with my time.

    Frankly, I’m awfully happy the folks at Cleis Press continue to publish books with my photographs on the covers. I’m happy that the beautiful women I photograph get to work, and to have their work seen and appreciated. I’m glad that women like Rachel are paid for their talents. And hooray for the internet for giving you a platform on which to publicize the books that get you all in a tizzy.

    Christine Kessler

    March 12, 2010 at 5:02 pm

  26. Seriously? You people are actually whining about this? If you are admitting that women hold such great authority in the erotica market then why are you complaining? THEY are the ones that chose to put a woman on the cover of ‘Please, Sir’ and who really cares if there’s a trans on the cover of ‘Please, Maam’? It’s “stories of male submission”…If you’ve read Cleis Press books before I seriously doubt that every story is going to be “female dominates male…THE END!”

    I’m Mischa…the cover model of ‘Please, Sir’. I am a female submissive that dates males. I agree with Christine Kessler on this…I would MUCH rather see a female on the cover over a male. I wouldn’t even pick up a book with a male on it to read the back cover. I’m even turned on by porn in the POV of the man. YOU would say it’s because the porn industry is implying that women don’t watch porn. I say it’s hot to get to see sex from a different angle.

    Anyways. It’s called marketing. So instead of whining that Cleis Press didn’t pick a cover YOU would have liked better (god, how dare they??)…how about you let these people with tried-and-true sales techniques do their jobs?


    March 14, 2010 at 6:41 am

  27. ‘Oh, no! Some people have differing views on women, sexuality, and society today? Oh, God forbid that their opinions aren’t parallel with mine!

    Everything sucks! Sucks, sucks, sucks! This publisher sucks and that cover sucks…according to my own personal views, of course! I want this and I want that. Complaining. Moaning. Griping. And so on.’

    Sexism will leave this earth the day racism and religious intolerance do. Quit complaining that a cover to an erotica book, written by a female author, has a woman on the cover. This molehill is being turned into a mountain, when there are more pressing injustices in the world than petty clashing opinions on which sex should be depicted on the cover of a book.

    You want to see a male on the cover? Fine. Be the change you want to see in the world. Go write a book and put a male on the cover and sell it. Go.


    March 16, 2010 at 1:22 pm

  28. […] am tired of the preponderance of the male gaze in advertising material for sex-positive events and products. And most of all, I am tired of people conflating issues (like gender vs. gaze, in this case) to […]

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