Erotica Cover Watch

Why only women on the covers of erotic books?

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Erotica Cover Watch: The Erotica Project by Slugocki and Wilson, pub Cleis Press

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The Erotica Project, Lillian Ann Slugocki and Erin Cressida Wilson, pub. Cleis Press

Watched by Kristina Lloyd

I stumbled across The Erotica Project the other day and thought, ‘Oh, dirty book! Where have you been all my life?’ It wasn’t the cover which grabbed me. Why would it? I’ve seen ten bazillion naked babes on smut covers already and that was before we set up this blog.

No, what grabbed me was the blurb. Listen: ‘The Erotica Project was started when the authors realized there is very little heterosexual erotica written by women. They began composing erotic vignettes that embraced male-female sex while turning traditional male erotic literature on its head.’

Wow! So many things had me dancing here, not least that someone was promoting female heterosexuality. In erotica, this rarely happens. Sure, there’s plenty of space devoted to women and our sexuality but the assumption is most women are bi, even if only passively. And this assumption is used to justify the prevalence of sexy women on erotica books. It allows the publishers to say: See? We’re pleasing the male and female reader.

So anyway, I’m reading this blurb and you know what I’m thinking, right? I’m thinking ‘Why the hell doesn’t this book feature a man and woman on the cover? It’s about male-female sex. So howzabout a cover representing this?’ But I bite my mental tongue and continue to read: ‘The Erotica Project features hot, literate, and emotionally charged stories that redefine sexual relations and broaden parameters of acceptable behavior.’

Again, wow! This books sounds like it’s doing something fresh and challenging. It was published several years ago and I don’t know how I missed it. It feels like it’s really talking to me. Excitedly, I read on: ‘The authors combine sensual short stories in the tradition of Best Lesbian Erotica -‘

Wuh? Hang on! In the tradition of *what*? Best Lesbian Erotica? Lesbian?

What on earth has Sapphic sexuality got to do with male-female sex? Straight women get off on men. They don’t get off on women. It’s quite simple to understand. I can’t think of any reason for a book celebrating female heterosexuality to be compared to a lesbian anthology, unless it’s to dilute the straightness of straight sexuality. And the only reason I can think of for diluting that straightness is to expand the catchment area of the book’s potential readership. In other words, the book has been ‘sapphed up’ to make it more marketable, and the actual truth of the sexuality depicted has been compromised.

Marketable to whom? I can’t imagine many lesbians wanting to read about straight women and their lust for man-muscle so they’re hardly going to be swayed by the comparison. And straight women are presumably perfectly happy to read straight smut and don’t need persuading by implicit extras. So we’re back to men again, erotica’s traditional readership, the force to which the industry can’t stop pandering.


The Erotica Project is published by Cleis Press, a wonderful US independent publisher championing queer and marginalised sexualities. It was founded as a lesbian press in 70s San Francisco and now thrives while other indies have fallen. It’s regarded as a progressive, radical publishing house, its output a challenge to patriarchy and heteronormativity. Cleis publishes a range of brilliant, edgy writers and works with some of today’s top erotica editors. I’m in several of their anthologies, and am always thrilled by how beautifully presented their books are. In many ways, Cleis Press really is doing something different – except in one particular area. Yup, got it in one: general erotica. Here, Cleis are doing precisely what male-aimed pornographers have been doing for decades: they are packaging their books with images of women.

The comparison of The Erotica Project with Best Lesbian Erotica is just a phrase in some publicity blurb, one I might have turned a blind eye to were it not for the fact that it’s so telling. In intent, this phrase is a clear echo of the intent underpinning all those hot women covers. It’s a bid to ensure straight male readers will stay onboard. Let’s take a look at some of the covers from Cleis’s well-established ‘Best’ series.

As you can see, all the covers of Best Lesbian Erotica feature two women embracing. This is because lesbians find other women hot and would therefore be able to relate to an image of a lesbian couple and also find it sexually appealing. Lesbian desire is not similar to straight female desire, and vice versa. No, really, it’s not.

Best Gay Erotica follows the same Best format and features two guys embracing. This is because gay men find other men hot and would therefore be able to relate to an image of a gay couple and also find it sexually appealing. It’s not rocket science, is it? So let’s take a look at Best Women’s Erotica.

Best Women’s Erotica breaks from the format and features single sexualised women, most of them without heads. This is because women prefer not to have sex with anyone and would rather loll around in the altogether, making whoopee with the camera. And women, although most of them fancy men and get their rocks off on cock, would be able to relate to an image of another woman twiddling her nipps, feet in the air, and also find it sexually appealing.

No, I don’t think so either.

Actually, there’s a deliberate mistake in the above line up of books. Did you see what I did?  Yup, I snuck in a couple of cuckoos: Best Bisexual Women’s Erotica and Hot Lesbian Erotica. But from the cover art, you wouldn’t know there was a difference.

Now, I don’t wish to imply a lesbian-based press are in bed with the patriarchy but there’s a point here at which het fem sexuality is getting squeezed out by two apparently opposite forces, male heterosexuality and lesbian sexuality. And that’s because those two forces overlap in one particular area, their mutual lust for women. Most lesbians are probably hopping mad about the constant falsification of their sexuality for the titillation of straight guys. And rightly so. But here’s a thing: I’m also hopping mad about the falsification of my sexuality for the titillation of straight guys.

Because it’s false if the object of my desire, the male form, is never seen. It’s false if my sexuality is represented as my sexualised body – because this is what’s going on when I’m expected to identify with a cover model. My desire is seen to originate in how I appear, my attractiveness to men, my capacity to seduce the viewer. My desire then is actually someone else’s. My desire, in fact, is absent.


There’s a strong assumption in contemporary, liberal culture that female sexuality is all-embracing, amorphous and free of the rigid homophobia that characterises conventional male sexuality. ie if you’re a woman, you must be bi – or at least curious. We hear sentiments such as ‘women have erogenous zones all over their bodies’ (as opposed to blokes, the poor saps, who only feel it in their cocks); that our sexuality is more diffuse and open. This openness is generally regarded as sex-positive and the inference is that women are ahead of the guys in embracing the fullness of their sexuality. But look at it from a different angle: openness also means lack of definition. Other sexualities get defined: lesbian, gay, straight male. But women? Ah, they’re great, they’re just into everything and everyone.

There’s a stage show of The Erotica Project which received the following review in The Guardian: ‘For a show that purports to be about women’s sexuality, [these] monologues are extraordinarily phallocentric, and almost entirely heterosexual’. Jeez, even when women are being deliberately, avowedly heterosexual they get taken to task for their lack of Sapph.

I’m very in touch with my sexuality. I know what it is, I know how to make it flourish and work for me. I am kinky, perverse, het and sexually submissive with a side order of degradation and masochism (but hold the mayo). And I’m very happy with that. Depending on your relative criteria, you might call me a tad kinky or a straight-oriented queer. Again, I’m happy with that. When your desires are twisted, you don’t get to be comfortable with them overnight. I’ve thought long and hard about my sexuality and I can confidently state: I am not bi, I am not lesbian. I’m just not. If you are, that’s totally fine with me. But I ain’t.

I wish they would stop suggesting I was. I wish I didn’t feel so frequently ostracised by erotica and the sexy women on its covers. Why aren’t Cleis Press, champions of the marginalised, reflecting my sexuality on their books? Or reflecting more than just one aspect of bisexual orientation? Why don’t their covers feature hot guys? It might seem odd that I, a straight person, feel marginalised. But I’m not simply a straight person, I’m a straight woman. Time and again, my sexuality gets elbowed out of the way by its far more powerful counterpart, male heterosexuality. The result is covers like this:

Cleis Press are sometimes accused of publishing erotica merely to fund their less profitable LGBT publications. They deny this. Says Felice Newman: ‘The implication is that if you do something commercial in the realm of the erotic, you’re doing it for money, and you’re cynical. And it’s not true. Because I’m most proud of the fact that, as I said, in one generation, we’ve helped change the way people think and speak about sexuality and gender. For me, this is personal. My mission is to help people create authentic and fulfilling sex lives.’


If Cleis really are committed to change, to assisting in the creation of authentic sex lives, then we really ought to be witnessing them making changes in their erotica covers. I can see how an erotic imprint of, say, Random House or Simon and Schuster, might operate on more cynical, profit-oriented lines and keep on using semi-naked women on their books because that sells. But Cleis aren’t beholden to the suits in Accounts. Sure, they need to be commercial to stay afloat but is it right that they’re sacrificing representations of authentic female desire in order to do that? And is the sacrifice even necessary? Are we to think that Cleis would go under if it dared offer something other than sexy women on its erotica covers? If it dared to include some eye candy for the female viewer? Surely not. Surely erotica readers in the 21st century are not that fragile.

It’s important to remember in all of this that asking for man candy is not un-feminist. We live in a society where men still hold the balance of power. They make a forceful presence but, as individuals, they are very rarely sexualised. Women, on the other hand, are sexualised left, right and centre. Cleis Press, the biggest independent queer publisher in the US, would do well to acknowledge that in continually using women on their erotica covers, they are catering to male privilege, shoring up the patriarchy and perpetuating the status quo.

If anyone’s going to break this impasse, it has to be a brave, forward-thinking publisher; one engaged with gender politics and aware of all the insidious ways in which the dominant ideology sustains itself; a publisher with integrity, passion, determination and belief. Cleis Press, where are you? Can you hear us?


Written by Kristina Lloyd

October 16, 2008 at 6:49 am