Thursday, February 4, 2010

Girls' Club

My debut release isn't out 'til the 19th, so this will be a pimp-free inaugural post from me.

I adopted the slogan Cara McKenna: Smart Erotica, Copious Torsos shortly after I was offered my first contract. And that's what I want to talk about this week—copious torsos. Specifically, the copious torsos dripping off the pages belonging to many of my fellow erotica writers' sites and blogs. I don't actually have an answer to the question implicit in this post. That question being, I suppose, Why do female authors get free reign to be sexist she-pigs?

I've noticed some [obvious] things since becoming a part of the erotica industry, some double-standards that favor us women and which I must admit, I rather enjoy. If you scroll through many an erotica author's blog you'll see pictures—sometimes whole galleries—weekly or daily, of major beefcake. Here's but a tiny PG13 sampling donated by my gracious (and perverted) Ellora's Cave cohorts:

You get the gist. There's a page out there for every taste. Hot cowboys. Hot dukes. Hot wereponies. Hot sous chefs. You'll see rampant objectification in the posts and comments. "Man, he can toss a saddle on me and ride me into the sunset any day." It's a girls' club in here. And to quote author Adele Dubois, owner of the last link in that list, "…that page is the top grossing page of all time on my website—by a factor of about five to one. I get so much traffic on that page it baffles me." Oh, don't act so coy, Adele. We're none of us baffled.

So romance authors have their chocolate indulgences, and we erotica writers seem to have, as Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell would say, our man-titty. And we enjoy our chocolate, too, I'm sure. Actually, I prefer a nice slice of extra sharp cheddar cheese. Is that strange?

Now getting back on topic. Let's pretend for a minute that we visit a man's website, maybe a guy who works as an editor for a Maxim-type magazine. Maybe we see his blog's daily offering of busty hotties and his buddies' horny comments. Would we call it sexism? Chauvinism? Say it's tacky and degrading? Would it give us that nasty squirminess in our solar plexuses (I checked, it's not "solar plexi"), that feeling many of us have been putting up with since we were fourteen and first realized just how overheated our panting male counterparts are? Not all of us would react with anger or hurt, of course, but I bet you dollars to D-cups women would be far more outraged than men if it was their gender being objectified.

Speaking of reversed…why do I suspect that if a woman in a TV show sexually harassed a male construction worker, the audience would applaud it? Did that happen in Sex and the City? Well, it could have. Modern women have a license to be pigs. And I'm discovering that we use it.

Now forget about the theoretical Maxim editor a moment. What about our partners? If a woman discovered her husband or boyfriend kept a blog featuring a Nubile Hottie of the Day, how might she feel and react? Yet lots of heterosexual erotica authors flaunt the other side of the scantily-clad coin and our men are presumably expected to shrug it off. We may be different animals, though, we proud smut merchants, and our long-suffering partners may or may not have known that when they signed on for the long-haul with our charming asses. I'm also willing to bet we're not as condemning of our partners finding other women attractive.

Just looking at what we write, I know many of us are less invested in the [personal opinion alert] myth that once you find the love of your life you'll never find anyone else attractive ever again. Like a zillion other young women raised in our fairytale Western media culture, I suffered from that expectation for the first few years of my dating life. Admitting I'm a mammal and that my body isn't opposed to the notion [though I forego the actual practice] of banging the brains out of men I'm not committed to—and quite often don't even know—may have taken a while, but it ultimately took a ton of pressure off. Pressure not just on me, but on my partner of the moment. These days I hover somewhere in the middle between callous beast and starry-eyed idealist. My husband and I are both fully aware that we're both going to find other people bangable over the course of our shared life but we do our mutual best to not drool too openly.

As I was saying, we ladies seem to get a free pass in the way we're allowed to objectifiy men. There's oodles of possible reasons why… Because our foremothers spent millenia as second-class citizens. Because the men posing for steamy pictures on the web are less likely to be Ukrainian teenage runaways stripping to support their narcotics habits. Because men don't experience body insecurity as acutely as we tend to when compared to a superior physical specimen of our sex. Because we've put up with men doing it to us all these years and we deserve a little revenge ogling. Because it's emasculating for a man to admit he feels intimidated or belittled by his mate's objectification of another man, so he's less likely to kick up a stink.

So what are we? Hypocrites? Feminists
? Self-promoting professionals giving our salivating audience what they want? I'm no expert on sex politics. The only credential I can muster is a passing grade for my art school course in Race, Gender, and Class in Film. I just find it odd that we can hoist our collective damp panties up the flagpole when Hugh Jackman's on Oprah, but hetero men so often get glared at by their mates if they say a female star's got a nice figure. I don't want to travel back in time to the sixties and get my ass patted for being a good secretary (or perhaps a good masseuse, as in that outrageously wonderful "man talk" scene at the beginning of Goldfinger), but when and why did we flip-flop on this?

Like I said, I don't have any answers or agendas. Let's open up the phone lines and turn this into a discussion! I'm going to play devil's advocate mercilessly, so I hope no one will take any response comments I post personally. I'm just looking to get a good debate going. Okay, operators are standing by.


Cara McKenna said...

Posted on anonymous behalf of my favorite beta reader:

And ain't nothin' wrong with wanting a piece of extra sharp...male ass! I mean cheese. I love objectifying men and for the most part have no problem with Maxim etc. Yeah, guys are overheated and they are going to fantasize no matter what. It doesn't have to be about me...I'm a busy lady. ;-) At the end of the day most guys know how good they have it with the real thing, so if they want to imagine for 10 minutes (5?) that Angelina Jolie is attending to them, then so be it.

Michelle Polaris said...

Cara--I'm in love with this post. So much food for thought. I remember my earliest days of feminist furor over the objectification of women in pornography. I've come a long way baby and your words push at me to think about how I feel now about this issue.

It strikes me that one way men and women differ in appreciating the hot bods of the opposite gender is by how they use their attractions and lust in the context of relationships. Women use it to bond with other women, lusting together in a playful way and sharing the fantasies they have in common. My sense is that this is how the erotic romance community uses those fantastic droolworthy sites you linked, freely sharing their newest discoveries of gorgeous guys and having fun together.

Men, although I am sure have many male bonding experiences together about pin up models, may take their objectification more seriously. I've heard, although never experienced, that if you go to strip clubs geared toward men the crowd is likely to be more silent, focusing attention on the dancers. Sex is a serious matter, men are highly visual, and perhaps have a harder time simultaneously maintaining their higher brain functions with the smaller brain engaged. Women are a rowdier bunch when they appreciate stage eye candy. Again, they use the entertainment as a way to play and bond with other women.

Does the spirit of fun make it any less objectifying to men to ogle them? Probably not. But I like to imagine that females relate and connect to the men in their lives on many levels, most importantly through their brains. Yes they lust over a yummy view of pecs, flat abs, slim hips and impressive endowments, but not to the exclusion of everything else about men. Since the mind is their most important sexual organ and since women rule at multi-tasking, their shared lust over taut male bodies does not reduce how they value the emotional and cerebral connections to their men.

The historical reality is that women have existed for long years as commodities and possessions of men and that their value as something other than a physical item went unappreciated. So the argument can be made that when men objectify women's bodies there is less confidence that they simultaneously value women on the many other important levels. Men, as women, have come a long way and I do not in my gut believe this to be true anymore.

So if the modern, educated sophisticated male who treats the women in his life with respect and equality still likes to enjoy ogling a nice pair of breasts, how do we make sense of it? I think its okay with me. The proof is in the pudding and how the same men then treat me at the end of the day.

Yes, I believe there is an effect of media messages about objectification that can be very detrimental. But we are lucky in this part of the world to live in a society which allegedly (cynical me kicking in) respects freedom of expression. And that's how it should be.

So I will continue to stare and drool at the hot men on various websites. My husband knows about this and I have yet to get any indication he's particularly disturbed by it. Like erotic romance novels themselves, it can be used to great advantage to spice up a couple's sex life together.

Thanks again for this thought provoking post. I think I'll go gaze at some naked men now.

Cara McKenna said...

Well shit, Michelle, you should have written this post!

The whole "good for the goose, good for the gander" aspect of this topic fascinates me. What I'm hearing so far is that women, at least the one's weighing in here, don't seem to have those typical knee-jerk reactions expected of us—the horrified gasp when catching their man in the middle of surfing for bikini babes. What liberated and self-assured gals we've become [Cara pats modern women on their collective pert ass in congratulations].

I love what you had to share about the group dynamic, the apparent social differences in the way men and women act in strip clubs. I'm dying to read an article about that, now.

Debra Glass said...

I've never met a man who didn't love being viewed as a sex object. Had women subjected men to some of the inequalities to which women have been subjected in the past, I think it would be different.

But hey, if a man thinks I'm hot enough to whistle at, whistle away!!!! No double standards for me. :-)

Cara McKenna said...

Okay, devil's advocate time.

Is there something to be said for both sides maybe showing a bit of restraint? Even if we can all agree that it's our biological right to be sexually stimulated by the meaty objects of our choice, wouldn't it behoove us all to be more respectful about it? Respectful toward our partners and toward the opposite sex? Have we reached a point on both sides where we've embraced our sexual rights but lost sight of the importance of discretion?

Does anyone find all this flaunted flesh tacky and insensitive, not liberating?

Ella Drake said...

Cara, great post and food for thought.
Michelle, as the idea of the mind being the most important sexual organ, I totally agree. While I personally some tasteful covers with some nicely defined abs, one of the sexiest and intriguing covers I've seen recently features a man with all his clothes. *shocking*

Ashlyn Chase said...

It's about time. Turn about is fair play!!!

When I was a teenager, I did some modeling in Boston. Talk about objectified! And being oogled by construction workers as I walked by in my trendy hot pants? And that was back when I blushed!

I feel no remorse, and somehow I don't think the guys mind being oogled too much.


Kate Hill said...

If women were no longer treated as objects, if you could turn on the television or go to a movie without seeing naked or near naked women, if you could look at magazines in the checkout stand without seeing women exposed, airbrushed/photoshopped and provocatively posed then I might agree that women have an advantage. However men are in no way deprived of the female form so I don't see how we're any more piggish than they are. In a world where women are still treated as sex objects, where we're expected to maintain outside careers as well as caring for families while achieving unnatural levels of thinness and beauty, to make women to feel as if they're wrong or piggish for appreciating the male body is disturbing. It's another way of saying "boys will be boys" when men ogle women, but for a woman to admire a man makes her dirty or wrong. More likely it makes her a threat because men might have to look at themselves and wonder if they're up to par just as women are pressured to compare themselves to society's standards of beauty. It also feeds into the myth that men are visual and women aren't. In a relationship, if both partners agree that admiring others is fine, then I see no problem with it. Among consenting adults I don't see a problem with admiring the human body.

Cara McKenna said...

Me in my devil's advocate hat again, largely in reply to Kate's interesting comment.

So I think we're generally in agreement that we shouldn't feel badly about objectifying men. The feeling seems to be that turnabout is fair play.

But let me build on my earlier thought. If some of us feel our GROUP right to objectify men is earned from centuries of female oppression, where do we stand as INDIVIDUALS? Is there a different standard happening there?

Does anyone feel that they, as a singular person, should be careful to NOT treat men as meat (be it playfully or vengefully) as a statement of, I don't know, taking moral highground? Practicing the Golden Rule? Is this even about morals or revenge? Is it a societal and biological forgone conclusion that objectification is simply impossible to reform?

Is that starry-eyed idealist I talked about laughably ignorant to suggest maybe we should treat men the way we'd like to be treated?
If you've seen my website, you'll know I'm not that theoretical Pollyanna, but I can see some merit in such a position, even if sounds—and perhaps IS—utterly futile.

Dalton Diaz said...

Bottom line:
Women cannot compare to Barbie, but men are ahead of the game with Ken if they have so much as a bump between their legs.

Adele Dubois said...

Now that I've stopped laughing and have picked myself up off the floor (Smut merchants? LOL. Loved that one), I admit I've assumed that my work as an erotic romance author has given me liscense to flaunt my lifelong passion for men.

As I stated on my blog, I love men. Can't help myself. When they're beautiful, I notice. They're like precious art. And since I feature gorgeous men on my blog, women have followed in droves.

My website tagline is "Erotic Escape." That's what I offer in my books, and my blog reflects that, though I keep my website content at PG-13.

The professional models I include on my blog sometimes post comments, email me, and even agree to allow me the use of their photographs in my book promotion. An actor in the movie "Twilight" appears on my bookmark for my trade paperback DESERT NECTAR.

My dear husband understands. He knows its business. I enjoy the perks of my job, what else can I say?

Thanks for including me in your very entertaining post.

Best--Adele Dubois

Cara McKenna said...

Thank you, Adele. You bring up a very important point that actually says a lot about me, for better or worse.

I penned this post without questioning my own assumption that the person making available or viewing sexual images of the opposite sex is, in essence, in a position of power, and the person being shown is somehow being exploited (whether they mind or not.)

Adele's post totally turned my brain sideways. She made this whole phenomenon sound like celebration, not objectification. Or rather she's saying (apologies if I'm actually way off, Adele) that objectification may not only be fair, but also positive and flattering.


Objectifying versus celebrating… Have I penned a fundamentally flawed post? I must go mull this over a while.

Cara McKenna said...

Posted on behalf of author Frances Stockton:

I'm the first to admit to picking up a book on the basis of a sexy cover. And, I happen to like whole faces shown, but will certainly buy a book with a hot torso and a kilt or button fly jeans only…lol…is that sexist?

Jina Bacarr said...

Cara, you've opened a Pandora's Box with your fabulous post!! Excellent discussion.

I have had five erotic romances published and all five have sexy females on the cover! On one of them (Cleopatra's Perfume), the heroine is nude to the waist save for a strand of pearls...

What do you guys think? Do sexy females on the cover help sell a book (erotic romance) or not?

Dita Parker said...

Great post, Cara, and great comments, ladies! What a hot topic, pun intended.

I’m with Adele on this. I grew up in a very sensual culture (Brazil) and lived on the coast so weekends spelled beach. Not that many clothes required on other days either.

People of all shapes and sizes parading pretty much half-naked half the time was the norm. Everyone and everything being out there, who’s looking and who is being looked at becomes a nonissue since everyone is.

It’s also the country where I’ve experienced zero sexual harassment, of any kind. Admiration, yes, but without any aggression. The less free or egalitarian the society, the more pronounced the fact that I’m a woman first and a person second has been, and the more aggressive and invasive men have acted. So in my mind and experience all that nudity not only made it natural but a natural outlet for and expression of sexuality. It’s only deviant if it’s repressed.

I’m an ardent admirer of the human form, of men and women alike. People are so very beautiful when they’re comfortable in their own skin and when they can acknowledge the beauty of others without feeling threatened by it or feeling a need to conform and when they can actually celebrate it like Adele does.

Am I making any sense at all? Way past bedtime, I tells ya, here where I won’t be needing a bikini anytime soon or feasting my eyes on all the lovely people out there. So keep the galleries up and running, please! Now, if you’ll excuse me, Hubby just walked by in his birthday suit looking mighty fine, must go take a closer look…

Cara McKenna said...

That's rather fascinating, Dita—I hadn't bothered to think beyond my own culture's attitudes, I'm ashamed to admit.

ErotRomReader (Janna) said...

Thanks for stopping by at my place :) I responded to you overthere! I love this post, you made some excellent points on this topic and I sure have to do some self research ;)

Adele Dubois said...

Cara--I celebrate beauty on my blog with unabashed appreciation and lighthearted enthusiasm because beauty is rare and fleeting. If everyone were beautiful we wouldn't know it existed.

I don't personally lust after the models and actors posted on my blog. In many cases, I view them as colleagues. Their pictures are presented merely for the pleasure they bring to the women who read my books and follow my blog. As Michelle correctly pointed out, it's a way for women to have fun together in a safe, though sensual environment.

Our erotic novels are the ultimate safe sex experience. My blog is an extension of my books and my author persona. I don't take myself too seriously, and I think that's reflected in my posts.

Jina--Your covers are beautiful. They make women imagine they are the heroines in your stories.

Dita and Michelle--I appreciate the back up. LOL.


Naima Simone said...

Hi, Cara!
I so enjoyed your post. Thought-provoking and hilarious...even as I was being called a purveyor of flesh! LOL!!!

Everybody's comments were right on point! Finding pictures for my photo gallery is no hardship, believe me. And the comments could definitely be considered sexist because if a man had them under pictures of women I would suspect him of oinking instead of speaking. LOL! SO, yes, I guess I could be a sexist pig but strangely, I'm okay with that. I like admiring sexy men. And to me a man can be sexy in a 3-piece suit or a loin cloth. Older like Sean Connery or younger like Jacob on Twilight. As blonde as Halle Berry's man (Whew! That man is fine!) or as almond-y as Denzil Washington. I just love admiring beauty. And I'm not ashamed of it.

So if that's construed by some as a double-standard or sexist so be it. Oink!

Cara McKenna said...

Just wanted to share the link to Janna's blog (it's dripping with the topic at hand):

Thanks for stopping in, Janna! See you around the Twittersphere.

Stephanie Adkins said...

"I'm also willing to bet we're not as condemning of our partners finding other women attractive." << THIS! Maybe I'm totally screwed up morally (imagine that), but I really don't mind when my husband finds another woman attractive. I admire beauty in all it's many forms - including men AND women. We've been out on dates before, and I've pointed out several women to him that I thought were beautiful, and it didn't bother me in the least bit if he thought so too. And I LOVE to make him blush when I point out some gorgeous woman with beautiful breasts, and I say to him "Yeah, I'd hit that". LOL!!! (Not really, but I love the expression on his face when I make comments like that).

Great post, Cara! :)

Cara McKenna said...

Amen, Stephanie!

After spending about a decade feeling hurt by a boyfriend—or even a male friend—commenting about an attractive woman who wasn't [God forbid] me, I'm so fucking relieved to be done with the insecurity of my teens and early twenties.

Actually, these days it's like pulling teeth trying to get my husband to admit to finding any of the ladies who might cross our screen during a movie or TV show sexy—he's respectful of my feelings nearly to a fault. I actually ask, "So what about her?" Maybe he thinks it's a trap… He puts up with so much of my poorly-hidden attraction to on-screen men (not on purpose, I just have an atrociously bad poker face), I want a chance to give him the gift of being cool and unbothered right back.

Naima Simone said...

My husband and I used to watch the tv show "Relic Hunter" because he loved him some Tia Carrere. I would even remind him when it came on! LOL!

Cara McKenna said...

I remember when I was about 23 I got royally, inwardly pissed at a boyfriend for discussing Scarlett Johansson's hotness with a male friend in my presence. I kept thinking to myself, "If she's what he's attracted to, why's he with me? What frigging chance do I stand?"

Now I wish I could go back and shake my stupid younger self by the shoulders and shout, "Honey, he ain't Jude Law, but you still love him, don't you? Right. So relax, bitch!"

Naima Simone said...

My husband has a thing for Hispanic women. Now unless I put in a weave and learn something other then one through ten in Spanish, I'm not going to suddenly wake up a voluptuous Puerto Rican beauty...I can actually do the voluptuous part...hee-hee-hee! Point is some of the women he thinks are hot I agree with him because they are. I don't feel threatened by it at all. At one time in my less secure youth I would've been, but not now. The point is we can admire beauty without it being synonymous (did I spell that right??) with wanting to jump somebody's bones. It's not the same thing.

barbara said...

Cara, awesome post, and great comments. For me it's very simple: men are beautiful, I admire that beauty and I like sharing it (Hey! I didn't undress them!) Wish I could say it's because of what I write but I can't. I liked looking at them before I started writing. ;-)

Kate Champagne said...

Great post, Cara - and from the guys I husband and various guy friends of mine, they actually like or love to be 'objectified,' though some are shyer than others about admitting to liking it.

Men and women are different, though, in that men do get a lot of direct sexual excitement from looking at women (it's in their reptilian hindbrains) and women get a similar kick from their (our) reptilian hindbrains - our basic instincts, animal and otherwise - we love to strut our stuff in front of men.

That said, hell yeah, we also love looking at men, but I do think that it is not identical to what men feel - looking at paper or film or a dancer or their girlfriend/lover/wife is just so incredibly hot for them.

I think the way that women are with Chippendales is partly out of fun.

I have been to both Chippendale clubs for women and years ago I had my husband take me to strip clubs so I could see. (Not in this state and it was really a top-notch one, not the low-down grungy kind usually shown on TV. That said, I think female strippers probably have a very hard life.

The women were having fun and yes, it is fun to look at torsos and more on a hot guy. But it is not identical to what a man feels.

I probably shouldn't post comments at 5 a.m. after staying up all night writing. Sense begins to elude me.

Kate Champagne said...

My comment posts as my pen name, rather than as Kathryn Esplin, the name you know me by. My Google account is set up that way.

Kate Champagne said...

Jina Bacarr, I think either women or men on the cover - or both - sell books. I think it depends on...a lot of things...If women fantasize themselves as the sexy heroine, then seeing a sexy woman on the cover of an erotic novel is great. Are hot male torsos rather new in the last few years? I am not sure. I actually like two on the cover, both sexy and semi dressed. Make that semi undressed. I think either works as well as another.

Cara McKenna said...

Hi, Kate / Kathryn!

I'd love to know the answer to that last question, actually. When exactly did torsos become the cover mainstay for romance novels?

I'm thirty, so for about as long as I can remember romance novels more often than not have had torsos (or at least a blatantly sexy man, perhaps in a middling state of shirtlessness) emblazoned on them.

Does anyone remember a time when that trend was a new phenomenon, or even a scandal? Or does anyone know why and when that shift began? Maybe I'll ask Smart Bitches, Trashy Books to consider posting on the topic. They'd got scads of romance and history experts lurking in their commenty crevices.

Cara McKenna said...

Quick aside on the topic of eyeballic infidelity.

I was watching The Bachelor the other day (I don't own a TV but I still manage to have atrocious taste in programming—thanks, Hulu!) and Jake, the bachelor, was having a conversation with his date of the moment. He came out with a statement roughly to the effect of:

"The woman I marry will be the last one I look at."

Oh, honey [pats Jake on his adorable head]. You're so cute when you're delusional.

Kathryn said...

Hi Cara, I happen to have Harlequin books from 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2009 and 2010 in Historical, Temptation and Blaze.

The 2002 and 2004 Temptations - about 20 of them featured a couple on the cover, 2 of them the man was shirtless, but his back or side was on the cover and he was NOT ripped, sadly.

The Blaze from 2003 has couples, (this is 3 books).

About 8 Blaze from 2008 with couples or men with shirts on or mostly on.

About 8 Blaze from 2009 2010 with increasingly frontal, ripped men.

The Historicals I have from 2002 - 2008 Harlequin and other publishers do not have frontally, ripped men.

So I think it depends on line, publisher, but...mostly it seems to be a very recent innovation to have frontally, ripped men on the cover.

I have also noticed a plethora of ads on websites for ripped men.

On my blog

A friend of mine (not named) graciously consented to let me post two very ripped photos of him (torso only, no head to ID him by.

At the current time, my blog is in service for a character of mine who is a culture writer. How about that for an innovative use of blogging? Not blogging for me, but for my character.

Cara McKenna said...

Kathryn said: "[M]ostly it seems to be a very recent innovation to have frontally, ripped men on the cover."

I'm definitely not a historian, but the first romances I read in the nineties came from this box of ancient donated paperbacks, mostly from the seventies and eighties (I volunteered at a teen suicide hotline in Maine and we didn't get many calls, happily, so I toggled between reading The New Our Bodies, Ourselves and moldy old romances—quite the bipolar sexual education.)

Anyhow, those romances from the seventies and eighties in ye oldie discarded romance box definitely had torsos. Typically, a slice of torso, peeking from the open billowing shirt of a pirate or duke. So the trend isn't that new, in my experience. That said, I don't believe the contemporaries in that box featured much naked flesh—the men were usually wearing an ensemble that told you what they did for a living.

I'm with you though, Kathryn. I think the whole headless ripped horseman look is new. My husband likes to steal the Romance Writers Report before I can read it each month, so he can dog-ear the most ridiculous and torsotastic book ads for me to giggle at.

Kathryn said...

That's so cute about your husband.

Kathryn said...

At the risk of sounding a little wild, my husband likes the long hours I spend writing romance. The kids have left for college, so it's like a second honeymoon. All for a good day's work! :)

ErotRomReader (Janna) said...

Thanks for mentioning my blog, Cara!
I found you on Twitter, so I see you overthere :)