Erotica Beneath the Covers

A roundup of books that entrance and seduce

GIVING A GIFT WITH libidinous content can be a gamble, depending on the giver’s motivations and intent: Are you trying to seduce, inform, enrich, or simply entertain your recipient? Luckily, this turn of the century has seen a virtual publishing avalanche of daring, tasteful, and downright artful collections of written and visual erotica. Here’s a guide to the best of the season’s pleasingly perverse offerings.

Although I was initially turned off by the pretentious title, Venus: Masterpieces of Modern Erotic Photography (edited by Michelle Olley, Avalon Publishing Group, $27.50),there is some validity to the claim that this collection of female nudes is masterful. Most of the heavy hitters of popular modern erotic photography are represented here: Richard Kern, Doris Kloster, Wolfgang Eichler, Pierre Et Gilles, and Jan Saudek, who are joined by 42 other artsy pornographers. One and all offer up their best shots of the unadorned female form, but it is the handful of novice lens-wielders that make this collection worth perusing. Ben Westwood, son of Malcom McClaren and Vivienne Westwood, successfully meshes the influences of his famous parents with a union of 1950s cheesecake pin ups and late ’70s punk that somehow avoids feeling retrogressive, and newcomer Rob Sargent is undoubtedly an artist to watch—his modern take on movement and lighting within erotic parameters is sharp and absorbing.

While there are plenty of eye-pleasing moments within—other notables include the sultry cinematic frames captured by Marco Sanges and the splashy Euro-trash colors of Wolfgang Tillmans—a good portion of the collection toes the mainstream line with decidedly unarousing results. Sexual politics aside, the book spends too much time on a predictable and narrow ideal of the feminine silhouette. Betraying his background in glossy fashion rags, Christophe Mourthe’s supervixen models give his pseudo-fetish style all the erotic power of a Chanel ad. Cat De Rham’s attempt to “return the body to the earth” provokes amusing thoughts of the ghost of Ansel Adams crashing a high-fashion shoot. Even some of the inclusions by highly talented artists such as Lucien Clergue feel like outtakes from a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Nonetheless, Venus is a fine gift choice for anyone wanting a broad overview of the landscape of modern erotica photography.

Peek: Photographs from the Kinsey Institute (Arena Editions, $60) is an excellent gift selection for the academic or historically minded erotica aficionado. Now a part of our cultural fabric, the reports published by pioneering sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey in the late 1940s and early 1950s were stunning wake-up calls for puritanical American about the sexual habits of men and women. Along with morality-rattling findings, such as revealing that 37 percent of adult men had had a homosexual experience which resulted in orgasm and that almost 50 percent of women had had premarital sex, Kinsey was keen on illuminating the visual aspects of his research. This unique collection of photographs culled from the Kinsey vaults reflects a broad spectrum of settings and subjects, from the early, amateurish shots of a young model soon to be known as Betty Page to stunning pieces by well-known artists such as George Platt Lynes, Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, and Joel-Peter Witkin. The accompanying scholarly text offers a great deal of insight about how photography functioned within the institute as a powerful tool for recording fetishes of every nature imaginable and the limitless range of erotic expression found from the early 1920s to the present.

The folks at Nerve have truly carved out a naughty niche for themselves in the labyrinth of Internet-based erotica. Their Web site ( is brimming with cerebrally inclined titillation via a rotating collection of fiction, essays, poetry, and photography. This intelligent, multidisciplinary approach has garnered them heaps of well-deserved praise and a jaw-dropping list of contributing writers (Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill, Quentin Crisp, Spalding Gray) and photographers (Steve Diet Goedde, Roy Stuart, Ellen Von Urnwerth, Tony Ward). It’s only logical that the editors who are steering Nerve into the next erotic frontier would curate two stunning, edgy, and subversive collections of visual and written turn-ons, Nerve: The New Nude (edited by Genevieve Field, Chronicle Books, $35) and Full Frontal Fiction (edited by Genevieve Field and Jack Murnighan, Three Rivers Press, $14).

Nerve: The New Nude delivers on its title—photo editor Genevieve Field has a great eye for fresh, edgy talent. Not only are the photographers she selects appealing because of their unconventional approach and genuinely steamy perspectives, but they cut across a wide variety of genres. The sepia-toned elegance of Robert Maxwell’s portraits contrasts pleasantly with irreverent satire in Chuck Samuel’s spoofs of Man Ray and other icons of the nude canon; the enveloping lushness of Thomas Karsten’s dreamy gaze is right at home next to confrontational fetishes of Charles Gatewood.The entire collection, while broad, feels cohesive and coffee-table worthy.

Full Frontal Fiction is a worthy literary companion to The New Nude. Field and Nerve cofounder Jack Murnighan collected a decent cross section of established names (Jerry Stahl, Elizabeth Wurtzel) and precocious newcomers (Laurie Stone, Vicki Hendricks) in this anthology. The quality and sheer audacity of the writing (sexual orientation and setting were apparently of no consequence—almost any sort of carnal quandary you can imagine is here) makes this book a pleasure, even if one-handed reading it’s not. Nerve’s mission to publish and promote sexuality through a wide spectrum of human experiences has been successful this year—if the physical intrigue of photographs seems too graphic and you’re in search of a more intellectual gift, Full Frontal Fiction is a great bet.

Hannah Levin is a freelance writer in Seattle.