I Love My Sexy Novel Cover — But How Do I Explain It to My Five-Year-Old Daughter?

I am the mother of kindergartener, a tall, energetic brown girl who wants to grow up to be an animal rescuer, a yodeler, and a pole vaulter. In what sometimes feels like a secret life, I’m also writing a smutty book for grownups.

My debut novel is a sex worker heist story with a hot Latina Robin Hood protagonist. In this double life, any Sunday may find me awake before dawn, editing an explicit lesbian love scene between two escorts. Yet that same afternoon may find me in a toy store refusing to buy my daughter a Barbie because the doll’s disproportionate curves betray her German origins as a sexy cartoon — the original 1950s character was an alleged “call girl.”

Up until now, I’ve been able to keep the content of my writing carefully compartmentalized from parenting, owing to the fact that my daughter can’t read yet. However, a few weeks ago, my publisher, Kensington Books, sent a hardcopy of my cover design. In the slick image, a scantily clad young Latina woman stands in front of a New York skyline with tousled hair, red lipstick and an expression that’s two parts come hither, and one part I’ll cut you. I love the design. Or, more accurately, the author in me loves it. The kindergarten mom sees it as a parenting PR disaster that will require a great deal of spin.

uptown thief

Like many parents, I have strong opinions about the images my child is exposed to. Recently, retail giants Wal-Mart and RiteAid have decided to censor Cosmopolitan magazine. They agreed to to place it “behind blinders” in their retail outlets “due to the magazine’s inappropriate content and covers.” Some feminists have argued that Cosmo is being targeted for supporting birth control and opposing anti-choice candidates. This stance is particularly poignant in light of the recent vote by the House of Representatives to defund Planned Parenthood. However, the official explanation for censoring Cosmo shies away from any discussion of adult female sexuality and simply insists that the covers must be “removed from the view of children.”

I can empathize with these concerns. However, I would like initiatives for protecting children to start with Disney, Barbie, and Monster High: sexualized images that are specifically aimed at children. I tell my daughter, “We don’t buy Barbie because her feet are stuck in a shape for high heels all the time. She can’t play tag or soccer. She just sits around looking fancy. Too boring!”

As a parent, I consistently censor images in the privacy of my home. In the future, I imagine that other parents will hide my novels, the same way I hide explicit reading material. I’ve shoved books up on high shelves, wrapped them in plain brown paper, or just covered racy images with a piece of duct tape. But it’s different when you’ve written the book. My daughter has been hearing about my novel for years. She’s missed me as I’ve gone off to writing conferences and workshops. She deserves to see the product of all this labor. Yet, how will I keep from sending a mixed message when the box of my debut novel arrives, with each copy looking like it has a Latina Barbie doll on the cover? Next summer, thousands of images of this half-naked woman will be invading my house.

In a highly sexualized era and culture such as ours, the debate rages about where to draw the line between sexy and sexist. Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, and Rihanna have all been celebrity targets of what some would call criticism and others would call bashing or slut-shaming. Issues of race, class, and gender identity add further complexity. Even among people who identify themselves as feminist or progressive, topics like sex work, porn and hookup culture continue to be controversial — some consider them empowering, while others call them exploitative.

As Peggy Orenstein explains so beautifully in her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, the double bind for many moms is that we cannot effectively explain our decisions to our children, because the very explanation of the concept of sexual inappropriateness is itself sexually inappropriate for young children. That is to say, these toys are based on idealized images that are meant to titillate something in adults — something that is not yet matured in young children. They don’t yet have the language or understanding to put sexualized stimuli into context. And yet, when children are repeatedly exposed to these images, they’re groomed to respond to certain sexual cues in the future. In particular, Orenstein laments how our culture teaches girls to understand their sexuality as being about how they look, not how they feel.

But mainstream media images of women are toxic to my daughter in so many more ways than simply being sexualized. These women are nearly all thin, overwhelmingly white, and almost exclusively straight-haired. Furthermore, by attacking Cosmo, those who invoke the needs of children miss the bigger picture: on the one hand, young women need to be protected, but on the other hand, they need to develop the capacity to think and make decisions about sex, relationships, and how they want their lives to look. They need to develop skills of critical analysis and a support system as they face the onslaught of sexual messaging. Paradoxically, Cosmo is both part of the onslaught and part of the resistance.

So I will be turning my book cover into a media literacy opportunity for my daughter. It’s not just about the picture; it’s also about the thousand words. I have begun crafting a spin narrative to explain the cover to her and to create a context: this woman, Marisol, is like Robin Hood, see? She’s going to rob from the rich and give to the poor. So she’s dressed up very fancy to go to their party. And they’ll be distracted by her fancy outfit and they won’t realize that she’s stealing from them… and she’ll get the money and give it to the people!

Female sexuality is powerful, and I hope to teach my daughter to make conscious decisions about when, where, and for whom she uses it.