Are there any real men out there?

WHAT DO men want? This has been bothering me, partly because of my mild yet shameful interest in Hugh Grant; but more because I have recently been struck by the fact that male readers of this newspaper, unlike the female ones, hardly ever write to me. A few do; there was a retired gentleman with a passionate interest in limescale, who offered advice on how to remove it from household appliances. And when I referred in March to a spiritual crisis, a number of men responded with letters of a religious nature. But on the whole: nothing. Does this mean that a) men don't read this column; b) men don't write letters unless they have a divine or domestic theory to expound; or c) men think that I am boring?

Alarmed by the possibility that a), b) and c) might all be true, I decided that action was called for, and have therefore been conducting a haphazard investigation into the desires and interests of the opposite sex. I began - for want of a better place to start - by looking at a number of men's magazines: firstly, the pornographic variety (which seemed to offer no insight, other than the fact that some men like looking at pictures of women with no clothes on - all shapes and sizes, in a strangely egalitarian display). And although Big Ones and Women in Uniform were undoubtedly fascinating, I did not feel that their subject matter could be incorporated into a column for this magazine. So I moved on to some slightly less blatant products: GQ, Esquire, Arena, Men's Health, and a new magazine called Maxim (for "the man in front"), which has a photograph on the cover of a woman in a cerise bikini aiming a gun at the potential reader (is that what men want, really?). Inside, there were Six Hot Sex Tricks Every Man Should Know (it's all down to the pubococcygeus muscles, apparently); Six Baldness Busters; a consumer trial of fake tans; and a free CD-Rom, which promised "Sex!" but turned out, sweetly, to offer highlights from Four Weddings and A Funeral, and a preview of a video called "Making Love".

Maybe I was missing the point, but the Maxim man seemed to be a bit confused: worried about his sexual performance, worried about his hair, worried about his weedy white skin. Arena was more macho, with articles on why men shouldn't cry, and how to build your own space rocket. But a few insecurities could be detected there, too (an examination of the decline in male fertility; a report on the Millennium and the end of the world). And there was more angst at Men's Health: according to its recent "Grooming Survey", British men are racked with anxiety about their appearance (only four per cent are confident that they look sexually attractive in swimming trunks). Contrary to popular belief, it seems like the mythic New Man might actually exist, after all. Suddenly, he's everywhere: well, OK, not in Big Ones, but in lots of other men's magazines; and certainly in the Lonely Hearts pages of the local newspaper ("caring outgoing reliable male, 25, white, slim, 6ft, GSOH, seeks single, no-ties female, GSOH, 18-30, for pubs, cinema etc, genuine relationship"). It took me ages to work out what GSOH, which seemed to crop up in every advertisement, meant, but at last it became clear: a good sense of humour - along with a kind heart - is more important these days than blonde hair and taut muscles (pubococcygeus or otherwise).

So I phoned my friend Kate, to tell her about these revelations. At last, I knew what men wanted. Laughter! Friendship! A genuine relationship! "Huh," she said, with a sniff. "What men really want is women with huge breasts who will give them endless blow-jobs. But a man with any modicum of intelligence is ashamed of what he wants - so he has to pretend to want an equal partner. It's all nonsense."

Her conviction unsettled me. Was I missing something? I went back to the Lonely Hearts page, and then rang the telephone service advertised there, which allows you to listen to the Lonelies on tape. Perhaps their voices would reveal more? First up was Bernard. "I'm 39, white, 5ft 9in. Ummm... what do I like? Country pubs, theatre, cinema, sport, gym." And what was Bernard looking for in his dream date? "A positive attitude to the physical side of things. What else is a man for?" Bernard wanted sex, definitely, but was it in a caring, sharing New Mannish way? I couldn't be sure.

After Bernard came Trevor, advertising on behalf of himself and his friend Ron. Trevor and Ron were both 31, and keen Arsenal supporters. "We're looking for girlfriends with similar interests to us," said Trevor, hopefully. This sounded New Laddish (let's all go to the match together, instead of making the girls stay home to cook dinner); Trevor also emphasised that he and Ron were "kind, caring and polite".

Finally, there was the obligatory weirdo. "Helloooo, my name's Freddy," he said, in a sinister manner (was this Freddy Krueger, or what?). "If you're wondering how nice I am - well, I'm still waiting for my halo." Freddy was probably better off reading Women in Uniform, but you never know, maybe it was his uncertainty as a New Man that had made him lapse into a strangely psychotic tone of voice.

Still, I didn't want to get sidetracked by Freddy. A bit of face-to-face reporting was needed. "What do you want?" I demanded of a mild-mannered youth who was passing in the office at the time. "Pardon?" he said, looking startled. "What do you want, as a man?" I repeated.

"For my girlfriend to move closer to London," he said. (New Man! New Man! Or maybe he was trying to escape from me?)

"What do you want?" I said, to another suave 45-year-old. "A pair of swimming trunks that fit," he replied, without hesitation. "And someone to love, of course."

So there you have it. Men want: to keep their hair; to keep their figures; to keep their girlfriends. Men also want: great sex; more sex; any sex at all. Like Hugh Grant, they want Elizabeth Hurley and Divine Brown; like women, they want it all. Or maybe not. If there are any men out there, perhaps you could let me know (except if you're Freddy, in which case, don't). !