In an age where we are saturated with sexual imagery, why do attempts to market female erotica fail? And what do women see in The Full Monty anyway?
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When it comes to sexual imagery, it is widely presumed that women like it soft while men like it hard. So men like pornography and women like something we vaguely call "erotica".

Men like to see while women like to feel, so men want to look at filthy pictures while women like to read and imagine. Basically, women are presumed to be interested in relationships while men are interested in organs. No wonder, then, that so much erotica aimed at women is less exciting than an Ikea catalogue or an illustrated cook book.

The re-launch of Penthouse as a magazine aimed at couples, one you won't be embarrassed about leaving on your coffee-table, is yet another attempt to capture the elusive female market. A few years ago, publishers of pornography came on all feminist. The publisher of such enlightened material as Big Ones and Asian Babes gave us For Women. Galaxy, the publisher of Fiesta and Knave gave us Ludus. These magazines were not allowed to show erect penises. That's the law. Erect penises are a problem. The fleeting appearance of one in Derek Jarman's Sebastian prompted a BBC spokesman to assert memorably that there had never been an erect penis at the BBC. No, just a few little pricks, we thought.

So, despite the hype about expressing female desire, these magazines full of limp willies did not take off. The current Impulse TV ad hints at male arousal with feathers and rising pencils and has still been the subject of many complaints. So why has it all been such an anti-climax? Perhaps because the models were so clearly gay, perhaps because flaccid penises are not the way to set a girl on fire, perhaps because we have had enough of sex. For 1992 was also the year when Madonna's book, Sex, came out and the heavy sexualising of every product being sold was beginning to take its toll on the sexual imagination.

Whether it turned you on or not, Madonna once and for all shattered what Ellen Willis in the early Eighties described as the "goody-goody concept of eroticism" that is "not feminist but feminine". The complaint that pornography objectifies women was difficult to direct at a woman whose pleasure and power was clearly invested in objectifying herself.

Moralists complained that explicitly sexual imagery was exploding everywhere and they were right. From drooling ice-cream ads to images of bondage, sex erupted. Some of this was put down to a post-Aids culture - requiring a kind of risk-free foreplay. Such cultural sexing-up, the penetration of every area by sexuality, actually created difficulties for pornographers or promoters of erotic material. It is increasingly difficult to hive off a separate space for the purely erotic. Men's magazines such as FHM and Loaded are full of soft-core porn you can read on the Tube. We see sexually explicit material on TV in programmes like Eurotrash, allowing us to have our cake and spit it out with laughter because it's foreign. A healthy sex life is presented constantly as almost a duty to one's nation. Couples are endlessly given advice on how to spice up their love-lives. Teenagers are bombarded with messages about sex. People who are not having much of it are made to feel less than whole.

Yet some things are still not talked about much at all, and I would say that female sexual response and what it is about is one of them. We still use almost Victorian terminology to describe sexual instincts: thus, men need to have sex, feel uncontrollable lust that sometimes results in rape, need to masturbate constantly to avoid tension, respond primarily to visual stimulation. In short, they just can't help it. I call this the Wicked Willy syndrome and it is exploited by men who should know better. Such men claim they can't help acting on impulse and I don't mean a cheap body spray. Women, on the other hand, are still thought of as dainty creatures for whom sex is an essentially emotional experience bound up with love or duty. Female masturbation is strangely not thought of as a pressing subject, possibly because it reminds us too much of female autonomy.

Whatever would be the point in promoting products specifically aimed at wankers of the gentler sex? For, frankly, we have to ask ourselves what exactly is the function of sexually explicit material? To claim the finest erotica as an elitist and high-art form is to infer that there is an acceptable aesthetisation of sexual imagery that only those of refined taste can appreciate. One's response is deemed cerebral rather than physical. There may well be those who prefer the trashiness removed from sexual material but that is somehow to miss the point Woody Allen once famously made - that sex shouldn't be dirty, but it is if you are doing it right.

The contrast between male and female attitudes to sex is bleakly highlighted when we see the pictures of grim-faced men "enjoying" the look-but-don't- touch delights of lap-dancers while women out for a night to see male strippers are laughing, whooping and sharing a communal experience. The Full Monty, a feel-good film about men who feel bad about themselves, illustrates this perfectly. The paradox, of course, is that while the women on screen get to see "the full monty", viewers in the cinema don't. Yet what the film cleverly underlines are the economic forces at play in what we consider to be the most private of areas. The redundant steel workers take to stripping because they have no other way of making money. One sub-text of the movie is the tangible male fear of women taking over the world, both sexually and economically.

It is this fear that, in part, has fuelled the craze for lap-dancing. While women are out-stripping men in the work-place, many men are happy to pay to see women stripping, as if to reassure themselves that women are sexual objects for their pleasure only. Just as they always were. Well, this is the fantasy, anyway. The difficulty, though, is that in a sexually saturated culture, the space of the erotic, the forbidden, the taboo, becomes more and more squeezed. Driven by market forces to continually produce something new and exciting, what was once seen as extreme has become more and more mainstream. The Internet has also meant that the most explicit porn can be accessed in one's own home.

Pop culture from fashion, music, video and magazines has embraced this imagery in order to sell itself, with the result that there is little that is genuinely shocking. Except, perhaps, the dire statistics on teenage pregnancy that show that while sex is seen everywhere it is not heard or spoken about where it most needs to be. We live in a society where the documentation of sexual subcultures by artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe are exhibited in art galleries while gay teenagers commit suicide, so terrified are they of their own "abnormal" sexual urges. The lack of sexually explicit material aimed at women has produced a kind of ingenuity. Some writers have argued that romantic fiction is itself a kind of pornography of the emotions which explains its huge popularity. Others have noted how many straight women have turned to gay male porn primarily because it portrays men as active rather than passive. And lesbians have been doing their own thing, provoking fierce arguments about what that thing might be. Women have even found hidden sexual meanings in mass-cultural products such as Star Trek - in America, some have got together to produce outrageous drawings and writings depicting the intense homosexual relationship they detect between Kirk and Spock.

All of this is a far cry from what is commercially available to women. Ann Summers, with its female-friendly, high-street shops, cottoned on early to the fact that the way to sell to women was in their own homes. But what did it sell us? Nasty nighties, lager-flavoured "booby-drops", chocolate phalluses and, if we behaved ourselves, vibrators disguised as "personal massagers". The joke: "What's the difference between a man and dildo? A man takes out the trash", was one I first heard at an Ann Summers evening, but the whole ethos of the Ann Summers hard-sell is to make women more appealing to men.

Women may well be turned on by what they see, but it too often feels like crumbs from the table on which the real feast is taking place. Maybe we have so little space because we have so little time. The double shift of many women's lives is hard enough without being expected to extend one's sexual repertoire every day of the week. Yet without the time or the space to find out, the age-old question: "What do women want?" can only be answered by another question: "What have you got?"