pornography part two : For some strange reason, magazines full of pictures of naked males have failed with the female market ... Aminatta Forna reports
There's a short answer and a long answer to the question: why has porn for women failed to find its market? Here's the short one. In WH Smith, there was just myself and a man browsing the top shelf. We both had the same sad tactic, clutching a decoy style mag, while our eyes raked the steamier titles and delayed the final moment. He must have had years of practice at this but nevertheless I broke the stalemate, grabbed a porn mag and casually approached the counter.

While I searched for the right coins the assistant, perhaps determined to emulate my nonchalance, left the magazine face-up, burning a hole in the counter. Did I want a bag? Of course I wanted a bloody bag. In the second newsagent I brazened it out, selected another title and joined a long queue. My attitude seemed to be paying off until the man brushed past me and muttered obscenely in my ear: "Is that what you're looking for, hey baby?"

At home I took a look at my newly acquired goods. All Ihad managed to find were copies of a British title, For Women, and Playgirl, which is published in the States. In the early 1990s, a flock of new, erotic magazines aimed at women came on the market. Alongside For Women there were Women Only and Women on Top, published by Northern & Shell, plus Ludus and Bite. Each one was launched amid a fanfare of press attention. Everyone pretended they heralded a whole new era of female sexual expression, and we wanted them to succeed, even though most of us who saw them secretly knew they would probably fail.

At the time I spoke to Stephen Hughes, publisher of men's title Electric Blue, who stated that women didn't buy porn. Today, with all but Playgirl and one of the new titles gone, was he right? Here's the long answer to the question.

In Playgirl EJ, blow-dried and neatly circumcised, is posed on the deck of a yacht in the Caribbean. EJ is Playgirl's centrefold. There's a nice set of pictures. See EJ scuba dive, see EJ racing dive into the depths, see him at the wheel, see him rig the mast and finally, see EJ sleep - all the time with his penis exposed and carefully turned to the camera.

It's a difficult art, posing a naked man. We're told that men objectify women. The truth is that we all objectify women. It's become such a standard in our society to see a woman on all fours on the cover of Sunday Sport, or passively gazing at the camera with her breasts exposed, that we don't even think about it. We see an image, degrading or otherwise, but not a person. You can't do the same with men because women are not yet trained to depersonalise them. So women's porn mags allow men to retain a modicum of dignity, even if they do have their clothes off.

One of the ways in which they do that is by giving the models something to do. Over the page Mark Levine, the Real Man of the Month ("real" meant as a disclaimer, I think), is shaving in one shot, reading high-powered business magazines in another and finally seated on a cow-hide Corbusier working on his laptop. Like EJ, Mark is a busy man. In Men Only the women are made to look like they are ready for sex. In women's magazines, many of the men look as though nothing could be further from their thoughts. They're so damn busy.

In For Women it's much the same story. The men are slightly less active, probably because the magazine hasn't got the budget to take them scuba diving. But otherwise the two magazines are similar, with the Americans being bigger all round. Having said that, though, the British men are pretty large in all departments too. Huge muscles and penises characterise the look. So does baby oil, a tan and an absence of body hair. This suggests another reason why women's porn has failed. Men's magazines cater for every possible taste. There are black women and white women, women with huge boobs, small boobs, bondage gear, with and without pubic hair. With the women's magazines there is definitely a one-size-fits-all mentality.

But there is something altogether more disturbing about the models. The fact is that most of them look, well, gay. I mean Cowboy Jim is cute enough. But the cropped hair, the evident hours in the gym and those Village People boots! Marcello is chiselled in a way that heterosexual men just aren't. They look like they'd be happier in each other's arms. There's a simple reason for this, as I discover when I put the question to Ruth Corbett, editor of For Women. "Well, lots of them are. Gay men are the ones who tend to look after their bodies."

A fit homosexual is better than a fat heterosexual, as Dirk Shafer found out. Dirk was Playgirl centrefold and Man of the Year in 1992. He was a favourite with the ladies, even after he admitted he was gay. After a year on the chat show circuit, telling men how to please women, a radical gay group threatened to "out" him. Dirk decided to come clean first.

Tuppy Owens' answering machine welcomes you to "the centre of the erotic universe". She is a sex therapist, and writer on sexual matters as well as organiser of the Sex Maniacs Ball in Brixton, south London, whose erotic delights were stopped at the last minute by the police last month. She was involved in the launch of Women Only but quit with the mutual consent of the publishers because, she says, she didn't like the direction that the magazine was taking. Having researched women's porn magazines around the world, she is convinced that they can work - it's just that British publishers have never got it right. She points to the Australian Women's Forum and the Norwegian Cupido, a beautifully produced and photographed magazine aimed at all sexes and all sexual predilections. Apparently women buy it in droves.

The biggest problem she encountered in Britain was trying to persuade a male publishing hierarchy exactly what it is women find sexy and being given the rein to do it. Northern & Shell, which produces For Women and which used to put out the now-defunct Women Only and Women on Top, is owned by Richard Desmond, who made much of his money publishing men's titles including Penthouse. Do women really want the relentlessly frank and fun, down-to-earth and downmarket "Margi Clarke approach" to sex which seems to be de rigueur? Corbett contemplates why humour seems necessary to sell pornography to women. "I think it has to be couched that way because we're so unused to it." But with whose comfort are the magazines concerned? She once approached Northern & Shell's management with a request to drop the fashion, the jokes and the "how to keep your man" approach and go more hard core. The request was refused because of concern that a harder magazine might be refused a place even on the top shelf.

Women do want something sophisticated and subtle yet quite explicit. For all the claims that women don't really go for visual titillation, when For Women decided to abandon full frontals in order to try to get off the top shelf, the magazine had so many letters of complaint that it went back to the old format. (And WH Smith still thought the magazine was too explicit, even though Loaded, for example, is not.)

Not happy with just full frontals, women also want erections. Let's face it, flaccid penises are a turn off. Owens points to the US, where women are significant consumers of hard porn but not of soft porn, contrary to popular belief. Soft porn's emphasis is on women's bodies with barely a penis in sight - and a flaccid one if there is. In hard porn, the men are erect and in full view.

But women's magazines, even independently owned titles such as Ludus, found themselves hamstrung by the double standards of some of the big newsagents and advertisers, who were much stricter when it came to images of men than they were with pictures of women. This is a view supported by Lesley Shurrock, who co-publishes Desire, which is aimed at men and women.

"Basically, if it's a naked woman it's OK, or even two women together so long as they're not lesbians. But if it's a man and a woman, no way." Desire's approach has been to go for what can be best described as "tableaux", little erotic encounters captured in photographs. The production values aren't fantastic but Shurrock says she expects sales of 50,000 and 40 per cent of the subscription list is female. She says that, at the end of the day, women's magazines have done badly because of prejudice and sexism.

For Women soldiers on but has recently had its budget slashed. The rest of the women's porn magazines have floundered. But here's a telling fact. Women's erotic fiction has done brilliantly.

Black Lace novels, unhampered by problems with models, erections ("you can find many erect penises in Black Lace" assures the publicity blurb) or being on the top shelf, started in 1993 and have sold 1.5 million copies, representing half of the total market share.

Kerri Sharp of Black Lace says: "Women's magazines don't really work as an aid to arousal. Women used to read Nancy Friday for that. Now there are erotic novels."

Now Silhouettes has brought in a Desire range, which boasts an "abduction and seduction" special in May. Even Mills & Boon goes where once it would never have dared with its new range called Temptation. But Black Lace is by far the most explicit. Sharp says the ultimate advantage of books over magazines is that "the writer and the reader can let their imaginations run wild".