Call it art, erotica or pornography, in Nineties Britain the liberal middle classes - particularly women - want more, not less, of it. Richard North calls for an end to moral nannying, and (right) Jane Jakeman reads some high-class sauce, old and new
"Entertainment intended for grown-ups shouldn't be diluted just because there are children in the world." Thus, Henry Cobbold, a plummy, charming, slightly scruffy mid-thirties English aristocrat (eldest son of Lord Cobbold, of Knebworth Park, Hertfordshire) as he prepares for a further onslaught on unnecessary censorship. This April, his firm, Whambam, will stage at Alexandra Palace the 18 Awards, first seen last year. They will be dishing out plaudits to those - like J G Ballard (last year's Lifetime Achievement winner) - who take the contents of their imaginations (and ours) and spill them in public.

The odd thing, according to Cobbold, is that New Labour does not seem to have noticed the increasing liberalisation of the mood of The People's Britain. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, famously fell out over the relaxing of certification rules with the quasi-judicial British Board of Film Classification, whose new chairman is Andreas Whittam Smith (founding editor of this paper and self-confessed innocent in the matter of porn). Pornographers of every sort are breathless to see what will happen next.

New Labour's canter away from moral socialism toward social moralism makes nannying quite natural to it. Yet there is mounting evidence that the public is very interested in pornography and sympathetic to its purveyors. The People vs Larry Flynt glamorised the founder of Hustler and his campaign for freedom of speech under the First Amendment, but its point was well made and taken: "If you don't like smut, don't buy it." The clever Boogie Nights suggested, probably rightly in most people's view, that hard porn is more problematic for its purveyors than its consumers.

Interestingly, these films were about, but were not, pornography. They had drug-taking and violence galore, but little sex action. Indeed they point up the oddity that it is far easier to see frank depictions of murder than of coitus, and of seriously depraved bad-mouthing than of cunnilingus.

Few films deliver much sexual material, and many that purport to often do so wrapped in levels of violence or obsession that can be off-putting. Indeed, for all our liberalism, our generation doesn't seem to be producing anything like the artistic erotic material one might expect. It may be that our great-grandparents had the business of titillation, of teasing, tempting and fantasising rather more sorted out than we do.

Perhaps it was easier to deal in the bizarre, but with charm, when words and drawings did the work rather than cameras. Certainly, Michael Goss, a leading London publisher and secondhand bookseller ("'antiquarian', if you don't mind") is doing a roaring trade with his Victorian and Edwardian material, much of it sold to America. Exclusively by mail order, his firm, Delectus, offers reprints or well-thumbed originals of erotic classics from the Olympia Press and suchlike. He deals in titles such as White Stains (by Anais Nin and friends), The Mistress and the Slave, There's a Whip in My Valise. They are testimony to the idea that forbidden sex - even reminders of a period when sex was more forbidden than it is now - retains a powerful hold on our sexual imaginations.

Nostalgia Publications, of York, is successful with slightly more modern images. A generation of men now middle-aged graduated from gawping at pictures of bare-breasted tribal women in National Geographic to those taken by Harrison Marks and others in titles like Bounce and Spick and Span in the late Fifties and Sixties. These are now reprinted by Nostalgia and speak, confusingly, of a period when such material was both more innocent (less revealing, more cheerful) and more illicit (vague suggestions of "working girls" in Soho). There is a steady turnover of originals of magazines of the period in shops such as David Huxtable's consumer nostalgia store at Alfie's antiques hypermarket in London's Church Street, off Lisson Grove.

Many of the customers for Delectus and Nostalgia are reliving their own youthful erotic rushes, and the mild charms of spanking stories or pictures of girls in English woodlands lifting flounced skirts to reveal stout underwear might not be expected to pack much punch for the modern young. The Erotic Print Society - which now publishes a quarterly review - goes rather further. Even Danish television balked at showing scenes of bestiality filmed in the Sixties by the once ultra-liberal, but now rather diffident and chastened, Danish pornographer Ole Ege. But such scenes were routine for Victorian artists, who made them an erotic print standby. Drawn, these images are perhaps allowable because they can somehow claim to be caricature rather than documentary.

The fact remains that moderns may sneer at the old gents in the pornography section of the Charing Cross Road bookshop depicted in the film of Henry James's The Wings of the Dove, but it is no easier for us legally to see erections and vaginas in our chosen media (video, say) than it was for them in theirs (books).

Nor is the emerging market just a matter of the dirty raincoat brigade. When Brian Wiseman turned from 30 years of fashion exhibitions to putting on Erotica at Olympia last November, he deliberately set a high - pounds 25 - ticket price. The point wasn't that there was anything in the show that wasn't in a thousand sex shops. "I wanted people with a high disposable income," he says. "And I thought people would enjoy strutting their stuff in a big party." Future Eroticas in London will be at least four times the size, and there will be provincial equivalents.

Addressing the problem that furtiveness has something to do with the appeal of eroticism, Wiseman reminds us that making it easier to buy sex aids of every sort, or to parade a predilection, doesn't take away the fantasy or the mystery of what people get up to in their bedrooms. He was at great pains to make sure that the police and the licensing authorities understood that he had no intention of, as he says, "breaking or changing the law". It is the new respectability of erotic material and some of its purveyors that demands a less restrictive approach to its regulation. And the respectability is likely to be driven by the new willingness of women to buy pornography, or to allow it in the bedroom, if it's of the right sort.

"The fastest-growing part of my market is women," says Michael Goss. "They're something like 35 per cent of my business, and they are far more frank and fussy about what they want than men." About one in 10 purchasers of the Erotic Print Society catalogue is a woman. But the Society's Rowan Pelling, just turned 30, says: "About half the buyers of our Illustrated Book of Bottoms are women. It's funny and jolly, and it's very rude, with quite a lot of screwing from behind." She adds: "Judging from the phone, they're respectable middle-aged women."

Women's new assertiveness extends to demanding material that is rather more glamorous. Rob Edwards, HMV's video buyer, makes the point that the gentle but explicit charms of the Lovers' Guides series brought women customers to the stores' adult sections for the first time. The BBFC brought itself to classify these rather unimaginative tapes as suitable for people over 18 (and shopping in places not licensed as sex shops) because they were "educational". But Edwards remarks that the sales are not what they were - probably because they simply weren't very strong in visual or fantasy terms, and that sexual acts require variation in art as in reality if they are not to become monotonous. The answer to that, according to Henry Cobbold, is series such as the Red Shoe Diaries, rated 18, and starring the likes of David Duchovny of The X Files and imported by Cobbold from the US. The films have high visual standards, but they remain pretty rather than explicit and HMV say they are steady but unspectacular sellers so far.

It is hardly likely, however, that a generation of women in Agent Provocateur underwear, fired up by reading Mr Goss's books, empowered by visits to Erotica, informed by the Erotic Print Society's drawings, angered by the prudishness of authority figures, can long be denied. What was once the territory of sad, lonely men is about to be taken over by successful women who fancy that shared eroticism may help them build stable relationships. Very New Labour, really

Delectus, 0181-963 0979; Nostalgia Publications, 01904 624901; Erotic Print Society, 0171-351 6955.