Turn on the television, open a magazine, walk past a bus stop, and it's there. Why?
THE cover lines of the current issue of a national magazine scream salaciously: "Tackling his Tackle", "50 Lovers and Still Counting" and "Nannies on the Game". Phew. But this publication is not to be found on the newsagent's top shelf, but much lower down, where its teenage readers can reach it. The magazine, More!, does not have a unique approach to its young female audience. "Sex & You", oozes Sugar, a rival. "Fwoarrrgh!" salivates Just Seventeen, "50 cute boys inside!" As for the women's magazines, they might make a sex therapist blush.

A bus-stop near this particular newsagents displays a poster for the new film Disclosure, with Demi Moore and Michael Douglas in a clinch that has proved so erotic the Advertising Standards Authority last week met to consider its nationwide removal. Down the road is a billposter plugging the recording debut of the 16-year-old violin prodigy Vanessa Mae, in which she stands thigh-high in the sea wearing a wet swimsuit and skimpy, clinging dress.

Last week Channel 4 ran repeated tasters for the Red Light Zone, its new series of Saturday late-viewing in which a male torso is daubed with a lipstick "X", the camera works its way up to a female navel, a lascivious voice tempts us through a forbidding door. The BBC broadcast the second episode of a new sitcom, Game On, in which the tiresome central joke is "shagging", and whether the two male flatmates will do it with their tasty female co-habitee. At times it is easy to feel the media requires a cold shower.

Raunchy material and imagery in the mainstream has never been so prevalent. From the Wonderbra, Haagen-Dazs and Club 18-30 ads to endless pictures of semi-nude super models adorning covers of the burgeoning selection of blokey magazines, from a boxful of "improve your sex life" video guides to the cheeky soft porn of Channel 4's late-night Friday show Eurotrash and thrusting tastelessness of The Word, there has quite simply been an awful lot more of it about in recent times. Why? Does this represent Britain unbuttoning the frock of its famous prudishness and catching up with some of its European counterparts? Is it a case of "more sex please, we're British", or merely a marketing frenzy in an increasingly competitive arena?

Statistics show that in some ways society is becoming freer sexually: sex begins at a younger age, the number of partners people have has risen over the past 30 years, and last year the age of consent for homosexuals was lowered to 18. A majority (64 per cent) in a Mori survey are prepared to tolerate the availability of hardcore porn via satellite in the home as long as it was inaccessible to children.

But it's another matter if ordinary people welcome the growing tendency to sell with sex as a signficant ingredient of this sexual freedom. Of the many heads of the media-monster, billboard advertising is the most controversial simply because it is unavoidable unless passers-by walk with their eyes closed. Judging from the ASA's list of complaints, there have been few objections to sexy images in themselves. It is more sexism and objectification of women that angers, such as the BSkyB ad for the film Indecent Proposal which featured a woman's midriff clad only in knickers, with the caption: "The price is right, so they come on down."

Similarly the Disclosure poster (which has also run into trouble in Italy and France) has caused offence as much for the strapline "Sex is power" as the steamy photo. "You have to ask whether `sex is power' is an appropriate thing for children to see," says Bill Lennon, spokesman for the ASA. "Complaints tend to be cross-generational and from both sexes. We had a lot from men over the BSkyB ad."

Complaints over the portrayal of women reached a high point last year but few were over the brazen imagery of the Wonderbra advertisement. Susanna Hailstone of TBWA, the agency behind the campaign, contends that "sex without humour is sexist, sex with humour is not," which seems a touch sophistical, but is a common defence.

Peter Stewart, series producer of Eurotrash, which has a higher nipple- count than anything else on British TV, says, "Up until we came along pornographic subjects were treated in a righteous or solemn manner or with the leering grunt, the smirking laddish style of The Word. We found a way to cover them with humour and a human touch. Porn stars aren't painted as freakish characters, presenters don't judge people, and women are not put forward as objects.

"A sense of fun comes through, there is a joy of sex. The people we feature aren't embarrassed by it. But some people in Britain still don't want to believe that people can enjoy sex and want to make a living out of it. And if young men get a little turned on on a Friday night what's wrong with that?"

His argument is supported by Samantha, a 21-year-old student in London. "If something is really cheap and sexist it does bother me but sexiness in itself is all right. I mean we all do it, don't we? You can't expect it not to be there on TV. It's more if something is bad or not that I worry about."

There is a big difference between Eurotrash and Brookside, but as much as anything else the success of the lesbian story lines of Brookside and Emmerdale, unimaginable 15 years ago, demonstrate how attitudes to what is acceptable on TV - and outside - have liberalised. The tabloids may have had a field day but the switchboards were not jammed with complaints. "There have been objections," says Jeremy Conway of the Independent Television Commission, "but I think there is greater tolerance and understanding of that kind of depiction in popular drama. We receive more complaints about bad language than we do about sex."

So it seems risqu material is fine in a proper context. Even so, the younger generation appears far more comfortable with raunchiness than their elders. The triumph of Loaded, which barged to the front of a crowded men's magazine market place last year with its heady mixture of girls, beer, football and more girls, and of publications such as Sugar and More! which have wiped out the photo-love innocence of Jackie and My Guy, testifies to that.

Kathryn Brown, editor of Sugar, which has a circulation of 240,000 after just five issues, says there is more to it than titillating teenagers. "The British generally are loosening up a bit, I think that young people in particular are less inclined to keep things in the closet. We have been criticised for encouraging sex but we always do stories on safe sex. We encourage girls to say no and tell them things that they won't hear from sex education at school.

"The main idea really is fun. Before launching we did considerable research and found this is what young girls wanted, they don't want big long features on hobbies."

Guy Cumberbatch, a psychologist at Aston University, argues that Aids has demanded open discussion about sex which has in turn "lead to strong movements towards equal treatment of women and other groups. Women are not sent to Coventry for talking about their sexual desires and needs. We are perhaps just catching up with the rest of Europe where it's not uncommon to find full nipples on chocolate ads."

Well, would we want bare bosoms on Kit-Kat commercials, if, which is extremely unlikely, they were permitted? Doubtless the Daily Mail would thunder against them, but I'd guess many people would object not only on grounds of sexism but of boredom.

It's the oh-no-not-Madonna-and-her-breasts-again syndrome. Susan, a 26- year-old publicist, came across another photo-spread of the singer in the current issue of the men's magazine FHM. "There was a lot of herself showing, as usual, and I just though `why?' The pictures were quite offensive as they were quite brightly lit and it turned me right off reading the article. And no, I don't consider myself prudish."

Richard, a lawyer in his late twenties, says: "If it's coming at you from every direction you begin not to notice it. I've lost count of the number of documentaries that I've seen with prostitutes leaning through a car window in a dark street filmed by a hidden camera or on the fleshpots of Bangkok. It's all been done to death."

For good measure he added: "I think a lot of the British actually have very good sex lives. We'd just rather keep it to ourselves." Sheila, a housewife and playwright who is old enough not to want to reveal her age, doesn't want to "sound like an old fuddy- duddy. But the Disclosure poster makes you think of sex and a woman standing alone at a bus-stop at night next to a man drunk on five pints would feel vulnerable.

"I consider myself broad-minded and sophisticated but the amount of sex on TV does bother me sometimes, especially when there's nothing aesthetic about it. People are more tolerant nowadays but obviously television is pushing sex to get the viewing figures."

So what of the media's motives? Stuart Cosgrove, who commissioned Channel 4's Red Light Zone series (that, incidentally, took off its first layer yesterday with a documentary called NYPD Nude about a New York police officer who bared her all for Playboy), describes it as "the first substantial attempt to create a zone of underground factual programming that meets the needs and tastes of Channel 4's late-night cosmopolitan audience." It will cover subjects such as Russian strippers in America, prostitution in Bradford and the rise to media respectability of the French hardcore porn star Tabatha Cash.

He denies the accusation that the main aim is to titillate. "If it was I would be the first person to say so. The programmes are considerably more tame than the tabloid furore would lead you to believe. They are made within ITC requirements on a terrestial station, and all the rest. Sure, some people may be titillated but people have a real fascination for the subject - think of the magnetic fascination of red light districts when you visit a foreign city. It doesn't mean you are a user of porn but the whole culture is voyeuristic or prurient. TV is the most voyeuristic medium there is so you can't separate it from voyeurism in real life."

David Fletcher of CIA media analysts is a little more sceptical. "This is niche programming which is fair enough, but we all know that 16 to 34-year-old men who tune into to these programmes are not doing so out of concern for social justice."

Sex has, of course, always been used to sell, and no one denies it is used more than ever now. But have we had enough? A few years ago four soft-porn magazines were launched aimed at women, in the name of equalling up what is available to men and the empowerment of female sexuality. But only one, For Women, has survived, which would suggest women at least are not ready for repeated exposure to soft porn, erotica, bawdiness or whatever.

Broadly speaking we have shaken off a few shackles, become more tolerant and more adventurous in talking about sex. What may have shocked five years ago does so less now, but we appear to like our raunchiness to come wrapped in good taste or humour. The clothing is loosened, but not undone.