Women and Men: All mouth and no trousers

They make money from sex but they're not prostitutes. They give advice but they're not agony aunts. Meet the new sex columnists

when was the last time you went to a group sex club? The last time you hired a prostitute? The last time you took a good look at your genitalia? Did you tell your friends? Did you write about it in a national glossy magazine?

Anka Radakovich, columnist for the American men's magazine Details, has done all this and more. She hired a male prostitute - "I decided to get my money's worth," she writes, "experience the thrill of the world's oldest profession first hand." She has given us her personal tips on oral sex - "whatever you do, keep your tongue moving ... occasionally some women like a finger or two inserted into the love nest". She has exposed her genitalia, in words at least - "I'm the first to admit that what the gynaecologist sees all day looks like a slab of hairy roast beef." All this is a far cry from Germaine Greer's Lady Love Your C***, a feminist battle cry published in Oz in the Seventies. Radakovich, for a start, is funny.

In the new-look sex column, every detail of the writer's psyche is splayed across the page, its every curve and contour, its every - well - crevice. The sex column is confessional journalism at its most intimate.

The new sex columnist is also far removed from the agony aunt, a maternal figure who would offer clinical and consoling advice, suspending judgement with the same gravity-defying passion readers required in order to suspend their disbelief. Indeed, women's writing about their sexuality has moved on since Nora Ephron's column in Esquire in the Seventies, in which she described her adolescent anguish at developing breasts, stuff which looks tame compared to the modern, super-confident, super-candid sex columnist.

Radakovich was the first of the new breed. Her musings on bachelor pads five years ago gradually evolved into a monthly column, picture-bylined with images of Radakovich in various stages of undress. A couple of years later, On Being a Cunning Linguist found her describing her clitoris as "the tiny pink thing on top that doesn't kiss back, but really likes you".

The frank approach found its way across the Atlantic this year, in the form of Kate Spicer. Spicer, GQ's sex columnist and girl-about-the-boudoir, sits glistening in black latex. A finger slips across her moist red lips as the index finger of her other hand traces the rim of a long vodka glass. She tips her head to one side and giggles coquettishly.

Well, not quite. Actually, Spicer is dressed in an old jumper, sipping coffee in an unremarkable cafe opposite the offices of GQ, and talking about how most people she meets think she spends her entire day in bed researching - or whatever. Spicer is as English as, well, roast beef (in her own column her genitalia are described as being topped by a baked bean).

Spicer says she has had trouble convincing others of the credibility of sex as a subject for good writing. "A lot of people say what I write has no more value than soft porn, and certainly some of the earlier columns were quite dirty. For some people the very subject matter makes it a less worthy thing, but I don't think what I'm writing is dirty. It's a column talking about something that isn't usually given column space. Indeed, the column is still seen as more fit for something like politics. But there's an absurd thrill in writing about something you shouldn't and the way men and women work. I'd be more upset if somebody said I was writing about something that is boring or has been said before than if they worried the column was filthy."

Radakovich, too, claims to be a little baffled at the stir her writings have caused. "I'm just doing this to entertain people," she says. "Everyone is so serious about sex. What's the big deal? They're afraid to talk about it. They act like it's so shameful and they say, 'Aren't your parents ashamed that you're writing this stuff?' Just the way that they phrase the question shows that they have some shame about it. I was just never afraid to talk about sex and talk about my own sex life. Most people are embarrassed to talk about sex generally. I talk about my dates and my sex life and my experience and what happened to me. I didn't think that would touch such a chord in people."

Touch a chord it certainly has. Radakovich's columns have been published across the globe in tens of languages in the book The Wild Girls Club: Tales from Below the Belt. Paramount bought the film rights and Radakovich is now working on the screenplay. Her candid confessions not only touched a chord with Details' readers, but elicited an entire symphony of protest from the US far right. Radakovich has been accused of poisoning the minds of America's youth. In Britain, Spicer's column has been branded obscene by some readers.

"Yeah, the far right has had a problem with Anka's column," says David Keeps, Rakadovich's editor at Details. "but that's the kind of people who remove anything from the shelves that shows a nipple. Nor would it surprise me if the British had a problem. The English attitude to sex is still quite stifling. But look at the advertising that sits beside Anka's column - Dolce and Gabbana, Bacardi and so on. I think that shows quite a lot, that advertisers are keen to be seen beside this kind of piece. It's good, it's healthy."

But are we really seeing a reflection of a more mature attitude to sex, a spirit of openness and information? Or are we being peddled soft porn between the sheets of glamorous fashion ads?

"I'm insulted when people say that I'm a pornographer," Radakovich says. "I don't even know what they are talking about. I don't write about graphic sex. When I'm writing these things everyone wants to know how dirty I will go, but I'm not thinking like that, it's not what my stuff is about."

Still, both Spicer and Radakovich think there are some subjects, even as the outrider of sexual openness, they can't broach. "I have made bestiality jokes," says Radakovich, "but I don't think I would devote a whole column to it. I am writing about my personal life, so I'm not thinking about limitations when I write it."

Even if Radakovich has never felt she has had to draw the line, her editors have had different views. For one column she dressed as a man for two days. She went to a gay club and discovered that when men are into other men, they don't just spend their evenings dancing to Gloria Gaynor. "I saw some graphic things going on there, and I think Details thought some of the graphicness was a little too much. I think they just censored that because I was talking about actual sexual acts that I saw, like blowjobs."

According to Keeps, "the whole sexual queston for men is to try to understand what women think. We are demystifying that subject. We found a much better way of talking about sex than the Playboy adviser. A fair part of our readership is still at an age where they are forming their sexual identity, and they see someone like Anka as a friend telling them what women think."

Rather like an agony aunt, really. Only your agony aunt doesn't write about going to a group sex club, or hire a male prostitute or tell you, as does Imogen Edwards-Jones in Arena, that, sorry lads, size does matter.

Jessamy Calkin, Spicer's editor at GQ, says: "There are lots of way of dealing with sex in a magazine; this is the best way of dealing with it regularly. It's not the only article in GQ that deals with sex, but it's the only one that is always by a girl. I don't think a sex column works if it's politically correct - the sex has to be funny."

"I try to write something that is amusing," says Spicer. "So much of the stuff written about sex is just whingeing, the I'm-not-getting-enough- orgasms kind of thing. It makes women sound as though they can't have fun in bed."

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