Media: The glossies' sensational appetite for sex is waning

'SEX SELLS' is the first law of publishing, but women's magazines seem to be suffering from a severe case of 'not now, darling'.

Cosmopolitan, credited with inventing the sexual revolution, has seen a 3 per cent decline in circulation over the past 12 months to 456,703. Its position as queen of the glossies has been usurped by its matronly sister title, Good Housekeeping, on 486,034. 'Be yourself,' advises the latest issue, sensibly, 'and win pounds 5,000 in cash.' Failing that, there are 'deep-fat fryers on test'.

The editor of Good Housekeeping, Sally O'Sullivan, believes the Zeitgeist has shifted - and she should know, having put on 100,000 readers since being appointed nearly three years ago. 'The concept of housekeeping was anathema in yuppie Britain,' she says, 'but the Nineties are about value and quality. Sex isn't taboo for our readers - they are just as likely to be bonking on the Aga as whipping up a souffle - but they don't want to read about it.'

Market research carried out by Cosmo supports her theory. 'We found that our cover lines had taken a wrong turning,' says the publishing director, Simon Kippin. 'They'd become too graphic, too cheeky, too risque. Our readers do want sex, but they want it straight on.' So instead of January's outrageous 'Fanny- tastic news: why men with good taste love your private parts', it has gone back to basics with 'How to have through-the-roof sex with a new man'.

But not every woman has abandoned the Big O in favour of flat- pack furniture and perfect puddings. Marie Claire, the thinking woman's guide to sexual voyeurism ('I am torn between my two lovers'), continues to surge ahead - circulation is up 18 per cent, to 367,626. Company - a younger version of Marie Claire - is up 4 per cent, to 260,810. 'A longer penis?' screams the April cover. 'A tighter vagina? You'll be amazed to see what's possible with plastic surgery's newest trend.'

So what do women want? Sex divorced from emotion is out, as represented by the brief rise and rapid fall of female soft porn. Ann Summers, the sex shop franchise, is to cease publishing Bite magazine. For Women, the last surviving soft-porn magazine for women, is down to five full frontals per issue. Women Only has merged with For Women; Ludus, Playgirl and Women On Top have all closed. Like the Chippendales, they were funny and new the first time but quickly became tacky, boring, embarrassing. Above all, they were badly produced: you can't have a glossy magazine without the gloss.

Voyeurism dressed up as 'the social investigation no intelligent woman can ignore', a la Marie Claire, remains top of the pops. (Its editor, Glenda Bailey, points out that sex is only a small part of the total package.) The more detailed and lurid the better: man-to- woman-to-man trans-sexuals, women who marry their fathers by mistake, people who lose their virginity in old age . . . More titillating than any problem page, especially when one doesn't feel guilty about skimming the sensible agony aunt advice.

One suspects that the readers of She (circulation down 11 per cent to 251,860), too busy comparing breast pumps to have sex, could do with some of this second-hand excitement. Maybe they're already getting it on daytime television shows, notably Oprah.

Another growth area is sexual health, as pioneered by Company. 'If a feature strays below the belly button,' says deputy editor Tara Barker, 'people think it must be sex. The majority of our 'shocking' supplements have been health-related, from menstruation to vaginal health.'

The big question is: will the stream of true-life stories ever dry up? 'Wait till you see next month's magazine,' says Glenda Bailey with relish.

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