No smut, no smirking

`Penthouse' has a new look, and it's one that men and women are invited to enjoy together. Some hope. By Jack O'Sullivan

`It's not your Dad's wank mag." That's the claim of the new Penthouse, relaunched this week and attempting to exchange its dirty-mac image for something trendier from, say, Dolce e Gabbana. Out from under the mattress and on to the coffee table, it wants to make sex acceptable, leaving behind the magazine's sad, lonely clientele, who traditionally use it for what Woody Allen obliquely dubbed as "sex with the one you love".

The revamp is unsurprising: monthly sales have plummetted from a Sixties' heyday of 400,000 to 30,000 as fantasists desert the top shelf, for moving porn via home videos, cable and the Net. Lancaster Publications, the new British franchise-holders headed by Andrew Cameron, ex-managing director of Express Newspapers, has an eye on the huge men's magazine market. Already, the first edition has captured advertisers such as Honda, Macanudo cigars and BMW, plus top photographers such as Corinne Day and the columnist Will Self.

But Tom Hilditch, the new editor, who eschews the meat-market approach (which earned the previous regime the nickname Dewhurst), is not simply repackaging an old product that was beginning to smell. Fresh from five years' high sexual voltage in south-east Asia, he's a sharp, urchin-like 31 year old in wrapround shades with the slightly crazed manner of one who has spent too many nights in clubland. He has a mission: to get us all jacked up on sexual endomorphins.

Pornography, he says, has failed to keep up with the times. "Somewhere in the mid-Seventies the battle of sexes began in earnest," he says. "Porn battened down the hatches and dreamt this decrepit dream of women on butcher's blocks. Porn mags got lazy. They didn't notice that women are sexual creatures, who are prepared to use, flaunt and enjoy their sexuality."

So how does the new PH.UK, as he calls it, look? "We think the best sex is real sex, the most beautiful women are real women." So he has abandoned the time-honoured practice of endlessly plagiarising from the industry's dog-eared book of fantasies. "Fi Fi the model who likes to masturbate with a hosepipe in between flying a light aircraft and meditating in a Tibetan monastery has gone. Our cover stars will be strong, beautiful and confident. Interviews with them will be real and honest. Women will buy it for their boyfriends. They will deploy it to get their boyfriend thinking more about sex."

In practice, his first cover doesn't look that fresh. His traditional readers will still enthusiastically reach into their pockets at the unzipped prospect of Catalina Guirado, who stars in TFI Friday. Complaints are more likely to be about its less glossy finish.

But, inside, reality does intrude on the usual fiction. There's a feature asking ordinary people, mostly women, the strangest place they have had sex. "See that girl," says Hilditch. "Now we know that she likes it on the Tube, we don't have to feel so intimidated by her." An item entitled "Hooker's Card" is a guide to how prostitutes advertising in telephone booths should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act. "Auto release" has eight women doing a striptease and photographing themselves by remote control. "That's my idea," says Hilditch. "Looking at women finding themselves sexy makes me really horny. You can't achieve that by bossing her around, telling her what to do. It's got to come from her, the sexual animal prowling around."

There are dozens of headshots of a Japanese woman in sexual ecstasy and, in "Instamatic Diaries", a series of shots of a woman involving foreplay with the photographer, who appears to have had the camera strapped to his head. "It's about the times when two people leave a club early and wired. They have this long sexual encounter, which doesn't have a beginning or end. It's a feast. They have this glorious sex. It's about two people who really love each other getting it on. This photographer has a real sexual relationship with this woman. The pictures are the moments of memory a man has in his head after a dirty weekend. Not some cliched image of a women on the bed with her legs apart."

And there is humour, like Serge Chabas's shots through a glass chair of Paula Howarth's bottom. "When I first saw the pictures I was shocked," says Paula. "I mean I'm 23 years old and I didn't even know my own arse, Now, of course, I'd recognise it anywhere." But the photo-spread that most challenges top-shelf conventions is Corinne Day's of a long-haired, flat-chested model (pictured above left). Set in a field of flowers, it evokes the Sixties, the dawn of a sexual revolution, which Hilditch thinks has gained a fresh spurt of energy.

For Hilditch, his creation is about better communication between men and women. "If you buy Penthouse magazine, I sincerely believe you are going to have better sex. Whereas the more you buy bad porn, the more you get removed from the real world of sex, because everything is a construction. Men have to buy into being powerful and dominant and being great lovers. But they are reading all this stuff in magazines that are about having a wank by yourself. It is an enormous, pathetic fiction."

Yet even in his new magazine, men remain in the shadows, out of sight. The women appear to have more control in the construction of the images, but they remain alone under the spotlight. Hilditch agrees. He says he prefers hard porn which shows men and women together. "Hard-core has less bullshit," he says. " It's real, not phoney. You see everything." But it's also illegal, because the obscenity laws ban full erections, penetration, genital touching, even tongues touching. Hilditch appears to be stuck, trying to use photography to suggest honest, real engagement between women and men but handicapped because the men are out of the picture.

However, his problem seems to lie at a deeper level than the obscenity laws. The new Penthouse has interesting ambitions. But it remains an erotic medium still too scared to treat men and women equally. So it fails to find the courage or imagination to represent them having real sex together while staying within the obscenity laws.

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