What is going on here? A photomontage depicting the degrading lives of American hookers, as exhibited at the Whitechapel gallery? Or perhaps illustrations for a colour supplement article on the exploitation of black teenagers in American cities? None of these things. The caption reads: "Go Wild. Hang Loose in Satin and Velvet." For this, unbelievably, is a fashion sequence in the December edition of GQ, the market leader in men's magazines. And it is this sequence which may have made up the mind of GQ's new editor, Angus MacKinnon, to tone down the sexual content of his magazine. "This is as far as it goes," his publisher, Peter Stuart, is reported as saying this week. "The magazine has drifted a little too far below the belt." Angus, as befits a former Granta employee, is said to want a more literary tone.
Whenever the sexualisation of men's magazines is discussed, it is the 18-month-old newcomer, Loaded, that gets the blame. Before then, throughout the late Eighties and early Nineties, a proliferation of titles - aimed at the materially aspiring man - dealt with sex and women in a relatively delicate way. These were not, after all, to be confused with the Penthouses and Playboys, which were for older, more frustrated chaps and which inhabited the dreaded top shelves of the newsagents. Esquire, Arena, GQ and their brothers were for men with girlfriends, men with rewarding sex lives, men who were becoming kind, competent fathers, men who didn't need to masturbate. They had pages of well-written and provocative articles, lavish fashion sections, dozens of accessories (all approved by the Design Centre, including that Swiss Army penknife you always wanted as a kid but couldn't afford) and enough after-shave in freebie sachets to last the careful man until the next edition was published.
And it was the waft of cheap scent that first alerted the world to the arrival of Loaded. Somehow James Brown's magazine has even contrived to smell less subtle than its rivals. Which suits him perfectly. Where the existing titles had, in his view, kowtowed to the fashionable political correctness of the post-feminist era (all the New Man stuff, all those feelings!), he would provide for the elemental male - the one who had always been there, the one who "has accepted what he is and has given up trying to improve himself". And what did this man want? Pictures of bosomy women, lots of jokes about farts, drinking and "totty", loads of boisterously partisan sport and - predictably - endless sachets of cheap aftershave. But the boundaries between porn and mainstream culture were already collapsing. Take Madonna's Sex, which borrowed wholesale from the hidden multi-billion-dollar industry that is American porn. Or the forthcoming, much-hyped Showgirls - the adventures of lap dancers in Las Vegas - which features full-frontal nudity.
Loaded became very successful very quickly. It had correctly understood that a large number of younger men were fed up with or uninterested in the era of sexual politics. Like young Germans in the Eighties, they were not prepared to take upon themselves the guilt of their older brothers - losers in the Great Sex War. And this feeling was already finding expression in the football writings of Nick Hornby (how to go to a match without experiencing guilt), Viz, and on TV in the exquisite slobbishness of Gary and Tony from Men Behaving Badly, Reeves and Mortimer, and Fantasy Football.
Sex is, of course, a vital part of this mix. Sex interests men. But they have always found it difficult to discuss in the presence of women. Somehow we feel that our wives and girlfriends could not cope with (or would not tolerate) our sheer nastiness, phallocentrism and mental infidelity. So there is a certain kind of sexuality that is only revealed when men are together. It is a foreshortened, rough, often hilarious and occasionally brutal form of discourse. And Loaded brought it back on to the lower shelves.
The result was that in the first six months of this year Loaded outsold GQ (just) to become the best-selling men's lifestyle magazine. Paula Yates told us why big penises were better. Emma Noble ("from The Price is Right") displays her midriff, upon which is written "Come On Down" in a centrefold that (and is this revealing, or what?) has a picture of a urinal on the reverse, inviting readers to attach it to the office wall and watch drunken colleagues pee over it. As one GQ insider said to me without irony: "This is where it gets a bit sticky."
The lesson has not been lost. Several of the other men's magazines have taken the Loaded example to heart. FHM and GQ itself, as well as another newcomer, Maxim, have lurched downmarket to cater for New Old Man. A monthly foray into increasing the size of your plonker is de rigueur, as is an expose of some aspect of the porn or sex-for-sale industries. Men are advised on how to dump their girlfriends, pick up new ones and how to discover whether they suffer from what the French call les maladies anglaises. Thus, this month's GQ with its brothel fashions and front page picture of a model called (I think) Eva Vestoff.
Rosie Boycott, editor of Esquire, thinks that her rivals are making a big mistake. "Once you've had bare breasts, where do you go after that?" she asks. (One has an uneasy suspicion that Loaded readers would be quite happy to offer a suggestion.) For a start, she says, advertisers like BMW do not want to be associated with tackiness. Sooner or later they will take their business elsewhere. And besides, whatever the temporary fashion, men do not like be tagged as crude and sexist. The ones with girlfriends will not want to buy magazines which they have to hide between copies of What Motor? and Which PC? The logic of Loaded will lead once more to the top shelf - and will mean that men's magazines have described a full circle in a decade.
But while most of her magazine conforms to her high claims for it, Rosie herself is running some very fetching photos this month. She has Liz Hurley, in poses and underwear not usually associated with those who hunger for a more sequestered private life. Ah yes, she says, but these are not laddish - the woman in them is in control - not objectified.
This is difficult territory indeed. Despite the tackiness there is something about the vitality and lack of shame of the new magazines which is attractive. In this month's FHM, for instance, is a piece about pubic lice (crabs). When I was 18 I discovered (to my intense shame) that I was host to a thriving community of these tiny insects. I told no one and scratched in silence. Had FHM existed in 1975 I might have suffered less.
And this confessionalism goes further. For years journalists have been visiting prostitutes, getting au point, then "making their excuses" and leaving. Which means that the most urgent question: "what is it like?" is never answered. But FHM's pseudonymous Grub Smith does answer it, like this: "To come I have to close my eyes and imagine I'm making love to someone else, my fine and lovely ex. Eventually I manage it. I watch Michelle dress, pay her the cash and get ready to leave." This may shock, but is it not journalistically preferable to all those pieces where the act never seems to happen?
As you can tell, I welcome this honesty. Like writers admitting taking ecstasy, or sniffing poppers, it is better, I think, to talk about the things that people really do, rather than wish them away. But there is a dark side. This is a society in which - for all the newfound confidence of young women - sexual assault and rape are still on the increase. In this context, what message is the young GQ reader supposed to derive from the satin-clad men and the faceless black hookers? Confess, by all means. But do not degrade.
How much sex sells how many magazines
Sex index (pictures of women half-undressed or less in current issue): 9
Editor: Peter Howarth, who came from GQ three months ago to replace Kathryn Flett, editor for three years.
Circulation: at its 1986 launch, 50,000. Latest estimates, more than 80,000. Its readers are fashion-conscious.
Line on sex: group editor Dylan Jones says: "I don't think Arena has published anything that's remotely pornographic. Maybe we should ..." The first men's magazine to put a woman on the cover (Greta Scacchi in 1991).
Sex correspondent: Imogen Edwards-Jones is keen to point out that size does matter and in this issue tells us about tweaking her own nipples.
Sex index: 0
Editor: Joe Dolce
Circulation: 484,472 across the United States. No figures for UK circulation, but it has made an impact - American men's magazines have shown the way, particularly when it comes to the confessional sex columnist.
Line on sex: laid back about getting laid. Honestly, you British, you only have to mention the word to get in a tizzy. The Americans have been there and come back.
Sex correspondent: Anka Radakovich, first of the new breed of girls-about- the-boudoir. Radakovich has been seduced by Hollywood and is taking her sexual confessions on to the silver screen.
Sex index: 74
Editor: Hugh Hefner, the founder.
Circulation: launched in the US in 1953, with Marilyn Monroe on the cover. UK circulation is around 50,000. The average reader is male, 34, college- educated, with a large disposable income.
Line on sex: Hefner's spokeswoman says it is "a general interest magazine for men which happens to include sexy pictures". Anyone buying the magazine merely for sexual gratification will be "disappointed", she says.
Sex correspondent: Jim Petersen, otherwise known as the Playboy Adviser, assisted by Chip Rowe. Cynthia Heimel writes about sexual politics.
Sex index: 27
Editor: James Brown
Circulation: 127,677. The lads' magazine credited with forcing its competitors down-market since its launch in May 1994 and mapping out the world of the unashamed new lad.
Line on sex: phwooar! If the VerMeulen GQ was about girls, girls, girls, then Loaded is about babes, babes, babes (and beer). Irreverent, politically incorrect.
Sex correspondent: none as such: that would all be too intimate and sensitive.
Sex index: 23
Editor: Angus MacKinnon
Circulation: 127,276. GQ likes to think he is suave and sexual in a sophisticated way.
Line on sex: cynics say the brash Loaded pulled GQ off course into sex. But this is to ignore how much the late editor Michael VerMeulen was already following American men's titles. The new editor is a happily married man.
Sex correspondent: Kate Spicer. Posed with two balloons in a provocative shot for her first column, "Me and My Pussy". Spicer's column was very much based on the American model.
Sex index: 34
Editor: Gill Hudson
Circulation: after eight issues, just under 80,000. Its readership is older than Loaded - men with mortgages.
Line on sex: if this magazine is for the older man, then, sex-wise at least, men have nothing to worry about post-thirty. This month's Maxim has articles on one man and his penis extension and first-person testimonials from strippers and table dancers.
Sex correspondent: Karen Krizanovich writes up a monthly chat with the girls. This month: men's hygiene problems. Lots of talk about the kind of hygiene issues only men confront.