An unfulfilled quest for Desire: Susannah Frankel finds herself out of place among the top-shelf clientele

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I WAS in my local newsagent's the other day, scanning the magazines on the top shelf. Penthouse, Playboy and Forum were on display, of course, along with more recent additions, 'specialist' publications such as Asian Babes, 40 Plus and, particularly apposite, Big Ones.

The soft porn section was teeming with men (I use the word loosely) flicking through the pages, like gastronomes poring over a menu. There seemed more of them than usual. Perhaps the hot weather affects them that way.

But when I joined in, one by one they started moving away, suddenly developing a fascination for more innocuous titles such as Great Modern Railways and Golf Monthly.

The newsagent, concerned about the delicate sensibilities of such valued customers, approached, tightlipped. 'Can I help you, madam?' he said, ushering me towards Vogue, Marie Claire and Good Housekeeping. I told him that I was looking for a top-shelf magazine, a new one called Desire.

'Oi, this bird here is looking for Desire,' the newsagent said to his assistant, grinning idiotically.

'Oh yeah, feeling a bit frisky are you, love?' smirked the assistant. 'Come over here, I'll show you the meaning of the word.'

As I departed empty-handed, I noticed the other men shuffling back into position.

Later, I wondered if Desire's publishers realised their female readers would probably have to go through this sort of performance on a monthly basis. Desire, after all, is meant to be Britain's first adult magazine 'for women and men'. 'Erotic inspiration for the Nineties', it is intended 'to celebrate sex as a mutual experience'. Well, I'm all for a bit of mutual experience. So why did I feel as if I'd just walked off a Benny Hill set?

These days women are forever being told (mostly by male publishers of magazines such as For Women), that they have finally claimed their share of the adult entertainment market. You would think, by now, men would be used to us buying it.

But apparently not. When I tried to put this theory into practice, even the people who run the hardcore pornography shops in Soho reacted strangely to the presence of a woman, as if they had a moral objection to selling anything to me.

The most disconcerting thing about these places is walking in to see magazines and videos with titles like Hungry for Meat and Jiggle Jugs nestling furtively among a selection of remaindered books unrivalled except in an Oxfam shop. Shelf after shelf of Blue Peter albums and Seventies' hardbacks - everyone from Shirley Williams to Bobby Moore are on display.

This is a result of a loophole in the Local Government Act (Miscellaneous Provisions) 1982, which states that businesses not stocked to 'a significant degree' with sexual material don't require a licence. Next time you need a copy of The Observer Book of British Birds you know where to go.

Sad to say, any sign of the celebration of sex as a mutual experience was sadly lacking in Soho. The clientele was predictably entirely male and, tragically, sporting the requisite dirty brown mack and thick-lensed glasses. No sign of anything remotely resembling Desire.

You would think the one place where women in search of erotica would be welcome would be in an Ann Summer's shop. Yet women seem to have problems selling sex to other women. Browsing up and down the aisles of 'wind-up boobs', 'chocolate willies' and a sea of black-and-red frilly underwear, I was accosted by an overly eager shop assistant who chirped: 'That's right, girls. Have a laugh,' with all the spontaneity of an automaton.

None of us was laughing. The leap that women are expected to make from slapstick to sex must surely be one of life's greatest mysteries.

A group of men in the shop, however, obviously understood perfectly. Who would have thought that watching a wind-up 'Jolly Pecker' whizz round in circles would be such an endless source of entertainment?

But where was Desire? I was still clinging to the hope it was going to change all this. I finally found a copy in a ropey old newsagent in west London. Page after page of scantily clad, pouty, buxom beauties accompanied by gormless men were unlikely to prove mutually arousing. There was the token arty shot (SM, Athena reproduction style), one penis (flaccid, of course) and a lead story that screamed 'Real Men Don't Eat Pussy'. Hardly designed to appeal to an enlightened female readership.

In a month when Britain's most widely distributed feminist magazine, Everywoman, has been wrapped in a plastic cover because it has a computer-generated image of an erect penis on the cover, shared mutual experience is evidently more elusive than it seems. Needless to say, like any good magazine you left lying around the office, my copy of Desire soon went wandering. No prizes for guessing the sex of the person who went home with it.

Beatrix Campbell is on holiday.