We can have enough sex but never enough sexual gossip only advice men

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IN ENGLAND, a public fuss about sex is meringue-shaped. It has a fluffy, rather dull base, then a layer of frantically delicious filling, then a stylised crest spiralling up to a point. It is made mostly of air, and dissolves in the mouth to nothing but a cheerful aftertaste.

The fuss about the sexiness of women's magazines has this conventional shape. First came a babble of indistinct comment about what these magazines were putting on their covers - invitations to the ultimate thrill, recipes for the ultimate spasm, with travellers' tales from blissy couples who had been there. Then, after the babble had lasted a few months, something suddenly happened.

This was the cream - your actual event! It was pretty suspect artificial cream. A woman who manages a model agency announced that she was sick to death of the magazines' suggestive pictures, of cover-lines about orgasms and of the alleged exploitation of models. Perhaps she really was a bit sick. But her self-promotion was perfectly timed. She got there before anybody else - an archbishop, a Tory politician, a celebrated child murderer - could be persuaded to create the "actual event" by protesting.

As a result, the whole media fuss was able to go spiralling up into its final stage. What do we think about all the sex in women's mags? Everyone had to have a view. Everybody wanted to read the views of those who had views about those who claimed to have views about sex. The model agency woman became a Class II celeb. Now it is almost time to wipe away the last crumbs of this particular meringue and move on. But it has been fun.

And it makes you wonder. Ex-editors of Cosmopolitan have expressed their shock-horror in various newspapers, but the questions remain. Does sex sell these magazines, and if so, why? And what do they really mean by that three-letter word? The covers promise: "The Best Sex I Ever Had" (Company), "Hotter Than Ever Sex" (Cosmopolitan). But what do these mags really do if you take them at their word and dive under the covers with them?

Sex on the cover does, to a rather limited extent, sell magazines to young women. In normal times, before this market became so crowded, some women's magazines could afford to leave sex out of the visual-appeal mix if it did not go with their image. Now almost none can. The fact that the push sex gives to sales is slight has become less important than the fact that it is reliable. The competition has reduced all these titles to an indistinguishable throng of mud-wrestlers. Even Marie-Claire goes: "Illicit Sex. Caught in the Act" on its cover. (The story is billed as a voyeur photoreportage in a sex club - but turns out to be only a report on what it is like to do a voyeur reportage in a sex club.)

What is being sold? Obviously not sex. The mags are fat with sachets of "Advanced Repair Complex" for the face, but not with coupons for a visit to your local Olympic stud. This is a market for talk about sex. But, again, that is not the same as titillation. Some women do read these articles in the hope of turning themselves on. Some read them to learn things or to be reassured. But many have a less rational motive. I would call it cupidity.

Cupidity (in this argument, anyhow) is desire for something you can never have enough of. Money is an example. By and large, people do not turn it down - even when they have far more of it than they could possibly need. Offered more money, Cedric Brown and the beggar outside the Tube station both take it.

Articles, books or videos about sex have much the same pull. This doesn't mean cupidity for sex itself. Many people are happy or at least fully preoccupied with what they have in that respect, and do not look for more. They can respond to invitations from some fabulous hunk or hunkette with "No, thank you". But the same people are often quite incapable of passing up a magazine which promises to reveal some trivial erotic detail. There is such a thing as enough sex. There is no such thing as enough sexual gossip. Wherever human beings come upon it, they grab and squirrel it away - almost as if this commodity might become scarce one day. In the peculiar economy of the psyche, sex chatter always finds a buyer.

After thinking these cloudy thoughts, I became a buyer myself. I went out, bought a very expensive armful of women's magazines and waded through them. And I ended up surprised and touched.

For the whole kerfuffle is ridiculous. It all turns out to be a prance, a fashionable dumb-crambo. Here are these raunchy titles in red, yellow and black across the glossy covers. They must have been scribbled by swaggering Tank Girls who lay kangaroos and blow men away. And yet inside, by contrast ... well, it's not Mrs Beeton. But it's not Tank Girl either. Hidden within these mags live Marie Stopes, Eleanor Marx, Olive Schreiner - all that half-forgotten generation of feminists and idealists who had faith in women, who had hope in sex as a sacrament to make people more like angels and less like animals, who even had charity for men who might one day learn to understand what women felt.

Take Company. The cover announces a 16-page supplement on "Men, Intimacy and You: Intense Sex, Passionate Love ..." The supplement itself declares: "You want more than just sex - you want the ultimate thrill, sex that's so powerful and intimate it proves you have something extra-special together... " But connoisseurs of this sort of journalism will already have picked up the key-word: "intimacy". This supplement, for all its pretences, is not about erotic tips and DIY orgasms. It's about an infinitely more difficult and more familiar problem: how can I make him notice me as a person? How can I make him care for us and me as well as for himself?

And so, on the whole, it goes on. New Woman offers "How to Enjoy Sex Without Penetration", which turns out to be a sensible essay about the rewards of patience and tenderness. "Hotter Than Ever Sex - And You Thought You Weren't In The Mood" (Cosmopolitan) is sub-titled "Turn him on, tune yourself in, bliss out", and "The dirty half-dozen: six sure-fire ways to steam up your love-life". But what you get is a list of dodges to make yourself feel sexy when he wants it and you don't - a dismaying item to find in a magazine which says it's about "women taking control of their destiny".

In seven or eight of these glossies, all screaming clitoral candour from the news-stand, I found only one clearly unconventional piece. Tracey Cox, in "The Facts of Lust" (Company), says flatly that the best sex is often with men you don't love or even know well, that looks and dimensions don't matter if you fancy someone, that mad lust is a bit of a holiday. For the rest, all the pornish fanfares conceal the same valiant, indomitably hopeful debates about how to handle emotions and how to humanise men which have preoccupied women for the last hundred years. These mags are very open about sexual relationships - but as relationships.

And perhaps that's why they survive. There is nowhere else to discuss sex in that way. The press is hopelessly male: a relationship is a bonk is a shag. Market pressures are forcing the women's magazines to lure buyers with the secret of ultimate bliss-out. Inside, however, amid lakes of platitude, there are a few sheltering islands of wise advice, groves where sensual experience is shared and analysed. When this fuss has dissolved, they will remain.

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