Can an ex-civil servant finally persuade women to buy erotica?

Sex will be strictly cerebral in a new top-shelf magazine for 'thinking women', reports Jerome Taylor

Thursday 28 May 2009 00:00 BST

Suraya Singh used to have a mundane job working for an education quango. Like millions of women the 30-year-old would often spend her lunch breaks perusing the women's magazine section at a nearby newsstand.

There she became increasingly despondent at the celebrity gossip, diet tips and fashion advice she was bombarded with. What she wanted was a classy erotica magazine that women like her would be happy to buy. Men's magazines regularly mixed aspirational and intelligent content with high-brow erotica, but women, she felt, were being left out. Which is why she decided to quit her job and set up a magazine herself.

"There are an awful lot of stereotypes about who women are and what turns them on, which I don't think are true," she says. "If you're not some walking stereotype of a woman – who really speaks to you?"

Next week she will launch Filament, a self-funded quarterly erotica magazine that is squarely aimed at turning women on. A glitzy launch party complete with male acrobats is planned for Monday and an initial print run of 5,000 copies has just rolled off the presses.

Marketed as "the thinking woman's crumpet", the first issue features a semi-naked man in a praying position on its cover. Inside, artistic photoshoots of scantily clad male models are juxtaposed next to erotic short stories and erudite articles on off-beat topics such as the merits of being a geek. And if you tire of the sex, there's always a recipe for spicy celeriac bake to keep you busy.

Finding an erotic format that women will buy en masse remains a holy grail. Many publishers have tried to create female-friendly pornography – most have failed. The only comparable magazine on British newsstands is Scarlet, which was founded in November 2004 and is often described as "Cosmopolitan with even more sex".

Ms Singh believes other attempts to create successful female erotica have failed to take into account what women want. "Male pin–up style material that was marketed at women was often created based on wrong assumptions, or was merely repackaged from the gay market," she says. "If you want to turn women on, you have to be 100 per cent about women."

To illustrate her point Ms Singh pulls out a selection of magazines that tried, to varying degrees of success, to conquer the female sexual psyche. Two of the most successful are Play Girl, which printed its last issue in January after 32 years, and For Women – a 1980s attempt by the creators of Penthouse to do for women what it did so successfully for men.

Both magazines feature the sort of oiled, muscled Chippendale–esque models that have typified much of female erotica in the past and ultimately attracted almost as many gay men as straight women.

To find out what sort of models would truly appeal to a female audience, Ms Singh – a New Zealander with an Indian father who has been living in Britain for six years – set up an online community to ask as many women as possible what they would like to see in an erotic magazine. "The answers were very interesting," she says. "Although people like all sorts of things, the consensus was not for muscle-bound men. What they wanted were toned men with oval-shaped, often quite feminine faces."

All the models in the first issue were people Ms Singh approached in the street. "I just asked them whether they'd be prepared to take their clothes of for a new magazine," she laughs.

The first issue has avoided full-frontal nudity, but the Full Monty is not something Filament's editor will rule out. "When we did the shoots for the first issue some of the models did go all the way, but we didn't feel those photos worked," she says. "There's no point being explicit just for the sake of it. We're working on the second issue now and I think it will probably show quite a lot more."

The key now will be whether the magazine's formula really works. Laura Godman, deputy editor of Scarlet, says the female erotica market is there for the taking. "Over the past few years it's become so much more acceptable for women to admit that they enjoy erotica, whether it's magazines or 'fem-porn'," she says. "It's still a work in progress but people's opinions are changing."

But Rowan Pelling, the former editor of Erotic Review, believes creating erotica for women is notoriously difficult. "To my mind, there isn't really a vast difference between what men and women want," she says. "Good erotica will always appeal to both sexes regardless. I think it's very difficult to market specifically female erotica, but good luck to them."

The business of gender-bending specific

* Giving the seedy back-alley sex shop a friendly makeover was a work of commercial genius for the founders of Ann Summers, who now dominate the female sex shop market.

* Who says moisturisers are just for women? The male moisturiser industry has grown to such an extent that British men are the most enthusiastic male groomers in Europe – no doubt thanks in part to out-and-proud metrosexuals like David Beckham.

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