In many ways, Suraya Singh's story is a typically Kiwi one. Grew up in New Plymouth, moved to Wellington, headed off to do her OE, never quite came back. She loves living in London, but Shihad's Home Again and family pictures make her homesick. It all sounds pretty familiar, right up to the bit where she gets frustrated at the newsagents and starts her own porn mag.
This month, Suraya has launched Filament, a quarterly erotic magazine aimed squarely and solely at women. In a recessing market, where Playgirl has recently gone under, it seems like a big gamble. And we all know women don't have Gaze, right? That's for men, objectifying women. So why would women want to buy a magazine full of pictures of attractive men who've mislaid their shirts?
Sorry, what was the question?
Suraya didn't just jump into this blind. She did what any smart person would do first: she asked LiveJournal what women wanted to look at. Compared with the kind of images of men women are usually presented with, the results might be surprising. It turns out that Janet is right: women don't like men with too many muscles. They prefer more lightly-built men, with slim, feminine faces. This is, of course, an averaging of the feedback, and probably about as useful as asking women what kind of coffee women like and then giving them all that. I couldn't possibly comment. Nevertheless, it does seem to indicate a gap between what women like to look at, and what they're being given.
It was this feedback, too, that led Suraya to publish in magazine form:
I asked many, many people how they would prefer to consume the product that I had in mind. They said, "Everyone else will want it online, but I'd prefer it in print."
Magazines do also, it seems, appear to be recession-proof. While major titles find their circulation dropping, niche magazines appear to be thriving.
Filament does something else as well that's intriguing - or rather, it's what it doesn't do. Filament has no dieting advice, no gossip, and no articles on women's appearance. No fashion, no make-up tips. To compare, I did a quick survey at female-marketed magazines in the supermarket on the weekend, and more than half featured a cover story about a weight issue.
So: sexy men yes, appearance bitching no. Now to find some sexy men.
"I've asked strangers at clubs and for example, messaged someone after seeing their picture on Facebook. I have only had one man say 'no' to modelling, and that was because he wasn't allowed to do that kind of thing because of his job, not because he didn't want to."
Lying around all over the place, apparently, just hanging out to be asked to get their gear off in front of a camera. Isn't this compounding a problem, though, rather than solving it? Surely allowing women to objectify men just legitimises objectifying women?
Being turned on by an image of someone exposing their body is not necessarily objectification just because you don't know that person. I thought a lot about what the difference is between the two and making sure our images are about the people in them, not just of the people in them - for example, the models often took quite an active role in designing the shoot. Additionally, our photoshoots sit alongside interviews with the models about who they are as people, for example, not what they're like in bed.
We also don't touch up our images in ways that make the models appear something they're not - thinner or younger for example. So we think we're promoting a reasonable and achievable beautifulness in men, not unrealistic ideals.
Suraya says the main criticism of Filament that she's had from women is that it simply isn't explicit enough, and this certainly gels with what I've seen elsewhere (link NSFW). She is currently, however, negotiating the difficult world of the British censor, and hopes to be able to move to more explicit images in later issues. It's a matter, too, of getting a photoshoot that works naturally, and doesn't just yell 'look, a penis!'.
Certainly the idea that women aren't visual doesn't seem to be getting in the way of women perving. It's a remarkably persistent myth, though, to the point where every time an ad or a movie features a scantily-clad man, it's suggested that it's playing to its 'huge gay fan-base', as if there are more pervy gay men than pervy straight women. It seems incredible to suggest that David Boreanaz's shirt used to come off in about every second episode of Angel because it kept the female fans happy, and yet also incredibly obvious. Eye-tracking experiments have shown that in fact, when watching sexual material, men look at faces more than women do. The ladies were all about the groinal action.
The mythology around marketing to women interests Suraya in general:
I'm not so much interested in erotica and women's consumption of it as the assumptions that are made about women by any market, broadly speaking - things like, the way you can only get women's running shoes or razors in pink, or that hi-fi headphones are only made to fit man-sized heads. I don't think it's as simple as supply and demand, because you can't demand something that isn't there.
To say that straight women aren't sexually aroused by images of men is, in fact, to imply that it's not okay: that if you're a woman who is turned on by erotic pictures, there's something wrong with you, and that side of your sexuality is best suppressed. It's oppressive. I don't mean to imply that every woman likes ogling, or that girl-perving is somehow in itself a 'feminist' action, but allowing women to be honest about expressing their sexuality, and having a society that admits and encompasses female desire, can only be positive.
There is so much popular mythology about what women want, both sexually and out of life. These myths are often used to form what the market decides to give women and therefore puts parameters on our lives. Mythbusting is a wonderful pastime; everyone gains from it
Image credits Filament Magazine and Lesley Malone.