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Ann Bradley

Willy wars

Women's magazines always claim to reflect the concerns of the women who buy them. They may all look the same to the untutored eye but each glossy is carefully tailored to appeal to a particular type of woman and to fill a particular niche in the market. That's why publishing houses can own several different women's titles - there may be rivalries between Nat Mag's Company, Cosmopolitan and She, but they're not strictly in competition.

Company hits the under-25, single girl who likes to think the world is at her feet. Cosmo pitches for her slightly older sister, more likely to be at work than at college, perhaps living with her man but no kids. And She is altogether more grown up - for the professional woman who 'juggles her life' between career, kids and kisses. But the one thing that unites them is their obsession with sex. Whether you're Just 17 or just 37, sex sells.

You might think that the preoccupation with a reasonably straightforward physical function would pose a few problems for the editors who are paid to commission original and interesting copy. After all, there isn't really that much you can say about sex that hasn't already been said. Every month, Living Marxism's editor rips his hair out trying to decide which pressing new world problems should be subjected to analysis in his esteemed organ. There is intense pressure on space. Can we get away with only giving three pages to the slump this month? What can we drop to squeeze in a piece on Somalia?

It's hard to see the editor of Cosmo having the same problem. After all, what is there new and original to say about an orgasm? At the risk of sounding ahistorical, people have been having them in much the same way for years. There are only so many articles you can write about them. You can do the 'what happens physically' article, the 'what happens emotionally' article, the women's view and the man's view, the reasons why some people do and other people don't. It may sound blasé but an orgasm is just an orgasm after all.

Women's magazine editors are trying to solve the 'what can we do that's new about sex?' problem by becoming more visually explicit. Last year we saw the battle to win the willy war. Where tits were once considered risqué, so pricks have now risen in their place. Company started it with a 'Men and Sex' supplement containing a 'compare and contrast' collection, and since then men's dangly bits have been popping up all over the place.

Well, actually it's not true to say that they have been 'popping up'. The erect todger remains the last great taboo. No mainstream women's magazine has yet broken the obscenity guidelines which insist that men's bits have to appear in a flaccid state pointing in a downwards direction.

Women's magazines are about packaging rather than content, and that's why sex is such a good issue for them to lead on month after month. There's only so much you want to know about lycra, or formulations for moisturiser, or new places to go on holiday - but we are very susceptible to the notion that there's more to sex than we know already.

Articles about sex kick your insecurities in the crotch. If you're not getting good sex then they are compelling because you think you might learn something to set you on fire. If you are getting good sex, they are compelling because they suggest that it could be even better. Either way, the idea is that there is a great wisdom that we don't know, and need to. Editors can repackage the same old drivel and sell it by the ream.

Take the recent spate of articles on the newly discovered Cat technique by various 'sexperts'. Cat stands for Coital Alignment Technique - and it is supposed to guarantee women an orgasm. In essence it involves the bloke lying on top of the woman and the pair of them positioning themselves so that the top of her pubic bone rubs against him when he pushes down. Sounds familiar? Of course, it's just that good old-fashioned, tried-and-tested missionary position executed with common sense. But it has now generated article after article, filled with 'how to do' guidelines complete with diagrams and eulogies from women about how it's improved their sex lives.

We see sex as the big issue because we invest so much in it. Sex is where the 'what matters' buck is finally supposed to stop. What does it matter if your job is on the line and your pay has been cut as long your man (or woman) loves you? Who cares if the kids are driving you to distraction as long as he still cares and shows it? You can put up with living in a flat from hell providing there's a loving smile to brighten your darkest evenings.

And how do you know if your relationship is all it should be? The answer: it's in his kiss. The formula runs something like this: your life is good if your private life is good, your private life is good if your love life is good, your love life is good if your sex life is good, your sex life is good if your Cat is good. We are obsessed with sex because it's supposed to epitomise all that's important in our lives.

Of course the truth is the other way around. If you are stressed out because you are about to be evicted, or frantic about your financial future, you'll be too preoccupied to have much fun between the sheets no matter how many hours you spend swotting up on having the ultimate orgasm. Which is ultimately why so many people have lousy sex lives. And why sex sells videos, books and magazines. Never in the history of humanity have people been bombarded with so much information and advice about sex. And never have people been so preoccupied with their sexual inadequacies.

So if you've been thinking of buying your swain a book on Cat, forget it. A subscription to Living Marxism addresses far more significant problems, and while it may not improve your sex life much, it'll increase their 'interest quotient' far more than a sex manual.

Happy Valentine's day!
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993

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