Rowan Pelling revels in clothes, especially items like the delicate antique evening coat she spotted in a London charity shop. Rushing from a business lunch to a mid-afternoon appointment, Pelling paused to snap up her discovery with the same discerning eye and enthusiasm with which, back at her desk, she champions the removal of clothes--or whatever else turns her readers on.
"Sex is funny," says Pelling, editor of the Erotic Review, one of the British publishing industry's more unlikely success stories. "But it's difficult to be funny, and it's even more difficult to be erotic. It's tough to do it well, to turn other people on, to create desire." With a mixture of instinct, timing and wit, however, the elegant 32-year-old has done it. Since arriving in the offices of the specialist Erotic Print Society in 1996--after stints at the satirical biweekly Private Eye and the men's lifestyle monthly GQ--Pelling has transformed the society's tiny newsletter into a risque 32,000-circulation magazine to which many British writers of both sexes are panting to contribute.
Her achievement has been nurtured by a climate in which sexual topics are frankly discussed and debated, in which the activism of women and gays has had significant impact on many aspects of society, and in which sexual images are ubiquitous and often explicit. "If there is one historical continuity," notes Clare Hemmings, a lecturer in gender studies and gender theory at the London School of Economics, "it is that erotica is endlessly talked about and, interestingly, always talked about as 'becoming less hidden.' This debate circulates and comes up explicitly from time to time--like now--but similar debates were had in the 1920s and 1950s."
In the present early days of what some call the Naughty Noughts, Pelling suggests, romantic love is a focus of erotica that is generated by and for women as well as men. "People today are looking for new ways to arouse each other, by phone, by e-mail love letters," she says. "The erotic and the romantic go hand in hand." With its simple page layouts, poems, drawings and cartoons, the Review--which sells for $4 and, says Pelling, "breaks even"--has the old-fashioned look of a serious literary journal, complete with a smattering of untranslated bons mots in the Romance languages. A closer look, however, reveals a trove of saucy articles on such topics as hunting and sexual indulgence (both pursuits, archaically, are "venery"), the erotic joys of traveling by Eurostar (first class, of course), staying on the right side of the law when enacting sexual fantasies, and sex in the great outdoors (accompanied by champagne and strawberries, not beer, salad and processed cheese slices). In its 10 issues a year, the Review's exquisitely drawn covers, by Sylvie Jones, are derived--with a touch of artistic licentiousness--from paintings by such masters as Manet and Breughel. Author biographies are tongue-in-cheek, with one contributor described as "a poet with no nose, due to a bout of syphilis," while another "has not yet sold his soul" and a third "has done everything she ever imagined."
Although a recent survey showed that most of the Review's readers are middle-aged men, women of all ages make up 25%. Pelling expects the percentages to begin to even out. Young women today, she contends, are "strikingly self-possessed" and not wary of either writing or reading about fantasies and erotic life. "Women have always read erotic material, of course," Hemmings says, "though they haven't produced it in the same numbers. Changes in employment legislation and access in terms of gender may account for some of it. In a specifically feminist context, women's ability to position themselves as subjects of desire, while not new, is again news."
And Hemmings takes issue with the view that women are somehow "more in touch" with their sexuality today: "We simply--as with men--come to understand and express aspects of sexuality differently."
Gender aside, John Sutherland, a professor of modern English literature at University College, London, doubts that the written word can still turn anyone on very much. "What killed erotic writing? Making it legal," he has argued in the British press.
In Pelling's view, though, women are more accustomed to bringing imagination and tenderness into play and consequently write erotic tales in sensual, situational detail, but with economy. "Erotica is partly what you're not told--there's a teasing element to it," she explains. "Erotica is about suspense, detail and build-up. There's a pleasant feeling of being cheated, of being kept on the burn for a while. Pornography doesn't provide that. Pornography is kinetic. And it doesn't have much charm."
Similar words come from the lips of Michelle Olley, editor of P.U.R.E., "a fashion and arts magazine that deals with sex." The thick, glossly quarterly with a circulation of 15,000 emerged last June. Selling for $11, it is aimed at a young international elite in their 20s and 30s. Olley, 33--editor of Homme, a book of male nudes--came aboard in July after suffering "a serious case of fetish fatigue" in her previous magazine work. Now, she says, the new millennium is prompting many people "to think about where they are" and to seek meaningful connections in their lives. "Positivity and honesty and reality are the new trends," Olley says, and will be reflected in erotica.
Inspired more by the erotic imagery of Helmut Newton, P.U.R.E. (for Provocative Uncompromising Radical Entertainment) has produced some bold and powerful work under the guidance of creative director Michael Lake-McMillan, 41. Run on a shoestring like the Erotic Review--or on "fresh air and dirt," in McMillan's words--P.U.R.E. is seeking investors to help put it on a more solid financial footing. Given the magazine's cultural focus, McMillan notes: "Pure fashion is all about sex. It's not about keeping warm." P.U.R.E. has explored such topics as the link between sexual and religious ecstasy; "Dark Age kicks," or how "god-fearing, post-pagan medieval man" dealt with his reproductive urges while struggling toward civilization and enlightenment; the nurse as a "divine sexual being," and--on location in Spain--the making of a pornographic film. "There is no high aesthetic in the porn industry," smiles McMillan.
Different strokes for different folks, perhaps. But in the realm of romance, both magazines recently focused on the simple pleasure of kissing. For the Erotic Review's writer (female), kissing is one of "the important things, the things that make life worth living, the things you'd pretty much die for." P.U.R.E.'s writer (male) advises that "curling yourself around [a friend] and engaging in a little tongue kung-fu can be enough to resensualize your world and remind you just how luscious being alive can truly be."
Style contrasts though they are, the Erotic Review and P.U.R.E. both are meant to rest on 21st century coffee tables, not under beds or in closets. Closets these days are for leather gear--or antique evening coats.