Scarlet Magazine

Are you "a sexually confident woman"? Do you always "get what you want"? Scarlet Magazine is a new UK sex mag for women which is hoping to provide an assertive look at women's sexuality. But will it appeal to the Charlottes as much as the Samanthas? Holly Combe sits down with Issue 1 (November 2004).

, 11 January 2005

According to the cover, Scarlet is “the new magazine for women who get it.” Despite my enthusiasm for this fresh venture, I have to admit I was a little taken aback by this. I was imagining all those potential readers feeling alienated, wondering exactly what it is they’re meant to get and whether even having to ask means, alas, Scarlet is not for them. I was picturing radical feminists who, even without such provocation, may well have already been raising their eye-brows at the prospect of one of their liberal sisters gushing on about some wonderful new sex magazine. And they would have been picturing it right. That’s exactly what I planned to do. Indeed, it had been suggested to me that Scarlet was a pro-sex magazine with feminist overtones and, ever-ready for a 21st century sexual revolution, I was very much looking forward to getting stuck right in. But now I was confused. What if I didn’t dig it after all? Would this lead me to be suspected as one of those apparently unworldly peoplewho don’t “get it”?

Like the strap-line, the website immediately came across as cliquey. Its opening question “are you a sexually confident woman?” appeared, at first glance, to be something of a demand. It makes it sound as if Scarlet is some exclusive club where the ranks close in if your answer is anything other than an emphatic “yes!” or if you dare to probe at what lies behind the question. I was pleased to discover all was not lost when I saw the introduction at the beginning of the magazine itself:

You’re a Scarlet woman if you’re doing what you want, whether lesbian, straight, bi, virgin, monogamist or self-proclaimed slut” At Scarlet, we don’t think sexual confidence is about being able to tick a load of boxes. Having a great sex life isn’t about following trends or carving notches on bedposts.

Instead, we see good sex as asking for what you want, and refusing what you don’t, without feeling self-conscious about it.”

Overall, I’d say the above definition gives a more heartening insight into where Scarlet may be coming from. In this particular tableau, the person who confidently seeks sexual satisfaction with others can be seen walking side by side with the person who is confidently celibate. So far, so good. The only problem is that, despite the magazine’s claim that sexual confidence is not about “ticking boxes”, the blurb on the website appears to fall into that very trap. It paints a picture of the Scarlet Woman as a perfectly balanced creature who indulges her “frivolous side” with “shopping trips and beauty treatments” but is also just as likely to have her head “in a good book” or be found enjoying “the latest films or music.”

The seeker of sexual satisfaction can be seen walking side by side with the confidently celibate

Along with this, Scarlet shows an annoying tendency (both on the website and in the magazine) to promote vibrators like fashion accessories. Personally, I would have much preferred to see sex toys kept in perspective as just potential added extras that you can take or leave depending on what gets you off. Instead, Scarlet seems to be plugging them as lifestyle essentials that every-girl’s-just-gotta-have (the Jessica Rabbit model, in particular, getting promoted as the ultimate symbol of the Scarlet lifestyle).

Another minor irritation for me was Manley Hopkins’s Sex Features page. This struck me as a rather superficial exercise, informing us of dubious sex stats such as “women with a PhD are twice as likely to have a one night stand than those with only a bachelor’s degree.” I expect Scarlet is simply presenting this stat to dispel the myth that intelligent women don’t have casual sex but, unfortunately, it just ends up looking as if they’re trying to convince us that, just like getting an education, having lots of casual sex will give us an irresistably competitive edge. Performance anxiety anyone?

I also felt I could have also done without the advice to leave my shoes on during sex, continue wearing my jewellery and take breaks to apply lipgloss (all “favourite sex lessons” from members of the Scarlet team). Then again, perhaps I was a little quick to be critical about the last one. After all, while I strongly object to the idea of the beautification process distracting from my sexual pleasure, I can also recall plenty of times when messy lipstick traces have made sex extra exciting (particularly when they were being left on my body by an equally tarted up boy). I don’t know what kind of scenario Scarlet has in mind here but maybe that doesn’t matter. It’s all about the possibilities.

It’s all about the possibilities

Thankfully, I found the actual articles in Scarlet to be an improvement on the shorter items. “In it For the Money Shot,” for example, shows Scarlet getting involved, along with representatives from other magazines, in the making of a porn film. There is an emphasis in this article on efforts to protect the sexual health of performers and it doesn’t hide the downside of the business either (though I’d imagine the deadpan humour when touching on some of these issues would not be to everyone’s taste). I liked the fact that Emily Dubberley keeps the reader well-informed on some of the terms used in the sex industry. She also makes the important point at the end of the piece that what women want from porn is as varied as women themselves (a comment that sounds obvious but clearly still needs to be said when you consider all the generalisations about sex and gender that continue to trickle through the media).

I also thoroughly enjoyed reading Mil Millington’s defence of the natural unkempt bikini line (though I would also like to point out that, “Desperate Dan” stubble aside, there are actually some genuine personal pleasures attached to having a partially shaved snatch; not least the added slipperiness that benefits shaved labia majora!).

Another plus point in the magazine is the selection of stories. The website states that Scarlet’s fiction will “reach the parts other magazines don’t- or at least have you reaching for them” and I can indeed report that reading Good at Games (nice pun by the way) in a public place left me feeling twitchy, stiff and uncomfortable. Another thing I liked about this story was its take on sexual teasing as a game men enjoy playing every bit as much as women are typically expected to. I’d have liked to see a less predictable ending but, hey, it still hit all the right buttons so I won’t complain too much (sorry to be shallow, girls).

Another plus point in the magazine is the selection of stories

But it wasn’t the insights into porn, selection of fiction or the debates about body hair that I was most excited about when I read the press release. The Scarlet item I had actually been looking forward to most was Sarah Hedley’s piece on the virtues of younger men. How disappointed I was then to discover that the men in the pictures hardly looked like the “Boy-Toys” the article was meant to be all about. Come on Scarlet! No-one’s going to freak out if you show a few pictures of men who actually look boyish, so why the hesitance? Or do you think women aren’t interested in young men?

Interestingly, this particular article also seems to be mainly pitched at woman in an older age-group than the rest of the magazine (the SpeedDater UK event mentioned is aimed at women between 35 and 50 and men between 23 and 35). While I wholeheartedly support a magazine that encourages a wide readership, I couldn’t help thinking this shift was more connected to an assumption that young women don’t find even younger men appealing and that the dynamic in question only kicks into gear when a woman is old enough for a 23 year old man to be considered her “Boy-Toy.”

I also wasn’t sure about Hedley’s definitions of what makes a Boy-Toy (as opposed to the old-style Toy-Boy). Yes, I agree they need to have passed the upheaval of puberty but why exclude boys who haven’t passed the “burdens of student poverty” yet? I’d guess perhaps money is the issue here but isn’t it nice to be the one to pays sometimes? And who cares whether they’re “career driven”? Is it only me who thinks slackers are sexy? (All that time to think makes them interesting.)

We need to look at how damaging a limited vision of sexuality is to everyone

Another interesting article is Mine Ertanin’s “Are You Dysfunctional?” This criticises the medicalisation of female sexuality and the way it often gets treated in the same way as male sexuality is. This piece makes some excellent points about the assumptions on what it means to be “functional” but I think it could go a step further by questioning the medicalisation of sexuality in general. Rather than focusing on how women are different from men, I think we need to look at how damaging a limited vision of sexuality is to everyone. Are we saying it’s okay to medicalise male sexuality? Is it really that simple?

And yet, despite these criticisms, I do appreciate what Scarlet is doing. My main problem is that all that rampant consumerism and commodification of sex does occasionally mean the more worthy aspects of the venture end up jarring somewhat (though, to be fair, I can see this is probably a common problem for sponsorship-reliant magazines).

A prime example of such discord is when Flic Everett, Scarlet’s resident sex trouble-shooter, gives the following surprising answer to a woman who finds it hard to tell her boyfriend what she wants in bed:

Go to www.historylearningsite.co.uk/emmeline-pankhurst. The founder of the female suffrage movement might have a thing or two to say about the perils of “just letting him do it his way.” Suffragettes did not chain themselves to the railings so that, nearly 100 years later, their great-Granddaughters could murmur “oh well, it keeps him happy” and think of England”

Phew. I wasn’t expecting that. I appreciate the unapologetic and blatant allegiance to feminism but, lets be honest here, isn’t it a little skewed in this context? (A case of right sentiment, wrong moment perhaps?) After all, it’s only human to feel insecure sometimes or occasionally have difficulty asking for what you want and I certainly wouldn’t blame this woman (assuming for a moment that the letter is real) for feeling a little pissed off and insulted to be told she’s letting the side down with her reticence. Doubly so, with the answer’s implication that her lack of assertiveness stems from a poor appreciation of feminism. But still, as I said, at least it gives us a good indication of Scarlet’s feminist stripes.

It gives us a good indication of Scarlet’s feminist stripes

In a similar vein, Emily Dubberley’s article at the end of the magazine on the importance of being able to say no suggests Scarlet is not just superficially plugging sex like a fashion accessory. However, considering my hopes that Scarlet might help liberate us further from traditional ideas about sex, I found myself pretty disheartened by the following advice:

“If a guy you’ve been dating asks you for group sex before you’ve even discovered his surname because he sees you as sexually liberated, think about whether he’s with you because he likes you or because he sees you as easy.”

Well, obviously, I can see how being reduced to a mere means to an end could somewhat dampen a person’s libido but should we really still care about being seen as “easy”? This advice implies that, whatever the set-up, even liberated women have a lot more at stake than men when it comes to sex and our reputations are, as ever, something worth guarding.

Personally, I’d like to see us concentrating more on our own motives rather than letting the possible intentions of our date dominate the whole relationship (just like they did in the old days). Does my suggestion seems foolish? Does such caution continue to be necessary? If so, I can only conclude we’ve got a long way to go. Relying on old-school methods to protect ourselves from being used and abused just isn’t good enough. Up the revolution!

It is partly with thoughts like this in mind that I find myself really wanting Scarlet to be a success. It may not be perfect but this magazine shows more than a few hints of an agenda I wholeheartedly support.

But do I “get it”? Well, my estimation is that Scarlet is for women who “get” that there is an ongoing need for genuine sexual liberation. At the risk of delivering yet another tedious blow to my much marginalised radical sisters, I would say Scarlet is for women who “get” that the way forward for feminism is not to push away representations of sex as entertainment but to keep plugging away at a culture that puts sex firmly out in the open. It’s for people who “get” that a culture that does this is in a position to challenge the stereotypes holding back both genders in their right to live as sexual individuals.

In November, a Guardian article by Lucy Mangan posed the question of whether Scarlet can avoid simply appealing to the so-called “dirty mac brigade” (the thing that apparently happens to “most enterprises that involve, in whatever way and for whatever ends, linking women with sex”). As far as I’m concerned, this possible risk is no excuse for us to be defeatist. Society will not change if we write off whole sections of culture or assume they are too outside of our control for us to even bother trying to infiltrate. Anything involved in such a task won’t always get it right but we have everything to gain if we give it the chance.

Holly Combe is a member of Feminists Against Censorship and believes the celibate and the slut are natural comrades united in their deviance against prescribed social norms. She is currently “between shaves” and enjoying the challenge her Desperate-Dan-like quim presents to fashionable standards of female beauty

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