FILAMENT MAGAZINE — “Mainstream porn is fine for a quick wank, but I wouldn’t say it’s a turn-on in the brain.”

WHACK! Stapher Miss Lagsalot just heard about this kickass magazine, Filament, which is now on its fourth issue out of London. Filament (tagline “The Thinking Woman’s Crumpet”) is, for back of a better term, smart porn for women. In amongst thought-provoking articles on everything from women and gaming to atheist parenting are sensual, nay erotic photos of men, taken solely for the purposes of getting hetero and bisexual women off. And it’s sexy as shit. Imagine, a magazine for women that specifically refuses to publish anything about fashion, makeup, or dieting. A woman that… holy shit… treats women like people instead of Barbie dolls? It can’t be!

Needless to say, Lags had
to sit down with Suraya Singh, Editor-in-Chief of Filament, for a wee chat over a spot of tea. (Or something similarly English-sounding.)

Whack! So, Suraya, you are the editor of the newish and newly famous-er Filament Magazine out of London. Tell us a bit about the magazine: what’s in it and who should read it?

Suraya Singh: Filament is a quarterly women’s magazine. Instead of being filled with fashion, diets and celebrity gossip, Filament is full of intelligent reading and photo shoots of beautiful naked men. Over 90% of our readers are women, half are outside the UK, and they’re incredibly wide-ranging in age and lifestyle. I’d recommend Filament for any woman who likes men and smart reading.

W! What made you decide that this was the magazine you wanted to put out: did you want to turn gender stereotypes on their heads or just make the magazine you always wished was on the newsstands?

SS Although it doesn’t sound like rocket science to most people, Filament’s presence as a magazine shows that ‘women’s interests’ can include things other than shoes, mascara and celebrities. You only have to think of how many women call themselves a ‘fake woman’ or ‘a gay man in a woman’s body’ simply because they’re not frilly and pink both inside and out. I think this demonstrates that we live in a world where the media-presented idea of femininity is so limited that many women almost disown womanhood.

W! You’ve had the blog “The Female Gaze” going since 2007. Was that research for your eventual print magazine dream, or did the magazine come out of the online community’s response?

SS When I started looking into what turns women on as a general pattern, I was not sure what I wanted to do with the information. Earlier plans included a Masters thesis, but these were quickly derailed when I found that there wasn’t anything to study but the non-existence of images of men that were genuinely made for women. I thought that was insane, so I was thinking about what place I could occupy that would help that happen. The fact that Filament would be a print magazine and what would be in it was the result of a lot of different research and reading. I didn’t take the decision to go into print lightly, especially with everyone telling me that print is dead.

W! What has the response been like to the magazine so far?

SS Very mixed! The viciousness of the negativity has surprised me, and also how the mainstream press is happy to publish poorly researched, unscientific things like ‘numerous studies have proven…’ to try and cut us down. It makes me sad because by and large the public trust the mainstream media, but right in front of my eyes, they were publishing stuff that they simply made up. Meanwhile, the positivity of the women who ‘get it’ has delighted me; it’s been more amazing than I could have ever hoped for. I’ve received loads of gushing emails and people wanting to contribute everything from erotic fiction to administrative support.

W! So you accept and publish photography done by your readers, who in turn take erotic photos of men they know; it seems safe to assume that many of these are just average straight guys. I wonder if it’s difficult to find men who know how to do the erotic modelling… most men I know would just laugh. Do you think straight guys know how to flirt with a camera? Or am I just stereotyping?

SS Yes, the vast majority of the guys who’ve modelled for Filament are straight or bi guys, and one of the biggest problems we have is working with the model to try and get images that convey eroticism. We’re doing this because there is a shortage of these kinds of images out there, which means that the guys have no model for how to be in front of the camera. If you think about how we learn, girls grow up posing coquettishly, pretending to be Madonna or I guess these days, Lada Gaga. Whereas boys grow up pulling ‘strong man’ poses like Schwarzenegger. So there’s an entirely different set of posing skills being learnt there. We also struggle to get a range of models because not all ‘types’ of guys are equally keen, but on the whole, I find guys are often up for it, once they realise you’re serious about wanting to photograph them.

W! Do you think one thing that has kept “porn for women” from catching on in the past is simply the still-strong stigma in Western culture against women enjoying sex and sexual materials, or just that nobody has figured out what it is women want?

SS Again, both! When we launched in the UK, a right-wing newspaper ran a two-page diatribe against us. The crux of their argument was that women are apparently only interested in romance. It sounds like a joke, but they were serious, and they’re one of the largest-selling papers here. So there’s definitely that: I often say to people that Filament is a uniquely difficult magazine to market because we’re providing something that women are constantly hearing it’s bad, wrong, and worst of all, unfeminine, to want.

It’s also very difficult to create anything for women that hasn’t been through a male filter of approval, because men still control most of the money and have most of the power. It still shocks me how so many men really believe that they were born experts on what women want. I often avoid telling men what I do for a job, because so frequently I’ll then get lectured about what women want.

Our predecessors Playgirl, For Women, Viva and Australian Women’s Forum were all owned by men. I do not envy any of the their female editors having to pass all their decision by people who are not the target audience, but may – depending on the men – believe they can speak for the target audience. When these magazines fail, the press always blames women for not being visually stimulated. I’m so glad that I can just think about what our readers are asking for and try my best to deliver it.

W! You state on the website that the gay male audience and the straight female audience are probably not looking for the same things: can you tell us about any concrete differences you’ve found?

SS Sexist and homophobic assumptions are usually wrong, and for me that’s what it is to assume that women are just gay men in skirts, or gay men are just women with cocks. Many of those previous magazines were open about using gay photographers and buying images that were intended for the gay market, and simply repackaging them for women. They also actively courted a gay readership as well as a straight female readership, which led to magazines that felt like they were sitting on the fence.

Some women are quite happy to consume gay porn, but a lot of women I’ve talked to or whose thoughts I’ve read in other people’s research, speak of ‘gay cues’ in images that spoil their erotic enjoyment, for example, bright white underpants and excessive focus on the buttocks. We have a more comprehensive set of guidance which focuses on the more common image preferences among women; we’re not saying that the same wouldn’t be true of gay men – because we don’t study gay male image preferences.

W! I noticed that in your photographer guidelines, it says” “David Bowie is us.” I loooove you. And Bowie. Would you be interested in doing a female-as-male Bowie-lookalike photo set? Cause I’d totally cut my hair into a rock mullet for that!

SS We don’t run solo lady shoots, but we could totally photograph you as David Bowie and a guy who also looks like David Bowie, both dressed up and going for it. It would be like some kind of wacky rock-star vanity shag thing. I like it! Let’s make it happen!

W! I read a study (can’t remember where) that said that physiologically, women actually get turned on by a much wider range of sexual stimuli—heterosexual, homosexual (male or female, and whether they’re straight or gay or bi), and even animal copulations—than men (who only get physically aroused by straight stimulus if they’re straight, gay if they’re gay, etc). The difference is that women are so trained to not recognize being turned on, and their arousal symptoms are so much harder to detect than a boner, that women often don’t realize they’re horny. Do you think if more magazines and media outlets like Filament get noticed and read and watched, women might start learning to feel more comfortable with their sexual responses?

W!The results didn’t surprise me at all. Largely speaking, women seem to be trained from a relatively young age to get pleasure from being desired, whereas men from desiring. It makes sense to me that women are broadly not aware of what is arousing their body. There’s also the virgin/whore binary, which pretty much deems any sexual arousal wrong.
When I was growing up, sex education classes and resources said that boys masturbated, and that that was okay, but didn’t even mention the fact that girls did. One friend told me she thought she’d invented it, but sadly I think the rest of us tended to felt guilty about it – and unfeminine. I hope it’s different for the next generation.

I think there are signs that women are getting more comfortable with expressing authentic sexual desire, but we can’t wait around to be handed arousal on a plate. I see this complacency every time an article about Filament appears in the media – there’ll be women in comments saying ‘but these pictures don’t turn me on’. Well then, pick up your camera, find a lovely gent and make some photographs that do.

W! I’ve also read that when monitored in lab settings, women ‘s eyes zoomed directly to the genitals in explicit photos and then stayed there, whereas men’s gazes roamed more over the rest of the image and tended not to stay in any one place. This suggests that women are actually “dirtier” in their sexuality than men and possibly more interested in watching than men, yet this has never been the way we’ve had our own sexuality presented to us. Do you think women like dirty smut but don’t know how to approach it?

SS I think we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that women are dirtier than men because they stare at genitals in images more. This could be explained by the fact that women see explicit sexual images less often than men do, so the novelty makes us stare!

Explicitness is but one important tool that an erotic photographer has in their arsenal. It’s not always the right thing to include in every shoot, but nor should it be excluded on the basis of unscientific assumptions about women preferring ‘subtlety.’ The adult industry often fixate on explicitness at the expense of other qualities; the challenge with women as an audience for porn is that they seem to be more discerning about things like authenticity and styling, so in addition to making something saucy happen, you’ve got other balls to keep in the air too – as it were.

W! What’s your take on mainstream porn, particularly American? In what ways do you want Filament’s aesthetic content to differ from that visually and thematically?

SS Mainstream porn is so varied that I hardly know where to start. I think Filament’s style is all about authenticity, and I’d love to see more of that in mainstream porn. Let’s see who these people are, not what a good meat prop they make.

I believe in credit where credit’s due though, and I think some men’s magazines get a bad rap for being sexist and dehumanising, while some of their practice is quite humanising. For example, Playboy lets their models speak. These women aren’t always the smartest cookies in the jar, but they’re being allowed a voice, which other magazines don’t do.

Thinking of things like film, mainstream porn is fine for a quick wank, but I wouldn’t say it’s ever a turn-on in the brain, as it were, because I don’t share its values or aesthetics. Nor do I think it has ever particularly enriched my sex life. I have seen some absolutely amazing porn made by women for women, like the work of Erika Lust and Maria Beatty. It’s more of a full mind-body experience.

W! Has anyone suggested that erotic images for women don’t work because “male genitals aren’t very attractive”? Or have you at least heard this argument? I have, and I don’t quite buy it. What’s your take?

SS I hear ‘penises are ugly’ all the time. I’ve heard older sex commentators say that in the days when vaginas weren’t shown graphically in porn magazines, people used to say ‘vaginas are ugly’ quite a lot. I think it’s just that people aren’t used to seeing them.

I’ve heard female photographers come out with this as a reason they don’t photograph men erotically, or more correctly, that it’s difficult to make an erect penis ‘look right’ in an image. This is very true, and the solution has to be patience and experimentation. The more I work with the male body, the more I love it, and the more artistic potential I see in it. Everyone should be photographing men – they’re great.

W! As far as the written content of the magazine goes, you are focusing on intelligent subjects that are interesting to women, but that don’t focus on women’s looks, fashion, dieting, or any of the other topics that have been beaten to death by the women’s magazine industry. What are some topics you’ve examined so far, and what do you hope to discuss in the future?

SS Some of our most popular articles have been:
– Witchcraft: was it really a case of men persecuting women, or something more complex (Issue 1)
– Soldiers, whores and the galloping nut rot: looking at Victorian VD-control legislation (Issue 2)
– Examining whether there’s a link between bra-wearing and breast cancer (Issue 3)
– In search of the world’s oldest porn: what the earliest artefacts of sexuality say about human history (Issue 4)

We’re starting to introduce themes to our issues this year, which should be fun. In June we’re putting out a 1920s issue, and then one on the subject of supernatural and mythological creatures in September, so there’s a lot of good fun coming up.

W!What is the goal of Filament? A sea change in sexuality? Or just finally having some quality wank material for women, by women who understand?

SS Both! Over the last few years, embracing the ‘whore’ side of the virgin/whore dichotomy seems to have been the zeitgeist for women – we were being erotic models and swinging around poles and saying all this was liberating. I think there’s significance to that; I wouldn’t necessarily call it a step backwards. Now though, a lot of women are asking, ‘where to next’? So I guess Filament is my suggested answer to that question. I think it’s time to reject the whole virgin/whore binary and recreate women’s sexuality, unfiltered by male approval. I’m starting to see seeds of this kind of thinking popping up all over the place, and it’s really exciting.

Filament is available worldwide, through online sales and stockists. Visit www.filamentmagazine.com for further information.

—Interview done by WHACK! artist extraordinaire, Miss Lagsalot.
Photo credits: Leather Conrad, Alan Barkway, Victoria Gugenheim.

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