Female fantasies exposed
Few people would be shocked to learn that some men use "lesbian" porn. But women using erotica featuring gay men? That's not a topic that gets discussed much.
However, according to the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, a study of internet porn habits described as "the world's largest experiment", male-male sex interests a lot more women than you might think.
In their book, neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam highlight women's interest in "gay romance novels" and erotic stories. The most popular site for women, they say, is fanfiction.net, which has 1.5 million visitors a month.
The researchers' claims come as no surprise to Louise Lush and Suraya Singh - editors, respectively, of erotica website forthegirls.com and erotic magazine Filament.
"Plenty of straight women are into male-male porn and erotica," says Lush.
She's cautious about suggesting how big the audience is, but says that she has "personally spoken with a lot of women online via Twitter, Facebook etc who say they love gay porn and male-male erotic fiction."
Singh agrees that male-male erotica is "very popular indeed," and includes it in some form in most issues of Filament.
For diehard fans, meanwhile, Syzygy magazine is entirely devoted to stories and photographs "for women by women who love stories about men."
In general, though, women aren't using pornography intended for gay men, says Singh.
Instead, they tend to consume "M/M" - material created with women (of all sexual orientations) in mind.
Popular M/M sub-genres include "slash" - fan fiction which riffs on popular films, books and TV but puts male characters into gay situations - and "yaoi", Japanese comics with male-male storylines.
Many other varieties exist, but most, according to Singh, are in the form of stories, illustration or film clips re-cut to convey a homoerotic meaning, all of which are cheap to make and don't require the involvement of actors.
Noel Lee of Sydney's The Bookshop Darlinghurst, a gay and lesbian bookstore, says that he has female customers buying M/M both online and at his Oxford Street shop - albeit not in huge numbers.
"We had one older Asian woman who was always coming in - and she only wanted gay murder mysteries," he says.
"She would buy the latest one, she had a collection, these very expensive hard covers. But we have other people coming in who love gay romance books and erotic fiction."
He finds women tend to buy "the emotional stuff", although some prefer "big, expensive picture books."
The Bookshop stocks some yaoi too. "I remember, there was one which had David Beckham [as a character]," Lee says. "There was a kind of love triangle between three famous football players in this Japanese illustrated comic book."
It might seem surprising that women want male-male storylines, but perhaps it shouldn't.
"It's similar to why men watch 'lesbian porn'," says Lush.
"There's two objects of lust (in this case, men) on screen, without any interference from a woman."
Singh draws the same comparison.
"The thing about girl-on-girl," she points out, "is that crucially, it's not real lesbian action - it's made for and by straight men, it's about their fantasies ... We seem uncomfortable with the idea of women having sexual desire which resembles men's in any way."
Lush suggests that for women, gay porn benefits from lacking the "sexist or negative viewpoint that a lot of straight mainstream porn has."
And M/M, she believes, "has a certain 'taboo' factor. We still don't get to see men touching or being intimate with other men in our society. It's hidden from us and - as with so many sexual things - hidden equals sexy."
Sue, a customer of The Bookshop who buys both homoerotic fiction and photography books, agrees that part of the appeal is "exploring different personalities".
A mother of two currently going through a divorce, she initially discovered slash fiction as a Lord of the Rings fan, through people she met online who shared her interest.
"There's quite a bit of gay sex" in the books she reads, but she says that it's the storylines which draw her in, and the notion that "it is possible to find that true love of yours regardless of the gender".
She insists that "it's not just the sex that interests me. Because I've read quite a bit over the years, I look for specific authors now, and rarely venture into something unless it's cheap - unless it's online and going to cost me two dollars or something. With the photography, there are a few photographers whose work I really admire... The fact that they're male bodies obviously attracts me being a straight female, but I can also see the artistic quality of it."
Other fans of the genre have suggested the appeal is more complex.
"In my sexual imagination I'm a gay man," explained M/M novelist Alex Beecroft in a recent interview with Out magazine.
"I write to satisfy a sexual desire I can't physically satisfy in this body."
Another M/M writer, who goes by the pen-name Erastes, told the magazine that she is bisexual but considers herself "a penetrative gay man".
By identifying women's interest in gay male romance and sex, A Billion Wicked Thoughts seems to be onto something.
However, Singh and Lush are both highly critical of the Ogas and Gaddam's research.
Singh says the neuroscientists' interviews with M/M community members were full of assumptions: "the authors very much had the idea ... that women write slash because they are fantasising about having relationships with the male characters in the original. I don't know a single slash fan who agrees; most seem to think the idea is hilarious."
Lush, meanwhile, warns that the scientists' statistics should be approached "with caution".
A Billion Wicked Thoughts states that Lush's website has 100,000 visitors a month, half of whom are gay men - "and how did they get that figure or conclude that half of our visitors are gay?" she asks. "They didn't actually ask us."
In other words, A Billion Wicked Thoughts may have some interesting things to say about sexual desire. But there are clearly billions more still to be unearthed.
Sydney Morning Herald