Comes Naturally #48 (July 27, 1997):
Cupido's New Reader Survey on Photos of Women; Laughing with Striptease; Sexual Incursions into the Mainstream

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Spectator Magazine - July 27, 1997
(c) David Steinberg

Cupido's New Reader Survey on Photos of Women; Laughing with Striptease; Sexual Incursions into the Mainstream

Scandinavians Speak Up about Sexy Photos of Women

A little over a year ago, Cupido magazine, my favorite erotic publication which happens to be Norwegian, surveyed its women readers to get their opinions on what they liked and didn't like about sexy photos of men. The results were revealing, and especially interesting because users of sexual material are so infrequently consulted about what they do and don't want to see in the materials they use.

Now Cupido has done the same kind of in-house research with regard to the sexy photos of women they publish, asking their readers (both male and female, in Denmark as well as in Norway) to rate and comment on a collection of 25 pictures of women taken by an international assortment of photographers, including women and men from England, Denmark, the United States, France, and Italy. Readers were asked to respond in detail about what most turned them on about the various photographs in the collection. Rather choosing from a given list of qualities, readers were asked to "associate freely about whatever went through their minds."

The results provide some interesting food for thought on how people view erotic photography, at least with regard to the visual erotic tastes of Scandinavians. Keep in mind that Cupido publishes a wide variety of images, including photos of individual women, individual men, and couples and threesomes of all sexual persuasions. About half the photos are black and white, half in color. The quality of the reproductions is excellent. They love explicitly sexual photos, although Norwegian law prohibits publication of photos that show any kind of penetration (oral, anal, or vaginal) as well as photos that focus primarily on genitals. Cupido also make a point of printing photos of people of all ages and body types and shying away from glamorous imagery, although younger, traditionally attractive people do have a way of predominating.

The "judgment of the respondents" -- varying in age from 83 (!) to 14 (!!) -- in the words of Cupido editor/publisher Terje Gammelsrud, is "clear and unambiguous" with regard to "the elements that need to be present for a photograph to turn them on."

"The favorite female model of Cupido's readers," says Gammelsrud, "is a straightforward, ordinary girl acting naturally. She should be turned on, but her excitement must be believable. She must be able to enjoy showing herself off, and she should be pleased with herself, i.e. be able to enjoy her own body. And the photograph? Well, it should excite as well as stir the viewer's imagination."

What Cupido readers like to see in the women who are being photographed is "shamelessness, joy, radiation, a pretty model, the fact that she actively participates in the action, the fact that she passively waits for further development, that she is exhibitionistic, that the photograph depicts love and mutuality, that the picture is explicitly sexual, that the model is innocent, that she masturbates, and that the situation in the photo is a recognizable one." All in all, if you ask me, a pretty straightforwardly sexy, wholesome, even innocent, list of criteria.

Very few of the respondents, Gammelsrud notes, mention the age of the model as an important factor. Half of the respondents who commented on the age of the models wanted the women to be older; half wanted them to be younger. Gammelsrud does comment, however, that the photos in the collection that actually showed older women did tend to be less popular than the others.

"Among men as well as women," he adds, "the number of people who prefer 'a little less clothes' is almost identical to the number of readers who would like to see 'a little more clothes.'" Asked which parts of the body were most significant in making an erotic photograph effective, readers mentioned breasts, legs, asses and labia -- but the body parts considered by far to be the most important of all were the face and eyes.

Gammelsrud goes on to note "with a certain sense of satisfaction" that "the male respondents are not turned off by the fact that there sometimes is a man in the photograph along with their dream-model. Some of course would like to keep her exclusively to themselves, but quite a few also would like to see more of him and feel disappointed when he is hiding behind her."

Gammelsrud was also surprised and delighted to learn that there was "little difference between male and female readers' demands for a good erotic photograph," with two exceptions. "The most important difference between the sexes that we are able to establish is that some men obviously are so hung-up on some specialty of taste that everything else seems to be unimportant." Thus, for example, "men who are hung-up on dark, luxuriant public hair" care little about whether the model's expression is believable or not. "We have actually had answers indicating that the sex of the model is of less importance than whether the pubic hair is black and there is a lot of it!"

The second noticeable distinction between men's and women's tastes is that, of all the respondents who commented as to whether the photos were black and white or in color, all of the women preferred black and white photos while all the men wanted to see photos in color." Go figure.

Sometimes a Sense of Humor Goes a Long Way

Lest we totally run the film Striptease into the ground this week, I will defer most of my comments about the film to Greta Christina's review and Marcy Sheiner's commentary that follow. I essentially agree with both of them, except they seem to take this film seriously which I seriously have to question. I walked into the theater ready to do just that -- ready to subject every detail of the film to my own version of sex work political theory, lust, and angst. Of course, I had Showgirls in the back of my mind. I had also heard some of Demi Moore's press commentary about how this film was to be seen as a serious political statement about stripping as a valid and respect-worthy career choice for women. But the dialogue and caricatures (I hesitate to call them characters) were so uncompromisingly over the top (or under the bottom) that maybe a third of the way through the film I just had to give up that particular ghost. The film was just too silly for me to be able to maintain that mindset.

When I just gave up on the film on that level, though, the strangest thing happened. Instead of simply finding the film offensive (in its attitude toward strippers, strip club customers, blacks, and Jews -- to take a few possibilities off the top of the list), or tedious (a la Showgirls), I started finding it uproariously funny. And, happily, that ongoing sense of absurd farce successfully lifted me over the films many fatal flaws into the unexpected experience of delightfully wacky, mindless, occasionally even insightful entertainment.

Once I started relating to the film as a kind of Saturday Night Live/Monty Python sendoff on stripping, right-wing politics, and detective movies, I was free to appreciate its finer farcical moments, of which there are more than a few. My favorites include Demi Moore's crack, ("this is degrading to women and beavers"), the signed picture of Newt Gingrich sitting on sleazy Congressman David Dilbeck's table, and the brilliant little throw-away scene in which Eager Beaver club bouncer/bruiser Shad distracts his two bad guy counterparts, enthralling them with tales of how it's his job to test the firmness of the tits of every stripper, including many who are soon to be famous as actresses, like Meryl Streep. Most inspired of all is the bit in which Congressman Dilbeck's exasperated aide, instructed to purloin an intensely intimate bit of Demi Moore's apparel for his smitten boss, returns with the lint from her laundromat dryer, which Dilbeck ecstatically turns into the ultimate in fetishes, both ridiculous and sublime.

I'm told that Carl Hiaasen's novel, the basis of the script, is an unquestionable spoof from start to finish, in which case much of the film is true to its roots. The problem, apparently, is that Demi Moore didn't get the joke. One has to wonder why director Andrew Bergman didn't clue her in, unless he somehow thought that her off the wall sincerity would work as a counterfoil to the ongoing farce. It doesn't. Maybe Bergman tried to bring Moore on board, but she wouldn't have any of it, wanting to exalt herself by being above such lowly humor. Too bad. Moore's steamy strip scenes (one of which additionally turns stripping on its head by having Moore work her sexual magic while dancing her way into her clothes) would have succeeded even if she had allowed herself to join the ranks of the unselfconsciously absurd, and the film could then have put together some kind of consistent direction, the lack of which ultimately tears it down.

The critics, by the way, are being much less self-righteously above it all than Moore, or than they might have been, which is a rather pleasant surprise. Maybe these choreographers of mainstream culture are finally growing up about the whole sex work thing, or at least the whole stripping thing. Gene Siskel does cluck on about how the film is just one step from "Demi Goes to the Gynecologist" (you know the line about how explicit cunt pictures are "so gynecological"), and goes out of his way to profess complete first-hand lack of experience with strip clubs. Brandon Judell, of America Online's Critic's Choice, falls all over himself talking about how "embarrassing" it is to watch Demi Moore flash her breasts. "You feel humiliated for her," he says, with "her legs spread and her bosoms pointing here and there." Oh my! And the Chronicle's Mick LaSalle (of all people) protests overmuch about the "long, dreary stretches, where you're forced to watch Demi Moore undressing." Poor boy!

But for the most part the reviewers seem to have been able to keep the stripping in perspective as a sexy plot theme, no more, no less. Janet Maslin of the New York Times is particularly good at appreciating Moore's "toned good looks and brisk energy" while also taking her to task for her "vigorous, determined approach to what is essentially a comic role."

Tiptoeing into the Mainstream

I was pleased to see a couple of billboards for the Crazy Horse Theater scattered around the San Francisco landscape these last few days. "Reach out and touch someone," the ads advocate, up there at buildingtop level, flying like a flag for all to see. It's a kind of coming of age, or a coming into the world of just plain normal reality, to have such public advertising for a lap dancing club up right there with the promotions for United Airlines, Honda, Coca-Cola, and Harrah's. One more river crossed by the sex entertainment hordes.

And, speaking of new levels of sex club legitimacy, did you notice that corporate stock for Rick's Cabaret, one of Houston's increasingly popular fancy-style "gentlemen's clubs" -- those overpriced and generally overpretentious venues for metamorphosing the pleasure of watching strippers into some form of high corporate chic -- has been being traded over the counter on the NASDAQ exchange just like any "normal" stock since last October? "There's no question," Rick's president Robert L. Watters proclaimed proudly in the L.A. Times after his company was approved by the exchange, "we're a legitimate part of mainstream corporate America."

Now, to my mind, strip clubs becoming part and parcel of mainstream corporate America is something akin to gays and lesbians winning the right to drop bombs on helpless Iraqis just like all the Good Ol' Boys do -- a dubious way to be taken seriously but, I suppose, significant nonetheless. We sexual outcasts reserve the right to be just as stupid, avaricious, inhuman, nasty, and incompetent as everyone else. Assimilation is as assimilation does, for better and for worse. Let the sex people add yet another new spice to the American melting stew, just as the Irish have, and the Jews, and the Vietnamese. Only don't forget to keep up some of the old neighborhoods and synagogues for the Orthodox. Otherwise the original culture is going to die out after a generation or two, sad to say. If we get too accepted, pretty soon talking dirty will be as unheard of as talking Yiddish, and having a hard-on in a sex theater (excuse me, a "gentlemen's club") will be as uncouth as talking while your hands are waving all over the place.

We should be so lucky....

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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