Media Circus: Sex with the perfect stranger

Notorious, a new sex magazine, bombs in its effort to 'entertain' both men and women

Published November 18, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Notorious, whose premiere issue is on newsstands now, promises simultaneous "entertainment for women and men." And the half-naked couple embracing on the cover of the first issue makes it pretty clear exactly what the editors mean by "entertainment." A magazine that's come up with a new way to write about sex and relationships? Count me in!

Having read Notorious, this is what I know: Model Eva Herzigova and Tico Torres (the "celebrity" couple on the cover) spend "nearly all their time shopping for household goods" when they're at home. (All their time? The things that pass for sex in the '90s!) I also know that Michael J. Fox got more than six thousand pieces of anti-Semitic hate mail when he started dating Tracy Pollan, although I have no idea how his harassers figured out that Pollan is Jewish. And I know that a group of American guys who went to Havana for an extended bachelor party couldn't visit Ernest Hemingway's old estate because there were lots of cats there, and two of the guys were allergic. Way to live up to Papa's legacy! What all of these things tell us about relationships in the late 1990s remains something of a mystery, of course, as does Notorious' belief that it's breaking new ground in the way it talks about sex.

Notorious does have photo spreads that feature men and women who seem vaguely connected. This is a real departure from typical fashion spreads, in which the representative of the minority gender (men in women's magazines, women in men's magazines) ends up looking more like an accessory than a person. Notorious also supplies a list of stretching exercises you can do with your "mate" and a piece on starting a business with your "spouse or lover." And the magazine has the admirable desire to be something men and women can both use.

Unfortunately, that's about the entire list of ways in which Notorious actually differs from other magazines in its treatment of sex, relationships and the problem of gender. (Well, there is an interview with a couple -- Eva and Tico again -- that seems vaguely novel, but the interview centers mainly on how he's such a man and she's such a woman, so it can hardly be said to break new ground.) Indeed the men in this magazine are guys, meaning they mainly hang out with other guys, go to Havana to check out the chicks at the Tropicana, sit around in their underwear and talk to other guys about where to meet women. Notorious' women, meanwhile, loll around in bright red bustiers, talk about their bed sheets and read Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things." For a magazine that's supposed to be about men and women together, Notorious spends an awful lot of time pushing them apart.

Bafflingly, the magazine features a series of top 10 lists "by the sexes." This section provides plenty of disturbing information -- men's top three Web sites, for instance, are all X-rated, while women's top site is -- and plenty of unbelievable information: Men's third-favorite video is "The Mirror Has Two Faces"? Women's third-favorite video is "The Mirror Has Two Faces"? But its mere existence erodes Notorious' claim to be something different. I know people love lists, but wouldn't a section dividing people according to "single vs. couple," "married vs. living-together," "no-children vs. children" have been more in line with the magazine's editorial mission? To say nothing of the fact that we might actually have learned something interesting, as opposed to being told, once again, that men like "nasty teenage goddesses."

Notorious' two round-table discussions about sex -- one all male, the other all female -- are even weirder. How segregated round-tables are supposed to offer a more complicated or nuanced understanding of what relationships mean today is a little hard to understand. We've all read way, way too many of these discussions -- even if only in doctors' offices -- to expect that yet another one will shock us with its sudden insights into the human condition. Even the most devout believer in the ineradicability of gender differences would have to admit that men (and women) are going to say different things about sex if they're called upon to answer "what men want" and "what women want" as opposed to "what couples want" or "what single people want." It's probably true that all round-table discussions about sex end up sounding like outtakes from "The Real World," but at least "The Real World" featured boys and girls talking with each other -- not just among themselves.

Notorious isn't really a magazine for "women and men" so much as it is a magazine for women and a magazine for men squooshed together. This is especially disappointing since glossy magazines almost all accentuate their identities as either men's or women's publications, leaving a real opportunity for a magazine interested in border-crossing. Straight men and women, after all, sleep with each other and spend much of their time worrying about how to be happy with each other, but for some reason they all read magazines that institutionalize their distance from each other.

The problem, of course, is that gender conventions play such a huge role in shaping our expectations of what romance and relationships should be. A magazine that took seriously the idea that other factors might be more important to our sex lives than gender would run the risk of appearing (a) incomprehensible or (b) thoroughly unsexy. Notorious most certainly does not want to be either of the two, and who can blame it? Still, there's a lot of terrain between Cosmopolitan on the one hand and the radical gender theorist Judith Butler on the other, and it doesn't seem like too much to insist that a magazine dedicated to women and men should try to explore the similarities between women and men as much as the differences.

A magazine that wanted to be about real relationships could generate a lot of copy out of the central paradox of heterosexual romantic love: It's built on the idea that men and women are basically different but creates a situation in which a man and a woman feel much more like each other than like anyone of their own gender. "I am Heathcliff," Catherine says in "Wuthering Heights," suggesting that she and her lover have far more in common than she could ever have with other women. That's a truth that doesn't conform very well to a world of top 10 lists "by the sexes." Needless to say, it's also a truth that never gets expressed in Notorious.

By James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki is a regular contributor to Salon.

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