Once upon a time, back when the world was young (in the days, say, when Anthea Turner's career consisted of more than just creative housework solutions), it would have seemed unlikely, even shocking, to see a photograph of two naked women, entwined, staring out from the general-interest shelves of the news-stand.
Not any longer. In recent years we've become accustomed to glamour models posing naked, breast-to-breast, on the covers of lads' mags and the more salacious tabloid newspapers. And the trend is growing. This month, for instance, Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson appear naked together on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, with the fashion designer Tom Ford sitting alongside them, fully clothed and sniffing at Knightley. (No, I don't understand the sniffing thing either.) This supposedly cutting-edge image reminded me of nothing so much as that glorious day back in 1863 when Edouard Manet unveiled Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe.
Then there's French Connection, the fashion label, which has decided that its acronym, FCUK, isn't provocative enough: it's itching to upset Middle England some more. Its new TV advertisement features two women kung-fu fighting, before falling into a passionate clinch. If this trend continues, 2006 (foretold in myth and legend as the year of the gay cowboy) actually looks sure to be the year of the lesbian.
All of which would be great, positive and progressive, if these images had anything to do with real lesbian lifestyles and real gay women. Unfortunately they represent nothing of the sort. So I guess that I should clarify my terms: 2006 looks sure to be the year of the faux-lesbian.
Rather than representing lesbianism in any essential sense, what these images actually seek is to co-opt it, to contain and commercialise a preference that can, by its very nature, be alienating, even threatening, to heterosexual men.
The lesbian images that we encounter on the news-stands are a particularly backward trend (as evidenced by that tiresome nod to Manet). The context (not subtext - they could never be accused of being subtle) of these pictures is always that the women are performing for a male audience, their "lesbianism" nothing more than a ploy to attract men, an act of implicit desperation. In these images, lesbianism is just an act, perversely defined by the male gaze. It becomes submissive, nothing more than a male fetish item.
All of which would be depressing enough if the trend hadn't spread from the magazine covers on to the street. Go to any club late at night, and it's not unusual to see young women kissing. Obviously, this is dandy when an expression of true lust or love. What's disturbing, however, are the cases in which one woman or both has an eye firmly trained on a boyfriend or a prospective male partner, checking that their behaviour is having the desired effect.
Quite a few of my friends have done this, only to wake up with a raging headache and regrets. (It applies especially if they were kissing a genuine lesbian, who actually found them attractive. That kind of duplicity always causes trouble.)
I was arguing with a male friend about all this. He could see nothing wrong in making a distinction between performance and voyeurism. Isn't it natural, he suggested, that a person might do everything in their power to excite, titillate and arouse their partner?
At which point I performed the age-old trick (which really should, by now, be far too hackneyed to work) of swapping the genders around. Where, I asked, were all the heterosexual men canoodling in the nightclub gloom, each with one eye trained on his girlfriend, anxious to ensure she were suitably turned on by the performance? Well, he spluttered, of course that doesn't happen, because there's no evidence that women would find such a thing attractive.
Except there is. This month came yet another survey, confirming that many heterosexual women find gay porn a turn on. This isn't exactly surprising (Sex and the City highlighted the subject years ago) but the fact is that no one seems to take much notice of such findings.
And, indeed, why would they? While young women are constantly fed the notion of their sexuality as performative, constructed around a need to please and entice men, there is little incentive, let's face it, for men to ask what really turns us on, let alone act on the information. Perhaps, on a positive note, it's a question we need to spend more time asking ourselves. Because, for now, equality of desire still seems a very long way off.
For the sake of accuracy, I feel I should add that I have seen one of my boyfriends kissing another man in a nightclub. It was 1996, he was a Texan philosophy student, and we were out with a large group of friends in Brighton. The significant detail is this: he didn't have one eye fixed on me at all.
After we broke up, he returned to the US, got married, found Jesus, lost Jesus, came out, and got divorced. The last I heard, he was living with his male lover on a ranch. So for me, it's fair to say, Brokeback Mountain offered very little in the way of surprises.