Today's women and yesterday's men

Female pornography is supposed to mark a new chapter in gender relations. So why does Mr Darcy keep

"She arched up her hips and he glided into her, filling her up and stretching her out. Clarissa looked up at him in the darkness, his face only partially illuminated by the amber streetlights and wondered what the drivers of the cars on the road saw."

This steamy quote is embedded deep in The Name of an Angel, the 100th novel published by Black Lace Books. It's five years since Virgin Publishing launched its sexually charged imprint, marketed as "erotic fiction written by women for women". Since then, the first mass-market pornography for women has sold over two and a half million copies. Its success has spurred several other mainstream publishers, including Headline and Little, Brown, to thrust themselves into the market in an attempt to woo the same audience of middle-class, middle-aged, often professional women.

The history of pornography for women has had a slow, drawn-out build-up to its present orgy. From the 1930s onwards AnaIs Nin pioneered the genre, though it has its antecedents as far back as the sixth century BC and the lesbian poet Sappho. Feminists, though, found pornography unacceptable, believing, in Andrea Dworkin's famous phrase, that "if rape is the practice then pornography is the theory".

When the Black Lace series first appeared, it met with condemnation from both feminists and the moral right, the uneasy alliance that makes up the anti-pornography lobby. Virgin, and its erotic literature series editor, Kerri Sharp, felt the problem with pornography wasn't necessarily its content, but that its means of production and audience had been almost exclusively male. Black Lace was a way of redressing the balance.

"There was this idea that women were being forced to betray their gender to write this 'filth'," Sharp recalls. "It's the belief that women don't have an active sexual imagination I found insulting - the worst kind of paternalising about 'nice girls don't'."

The sales of Black Lace novels show that nice girls do - they like reading about it, and they like writing about it: the author of The Name of an Angel is Laura Thornton, a lecturer in English literature at De Montfort University in Leicester who got her DPhil at Oxford University.

As an ultra-literate feminist writer, Thornton feels she is turning some sexual conventions on their head in The Name of an Angel. Her heroine, Clarissa Cornwall, is a sexually experienced college professor who becomes consumed with desire for one of her students, Nicholas St Clair.

But a study of St Clair - and other heroes in the series - shows that the young men bear a remarkable similarity to that old-fashioned Jane Austen hero, Mr Darcy. When the heroine first sees St Clair, she describes him as having: "Reddish-brown hair . . . flipped over a broad forehead overhanging arched, fringed brows, narrowed eyes, long, strong nose and wide, sensual and eminently kissable mouth." The boom in pornography for women may mark a new chapter in gender relations, but beneath the cloak of revolution, it would seem, women readers still want a traditional man. Sharp explains: "Most of our female readers want sexually dominant males - they don't want shy retiring types. It's the whole Mr Darcy thing really."

Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, believes that the driving force behind our behaviour is buried deep in our genes, which evolved to cope with a very different environment. "In evolutionary terms a human female is seeking two things, good genetic material and someone to protect and help her with the parental burden. In romantic fiction they are combined in the young M'Lord with a huge estate."

This reductionist explanation doesn't suit everyone. Rowan Pelling, the editor of the Erotic Review, a high-brow magazine which is now selling 25,000 copies, thinks that traditional images of masculinity and femininity have survived into the 1990s because powerful women feel the same need for a change of scenery as their male counterparts. "The old stereotype of the company director tied up by some dominatrix who's walking all over them is applying to women as well, who are in powerful jobs," she says. "Out of work they want to be dominated."

The heroines of Black Lace novels are portrayed as feisty women who are not intellectually dominated by anyone, but are assertive and in control - good professional women, in other words. However, they are still conventionally feminine: they like wearing make-up, skirts and plunging necklines. The Name of an Angel's heroine is no exception: "Stepping into her black strappy high-heeled shoes, [Clarissa] considered her reflection in the mirror, smiling a little at the image of expensive, elegant temptress . . ."

Thornton is well aware that though her books are breaking some social conventions, they respect others: "I've given my first book to a couple of lecturers and they've hated it. They thought it was very anti-feminist, which really bit me deeply. But I want to write books that a lot of women will find accessible, and applicable to their own experiences." She pauses: "And yes, I am wearing nail polish right now."

For Desmond Morris, the unabashed femininity of Black Lace heroines, like the he-man masculinity of their lust objects, is explained in terms of genes. But if sexual relations can be reduced to natural instincts, why is it that so much that makes up masculinity and femininity is culture-specific? In other cultures, a man wearing a skirt is not regarded as any less masculine; and in the west, a woman with child-bearing hips is no longer hailed as the epitome of femininity.

Other sociologists blame the gender divide exclusively on the bombardment of images of dominant men and female babes who people our newspapers and TV - from Wonderbra to Diet Coke, advertisers trust traditional gender models of masculinity and femininity to sell their products. Yet increasingly, people seem capable of rejecting images projected by the media - as Bill Clinton and the Democrats gratefully discovered this month.

Perhaps, then, the use of Mr Darcy clones in feminine pornography is best explained in old-fashioned Freudian terms. Wendy Hollway, a psychologist and lecturer at Leeds University, believes in the Freudian thesis that much of the way people interact with the world is affected by childhood development. She explains: "Cultural images engage people only if there is something else that's going on at an unconscious level."

The theory is that all children begin life desiring their mother's body, but girls (if they tread the heterosexual path) transfer this attention to father figures at a crucial stage of their development. Hollway continues: "The idea of being held in a man's strong arms echoes back to the parental arms. For the girl, the notion of strong arms are often gendered around muscle because of her relationship with the father figure."

Which all boils down to some simple advice to all those new men suffering post-feminist angst: don't be a wimp.