Suraya Sidhu Singh, Editor Filament Magazine - The SSL Interview

I've been a fan of Filament magazine ever since I received some back issues in the mail last year. Not only is it simply a good read (and quite nice to look at), but it is also an important contribution towards the female inclusive kind of sexual culture that Science Sex and the Ladies promotes. The goal is a future that incorporates female orgasm, desire, and fantasy as fully into mainstream media as is male orgasm, fantasy, and desire. The creation of Filament magazine is an important step in that direction, and that's why I invited the editor of Filament, Suraya Sidhu Singh, to be part of my SSL interview series. 

It is not simply that Suraya created a magazine for women with smart articles about things other than shopping, fashion, celebrities, and weight loss/fitness/cosmetics or that Filament includes erotic pictures of men. It is that she took the female gaze seriously (check out more on that HERE). 

In a society where the bulk of the depictions of female sexuality hover in the "looking sexy" arena, and where most depictions of male sexuality hover in "desiring sexy ladies" land, Suraya Sidhu Singh flipped the switch. She gave women a platform for creating erotic imagery of men, and frankly, ladies loved it. What I suspected from my own and my friends' experiences is confirmed on the website, "Since its first issue in June 2009, Filament’s readership, distribution and advertising has grown steadily. More people are reading Filament than ever before and according to our recent readership survey, you think it’s getting more awesome." Unfortunately (and surprisingly), Filament closed its doors in November of 2011. Suraya decided to end the magazine for entirely personal reasons, and you can see more about the decision HERE. There is still a lot of love out there and tons of avid fans still hanging with Filament on Facebook and following it through Twitter. It defiantly resonated with people.

Filament was groundbreaking; a fantastic example of what a modern magazine, catering genuinely to the female gaze, might look like. The success and love that this magazine has accumulated should be seen as a beginning - not an end. Obviously, I was more than excited that Suraya agreed to speak with me. I decided to focus many of the questions on the pictures in the magazine because I am really interested in them; the idea of the female gaze, how we can increase female gaze in the media, how hard it is to find and access quality female-gaze-photos, and also men and women's reactions to it. I imagine in at least some ways, her experiences and struggles could be viewed as a sort of microcosm for the struggles that happen while trying to pursue genuine female gaze in larger established media like Hollywood movies. Here goes.... 

Me: Could you describe what you were ideally looking for in the pictures?

Suraya: We published a document of guidance for photographers on our website that was formed through discussions and polls that had been conducted on an online community we’d created. It was in a sort of ‘we want to see more...’/’we want to see less...’ format, because nothing we were looking for was absolute and we didn’t want to dissuade anyone from submitting anything.

The methodology obviously wasn’t ideal, but I think it worked quite well – the list of criteria pretty much exactly matched the feedback we later received about photoshoots, although it did amaze me that most readers assumed that the photoshoots we were publishing were our “ideals”, when in fact we didn’t really get much of a chance to apply our criteria in choosing photoshoots because we never had enough choice to do so.

Me: How often were you seeing what you were hoping to see in the submitted photos, and what were some of the common problems you saw among the submitted photos?

Suraya: I think the overall quality of the photographs themselves was good – most of the photographers were inventive with concepts and good with lighting and post-production.

I was hoping to receive more images that were more spontaneous, lively, fun and erotically charged. We did tend to get a lot of very posed, static pictures. I think that’s a lot about the fact that nobody has much experience with this whole ‘photographing men for a female audience’ thing – neither the models nor the photographers. If you look at the work of some of the more experienced female photographers of men though – Britt Marie Trensmar, Sita Mae Edwards, Dianora Niccolini and Shami Kiely for example – their work seems a lot more lively.

We rarely received explicit shoots. Ideally I think the audience would’ve
preferred about a 1:1 balance in terms of erect shoots vs more subtle shoots, but we were always lucky to get one erect shoot per issue.

We also tended to get a lot of submissions involving the same ‘type’ of model: slender, hairless, alternative-looking white guys in their 20s. Of course there’s nothing wrong with these types of guys, but when that one look becomes pretty much all you’re publishing, of course it’s a problem.

Amusingly, my friends assumed that what appeared in Filament had to do with the type of men that I liked, and consequently I got set up with “likely suspects” a few times. It was baffling until I realised what was going on.

I think that an important point is that if a guy appeared in Filament, it was generally because a straight (or bi) female photographer thought he was mad hot, and as a way of choosing models for a magazine aimed at women, I think that’s valid. You get the skew in type of guys presented because the pool of female photographers willing to photograph men erotically is minuscule.

Me: What types of people ended up being the ones who submitted photos that were actually used?

Suraya: We had contributors from all around the world and all levels of experience. Because women photographing men erotically is a taboo – for example, if you do it people tend to assume that you’re emotionally damaged or sexually promiscuous – it tends to be a certain type of woman who is brave enough not to care about other people’s potential judgements. It turned out that a lot of these women were what you would probably describe them as alternative – goth, punk, geek, rockabilly, metal, for example. I guess that probably influenced their model choices and gives their photography a subcultural aesthetic, which is good in that it is inherently challenging, but can be off-putting to a mainstream audience.

Me: What did you find were the best ways to find and connect with these people?

Suraya: The photography in the first issue or two was mainly done by friends and friends-of-friends. Again, this wasn’t my choice but it was the only option I had – we had been looking for submissions from a wider pool, but hadn’t received any. Once our first issues came out and people started to realise that this was ‘a real magazine’ (as opposed to someone’s pipe dream) we started to receive more submissions.

I think the best method I found was approaching photographers directly from finding their work on sites like Deviant Art or Flickr, and asking them to submit – this generally worked well. I’d get in touch with any woman who was photographing men. There still weren’t many to choose from.

At times I posted calls for submissions on various websites and forums that photographers use, which wasn’t so successful. A lot of people would say they were interested, but never submit anything.

We’d get a lot of people who upon hearing that we were having trouble finding photographers would say ‘Oh, I know loads of photographers who’d love to do that, you’re obviously not trying very hard!’ Then they ask a few photographer friends and everyone says, ‘No, I wouldn’t feel comfortable photographing a man erotically...’ and they realise the problems we were facing were real and complex, and had to do with social values not effort.

Me: I know, through writings in the magazine and the website, that you were constantly working to gain more and better submissions. How do you think the process of acquiring these photos would go in an ideal world?

Suraya: I hear from friends who work at fashion magazines and men’s erotic magazines – even small-scale independent, volunteer magazines akin to Filament – that they receive large volumes of unsolicited photographic submissions. We were actively soliciting photographic submissions, and yet received scarcely enough to decline one or two per issue. I’m not sure how to account for that difference.

If you can offer payment for photoshoots, which unfortunately Filament never could afford to do, you will probably have more choice. However, I don’t think this is the absolute cure-all that many people think – for example, I would say that the people I encountered who were the most concerned about getting paid for everything they did tended to be those for whom the quality of their work least warranted it.

Me:  I was wondering if you had any sense or any feedback that part of the problem in finding males pictured in the female gaze had to do with men being unwilling to play that role?

Suraya: Yes, absolutely. One thing I didn't mention is that even when you can get a guy to agree to modelling, they are not necessarily going to be a good model, and so the photos can come out wooden. Some of the photographers I know who shoot both men and women say that women seem to know how to act in front of the camera but men seem to have to learn it, which makes sense to me as, well, my brothers despair about their young daughters copying all the inappropriate sexy poses that they see in music videos etc, so it obviously starts quite young for girls.

On the other hand, I think I was surprised how many guys were keen to be shot. The trouble was finding the guys in the first place. Even in London!

Me: I think it's fair to say somebody out there has said at some point that there should be a magazine for and by women that features hot nude men and great (non shopping or beauty related) articles. However, you actually did it. That is no small decision and, I'm sure, a huge undertaking. What made you take that extra step and actually do it?

Suraya: I felt that if I didn’t take the punt and see how it went, I knew that I’d be thinking ‘What if...?’ for the rest of my life. I’ve always been like that, perhaps to my peril – armchair philosophers get a lot less criticism than those people who go out there and really try to make a difference.

Me: From the magazine, what are a couple of the most successful pieces in your opinion? (particular pics, articles, advice columns?)

Suraya: One thing I think we did really well from the beginning was the articles – both the quality of the articles that we provided and realising that these were going to be really important to the audience. The philosophy, history and science articles were particularly well liked.

Me: I couldn't agree more with your assessment of the articles in Filament. They were great, and it was really refreshing to have science and history articles in a women's magazine. Where were these submissions largely coming from, and what did you find was the best way to reach these writers?

Suraya: In the first and second issue the writers were people who were friends of mine, friends of friends... Once we were published, people (some readers and others who had heard of Filament) just started to volunteer, proposing ideas for articles.
Me: Where did you find some of the most surprising support in regards to the creation or the success of Filament? Where did you find some of the most surprising nay-saying or resistance?

Suraya: Our most ardent supports and most angry detractors would explain their feelings on the matter by saying that they are feminists, which is of course one of the great challenges for feminism – some of us have polar opposite views of how to get to gender equality.

I think it’s sad that some women (and men) can confidently bark ‘You can’t be a feminist and like porn!’ or ‘I’m anti-porn because I’m pro-sex!’ while being unable to answer questions like, exactly what constitutes pornography?

Me: On a personal note, I wonder how bad your experiences were with some of the feminist detractors. Like you said, there is such a large array of opinions among people who are feminist, which makes perfect sense - being that feminists are as varied as women themselves, but it can feel like a huge challenge. I've always assumed this to be the case, but it never hit me in the face until I started contacting people about my movie. Even along with the ton of support I received from feminist identified people I spoke with, the few negative reactions I received made me feel pretty bad at times, and I had to sort of realign my expectations in a way I hadn't realized I would need to do. I was just wondering how intense those experiences were and if you have any insight.

Suraya: I think I understand where their defensiveness comes from. I think that if I hadn't been the one to start Filament, I probably would've hated it on principle for a few years before I bothered to look at it, under the assumption that there had to be something bad about it, because in my experience whenever someone had told me about something sexy or erotic and said it was 'quite feminist', it turned out to be at the very least problematic. For example, there was a famous porn site that went to lengths to make it appear as though it was owned and run by the models, when in fact it was owned and run by a guy, and the models had far less control over their own pictures than was even standard for the industry.

To be fair though, I think I've only encountered a small number of feminist-identified people who were nasty, angry and ill-informed in the way that they objected to Filament, but the experiences really stay with me.

Me: Could you give some suggestions for where people can go to find other examples of media inspired by the female gaze? 

Suraya: There are some other small magazines around that like Filament, are unashamedly aimed at a female audience and include erotic photography of men. Poolboy magazine is probably most similar to Filament, but if you like something more trendy and humorous, try Candy Rain.

If you're looking for adult film, checking out the winners of the Feminist Porn Awards is a good place to start. Erika Lust is probably the female adult filmmaker who is producing work with the highest production values lately. Whoever the filmmaker is, always get their most recent work, because it tends to be the best.

Ms Naughty, proprietor of women's online erotica site For the Girls, also keeps a web portal of all things female gaze.

Thanks again to Suraya Sidhu Singh. It was an absolute pleasure. If you are into what Filament was putting out, then please check out their Facebook Page, their Website or follow them on Twitter @filamentmag so you can keep you in the loop on female gaze in media.


  1. When I read my first issue of Filament (I think it was no. 3) after a friend recommended it to me, it was such an eye-opening experience: not just the photos but also the wide range of smart articles. I can't believe I gave my issues to friends - I really didn't think they'd close doors so quickly...

    1. It was a great magazine. Hopefully we'll see more like it popping up - really genuinely good ones like Filament. Oh - and you should get working on some super secret spy maneuvers to get those issues back from your friends!