Smiling at me over Skype, Dr Lucy Neville is in her light-flooded kitchen somewhere in "deepest Bedford", England. Eight months pregnant and wearing a floral summer dress, she is a picture of heterosexual domesticity, her strapping husband, Dan, pottering benignly in the background. She's a criminologist by trade but we're here to talk about her racy academic side hustle. "Are we, erm, good to go?" I ask, tentatively. "Oh, it's fine — Dan has his porn and I have mine," she says brightly.

Lucy's porn is gay male porn — well-oiled, muscular extravaganzas in which women are absent, save the odd cameo. Certainly, she's not alone. Analysis of billions of visits to the giant online sauce reservoir that is Pornhub shows that so-called "m/m" porn has been the second most popular genre choice for female porn users in recent years. In fact, Pornhub's 2018 Year in Review report shows that three of the top five performers most often searched for by women are stars of gay porn. That's no surprise, as an earlier study found that a staggering 37 per cent of all gay male porn viewing on Pornhub is actually by women. Nevertheless, the idea that images produced "by men for men" might also appeal to women has garnered precious little attention until now.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Neville, a lecturer at the University of Leicester, set about interviewing more than 500 women about gay porn consumption. The resulting academic study generated so much interest, it has recently been republished as a mainstream paperback. Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys: Women and Gay Male Pornography and Erotica is a sort of 50 shades of gay for the modern woman.

Neville first felt the lure of homoeroticism via five lads from Manchester: "My sister had a Take That video with the boys on tour and they were naked in a spa bath," she recalls. "It was a revelation to me how comfortable they were around each other, whereas at school the boys were starting to be much more self-conscious."

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By the time the internet had hit puberty, Neville was in her university dorm room, left - literally - to her own devices. The women in so-called "het" porn were a turn-off for many reasons, she says. On-screen displays of female pleasure were unconvincing to the point of insult. What's more, the women in porn all seemed to be "slim, hairless and conventionally attractive", she says. "Most women will look at that and think, that's not me, that's not what I look like. The whole thought process puts them off."

American director Nica Noelle, who has worked in the industry both behind and in front of the camera, concurs. She says that, historically, "women have had trouble with porn because they don't like to compare themselves to other women who are younger, more beautiful, sexier or better in bed".

She tells me she was ignorant of the feminine appetite for gay porn until she started making films such as her 2015 opus Guys Kissing Guys.

"I didn't expect to find so many straight female fans watching gay porn, and when I discovered the size of that fanbase, I was extremely puzzled," she says.

And the biggest fans, she says — "the ones who use social media accounts to communicate directly with their favourite gay stars" — are the middle-aged ones.

"These women can get pretty obsessive, exhibiting the kind of behaviour we generally associate with teenage girls. They're fangirls in every sense of the word," she says.

It's also not hard to see how the tsunami of ever more explicit, often violent heterosexual pornography might sit uneasily for the more politically energised women of the #MeToo generation.

"It's a huge irony that, although women are supposedly the stars in porn, they're highly visible but they don't have the power," says Helen de Witt, who leads the Gender and Sexuality in the Cinema course at Birkbeck University of London.

"They're presented as objects for consumption, so in that sense it's a repeat of the power dynamics at play in classic Hollywood."

Indeed, de Witt says that gay porn might be considered useful from a feminist perspective: "Because there isn't a point of personal identification, you're not troubled by those problematic representations and the political questions they raise."

Intrigued about how gay males may be contributing to the female gaze, I reach out to Neville's fellow enthusiasts. Neville notes that for women who are rape and abuse survivors, m/m porn may be one of the few types of sexually explicit media they can enjoy without feeling triggered or retraumatised.

"In a lot of my sexual experiences the control has been taken away from me," says Helen*, a 35-year-old surveyor, who is single, "either because I've been very drunk or because I didn't feel like doing it but he did feel like it. I guess I haven't had the greatest relationship with sex and being able to picture myself in a position of control like that is quite intoxicating."

Like lots of the women Neville spoke to for her book, Helen often imagines herself to be the active partner (the "top") when watching gay sex. "In my head, I'm never the 'submissive'," she tells me.

Kate*, now in her 50s, was working as a flight attendant in the early 1980s when she became fascinated — "titillated" is her term — by the frank conversations she would overhear between gay male members of the cabin crew and, during stopovers in San Francisco, she amassed a collection of VHS films that left little to the imagination.

"I recognised a voyeuristic reaction in myself and thought, that's interesting. I kind of felt like I was primed," she says.

Her relationship with gay porn has outlasted her marriage, which she says was friendly but lost its sexual spark. Her husband knew about her interest in gay porn, but didn't want to see it — something Neville says is the rule in straight marriages, including her own.

Kate describes her viewing habits in uncomplicated terms: "I find a young, well-honed male body attractive and, therefore, I find two male bodies attractive."

I ask gay porn actor Woody Fox what he makes of all this. "I think it's great that we are finally able to openly explore women's sexuality publicly without shame," he replies.

Fox says he's all for women watching gay porn. "I hope I can make content that appeals to them. Why not? For years men have watched women-on-women porn. I think we're redressing a power imbalance."

Neville thinks that the times are changing too, citing last summer's UK Love Island — specifically a scene in which contestants Wes and Adam enthusiastically recreated the famous pottery-based love scene from Ghost — as a mainstream breakthrough.

"There wasn't any question from the producers about whether performative male kissing would be of interest to a female audience," she notes. "I thought it was interesting that it had been normalised among the younger generation to the extent that it wasn't really a big deal."

Later I email to ask how Neville sees the future of the phenomenon and receive a sanguine response.

"The success of 50 Shades shows us that women will pay for porn," she writes.

"I'm not suggesting all women will suddenly get into m/m, but producers are starting to see that women present a viable secondary market and engage with it, which is great."

(Not all gay porn stars, however, have got the memo. Last year, the Trump-supporting performer Jacob Porter slammed women who like gay porn as "unstable", concluding: "There's nothing normal about middle-aged women obsessed with twinks.")

Neville continues: "I think women should try m/m because, even if they don't like it, it will encourage them to think outside the box in terms of what they might like as opposed to just thinking porn isn't for them and never could be. I think acknowledging what we do find sexy helps give us more of a voice when it comes to articulating what we don't find sexy — and women becoming more assertive about what we want is positive for society generally."

*Names have been changed.