February 08, 1993|By ALEX BEAM

BOSTON. — Boston -- Perhaps this has happened to you: You are savoring one of those cunning ruminations on prosciutto in The Atlantic; suddenly your eye encounters an advertisement for the Xandria Collection, sensual products ''designed for both the timid and the bold.''

Or you are leafing through a fascinating colloquium of Latin American poets in Harper's and your gaze wanders to an ad for Yellow Silk, the ''journal of erotic arts.'' Or for Libido, which has been billed as pornography ''for English majors.''

And you wonder, who sends away for this stuff? Well, I did.

Digesting highbrow magazines is depressing enough, but communing with the pornographers who advertise in them is deadening. To read Marge Piercy's feeble attempts at erotica is to lust for Xaviera Hollander -- and be grateful that the famous Penthouse columnist hasn't taken up novel writing. But then again, I wasn't an English major.

The Xandria Collection, the Brookstone catalog gone blue, is the least interesting of the three advertisers. From behind its gold-embossed covers, Xandria peddles the same grisly complement of tools and sexual ''aides'' (this deliberate misspelling distinguishes the merchandise from the unpleasant disease that results from their overuse) available in your local red-light district.

Distributed by Ray and Judi Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence Research Associates of San Francisco, Xandria advertises in such mainstream periodicals as Redbook and Mademoiselle but gets especially strong responses from so-called ''thought leader'' publications like Harper's and The Atlantic.

''There's something to be said for the intelligentsia,'' says Amy Levinson, advertising director for Xandria (the name has no apparent etymology, for those who care). ''They have discretionary income, they know what they want, and they're happy to pay for it.''

Yellow Silk -- ''It's not something you understand with your head; it's something you understand with your skin,'' explains editor Lily Pond -- takes sex upscale, wrapping the pseudo-sensual scribblings of David Mamet and Louise Erdrich in blowsy, fake Impressionist art. Yellow Silk takes itself very seriously and eschews comparisons with lowbrow skin rags, most of all with its closest competitor, Libido. ''I publish literature and fine arts, and they don't,'' snipes Ms. Pond, who lets slip that the co-founder of Libido, acting under the guise of a newspaper reporter, stole her business plan.

Although the two magazines have much in common -- both publish bad poetry, for instance -- don't invite these two editors to the same orgy. ''They're into kinder, gentler, sex,'' explains Libido's Marianna Beck. ''We're a little edgier.'' That means they publish dirtier pictures. In the course of conversation, Ms. Beck lets slip that Lily Pond's real name is Linda Levine.

To its credit, Libido does exhibit a sense of humor. The quarterly publishes the occasional diary of a mad housewife and even printed an off-color ''Jabberwocky'' parody: '' 'Twas brillig in that cheap hotel . . . '' My favorite feature is the chronology ''Hot Dates in History'' with such entries as: May 7, 1965, the day Czech authorities expelled Allen Ginsberg from Prague, charging that his sexual theories ''were corrupting the young.''

If intelloporn purveyors have a problem, it's low self-image. The magazines aren't filthy enough to attract booze and cigarette advertisers, and yet they're not classy enough for polite, or even semi-polite, society. Vanity Fair, which publisher Ron Galotti calls ''the quintessential high-low culture show in America,'' won't let Xandria and Libido advertise; ''somehow I remember the ads as not being tasteful,'' he recalls.

''They think we're too graphic,'' comments Ms. Beck, who reacted skeptically when I first approached her. ''An article in the newspaper? They wouldn't touch us with a barge pole.''

So, Marianna, you were wrong about the paper. Now let's see if they process my expense account.

Alex Beam is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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