Acursory glance at headlines over the past few months shows that a depressing, sometimes alarming, degree of misogyny and abuse still blights British society.

To judge by the spate of trials of high-profile men accused of sexual harassment and rape, or of those found guilty of speaking and writing disparagingly of the opposite sex, womankind has an uphill fight on its hands to achieve some kind of equality of respect, and to level a playing field currently steeper than a slalom course.

How dispiriting, then, to learn that not all the blame for these attitudes can be placed on men's shoulders. Following a discussion at CrimeFest, the international crime fiction festival held in Bristol last week, two unappetising truths were hammered home. The first was that crime fiction by women novelists has become increasingly sadistic in recent years. As Val McDermid wryly said: "Women are better at scaring us." Thus the story lines of a growing number of crime novels are vile: women hunted, abducted and tortured as if they were in a vivisectionist's lab.

The seamier, more gruesome side of crime is clearly where the money lies. As one novelist commented of a fellow writer, "the minute she started to write hard crime, gritty and sadistic, the sales went through the roof". That is a disturbing enough fact. Worse, however, is that the readers of these books are not men, slavering over scenes of degradation, mutilation and murder. No, the audience for stories in which women are victims is overwhelmingly women, younger women especially. As Jessie Keane commented: "The more violent my books, the more women like it."

So, the ever escalating horrors of crime fiction feeds young women's seemingly insatiable appetite for nightmarish scenes in which other young women are sacrificed for their entertainment. As a result, the idea that women are powerless is not just confirmed, but endorsed, and indeed fetishised. A woman portrayed on a crime novel cover will be a victim, whether she ends up dead or is simply scared witless in the course of events. We are fragile, vulnerable, in need of protection. No number of feisty female detectives trouncing their insensitive male colleagues as they track down the psychopath will compensate for the stark and irresponsible message this sexual-slaying genre conveys: women are objects, and never more fascinating than when on a pathologist's slab.

Some believe that women read about brutal killings as a way of confronting their fears. According to this view, these books act as adult fairy tales, where people face their demons and see them conquered. That might be true up to a point, but the deluge of such titles would surely suggest it is more than that. There is something profoundly nasty about these books, and the appetite they feed. And as with any appetite, it can get out of hand. To my mind such a taste does not need feeding, but redirecting, to something more interesting and illuminating. That won't happen, though, while novelists fashion their work to pander to the baying crowd.

Would I feel as disgusted if these books were brilliantly written novels that transformed misogynist bloodlust into great literature? Indubitably. A work of high literary quality would not trade in cliches or formula. It would challenge preconceptions, and refuse to peddle the predictable and the cheap. It might still be unpalatable to the squeamish, but its main purpose would be artistic, not commercial.

Those novelists who have sharpened their knives to meet the demand of bloodthirsty readers ought to examine their consciences. Is this really why they became writers?

Publishers who encourage such books, meanwhile, ought to ask themselves if they really want to be purveyors of this corrosive, repulsive sort of fiction. And readers? When it comes to them, I am speechless. They are not interested in fiction, as such, but in carnage. So much for the gentler sex. So much for sisterhood.