Sex in the Shadows. Campus Kittens. Stranger on Lesbos. You can picture the cover art that accompanies these titles: color-saturated bombshells, red-lipped and garter-belted, like soft-focus Snow Whites fallen into the wrong bedtime story. It all seems so kitschy, so laughably wholesome. But imagine you’re a lesbian in 1950s America, and the only image you’ve ever seen of yourself — perhaps the only evidence you have that there are others like you — is a collection of drugstore paperbacks with titles like Warped Women.
These days, lesbian pulp has its own category on eBay, a musical comedy tribute and a growing place in scholarly literature. Nerve sat down with two mild-mannered librarians who curate pulp collections — Laura Micham, the director of the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University, and Desiree, a volunteer coordinator at the Lesbian Herstory Archive — to find out what’s behind the cover of I Prefer Girls. — Gwynne Watkins
Desiree: This is my theory. They were able to get away with so much because the idea of two women having sex was seen either as really sick or inconsequential. Like they’re immature. A lot of pulp talks about women “maturing” when they finally wind up with a man.
Besides immature and immoral, how was lesbianism portrayed?
How would a lesbian in the ’50s know which books were written for her?
If the books were so cruel, why were gay women reading them?
Desiree: That’s part of why we call them “survival literature." What was great is that these female authors would hide very distinct, lesbian community stuff inside these pulp novels that lesbians would recognize.
sexuality that were sort of inside language.
Laura: Terms that were coined in some of these books. Valerie Taylor’s book, Journey to Fulfillment, introduces the term kiki to describe a woman who will go butch or femme. The language actually evolved in the queer community as a result.
Do you think women would come to New York looking for lesbians based on what they read in these pulp novels?
Tell me some common pulp stories.
Desiree: Okay: older sophisticated city woman meets young blushing from-the-country girl and basically has an affair with her because her husband’s at work and she’s bored. Then there’s the liberated college girl who has an affair with the old-school butch dyke. Anyplace where there’s a bunch of women who might have to put on a uniform and change their outfits — so
like, flight attendants, nurses, all-girl schools …
Laura: Another theme is the orphanage. Just the idea that orphan girls have nobody to teach them the social morals that they should have, they don’t have 1950s parents to teach them, and so without that kind of structure, and that kind of guidance, they’re the most at-risk.
If I picked up a stack of these books, what characters would I keep running into?
Laura: You often see this idea of this strong (we would use the term “butch”) leaderly type, who’s in charge of the barracks, in charge of the group of women in the women’s prison — not with any kind of real power — but you know, she’s the leader of the pack, and she decides who’s going to be hooking up with whom. Often the way these novels unfold is that she’s unseated somehow; her vulnerabilities are revealed. Also, you have the chic-woman-in-a-suit, the woman who has the temerity to live in a man’s world, which meant she must be bad. Then, there’s the nymphomaniac and, of course, the lesbian gym teacher.
Does the sex in these books live up to the covers?
Laura: There’s a pretty wide range of sex in the books — everything from suggested sex to pretty raunchy, racy, explicit sex. And yeah, I mean I think that the cover art is a reasonable suggestion of what’s inside.
Desiree: Anne Bannon’s book Odd Girl Out was the first to deal with butch sexuality in a way that was even close to realistic. The character Beebo Brinker was probably the first butch character who was not sick or twisted. I mean, she was an alcoholic, but I think that part of her alcoholism was part of the butch, macho mystique: she drank too much, she worked too hard, she never slept, she smoked too much, that kind of thing. She was always hanging out on the corner and smoking a cigarette.
Laura: Patricia Highsmith — who is, of course, a famous writer now — wrote The Price of Salt in 1953, and this novel is often cited as the first lesbian novel with a happy ending.
What are some of your favorite titles?
Desiree: My favorite title is from the late ’60s, early ’70s. It’s called Lesbian Enema Tricks. And there was one that was about a black woman and a white woman, and
what’s interesting about it is that the cover was used twice. In one story, it was used for the story of the black woman and the white woman, and in another one, the black woman isn’t black. But it’s the same cover — they colored her in. I think it was called My Shadow Lover. The tagline is something like, “Not only was she a lesbian, but she was a lesbian hanging out on the dark side!”
Laura: There’s a book written in 1967 by Chris Van Dyke called Part-Time Lez. The tagline for that one is, “A part-time lesbian, a full-time nympho, and a dyed-in-the-wool rebel!”
If most of these books were written between 1939 and 1965, what’s the difference in content between the early ones and later ones?
Did these books represent a kind of liberation fantasy?
Gay pulp art has surged in popularity over the past few years — in dorm-room posters, address books, novelty gifts. To what do you attribute its newfound popularity?
Is there a modern equivalent to the pulp novel?
Why is it that most of the books that survived are the ones written by women?