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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

How did publishers get away with these books in the 1950s?

Laura: In order to not be censured, they had to have a moral twist. You could write a book that had 300 pages of sex, but you had to end it with the lesbian protagonist committing suicide, becoming an alcoholic, or finding a decent man. Or they would claim that these stories were non-fiction. They were “case histories,” with “shocking sex,” about the “strange world of lesbians.”

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?

Laura: These books portrayed this sort of “forbidden love” as being the love that’s experienced by people who are not healthy, people who need psychiatrists, women who can’t contain their desires and so they prey on other women and have these completely unhealthy sexual experiences until they are saved by a man or dissolve into alcoholism or commit suicide.

How would a lesbian in the ’50s know which books were written for her?

Laura: She would look for words like “odd,” “strange," “shadows.” You would look for a butch woman, or at least a woman who looked sort of fierce and strong — a brunette — who would be looking at a much more feminine blonde. This was a code. And sometimes there would be a very little man in the background, way in the background, sort of looking on. But that was just there because without it, it would be much harder to claim the book had anything to do with heterosexuality.

If the books were so cruel, why were gay women reading them?

Laura: Well, it was the 1950s. Being queer at that point was such a dangerous thing to be that there was a queer audience for the books anyway. They wanted to see themselves represented somewhere, somehow. Even if it were distorted and cruel, they still wanted to read it.

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.

Like what?

Desiree: Locations. Anne Bannon would talk about bars and certain kinds of styles of dress, and ways of talking about
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?

Desiree: I’m absolutely sure … In the novels, while there was a formula that required people to say “I tried to deny my dark desire!” But it still gave you a lot of information about how to be a lesbian, if that’s what you wanted!

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?

Desiree: Well, there’s the rich bored lady, which I would call the Graduate archetype. There’s the teacher or matron. Those stories tend to go one of two ways. Either the young person has a crush on the matron and instigates the first encounter, or the matron is punishing the young woman and then it becomes something else. The young-girl-going-to-the-city happens quite a bit. A lot of that was about the struggle between bohemia and mainstream life, and about what bohemia does to you — it makes you wear black!

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?

Desiree: I would say it was kind of like the movie Bound: very hot, but not vulgar. A strong theme was that somehow lesbian sexuality was so powerful and the lust of a lesbian was just so overwhelming that the woman couldn’t help it. A woman without a man has to have three times the sex drive, because she’s pent up.

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.

What are some milestone books in the queer pulp canon?

Laura: Certainly The Women’s Barracks in 1950; that’s one of the ones that started off the genre. Two things are significant about this book, apart from the fact that it came out in 1950 and was written by a lesbian: one, it claimed to be a true story, the biography of a woman in the French army. The other thing is that this book fell into the hands of a lot of senators and congressmen at the time. In 1952, the House of Un-American Activities Commission condemned it. Which, of course, increased sales dramatically.

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?

Laura: Orgy of the Dolls, by Bea Campbell (1967). I love the catchline: “This is an Extravagant, Factual, Easy-to-Understand Report about the Most Incredible Sexual Female Known to Man: the Nympho-Lesbian!”

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?

Desiree: The biggest thematic change might be that later on, lesbians didn’t always die at the end or go off with a man. And I think the butches got butchier as time went by. If you were a woman in pants in the ’50s, that pretty much made you butch. Even if the pants were cropped, and you wore a white shirt — a man’s shirt, but tied under your bosom — you know, that was still butchier than the lady in the corset.

Did these books represent a kind of liberation fantasy?

Desiree: Absolutely, because so many of them are completely devoid of men. Maybe they talk about him, and then he kind of disappears for six chapters. That was very liberating. You got to write a whole book without really thinking about or talking about heterosexuality. And as long as you said, “It’s wrong, no no no,” you could do whatever you wanted. As long as there was someone going “No, no, I can’t, I can’t … oh, okay.”

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?

Laura: Because what it depicts is so different than our modern conception of the lesbian community. Those women were feminine; publishers wanted the art on the cover to appeal to straight men. They wanted the women to look like sexy straight women who were even sexier than most straight women. And when we think of lesbians today, it’s not that we don’t think of them as sexual, but we think of them as women who have rejected the male gaze. So this 1950s cover art flies in the face of our modern image of lesbians. What was depicted on those covers was probably never a reality in the lesbian community.

Is there a modern equivalent to the pulp novel?

Desiree: I guess people would say those Harlequin romance novels, because they’re pretty tawdry — they all have “heaving bosoms” and “members” and use the phrase “my sex” as a noun. But they’re cheesier. And the cover art is not as good.

Why is it that most of the books that survived are the ones written by women?

Desiree: I don’t know if the men were all that proud of what they wrote! And because the authors tended to be lesbians, it was a big deal — for lesbians to be writing about lesbians. Regardless of how they had to do it.

here to read other features from the Pulp issue!