When the world is good and normal, one of my not-so-guilty pleasures is the pulp fiction bin at my local comic shop. Located in the literal basement of a building owned by a jazzercise studio, what more could you possibly ask for when it comes to a location for finding cheap books and trashy stories? The real joy, however, is when my guy gets a stack of old erotica. I’m not talking about the Fabio romance covers from the 1990s where there’s a bit of side-boob and a hunky himbo embracing her in a very, “yeah, we’re gonna definitely do straight sex stuff” way. I’m not even really talking about the types of books you’d probably find in your grandpa’s boxes tucked way back in the basement with true gems of cover lines like “She rode high, wide and wicked on a merry-go-round of sex” (an actual tagline courtesy of Any Man Will Do by Greg Hamilton, 1963. I can’t make this up).
No, I’m talking about the pulp erotica that swung in the literal opposite direction for a change, and gave sapphic pulp fans—the majority of whom were likely still woefully in the closet—a chance to explore a side of themselves that was otherwise deemed lurid and distasteful. But, with so many of the novels ending in women realizing that they just hadn’t found the right man or were just indulging in a silly, shameful flight of fancy, it begs the question of what truly represents what we now know as lesbian pulp erotica.
The roots of lesbian pulp are pretty deep, digging down to the bare bones of publishing of cheap fictions that really took hold in the mid-19th century. In the early 1800s, cheap tabloids called “penny presses” began publishing fiction pieces, including serialized stories, that had readers begging for more. Paper isn’t cheap though—especially when you’re providing a one-stop imagination rag to a bunch of stuffy “manifest destiny” believers—and by the end of the Civil War, production costs got to the point where “story papers” were just too much to handle.
With the quick development of groundwood paper some few decades down the line—produced by reducing logs into wood fibers that could be refined, mixed with water, and pressed into paper—the mass market paperback took off like a rocket. It seems only reasonable then that the publication of paperback fiction would continue moving forward in the form of pulp magazines (and later pulp novels) as well; clearly stealing its name from its cheap manufacturing method. And when the target audience of “adolescents, soldiers, laborers, and even factory girls” can get over one hundred pages of genre fiction (science fiction, horror, western, romance, or mystery) for a nickel, a dime, or a quarter, then you know that you’re in the right place.
Cheap pulp paperbacks become a staple of many readers’ and soldiers pockets through the Second World War featuring “dirty” topics such as murder, gangs, drug use, and male homosexuality, but outwardly and specifically lesbian fiction wasn’t introduced to America until the early 1950s—something that prompted a sharp spike in sales figures from their respective publishing houses according to contemporary records. Author Tereska Torrés came on the scene in 1950 with Women’s Barracks—one of the first, if not *the* first, paperback novels featuring obviously lesbian characters and based loosely on her own experiences fighting with the Free French Forces in WWII. With a description touting the illicit affairs of butch military officers and their femme subordinates, it’s not surprise that it was placed inside the top 250 best-selling novels in the U.S. for a full quarter century after its release. In the world of a writer in the New York Times in 1965, “readers get two immoral women for the price of one!” Again—who could resist that kind of deal, I ask you.
It’s no coincidence that, around the time that Dr. Alfred Kinsey—the famed biologist whose extensive research into sexual behavior, gender, and reproduction changed how many Americans viewed non-heterosexual relationships at the time—had published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and, in quick succession, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, a whole new nationwide, public interest picked up significantly in… well… what exactly these gays were up to when they were getting busy. Especially women.
For many women in the 1950’s and 60’s whose curiosities leaned towards the sapphic nature, even the trashiest or most offensive novels by today’s reading standards, were a glimpse into a life of knowing that they weren’t alone despite the main audience. Especially when so many women—including famed pulp author Ann Bannon—were unable to come out of the closet as lesbian or bisexual, instead opting to remain in heterosexual marriages and hide their curiosities and desires under a gauze of heterosexual normatively. And who could blame them? Despite being an otherworldly-level cultural phenomenon that challenged the idea of queer women as immoral, and femininity as something of a spectrum rather than nothing but high heels and domesticity, the themes often pandered to the straight narrative—even when written by lesbian authors later in the era—to sell to their biggest customer: straight men. Nevertheless, lining up at the drugstore or magazine rack to pull a 35 cent book with two women in compromising scenarios on the cover became a liberating experience for many curious women, who could use being seen holding such a story as a form of “coming out” publicly, without the repercussions of publicly and audibly announcing their queerness that existed in the era: institutionalization, lobotomy, shock therapy—you know, the standard.
Unfortunately for those burgeoning lesbians and bisexuals hoping to be affirmed that they weren’t alone in their desires—affirmation only really available in the early publishing of lesbian stories—the United States Congress actually moved to ban lesbian themes from fiction shortly thereafter, citing that publishers must adhere to stricter moral standards. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, however, and publishers were quick to find loopholes in the morality ruling. With these creative solutions, though, came the awful price of having to compromise the happiness—and often the safety—of the characters that they were selling the stories of. In order to escape the idea of characters fully portraying the “lesbian experience” (see also: “proselytizing homosexuality”), the so-called “straying women” would often meet a grim fate at the end of the novel, or instead find herself the right man who would whisk her away from her sinful thoughts, giving way to the still unfortunately popular “Bury your gays” (previously known as the “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”) trope—in which queer character must either die or receive an unhappy ending because of their sexuality—in LGBTQIA+ inclusive fiction.
One of the most well-known of these compromised books is Spring Fire published by Gold Medal Books and written by the comparable Marijane Meaker (published under the pseudonym Vin Packer), which marks the first true lesbian paperback novel involving two female main characters. Despite telling the story of two college girls whose love leads to a lesbian affair, the book ends with them being caught by their sorority sisters, a drunken car crash, and a mental breakdown that is obviously caused by the overwhelming madness of lesbian love.
Ann Bannon—remember her?—however, refused to give her characters their expected tragic endings in any of the six Beebo Brinker Chronicles books she wrote between 1957 and 1962, with Beebo later becoming the prime archetype for butch lesbians. Ending happily and with lesbian or bisexual women being portrayed as average rather than the stereotypical view of queer women being frigid, psychotic, and immature, Bannon paved the way for not only lesbian authorship in erotica past the pulp fiction era, but for the societal view of lesbian and bisexual relationships for women as a whole.
A good of example of this is one Bannon’s Beebo Brinker novel Odd Girl Out—rated “objectionable” by the National Organization for Decent Literature, I might add—where Bannon has sorority girl Laura falling in love with her suite mate Beth, and ultimately finds herself caught in a bisexual love triangle with Beth and a boy named Charlie. The problems of heterosexual love are balanced between the new idea of what homosexual love can be, and both are present in equal measure despite the story ending with one of the girls in a straight relationship. But! A glimpse of light—the other remains a lesbian and still gets to live. (What a treat!)
While it can be argued that in retrospective, Bannon had a penchant for pandering to the overwhelmingly heterosexual audience, the idea of a surviving queer character at the end of a story was something that carried enough weight to be called “survival literature.” Lesbian author, activist, and historian Joan Nestle said it best, calling the books as such and explaining that, “In whatever town or cities these books were read, they were spreading the information that meant a new hope for trapped and isolated women”.
Though Bannon was one of the many lesbian authors who succeeded in bringing a sympathetic voice to the white lesbian experience of the time, her take on the subject was something extraordinarily taboo, and extremely rare; preceded only by Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt in 1952. In fact, for the most part the majority of these pulp novels were written by cisgendered, straight men with only 40-50 of the overall lesbian publishing between 1950 and 1960 being written by queer women. The line between the two is one that gets pretty skewed to the average reader, however, because while many of the more wholesome lesbian novels written boy lesbian authors during that period are still staple in the formation of many a white queer woman’s identity, they were still not necessarily written for the women who needed them most.
Books like Sorority Sin by author E.S. Seeley or Lesbos Jungle by Peter Willow are great examples of this, in which the books act as saucy soft-core erotica involving two women who don’t end up with one another and a butch/femme girl gang force a straight man into doing things he would never do in a weird “Cinemax does West Side Story” sort of scenario. In both cases, lesbianism is either treated like a sexual treat for a woman to explore (not even making mention of the frequent “love triangle” theme that is woefully common among the stories from male authors), or like a threat to masculinity and the “natural” way of American life.
Several novels even pushed that boundary further, using lesbianism and the “insatiable insanity of their minds” as an excuse for women to be raped by other women, or to be raped by a female sibling; not only for taboo kinks held by probable male readers, but for claiming that sexual assault and incest are the only true ways a woman would “give herself” to another woman. Novels like Rebel Woman by Harry Whittington—as well as Seeley’s Sorority Sin mentioned above—went so far as to make sure that the relationship has a bisexual element that allows a straight men to “reform” the poor, warped mind of the young woman with lesbian curiosities. This is, let’s be honest, the 1960s equivalent of the “you just haven’t tried the right penis yet” line we hear from men today and is somehow just as exhausting.
An often overlooked, and unfortunate, truth of lesbian pulp from this era is that it was written and marketed primarily to white queer women. As is the case for much of queer history, pre-Stonewall pulp was about as diverse as a 2020 Trump rally, with most persons of color (most often Black women) used as props for the experimenting white lesbian. Even the exceptions to the rule such as Rea Michaels’ How Dark My Love—which openly acknowledges and supports the civil rights movement and the pain of its Black characters—end on a note of making sure it’s clear that interracial relationships are a thing of immorality, maybe even moreso than homosexuality. For young women of color of this era, the solace of being seen was likely something even further of a dream than it was for the white queer women who made up the assumed majority pulp audience.
At the end of all of this discussion, it’s still fairly easy to ask, “What is lesbian pulp”? By one definition, we can look at queer historians who are happy to tell us that it’s any book published between the 1950s and the mid 1960s with clearly identified lesbian characters or subject matter, and a book cover that consists of a sensationalized image allowing readers to recognize it as lesbian fiction. Sure, yes, we can definitely roll with that.
More importantly, though—despite many people’s attempts to thwart it from being the case—I think that lesbian pulp can be any book in that period that made the queer women feel seen. Sure, the covers are great, and yes we as queer readers can look back and go “oh my god this is so trashy” for shits and giggles. Even the sleaziest, most cautionary, most demeaning, and most misogynistic story was something treasured, something that many queer women kept stashed in the back of their sock drawer, knowing that it was a piece of them in the world, and that was at least a really good start.