Recognizing Lesbian Pulp

As books at newsstands kiosks were organized by publisher imprint rather than by genre, it was not always an easy task to know which paperback novels featured lesbians.

Pulp fiction author Ann Bannon recalls buying lesbian pulp fiction in the 1950s:

"Given the off-putting covers, so clearly meant to serve as come-ons to a male readership, how did women identify these books? What was it like to walk into a drugstore, train station, a newsstand and see a lavishly endowed young sexpot primping on the cover of something called Women's Passions while she was ogled by another babe in a state of undress? In a word: awkward. Even scary. Because, despite all the care devoted to developing cover art that would activate male gonads, women learned to recognize what was a nascent literature of their own by reading the covers iconically."

Cover artists tapped into North American beliefs about homosexuality and readers seeking lesbian pulp fiction soon learned to recognize the cues.


Pulp fiction covers often featured women, but the number of women, how they were portrayed on the cover, and how they related to each other provided essential information to the reader about whether or not there was lesbian content in the book.

Code Words

If the book title contained certain words, it was considered “code” to indicate that the book’s characters were different from the norm.

Many titles also contained words with a negative moral tone such as corruption, damned, evil, sin, danger, etc.


Sky, Melissa. “Cover Charge: Selling Sex and Survival in Lesbian Pulp Fiction” in Matthews, Nicole, and Moody, Nickianne. Judging a Book by its Cover: Fans, Publishers, Designers, and the Marketing of Fiction. Ashgate, 2007.

Young, Ian. Out in Paperback: A Visual History of Gay Pulps. LMB Editions, 2007.

Zimet, Jaye. Strange Sisters: The Art of Lesbian Pulp Fiction, 1949-1969. Viking Studio, 1999.

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Recognizing Lesbian Pulp