During the 1950s, books about lesbians were not readily available. Public libraries often kept them in special collections. They were often from a medical perspective and available only to healthcare professionals. On the other hand, paperbacks were sold everywhere. In Canada, hardcover books were limited to 2000 bookstores located in larger towns and cities, while paperbacks with their racy covers were available at more than 9000 outlets ranging from newsstands to drug stores to bus stations.
Lesbian pulp fiction was initially marketed to men, but fan mail to the publishers and authors uncovered a new market of women who identified as lesbians, bisexual or questioning their sexuality. The availability of lesbian pulp fiction allowed women across North America to access information that was not readily available to them. But, it came at a price. Embedded in the stories and the cover art were a myriad of stereotypes.
The images of the lone disconsolate woman portrayed the message that lesbians would remain alone, without happiness. They were often the used on the paperback covers for erotica marketd as “non-fiction” psychoanalytic case studies.
In the cover art from the sleazier publishers, butch lesbians were often portrayed as unattractive and in direct struggle or competition with a man. The butch lesbian would usually have darker hair and would often be placed in a physically dominant position, in relation to the lighter haired femme woman. The interaction on the cover had a predatory, rather than a reciprocal, feel.
The lighter haired woman on the cover often wore full makeup but very little clothing. She was portrayed as the weaker of the two women. Often the femme can be seen looking away from her butchier companion towards the reader in a way that could be interpreted that she is available to be “rescued” by a man.
These covers played on the belief that without a man around, women would become lesbians. Often the setting for these books were women-only military barracks or prisons.
Although many women continued to work outside the home in the 1950s, there was tremendous societal pressure to leave paid work once women were married or had children. Lesbian pulp fiction supposedly offered cautionary tales for women who were career driven and without a male partner.
Lesbianism was perceived as the gateway drug to anti-social behaviour. It was depicted as a slippery slope to voyeurism, perversion, illicit activities, and even Satanism.
Adams, Mary Louise. The Trouble with Normal : Postwar Youth and the Making of Heterosexuality. University of Toronto Press, 1997.
Melissa Sky. “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.