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 Lesbian in Our Society front cover. A blond woman leans over to her left, her back to the reader at a three-quarter angle, at the left of the image and occupying most of the visual space. She is fully naked and is visible from her head to her calves. The book's title type covers her buttocks partially. Her legs seem to be together, and the back of her right arm is only partially visible, tucked in front of her hips. Her head is turned sharply to the right, and she looks over her right shoulder at something behind her, at a lower level. Her hair is tied at the back and is straight. Her expression is serene, yet ambiguous.

Solitary lesbians

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.

Browse the MSVU lesbian pulp fiction collection for covers with the stereotype of the solitary lesbian.

Butch/Femme dynamics

Butch lesbians

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. Damned One-Front.jpg

Femme lesbians

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.

Guerrilla Girls front cover. A group of four women stand or sit in front of military barracks. One is standing upright, to the left of the image, facing the reader, and is fully dressed in military garb, a weapon on her hip, cigarette hanging from her lips. She is a brunette, and her hair is short. Her pose is relaxed. Her gaze is directed at a seated woman to the right of the image, who has short hair and wears a blouse and short skirt and who is, with a slight smile, looking over her right shoulder towards a third woman who is also seated, on a purple cushion on the ground, and dressed in a blouse with rolled sleeves to her elbows, khaki shorts and boots, cleaning a long weapon with her legs crossed. Her hair is dark and curly, and she also seems to smile. Between them sits, her back to the reader, a fourth woman who appears to be fully naked. She has her arms up as if fixing her hair as she looks up toward the standing woman. In the background are two tents with red stripes, and to the left of the image stands a pair of long weapons fixed to a stand. The scene is lit from the front.

Women without men

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.

Browse the MSVU lesbian pulp fiction collection for covers with the stereotype of the lesbians in female-only environments. Nurse-Front.jpg

Women working outside the home

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.

Browse the MSVU lesbian pulp fiction collection for covers with the stereotype of lesbian dominated professions.'s Daughter-Front.jpg

Illicit or perverted behaviour

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.

Browse the MSVU lesbian pulp fiction collection for covers with the stereotype of lesbians being prone to illicit or kinky behaviour.


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.

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