She looked young, sweet and innocent -- but her body burned with an intense desire that could only be satisfied by another woman!
- The cover of The Innocent Lesbian, a lesbian pulp fiction novel by Rex Weldon.
Pulp fiction, named for the paper it was printed on, became a major industry after the Second World War. These were cheap enough that they were often thrown out after being read. They were sold at bus terminals, magazine stands, drug stores, pretty much anywhere.
In 1950, Gold Medal began publishing pulp fiction with sex themes, because they suddenly had the brilliant notion that sex sells. That same year, one of the first lesbian pulp fiction novels, Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torres, was published. In 1952, the novel was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ironically, this act actually boosted sales and ultimately helped pave the way for future lesbian pulp fiction.
Strangely, Spring Fire by M.E. Kerr, under the pseudonym Vin Packer, is often credited with being the first lesbian pulp fiction novel, despite being published two years after Women’s Barracks.
Although gay (as in gay men) pulp fiction was written in the 1950s as well, it wasn’t as widely distributed as lesbian fiction. Part of the reason for this may be that lesbian pulp fiction was typically written to appeal to men’s fantasies. To keep lesbian pulp fiction, quite racy for the times, from being considered pornography, it had to teach a moral. Most of the time, this moral was condemnation of homosexuals. The lesbians in the story never ended up happily together. Many times, one of the lesbians was “rescued” and “turned straight” by a heroic heterosexual man in the end. Other times, one or both committed suicide, or was hit by a car (automobile accidents were common; many a lesbian pulp fiction character has thrown herself under a car for lost love), or died some other way. If neither died, one or both may have become alcoholic, or lost their job, or any other variation on the theme.
The majority of lesbian pulp fiction novels accredited homosexuality to some sort of trauma. This was a popular opinion in the time they were written, so the lesbians in the story often had experienced rape, incest, and/or other traumas, which served as the reason the women “turned” gay.
Most lesbian pulp fiction was written by straight men using pseudonyms, which would explain why so many lesbian pulp novels ended with a lesbian running off with a man. Occasionally lesbians contributed as well, using pseudonyms, and these usually ended up as the more appreciated lesbian pulp novels. Two of the more famous ones were Ann Thayer, writing as Ann Bannon, and Paula Christian.
Despite the majority of authors being male, and despite the condemnation of lesbians expressed by the tragic endings of these novels, lesbians of the 1950s often used them as a lifeline. It proved to these women that they were not alone. Often they were passed from lesbian to lesbian, hidden under beds and in closets.
Some lesbian pulp fiction novels were “disguised” as typical of their genre, while really offering support to lesbians. These novels’ covers advertised the plot as being “moral” a.k.a. anti-lesbian, while having a different story inside. Although they didn’t risk having a happy ending, the lesbians themselves had fulfilling relationships with each other. These were, unlike most in their genre, written specifically for lesbians, not for the “titillation” of heterosexual men.
The multiple women, typically undressing, on the cover (occasionally also with a man in the distance looking worried) made lesbian pulp fiction easy to spot. The titles also hinted at their content. Often the words “Shadow”, “Twilight”, “Strange”, “Odd”, and “Twisted” were included. The blurb on the front often promised “frank” discussions, meaning sexually explicit. The women on the front cover were usually ultra-feminine and attractive, although the characters they depicted were described as butch and tomboyish.
Lesbian pulp fiction brought lesbian fiction to a larger audience, and helped offer support and a voice to isolated, closeted lesbians. It’s hard to say where contemporary lesbian fiction would be today without its pulp fiction predecessors.
To see lesbian pulp fiction covers, click here.