by Jean Roberta
I’ve read many erotic anthologies and somewhat fewer erotic novels since the late 1990s. There was a time, of course, when I might have read one sexually-explicit book in a year, and it haunted my dreams.
The magic of early discovery clings to one of the earliest lesbian sex books I ever saw. A Woman’s Touch is still in my personal library, and it was published in 1979 in Grants Pass, Oregon, not far from where several of my relatives lived at the time. Amazing! The editors had first names only (Cedar and Nelly), which I soon learned was standard etiquette in lesbian gathering-places, as in Alcoholics Anonymous.
The late artist and writer Tee Corinne is credited with designing the book. As I learned when I met her at an International Feminist Book Fair in 1988, rural Oregon in the 1970s and ‘80s actually seemed like a suitable environment for a community of nature-loving dykes, including her. My childhood summers in a small Oregon town, redolent with the sickly-sweet smell of the local sawmill, had not prepared me to imagine modern-day Amazons camping out there. The possibility that they danced naked under the trees was intriguing but hardly credible.
Looking at A Woman’s Touch, now falling apart in my hands, is a trip down memory lane. It includes essays and stories that describe activities which seemed almost unthinkable to me at the time, complete with Tee Corinne’s artsy photos and drawings of the curves and planes of women’s bodies. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the artist’s focus on specific body parts, some of which were hard to identify, might have been a concession to a cultural climate in which lesbian sex really seemed like the ultimate frontier, even to lesbians. The subtitle of the book sternly specifies that it is “For Women Only,” as though that could be policed.
I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to seek out a book like this in any other bookstore than the basement room where I worked shifts as a member of the store collective. Someone had ordered the book on spec, and I snapped it up.
The eclectic tradition of including visual art with fantasy fiction, “true” stories, philosophical/political essays on sex, and helpful how-to articles continued in Coming to Power, the controversial collectively-edited book on lesbian S/M, published by Alyson Publications in Boston, Massachusetts in 1982. Words can hardly describe the flaming arguments this book inspired whenever it appeared in a milieu intended For Women Only. Despite the political correctness of an editing collective (as distinct from a single editor, wielding a pen like a sceptre), the concept of lesbian-feminist sadomasochism seemed like the furthest extreme from the currently-reigning ideal of lesbian farmers, dancing under the trees in egalitarian bliss.
This book was too hot to be carried by the local basement bookstore. I bought a copy in Vancouver, a large, anonymous city where I was visiting a long-time heterosexual woman friend who probably never knew I had it, but who probably wouldn’t have been horrified. My friend was so far removed from collective activity of any kind that the Feminist Sex Wars of the time just mystified her. Visiting her was strangely refreshing.
When I attended that fateful book fair in 1988, I also discovered Lace Publications, a producer of red-hot lesbian erotica. It was run in Denver, Colorado, by “Lady Winston” (which seemed to be a reference to her smoking habit) a.k.a. Artemis Oakgrove. The Leading Edge: An Anthology of Lesbian Sexual Fiction was featured at the Lace Publications booth which was shared by two other small publishers (For Women Only), including Lilith, publisher of my own collection of relatively tame lesbian stories.
The Leading Edge, as its title proudly claims, was intended as a first of its kind. It was published in 1987, long before the annual Best Lesbian Erotica series was launched by Cleis Press in 1995. It seemed clearly related to Coming to Power, and included work by a few of the same contributors. It also included drawings which had a distinctly amateur quality, but as the word “amateur” implies, the book seemed like a labour of love and courage.
Many years later, in 1996, Alyson Publications launched The Second Coming, a sequel to Coming to Power. Alyson was located in Los Angeles by then, and the book was subtitled “A Leatherdyke Reader.” “Leatherdykes” apparently had not yet emerged from the head of the Goddess in 1982. Unfortunately, my copy of this paperback has half its contents printed upside-down to the other half. When I first discovered this, I couldn’t help wondering if sabotage was involved. (And the very word “sabotage” seems linguistically related to the concept of sensible shoes, as worn by a certain type of anti-leather, vegetarian lesbian-feminist).
Erotica in general is still controversial, of course. It can be made to disappear from public view by governments and corporations, regardless of literary quality. However, I’ve rarely read anything in recent years that seems as personal and heart-felt (or cunt-felt) as the erotica written by women (womyn-loving or man-loving) in the 1970s and 1980s.
Here is the tail-end of a story from The Leading Edge, a fantasy of sexual abundance( “Travels with Diana Hunter” by Regine Sands):
“Diana opened her eyes and found the hotel housekeeper, a blond girl of no more than twenty, leaning against the closed bathroom door, watching her. The girl had been watching Diana masturbate. This was a delightful surprise. Sometime during her semi-conscious state of fantasizing, the girl apparently entered the bathroom, shut and locked the door behind her, leaned back against it, and not more than seven feet away from Diana masturbating, watched. Oh, most definitely, yes!
‘What is your name, little one?’ Diana asked.
‘Whatever you’d like to call me’ from the girl, told Diana everything she needed to know for now.”