Friday, October 25, 2013

Pioneers

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.”
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7 comments:

  1. love reading about the history of these books & where you found them. that excerpt is very memorable indeed.

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  2. Fascinating to hear these heartfelt memories of our sexual awakenings. In Susie Bright's memoir, she examines the internal sexual factions splitting up the early feminist movements. Lots had to do with the acceptance of sexual candor. Seems to me there could be as many opinions as there are women. Or for that matter, men.

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  3. Thanks for commenting, Amanda and Daddy. Oh yes, the Feminist Sex Wars were intense. Those of us who were involved will probably never forget the civil wars that sometimes ended close friendships between women, which is why I was grateful to have a friend who seemed completely oblivious to all that. I'm not sure that candour was a major issue, though. Since feminism, by definition, is about gender equality and women's rights, some feminists wondered if any whiff of dominance and submission (involving players of any gender) could possibly be consistent with feminism. The sexual candour that really offended some women seemed to them like a revelation of inequality, which was politically incorrect by definition. Fun times.
    Lesbians who defined themselves as feminists AND as sadomasochists IN PRINT had a level of courage that seems hard to imagine today.

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  4. "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."

    They were just ahead of their time, Jean. I see ebooks with this kind of error all the time!

    On a more serious note, this post highlights the fact that the literary world itself changes over time - not only we as readers. Erotic fiction (lesbian and otherwise) used to be work of the heart and the hormones. We would spill our guts and reveal our dirty dreams. Now, it's just another commodity. And because of this, a lot of the thrill has evaporated, at least for me.

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  5. Lisabet's comment reminds me of the standard observation concerning jazz. If it's popular, it's not jazz anymore. It's not hip if everybody's doing it. We'll just have to come up with some new transgressions. Wheeee!

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  6. I came late to learning about the early feminist/lesbian battles, although I've since read some of that history. I'm always interested in your perspective, Jean, and glad to learn from you.

    What surprises me these days is that erotica has a bad rep among the subgroup of lesbians who actually buy books, and not, as far as I can see, on political grounds. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, since romance is the biggest segment of book sales in general, with mysteries not far behind, but I don't see the possibility of an erotic novel bestseller in the lesbian market on a par (or sub-par?) with the now-waning 50 Shades phenomenon. Maybe the earlier controversies are still echoing in the collective subconscious. Or maybe it's just that there's so much badly written erotica out there. Or it may be that the women who populate online discussion groups about lesbian fiction just happen to be the types who consider erotica the lowest of the low.

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  7. Thank you for commenting, all. Sacchi, the continuing general disapproval of erotica among lesbian readers seems discouraging as well as illogical, IMO. Even though sex is only one part of a lesbian life, sex is the thing that distinguishes lesbians & bi women from heterosexuals. I can't imagine how any work of fiction could be identified as lesbian if it made no reference to sex (or sexual attraction) between women. As far as I can tell, gay & bi male readers don't object to sex in their literature.
    Apparently the Best Lesbian Erotica anthologies from Cleis are bestsellers. I wonder who buys them. ???

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