(I discuss sexual violence in this post, so please steer clear if you’re not in the right mindset for that. Look after yourselves, friends.)
I volunteer at an LGBTQ library which is an annex of my alma mater’s primary library. It’s basically a room where they put all the especially gay books. And it’s a great example of what university bureaucracy and volunteer-run programs get you: maddening messes. Half the stacks are cluttered with unorganized boxes and uncatalogued books, there has been a projector abandoned in the corner probably since the 1990s, and the volunteers, who receive very little training, can’t do much to fix up the old joint. The first thing you see when you enter the room is a “kink section” where some ignorant soul has placed a copy of 50 Shades of Grey. I’m having trouble thinking of things less queer than that book.
Despite all this, I’m fond of the place — though that might have something to do with the extremely comfy couch just behind the front desk. I do love a good lie down.
But here’s the most important thing about the queer library: at the back of the room, there is a long line of locked cabinets which are a veritable cornucopia of mid-century gay erotica. This is my special purview, this collection of queer pulp fiction. My primary responsibility at the library is indexing porn. At the beginning of my shift, I drop my bag at the front desk, grab the keys for the cabinets, and go pick out a book with a classy title like Sir Gay, Eager Hot Butt, or Sex Maniac. For the next few hours I take notes on one of these literary masterpieces while sitting at the front desk and greeting any visitors. I’ll read about a young man getting a sawed-off shotgun shoved up his ass, and then I’ll glance up and smile at a timid student shuffling through the door.
Those who follow me on Twitter will already be familiar with the content of these books, as I like to livetweet some of my reads. They’ll know that the shotgun-up-the-ass scene was in the first ten pages of Fruit Punch, which was the first book I picked up. It was a brutal but appropriate introduction to this project. In case you were unaware, your queer forefathers were into some fucked up shit.
For starters, that shotgun up the ass was definitely non-consensual. If you want your partner to shove a shotgun up your ass, and your partner wants to shove a shotgun up your ass, well, you two have fun. I will just be over here quietly kinkshaming you. This poor boy in the story, however, definitely did not want a shotgun in his ass. I don’t want to make light of sexual violence, but at the same time, if I didn’t read these books with a vague, disturbed sense of amusement, I think I’d go mad. Of course, having never been a victim of sexual violence or abuse, I have the privilege of distancing myself from these things. So when I read about incest, or non-consensual sounding with a match stick, or a man getting shot in the face just as he’s climaxing inside another man, I can casually go “what the fuck,” open the library catalogue, and start inputting appropriate tags.
The queer erotica I see being written now (and here I am largely referring to fanfiction) is so big on consent and communication that these pornographic relics seem particularly alien to the modern sensibility. Granted, you can take a trip over to AO3 and find a number of fanfics with non-con elements, but they are usually plastered with warnings and hand-wringing apologies from the authors. There is something categorically different about the queer pulp fiction I’ve been reading. Graphic rape seems to be fairly standard. Even the less explicit books (at least not all of them involve things that should not be placed in human orifices getting placed in human orifices) have an undercurrent of violence. Men hit their partners, boys are coerced into sex, sex workers are treated as subhuman. It’s systemic to the genre. Were the gays of yore actually getting off to this? Why?
I wonder if being stuck in a closet for so long made them weird. Societal repression can do funny things to a human being — just take a look at Victorian porn. (Listen, I’ve studied a lot of erotica, okay.) But I think most of the violence stems from deeply ingrained misogyny. Sexuality and gender are frequently conflated in these works so that male homosexuality is interpreted as feminizing. Particularly swishy gays are assigned female pronouns as an act of disparagement. Violence becomes a way to counteract this, a demonstration of the ‘power’ typically associated with masculinity. In Fruit Punch, the protagonist is impotent, and the angrier he becomes about this the more he orders around and sexually abuses other men. Similarly, the protagonist in Male Bride (as if the title didn’t clue you in to the supposedly scandalous genderbending associated with homosexuality) fears being an “out and out queer” and keeps trying, and failing, to have sex with women because to do so would make him a proper “man.” In these works, violence is an externalization of internalized homophobia which itself almost always stems from a fear and hatred of the feminine.
Even when these books are not upsetting in their content, they are hilariously bad in their style. For example, 80% of The Red, White, & Lavender looks like this:
Lavender also contains one of my very favourite lines, where one man casually asks his partner if he’d like a “man-sized prick creamed up your butt.” While reading that book I spent a lot of time holding my breath, trying not to guffaw hysterically in the middle of the library. Still, nothing beats the end of Male Bride, where our hero finally and melodramatically comes to terms with his homosexuality:
“I am gay,” he whispered to the ocean. “As gay as they come.”
All this just makes me think “thank God for the internet.” With a few clicks I can settle in to read a novel-length fanfic with an interesting story in addition to a fair amount of decently-written dicking — and no one gets a shotgun shoved up their ass. Never forget that we’ve got things so much better than those queers who queered before us.
That concludes this week’s queer pulp fiction livetweet. I am going to go guzzle holy water.
— R. E. Morris (@blithewine) October 22, 2015