My Life as a Lesbian Reader

by Jan Aitkin

Lesbian! Way back in the 50s and 60s this was a word that was very hard to find on the printed page. And I was a maniac reader who looked for every reference to sex of any description to fill in the huge blanks in my sex education. Doubtless part of my quest related to the fact that I managed to be confused about my sexual identity until I was near forty.

The books that I had managed to track down were not likely to encourage me into life as a homosexual, invert, tribadist, sapphist or whatever other name was used. My first clues came from that wonderful book The Second Sex of Simone de Beauvoir – my introduction to feminism – which did contain one whole chapter called The Lesbian. While it was not negative about us it was so exotic and European that it was very hard for your average Ozzie girl to relate to. My copy is dated 1955 and my copy of The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall’s classic, is dated 1958 so I must have had some idea where I was heading. Now of course The Well… was not very encouraging either. Impossibly upperclass, ending sadly and giving the very strong impression that being a lesbian was not a smart career choice, even if you were rich. And of course we have the subplot of the beloved going off with a MAN.

During the 60s I encountered more stories which only reinforced the idea that lesbians had lives of bitter disappointment – DH Lawrence’s The Fox, The Loudest Whisper of Lillian Hellman - or general lack of fulfilment as in Rosamund Lehmann’s Dusty Answer or even The Price of Salt (aka Carol) of Patricia Highsmith and Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart which came out in 1964.

Now as to information about what women might actually do together, apart from kissing, details were very sparse indeed. There were references to such things as tribadism, frottage, dildos, bondage, flagellation etc in psychology text books – all of which sounded as inviting as a trip to the dentist. No clue about what women did in bed. Even for those with lots of heterosexual experience what to do with another woman remained shrouded in mystery. It wasn’t until the 70s with Patience and Sarah and Ruby Fruit Jungle that there was some positive and frank writing - but it was of course American and they got you under the sheets but not into the action.

So bravo when All that false instruction (Elizabeth Riley, penname of Kerryn Higgs) was published in 1976 – real Ozzie girls doing real sex – what a break through! And then The Joy of Lesbian Sex in 1978. The drought was over.

One major factor was the simple shortage of books and their relative expense. Many foreign publications were very hard to get in Australia and it wasn’t until the 70s when there was less censorship and easier foreign travel that lesbian books became available.

Today I am dazzled by the choice - bookshops have whole sections devoted to them – there are battalions of lesbian detectives, explicit sex in every possible form and even TV shows and films with women

My current favourite book is Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters – a beautifully written book and a lovely film. But to this day I am still blown away by the fact that we now have access to all these riches after all those years of famine.