Sleaze fiction in general was often written by male writers using female pseudonyms or by women writers using male pseudonyms. Quite a few of these women writers were lesbians. In the case I Prefer Girls I honestly have no idea if the author, Jessie Dumont, was male or female. Some modern lesbians insist that no lesbian could have written this book but they may be overlooking the fact that the lesbian subculture of the 1950s and early 1960s was very very different from even the lesbian sub-culture of the ’70s and bore no resemblance to that of today.
I Prefer Girls is the story of Penny Stewart, who narrates the tale. Penny was a bit of a tomboy and did not get on with her parents. When they were killed in a car accident she moved post-haste to Greenwich Village and got a job in Marcella’s dress shop. She still had no idea that she was a lesbian. Marcella however easily convinced her, with the aid of some practical demonstrations in the bedroom, that she was in fact a lesbian. It was those practical demonstrations that really convinced Penny.
However it hasn’t been exactly smooth sailing. Penny not only likes having sex with women. She likes having sex with lots of women. Marcella is older and she’s possessive and she’s not happy about this. Also Marcella is madly in love with Penny. Penny is not in love with Marcella. She’s happy for Marcella to keep her in comfort and she likes the sex but she wants her freedom, and that means the freedom to have as many other women as she chooses. So as the story proper opens the situation is a bit unstable and a bit uneasy.
Then Bernice comes along. Bernice is a waitress. She’s young and blonde and as a cute as a button. She’s also straight, and a virgin, and she has a boyfriend. To Penny these are merely minor details. She wants Bernice. She wants her real bad. The difficulties just make the pursuit more exciting and more challenging.
Penny likes challenges and when it comes to scheming and manipulating she has few equals.
When judging a book such as this you need to remember that that the authors of sleaze fiction had to consider the demands of the commercial marketplace and the demands of the publishers (in this case Monarch Books). With lesbian sleaze there was also the need to satisfy both male readers and lesbian readers. The lesbian readership on its own would not have been sufficient to make such books financially viable in 1963. The men readers obviously wanted lots of steamy lesbian couplings while the lesbian readers would have wanted romance and emotional melodrama as well. In 1963 there was also the problem that the book would have to be somewhat sympathetic, but not too sympathetic.
And there had to an atmosphere of actual sleaze because that’s the whole point of this genre of fiction - forbidden lusts, out-of-control passions, sin and sensation. Sex as something exciting, dangerous and naughty.
Penny herself is a bit of a monster. She’s not just completely self-centred. She also likes to dominate people. She likes to dominate them emotionally and she’s good at it. She realises quickly with Marcella that if she allows Marcella to dominate her in the bedroom that will give her the leverage to dominate Marcella in every other way. Penny’s understanding of power in sexual and emotional relationships is sophisticated and subtle. She doesn’t even mind submitting to a beating in order to increase her long-term power.
Penny is of course in many ways the stereotypical predatory lesbian (while Marcella is the archetypal older butch and Bernice is the archetypal femme) but the author is skilful enough to give the characters at least some semblance of nuance. Penny also has a dark secret (aside from her sapphic longings).
There’s an interesting symmetry to this story but I won’t spoil things by hinting at the nature of that symmetry.
The trick with sleaze fiction was to make the sex overheated without being explicit and Dumont does that pretty well. There are lots of lingering descriptions of the delights of the female body.
I Prefer Girls works as early ’60s sleaze fiction and there are even some hints of noir fiction as Penny’s lusts and manipulations threaten to lead to disaster. Penny is a memorable femme fatale. I have no intention of telling you whether she really is led to disaster or not - one of the joys of the sleaze fiction of this era is that you can never be sure if the Bad Girl will be punished or redeemed.
I Prefer Girls is the sort of book that has to be enjoyed as a guilty pleasure but if you like indulging in guilty pleasures it’s fun.
And the cover of the Blackbird Books reprint features the same great Robert Maguire painting as the original.