The Spirit of the Age

by | April 27, 2020 | General | 4 comments

As far as I know, my revised erotic novel, Prairie Gothic (set in 1999) is ready to be released, but I haven’t heard from the publisher about a publication date. The process of revising something originally written in the 1990s prompted me to consider the definition of “historical fiction.” In a recent post on Facebook, legendary BDSM writer Patrick Califia claimed that historical fiction can’t cover an era in which the writer was alive. This is one limitation. I’ve also seen more-or-less arbitrary dates in the guidelines of various publishers (“historical fiction” defined as anything set before 1985 – or in some cases, before 1960.) And then there are theme calls-for-submissions specific to particular eras, e.g. Regency (1811-1820) or Victorian (1837-1901).

Technically, “history” is the past, period, including one’s personal history, which always intersects with general trends. The Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties (with their increasing dread of the New Millennium), and the early 2000s will never return, and they each had their own flavour.

I’ve seen discussions in the Writers list about sexual morality in the recent past. Specifically, I’ve seen questions about when it became socially acceptable (in “mainstream culture,” loosely defined) for women to have sex with anyone other than their husbands. That depends on whom you ask.

Let me introduce you to an early period in my scandalous life, from long before I entered the sex trade in the 1980s.

It was the early 1970s, and I was 21. I had recently moved out of my parents’ house and into my own cheap but adorable (IMO) apartment, the attic of an old house in the Cathedral Neighbourhood, which even then was described as the hip, artsy Greenwich Village of a Canadian prairie town with a population of about 100,000. My apartment had windows that faced east and west, so my bedroom was flooded with sunlight in the mornings, and sunsets glowed through the Indian-cotton curtains in my front room in the evenings.

I was taking classes part-time at the “New Campus” of the university, which required a bus ride or occasionally hitchhiking. (This particular route was travelled by university types, so I felt fairly safe getting rides with people who were usually less than six degrees of separation from me. My dad was a prof.)

My daylight hours between English classes were largely spent modelling for art classes on the “Old Campus,” a more picturesque location within walking distance of my apartment. Models for most art classes had to be nude. The secretary of Visual Arts told me it was hard to find people who were willing to pose naked for strangers, despite the attractive hourly wage. She told me that all the art profs were delighted with me because I was usually available, I showed up on time, and I took direction well. I was young and flexible, and I trained myself to hold still for relatively long periods.

I stayed calm when posed next to a skeleton, a venerable prop of Visual Arts which probably dated from the founding of the college in 1911. The prof would ask me to display myself, front and back, while he moved the skeleton, and the students were instructed to look for similarities. I was thin, so my bone structure was fairly easy to see.

When my parents found out how I was supporting myself, they were not happy. They managed to refrain from full-scale parental rage because they knew this would only alienate me from them.

There was a guy. He was slightly older than I was, and he was a friend of Joe, whose academic father had known mine forever. The guy claimed to have a girlfriend whose name reminded me of a doll or an X-rated cartoon. I’ll call her “Barbie.” The guy himself had the family name of a famous Scandinavian composer, to whom he was distantly related. He was proud of his Viking roots, so I’ll call him Erik.

I had come with Joe to visit Erik in his own apartment in an old house in the Cathedral neighbourhood, and we stayed past midnight. Erik offered us “coffee,” but he was looking at me. By then, I could guess what this really meant. Joe also seemed to catch the vibe, and said he had to leave. I told him I would stay a bit longer for coffee with Erik, and find my way home later.

That was our first night together. Erik seemed pleased that I was on the Pill, even though I didn’t have a steady boyfriend. I had been date-raped in my first year of university somewhere else, and I was determined not to risk getting pregnant in a chance encounter with any guy who might not take no for an answer.

Most of the guys I had met were convinced that a Sexual Revolution had already happened, and they valued spontaneity, riding the wave or going with the flow. The Pill gave me a way to control my own fertility without having to explain over and over again that unprotected sex is like Russian Roulette.

My affair with Erik became intense immediately. While my days were spent attending English classes, writing assignments and modelling, my nights belonged to him. The more time we spent together, the more I suspected that Barbie was his invention, or possibly a plastic sex doll in a closet, a form of protection from any girl who might expect him to make a commitment.

Erik claimed to have psychic powers. He was familiar with a tarot deck, and he read my fortune several times. What he saw in my future was alarming: violence, ill-gotten gains, addiction, incarceration, hints of early death. He mentioned that he had been a dope dealer in Sudbury, Ontario (home of the world’s largest nickel mine), where he claimed that everyone needed to stay high to ignore the ugliness of their surroundings. Apparently he had partied with bikers. I wondered aloud if he was seeing his own life in the cards, not my future.

I told Erik what I had told my concerned father: I was doing well in my English classes, which looked like a sign that I was capable of earning a degree with honours. When I modelled for art classes, I seemed untouchable, and no one even dropped a double-entendre on me. My stillness and my status as a live version of the skeleton apparently caused everyone in the room to think of me as an object, and I enjoyed floating out of my body for awhile. I was paid in paycheques by Visual Arts, not in crumpled bills by drunks.

I hated my parents` filthy smoking habit, and rebelled by being a non-smoker living in smoke-free space. I didn’t waste money on luxuries such as dope or alcohol, but I would accept a drink if someone else offered me one.

The more times I asked Erik how my current lifestyle could possibly be a portal to Hell, the more he snorted and rolled his eyes. One night, he suddenly announced that he wanted to marry Barbie because she was a fine girl, an education student who planned to become a teacher. I told him that teaching was one of the future careers I was considering, since it could easily be added to a degree in English. (At that point, I wanted to keep my options open.) Journalism had not yet become professionalized, so I could also imagine myself boldly walking into the office of a tough, squinting newspaper editor, ignoring his foul cigar and saying, “You don’t think you need me, but you do. I can write, and I’m like a bloodhound on the trail of a story.”

None of the scenarios I imagined in my future seemed plausible to Erik. He knew a Good Girl when he met one, and Barbie embodied that role. He wanted me to realize that I was not her.

I tolerated this nonsense, as I thought of it, until the day I went to visit Erik on a whim, and there was another girl with him. He introduced me to Barbie, his girlfriend. I babbled something and rushed out, feeling faint.

That should have been the end of my relationship with Erik, but it wasn’t. He invited me back when Barbie wasn’t there, and I recklessly answered the summons. By that time, I felt unbearably guilty about helping him cheat on the Woman of his Dreams, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop seeing him altogether. Things got worse. He was openly sarcastic about my scholarly pretensions when it was clear to him what I really was. I tried to change his mind, and felt like a failure when his sarcasm intensified.

Luckily for me, I had a chance to go to England for a year with my parents and sisters. I seized this chance, partly to get away from Erik. When I told him my news, I had a faint hope that he would beg me not to go. He barely twitched.

Did Erik marry Barbie, and did they have many obnoxiously well-behaved children? I have no idea. I never saw either of them again, and I was greatly relieved when Erik’s predictions for my future didn’t come true, at least not exactly. In England, I met another man who wasn’t good for me, though I couldn’t see it at the time. But that is another story.

Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. larry archer

    Great post, it sounds like you’ve had an interesting past.

    “The Pill gave me a way to control my own fertility without having to explain over and over again that unprotected sex is like Russian Roulette.”

    The Pill brought in the sexual revolution and along with the Vietnam war created a generation that broke away from their parents. It must have been an interesting period of time?

    • Jean Roberta

      It certainly was, though “sexual freedom” generally seemed to mean something different to the men of my generation than it did to the women. I suspect this credibility gap was one of the causes of what is now called Second Wave Feminism – “Women’s Lib” at the time.

  2. Lisabet Sarai

    There’s no way today’s youngsters could begin to understand the sixties and early seventies. Definitely historical, in my way of thinking.

    A well-told story of your youth, also. I can identify. What is it about guys who love to claim they’re magic.

    I’ve been looking forward to Prairie Gothic, by the way.

  3. Jean Roberta

    Thank you, Lisabet. I feel the same way about that era: historical in the sense that it fit the statement: “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.” (Can’t remember who wrote this.) Oh yes, magic as a tool of seduction deserves a whole other post. For awhile, Erik seemed to have an alarming amount of control over my mind. I would wake tip in the wee hours, alone in my own apartment, unable to stop thinking about him. So I focused on an image of my willpower as a big. lead wrecking ball at the end of a crane, and I would imagine smashing it into him until I could feel him backing away. I never knew whether this fantasy was really supernatural in any sense, or whether I was simply applying my own reason to my own foolish desire. I figured it didn’t matter as long as it worked.

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