The Swinging 1970s: Historical authenticity and reader resistance

As regular readers of the blog know, I’m a bit obsessed with the way history is treated in the romance genre. My position has changed a lot over the years (I like to call it “evolving,” as if there’s some teleological process that will result in a better and better perspective, but the jury is still out on that). I’ve become much more accepting of historical omissions, elisions and fictionalizations. But then I read something written in a specific period and I realize just how much we can never capture, no matter how hard we try, because we can’t intellectually or emotionally process the material in the same way today.

The short story I read and excoriated last week set me to thinking about the social and romantic milieu of the 1970s and early 1980s, and I picked up a book from the TBR which is set in 1979. Death Trick, by Richard Stevenson, is a gay mystery with a romantic subplot. Set in in Albany, New York’s gay community, it is the first in Stevenson’s Donald Strachey series.¹ Strachey is a private detective who is hired to trace the missing gay son of a wealthy family; Billy Blount is accused of murdering another gay man but has disappeared before police could apprehend him. His parents are eager to find him and bring him home, even though they don’t seem to think that he is innocent of the crime.

Strachey’s investigation takes place within the community of which he is a part, and the book does a terrific job of recreating the texture of gay life in the late 1970s. An excerpt gives you a sense of the flavor:

A couple of the Central Avenue bars, witnessing the unexpected popularity of the New Decadence, made gestures in that direction. One disco, teetering on the edge of extinction, changed its name from Mary-Mary’s to the Bung Cellar and regained its wandering clientele overnight. Another bar was less successful. The owner of the Green Room attempted a “western” motif by hanging a child’s cowboy hat on a wall sconce, but this was not enough.

As Stevenson notes in a forward to the digital edition of the book, 1979 fell in that brief period between Stonewall and the emergence of the AIDS epidemic.

[The book] came out in the spring of 1981, around the time the first American cases of “gay cancer” were turning up. Within a year, the age of anything-goes was essentially over, and the plague years were upon us. There’s an innocence about Death Trick’s dance club and sex scenes — although the story also makes clear that not everyone back than was healthy and well-adjusted and happy all the time.

Gay men were still subject to harassment and arrest, but gay culture had emerged from the shadows. Stevenson captures all of this: the camaraderie among gay men, the dance/bar/club scene, the casual homophobia of straight America toward both strangers and loved ones, and the sex. Especially the sex.

By the standards of today’s m/m genre, the sex in Stevenson’s book is subtle and understated. There is only one extended sex scene, and it is both integral to the plot and emotionally powerful. It doesn’t take place between our main protagonist and his lover, Timmy, but instead between Strachey and someone from whom he is trying to get information about Blount. The scene is extremely affecting, but I think that readers today would have a tough time with this scene as well as with the overall approach for a number of reasons:

(1) Strachey uses sex to extract information from his source, but he also enjoys the encounter. This contradicts the romance expectation that if the hero has sex with someone other than the person he loves, the sex cannot be fulfilling.

(2) Strachey and Timmy are both attracted to other men during the book, and the reader is given the impression that they occasionally have sex with other people, despite their relationship. When Timmy confronts Strachey about his encounter with the source, he doesn’t criticize him for cheating, but rather for using a vulnerable person.

(3) Sexual exclusivity is not the norm. With one exception, the couples in Death Trick are not shown as self-consciously monogamous.

It’s worth reiterating that Death Trick is not marketed as a romance. It’s a gay mystery, and it was written in the era in which it is set. As someone who remembers that time very well, I can corroborate that the attitudes toward sex Stevenson depicts were common among both gay and straight people. Sexual experimentation and the prevalence of non-monogamous relationships were found in a variety of social groups. Remember the key party scene in The Ice Storm? Normal suburban couples really did participate in those. Two Yankees pitchers swapped wives and lives.

Today, though, while couples may have non-monogamous relationships and experiment sexually, this behavior falls outside the genre definition of romance, and in erotic romance and erotica (even in m/m), it is contrasted with default “vanilla” attitudes and behavior. Romance means one committed, monogamous couple, as per the well-known RWA formulation.

So today’s reader can approach the book as mystery, not a romance. But that perspective would miss that there is a very real romance at the core of the book: the relationship between Strachey and Timmy. They’re not monogamous, but they are committed to each other, and their relationship continues through the series.

As someone growing up in that era, I still see the romance. But I don’t know if contemporary readers could find a non-monogamous relationship romantic, especially given how romance readers feel about infidelity. So you tell me; could you read this and see 1979 on Donald and Timmy’s terms (and mine), or would it be too difficult to overcome our current genre and societal expectations?


¹There is also a series of made-for-TV movies, but these have a very different sensibility and are updated to reflect contemporary times and mores.

19 thoughts on “The Swinging 1970s: Historical authenticity and reader resistance

  1. Interesting question. Like you, I remember that era well. I knew a lot of gay men, so I was privy to some of the pre-AIDS subculture. And you’re right, many straight folks had similar attitudes. My college friends and I, being very smart, were careful about girth control, but we didn’t worry about STDs, because the known ones were all curable.

    Socially, promiscuity (or at least serial monogamy) was expected of gay men. I knew very few gay couples who made real life-long commitments back then. A few more lesbian couples, but way more straight couples. Which was hardly surprising, given the context, but I imagine that readers who can’t mentally put themselves back there will have a more difficult time seeing that relationship as a romance.

    • Hee! I too need to practice girth control, though. We just trade one for the other, don’t we?

      We think about race/class/colonialism issues for the 19th century, but it strikes me that this might be just as problematic. And it’s not that readers don’t want the complexity, it’s more that there are some mindsets that may be too difficult. I really don’t know. But I think if we could understand this one better, we could think more clearly about other kinds of moral/cultural differences which are temporally further away.

  2. Well I also grew up in that era and was in San Francisco in 79 and have been around awhile.

    I do not think people have that big of an issue with non-monogamous relationships so much in real life but when it comes to romance they want to identify with the “epic” love of “the one”. Frankly non-monogamy for the most part is like over hearing a couple deciding who will cook the meal and do the dishes. Sure, in theory it is about the relationship but in practice it’s about organizing and consensus.

    Anyway, to me just like in gay romance no one farts even if we know they do I look at discussions or agreements around monogamy the same way. Maybe someone writes that stuff but I don’t buy it and hell, let’s agree writers tend to have a hard enough time getting a believable story going so I am not so gung ho giving them yet another thing to try and get right.

    But that’s just me.

    • let’s agree writers tend to have a hard enough time getting a believable story going so I am not so gung ho giving them yet another thing to try and get right.

      Oh I totally agree! It’s not so much that writers *should* write about it, but that there are some aspects of the past that readers are going to resist whether it’s “correct” or not. The old idea that we analyze the past through the lens of the present.

      I really enjoyed the book in part because it took me back to a time when exploration and experimentation was a bigger part of one’s sexual journey and fear was a smaller part. As Stevenson said, there was a type of innocence, in retrospect. I feel that too. For example, what SonomaLass said above: we didn’t really worry about STDs in the same way because they were annoying rather than dangerous.

      I’ve only read this first book, but I felt that Timmy was kind of “the one” for Strachey, and the fact that it was true regardless of whomever else they slept with was pretty clear.

  3. I think I could read Death Trick and see the romance without being hindered by the non-monogamy. (And am going to go find a copy, e or otherwise.) What makes non-monogamy an issue for me in genre romance is the (unspoken) expectation of monogamy that seems inherent in the genre, which in turn makes any outside sex an infidelity. If monogamy is not an expectation, then sexual activity with someone other than the SO/spouse isn’t a matter of infidelity but a negotiated flexibility in the relationship. But using sex to extract information might be vaguely off-putting, depending on the context, and would probably color my view of the character, while (2) and (3) would not.

    Could I ignore what I know is coming, AIDS-wise, as I read a 70s set book? Maybe. I’d like to think so, but also know that it can be hard to overcome expectations based on experience or the knowledge of what comes next. For example, I read a rather dated category a couple of years ago in which the heroine bought a domestic plane ticket for cash (fine) and was never asked for id when checking in or boarding (uh, really?). I know that standards were different in the 80s, which was when the book was set. And yet because the vast majority of my air travel has been done in the 90s and onward, when at minimum, even pre-9/11, identification had to be shown to check in or obtain boarding passes, I could not get past that bit in the plot. (Which was a big deal, because the heroine was a runaway with no id who still managed to build a successful business…without a drivers license, SSN, etc., which just perplexed me. Yes, I can get bogged down in minutia.)

    In terms of societal expectations, AIDS education in public schools hit when I was in junior high, and a huge part of our mandatory sex ed class was spent on the new disease. Talk about skewing sexuality and scaring kids to death! Yet I’m reminded me of an old review of Dirty Dancing, which mentioned that the setting was nostalgic in a variety of ways, including the fact that the biggest concern re: sex was pregnancy, not disease, which was probably a relief for viewers. (I’m sure the review said much more, but that bit has stuck in my head for 20+ years.) So maybe I could set aside my expectations? I guess I’ll see :)

    • The sex-for-information did not reflect well on the character, but the complexity of his feelings about it was well done.

      That’s interesting about the flight security stuff; that would totally pull me out for a minute, but then I’d start remembering when I was young and there was no security to speak of.

      I was out of the singles mix for a number of years, and when I re-entered and spent a lot of time with people a few years younger than I was, it was stunning how different their attitudes toward AIDS and STDs were. I’m starting to think we who came of age in the 1970s to early 1980s were an aberrant cohort.

  4. I would actually really like to read a romance that features non-monogamy, and not only in an erotic story, but a full-on romance novel. While I like the traditional ideal of “The One” I have come across so many relationships that are essentially non-monogamous (even though they don’t call it that) that work out well that reading a romance with that premise sounds interesting. It certainly sounds better than a romance where the heroine forgives the hero for cheating.

    This might have something to do with the fact that I’ve been reading a lot of Dan Savage lately. :).

    • The Stevenson books are definitely mystery rather than genre romance but because they have a romantic relationship that extends across books I count it as romance. I’ll read the next one in the series and let you know what I think. And Dan Savage would definitely approve, I think. :-)

  5. I often think the infidelity as a word should be replaced with ‘dishonesty’. As other have said up thread there are lots of ways for relationships to work. They begin with honesty about needs and expectations in my mind. In the 1979 story I would not read the extra-relationship sex as infidelity – my issue would be the honesty and intentions brought to the event by Strachey as he seeks to manipulate someone. I also wonder if 21st century negative responses to this event lie as much in the sense that post-AIDS, sex costs something and risks something yet in 1979 the ‘cost’ was not the same and the risk to the main relationship isn’t the ‘infidelity’ but what could be brought home as well.

    My other thought is more personal about the freedom and exploration everyone assumes the 1970’s were about. I was a teenager in the 1970’s; growing up in rural, working class, methodist Australia and it always seemed to me that this was something that happened elsewhere. So I was thinking about the way places shape change through opportunity and seeing the possibilities around you.

    • I agree that it’s much more about dishonesty than infidelity per se. As for your experiences in Australian, there are a lot of Americans who had similar ones! Sometimes forget how much variation there was in the people’s experience in the past because we are caught up in the dominant narrative.

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  8. Oh oh oh!

    I wanted to post this here since I was looking it up for you guys since many mentioned wanting to see more real life non-monogamy aspects of gay relationships. OK, here is an interesting account of Don Bastian a well known Mr. Drummer (A leather contest) winner.

    He provides an interesting look at being a Leather top and all the aspects of his lifestyle which he shares with two other members of his relationship.

    Chainmale: 3SM

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