Do you know what “bonkbuster” means? I didn’t.

January 23rd, 2009 | Uncategorized

Our friend June has written a very incisive essay on the role of secret service agents in lesbian romance fiction.

47 Responses to “Do you know what “bonkbuster” means? I didn’t.”

  1. Michelle says:

    That was so moving!

  2. The Other Andi says:

    From the context, I assume it’s a play on the word “blockbuster,” with “bonk” referring to the sex scenes. So it’s a popular book due in large part to the sex. You know, the kind of book that automatically falls open to certain pages…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Bodice ripper is still my favorite term.

  4. Ng Yi-Sheng says:

    June??? I thought she was an entrepreneur. You have to get your characters’ continuities straight, Ms Bechdel.

  5. Rosie Cheeks says:

    Do I know what a “bonkbuster” is? Yes! Or should that be: Yes! Yes! Yes!
    It must be more of an English term.
    I agree that “bodice ripper” sounds much more exciting – it suggests bosomy, Sapphic Victorian heroines tearing off each others’ corsets.

  6. dc says:

    Yeah, definitely a English term.

    “Bonking” is sooooo English 🙂

  7. Alex K says:

    @Ng: Exactly! I wondered if she’d abandoned hedge-fund management just in time to sit back on a large (financial and other) cushion and to do lit-crit…

    And there Sparrow is with Stuart and J-R. Love them both, she can’t help wondering What Might Have Been.

  8. charlie brown in manchester, UK says:

    Myabe British writer Sarah Water’s novels could be categorised as “bonkbusters”? They feature historical stories with plenty of female protagonist bonking! Did you know “Tipping the velvet” (her Victorian music hall novel) was a term for some action down below??!!

  9. ksbel6 says:

    There is a fairly well done BBC production of Tipping The Velvet.

  10. Kate L says:

    All this talk of clothing styles takes me back to my undergraduate days back in the 1970’s. Women geology majors would dress for field work: jeans, plaid work shirts, hiking boots (Doc Marten’s were the best, if you could afford them). We were young then, and geologists…

  11. --MC says:

    Clarice Starling.

  12. Ready2Agitate says:

    Secret Service Agents – mmm, exactly!

  13. Ellen O. says:

    Hmm… I’ve sent a message with the word f!sting and it doesn’t seem to make it past the filters. Or else the guilty word is FOX news…?

  14. Anonymous says:

    Surely the June from the comics didn’t write this? I didn’t think her last name was Thomas.

  15. zeugma says:

    Charlie Brown, I think Sarah Waters says she invented the term “tipping the velvet.” I’ve read interviews with her (sorry, can’t remember any references, but google around and you’ll find them) where she says some elements and language of her Victorian lesbian scene were historically accurate, and some she imagined. I think she did a brilliant job of seamlessly blending the two.

  16. Slamson says:

    ::Sigh:: This is not written by one of AB’s characters. There is a photo of the author at the bottom of the page, and the note that she is Slate’s Foreign Editor.

  17. maxine says:

    Funny, but I have read everything by all the authors linked in the article. Admittedly, I am a bit (hah) of a lesbian fiction whore. For some reason I have been put off by Radclyffe and no read anything she has done. I guess it is time to hit the Honor series.

    Thanks for the link Alison!

  18. Heidi says:

    Actually, I thought the BBC production of Tipping the Velvet was really pretty awful. And I loved the book.

  19. 1. June Thomas, author of the article, is a frequent commenter on this blog, and not a cartoon character.
    2. Yes, ‘tipping the velvet’ is Victorian slang for cunnilingus.
    3. Yes, Sarah Waters’ book of that title is a work of genius.
    4. And the movie, while diverting, came nowhere near the same level of achievement.

  20. 5. I would not characterize SW’s novels as bonkbusters at all. They certainly contain arresting sex scenes, but the ratio of sex to other aspects of life is much lower than you would find in a Radclyffe book.

  21. ksbel6 says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that the Tipping The Velvet movie was as good as the book. The movies are never as good as the books (in my humble mathematical opinion). One of my partner’s favorite shirts reads, “Never judge a book by its movie.” I just thought it was worth watching. There are some interviews with Waters where she talks about how surprised she was that they actually included the dildo scenes.

  22. Heidi says:

    I think what I couldn’t get past was the lead actress. She seemed like such a bad fit for the role. I just couldn’t buy her performance. At least it was awesome that they included the dildo scenes!

    When I have a choice, I like the see the movie before reading the book. That way I can enjoy the movie and then enjoy the book even more. Whereas if I read the book first, the movie’s bound to be a disappointment.

  23. Jana C.H. says:

    “…jeans, plaid work shirts, hiking boots…” For decades that was just ordinary Pacific Northwest chic, regardless of the wearer’s sex, orientation, or academic specialty. But even in Seattle it is recognized as a dyke specialty as well.

    I remember a party I attended in the 80s with Seattle’s gay square dance club; one of the games was a coloring contest in which each participant used crayons to decorate an outline drawing of a cow. I created a Dyke Cow by dressing her in exactly that outfit. My friend Andy said the only things missing were the dog and the pick-up truck. I won either first or second place, I don’t remember which. The idea seemed to me too obvious to qualify as a winner. I thought Andy’s Albino Cow should have taken top honors. It was so conceptual!

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Nora Maloy : The irregularities and variations are characteristics that add texture and uniqueness to this human and should not be considered defects or flaws.

  24. Ready2Agitate says:

    Sorry – topic hijack – Sun. NYT references Mr. Potter in “It’s A Wonderful Life” re: the inaug. last week. (As usual, the dykes on this blog are ahead of the game: )

    OK back to bonking, boinking, tipping, and dipping into the honey pot.

  25. Mad Scientist says:

    Ok, I just can’t help myself: Cunnilingus. I. LOVE. that word….and I love it when the Latin is so obvious: Cunnus Lingua. Check out Wikepedia re the cultural, religious and spiritual significance of same. Yet another area we dykes are ahead of the game.

    ..and thank you AB, June, for reminding me EXACTLY what will help nurture me through this cold New England Winter

  26. NLC says:

    Incredibly off-topic, but in honor of Burns Night, a Happy Haggis to you all.

    — ———————————————

    Queen Elizabeth is touring Edinburgh and is being shown the
    new wing of the Hospital by the Lord Mayor. They enter a
    ward, shiny and new, and walk past a row of beds in which
    patients are resting peacefully.

    As they pass the foot of one man’s bed, he suddenly sits
    up and cries out…

    “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie,
    O what a panic’s in thy breastie!”

    …and then sinks back down into his bed, asleep. A few
    beds later another man suddenly rises, bellowing:

    “And fare thee weel, my only Luve!
    And fare thee weel awhile!”

    … again, lying back, slipping into sleep.
    Finally, as they exit the door at the other end a voice
    echos from the far end:

    “Flow gently, sweet Afton! amang thy green braes!”

    followed again by silence.

    In the hall the Queen turns to her host and asks “Those
    poor men. Is this the insanity ward?

    “Nay, ma’am” he replies. “Tis the Burns Unit.”

  27. shadocat says:

    NLC; that made me snort Diet Coke out me wee nose…

  28. Sonya (book snob) says:

    Kind of saddened to find myself disagreeing with Alison over literary matters… I do not think “Tipping the Velvet” (the book; I try not to watch book-movies) was a work of genius. It was a ripping good yarn, and was fun and sexy, but up until “The Night Watch” I always thought of Sarah Waters’ fiction as a sort of guilty pleasure, a diversion from more literary books. “The Night Watch” was fairly decent, though.

    Anyone ever read “Summit Avenue” by Mary Sharratt? Not as sex-stuffed as “Tipping the Velvet,” but that–that!–is a work of genius. Sadly, M. Sharratt’s more recent books aren’t quite as good, but “Summit Avenue” is *brilliant*.

  29. falloch says:

    It’s Burns Night here in Scotland, commemmorating the 250th birthday of Scotand’s national poet, Robert Burns, who gave us the words to ‘Auld lang syne’ and loads of other poems and songs. But I found this poem today, and thought I’d share it with you. Bear in mind that Sappho in late 1700s was largely perceived in a very different way than now (and only represented by fragments, that male poets presumed to finesse). So I’m intrigued by this poem by the very het Robbie Burns, who seems to be able to address love in many forms.

    Robert Burns (1759–1796). Poems and Songs.
    The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

    249. Sappho Redivivus: A Fragment

    By all I lov’d, neglected and forgot,
    No friendly face e’er lights my squalid cot;
    Shunn’d, hated, wrong’d, unpitied, unredrest,
    The mock’d quotation of the scorner’s jest!
    Ev’n the poor súpport of my wretched life, 5
    Snatched by the violence of legal strife.
    Oft grateful for my very daily bread
    To those my family’s once large bounty fed;
    A welcome inmate at their homely fare,
    My griefs, my woes, my sighs, my tears they share:
    (Their vulgar souls unlike the souls refin’d,
    The fashioned marble of the polished mind).

    In vain would Prudence, with decorous sneer,
    Point out a censuring world, and bid me fear;
    Above the world, on wings of Love, I rise—
    I know its worst, and can that worst despise;
    Let Prudence’ direst bodements on me fall,
    My rich reward o’erpays them all!

    Mild zephyrs waft thee to life’s farthest shore,
    Nor think of me and my distress more,—
    Falsehood accurst! No! still I beg a place,
    Still near thy heart some little, little trace:
    For that dear trace the world I would resign:
    O let me live, and die, and think it mine!

    “I burn, I burn, as when thro’ ripen’d corn
    By driving winds the crackling flames are borne;”
    Now raving-wild, I curse that fatal night,
    Then bless the hour that charm’d my guilty sight:
    In vain the laws their feeble force oppose,
    Chain’d at Love’s feet, they groan, his vanquish’d foes.
    In vain Religion meets my shrinking eye,
    I dare not combat, but I turn and fly:
    Conscience in vain upbraids th’ unhallow’d fire,
    Love grasps her scorpions—stifled they expire!
    Reason drops headlong from his sacred throne,
    Your dear idea reigns, and reigns alone;
    Each thought intoxicated homage yields,
    And riots wanton in forbidden fields.
    By all on high adoring mortals know!
    By all the conscious villain fears below!
    By your dear self!—the last great oath I swear,
    Not life, nor soul, were ever half so dear!

  30. falloch says:

    Sorry, I hadn’t read previous postings since the other day! So You’ve been inundated with us Burns-type people!

  31. Ian says:

    Well, naturally I’ve heard of the bonkbuster oeuvre – the fine works of Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins spring to mind. However, I do envy lesbians if you’ve got bonkbusters. Gay fiction has nothing between intense/funny coming out stories and hardcore p0rn. Although I like the novels of Felice Picano, Patrick Gale and others, the sex is rather unsatisfying or non-existent.

    Oh and I have to say it: I can’t stand Edmund White and I hated “A Boy’s Own Story”! Phew! Rant over.

  32. LondonBoy says:

    Ian, I think that’s not entirely fair. We do have plenty of stuff between the two categories you mention, as a trip to “Gay’s the Word” (Marchmont Street, London) will show. There’s everything from light comedy (“Tales of the City”, Armistead Maupin) to serious analysis of the gay condition (“Dancer from the Dance”, Andrew Holleran), to name just two classics of the last 30 years.

    I didn’t mind Felice Picano’s stuff, or Edmund White’s, but you’re right about Patrick Gale, who always gives the impression of having started writing at fifteen and never actually lived a real gay man’s life. But these are just a few names, and inevitably there are good and bad writers everywhere. Of more recent writers, the one that looks to me most likely to last is Alan Hollinghurst.

  33. Leda says:

    Ok, so I think we have an idea of the difference between a novel and a bonkbuster now but what is the diffeence between a bonkbuster and erotica?

  34. annie says:

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    Le 19 janvier 2009, à Compreignac en Haute-Vienne, un chien est mort de froid et de faim, attaché à une corde, sans niche, sans abri.

    Une plainte a été déposée par la Société Protectrice des Animaux de Limoges.

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  35. Ian says:

    @Londonboy: I was exaggerating just a tad and going from one extreme t’other. But gay fiction doesn’t seem relaxed enough with itself to provide the comfy but titillating ride (the literary equivalent of sitting in a massage chair?) that you can read on a transatlantic plane ride as you can with the likes of Jilly Cooper. Maybe there isn’t a market and men either want ‘proper’ fiction or just plain sex.

    By the way, I can understand the attraction of uniforms, but what’s the attraction of a lesbian Secret Service agent presumably struggling to balance her exciting job with her troublesome love life?

  36. Andrew B says:

    Ian, I had no idea who Jilly Cooper was. When I googled her, I found this. Note the title of the article. Jilly Cooper isn’t marketed to straight men, either. So there may be a gay/straight divide here, but at least there is also a male/female one.

  37. Donna says:

    I think a proper fiction or plain sex dichotomy exists in hetero as well as gay and lesbian stories. It must be hard to write something that can satisfy both the Granta and bonkbuster crowds. I’d be all for bonkbusters all the time if they could write it as well the stuff in lit. mags. Maybe something about that combo is inherently impossible? (Or maybe I’ve only come across something that worked for me in both ways less than a handful of times.)

  38. Jain says:


  39. Rosie Cheeks says:

    Donna and Leda — it’s really interesting trying to pinpoint the difference between a bonkbuster and erotica. I wonder if it could be a) the quality of the narrative, and b) the quality of the writing?

    I’m writing a novel that I would put in the “erotic literature” category, if there were one. It’s about AnaĂŻs Nin and Colette, so it’s historical too, which confuses things — I’m almost certain there isn’t an “erotic, historical literature” bay in Bounders! There is lots of sex (mostly lesbian, but some het), and (hopefully) an overall atmosphere of sensuality. The sex is secondary to the narrative, though, and to me that’s what makes it more literature than lesbo bonkbuster. I think of the sex scenes as a bonus extra — like eating a bar of chocolate that incidentally gives you a dancer’s body.
    You can

    Ian and LondonBoy— I haven’t read anything else by Edmund White, but I loved “The Married Man” — it’s set in Paris, which is always a bonus! And Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Swimming Pool Library” is wonderful.

    Annie — merci pour ton poste — c’est completement affreux, c’est fou ce que les gens peuvent ĂŞtre dĂ©geulasse aux animaux. Bonne chance.

  40. Ellen O. says:

    I see the purpose of erotic to arouse the reader, or, in less genteel terms, something to get you off.

    I think a “bonkbuster” includes sex scenes to spice of the narrative or simply to include sex as it is part of life.

  41. Anonymous says:

    “Annie — merci pour ton poste — c’est completement affreux, c’est fou ce que les gens peuvent ĂŞtre dĂ©geulasse aux animaux. Bonne chance.”

    thanks Rosie! there are only 2 american people who signed this petition ; I would be very happy so much if others signed.


  42. Leda says:

    Hey Rosie and Ellen, I had in mind things both of you have said when I was thinking about the difference between erotica and bonkbusters. It is interesting that erotica which seems to have loftier literary intentions is perhaps more direct in its intention to get you off. Yet what does get you off is not always strictly speaking erotica but does it become erotica if you find it erotic or use it erotically? Erotica is used as a marketing term (Waterstones in the UK have erotica sections), albeit selectively and siscreetly but I have never seen anything marketed as a bonkbuster, the term is used slightly perjoratively. Its a muddy area for sure and I suspect the real difference lies in the eye of the beholder..

  43. Leda says:

    Hey, just how badly have I spelled discretely? See what happens when I am left to my own spelling devices, abandoned by the soft nannying of my mac safari browser thing which highlights my spelling boo-boos and and wipes my nose before I go out in public.

  44. Ellen O. says:


    Perhaps the next question is that timeless question, what is the difference between erotica and porn? Some would say the quality of the writing, others would say violence and cruelty, other would say denial.

  45. Leda says:

    Hey Ellen, yes I was thinking about porn too. (ahem). I can’t really differentiate in the end between porn and erotica. Its not quality, there is some (in my opinion)crap erotica out there that was intended (intention has a lot to dow ith it)by its authors to be erotica rather than porn. There is also plenty of erotica that features physical violence and cruelty as part of the fantasy described and not all porn is violent and cruel. Denial, yes I’d agree with that, I think erotica is porn, just a particular genre I suppose and abstractly I don’t have an issue with porn.

  46. Kelly (Gold Star Dyke) says:


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