Sexual healing: Jocelyn Broadwick reclaims vintage smut

Reading series spotlighting steamy pulp novels helps writer heal from purity culture trauma

Published on: September 29, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

Jocelyn Broadwick has entertained people with her readings of steamy pulp novels from the 1950’s and 60’s for the past four years. She hosts her readings at Rust n’ Shine, a Highlandtown vintage store. The raunchy reads are kept in the bathroom.

Holt lay on the wide bed, having taken his shower first. He felt clean, relaxed and expectant with desire, waiting for Debbie to finish and come out of the bathroom. The sheets were smooth and virginally white, but not for long.

If you told 18-year-old Jocelyn Broadwick that 15 years later she would be sitting onstage at the Creative Alliance, wearing vintage lingerie and reading sexy scenes such as this from the 1963 paperback, “Female and Fatal,” she would have laughed at you. Then she would have prayed for you. And for herself for entertaining such an impure thought.

But on Friday evening, the now 33-year-old Waltherson resident will do just that. The words “thrust” and “pulse” and “glisten” will likely emerge from her mouth, multiple times. The audience will laugh and do adult Mad Libs and watch improv based on books with titles such as “The Lusty Librarian,” “This is Temptation,” and “Bookmobile Bad Girl,” (tagline: “She Gave It Away Free All Over Town!”), as part of an event titled An Evening of Vintage Smut.

They will listen to Broadwick, a writer who works for a domestic violence agency, explain a bit of the history behind these books, which though yellowed and brittle with age still ripple with repressed desire. Perhaps Broadwick will even share a little of the journey that brought her to this stage.

He’d already asked her a hundred times if this was really what she wanted to do. And the answer had been a positive one every time. They could get to a justice of peace in the morning. What the hell did a piece of paper mean anyway?

When Broadwick was in high school, she was voted “Best Christian Attitude.” In college, she majored in Christian education leadership and wanted to be a minister. But she couldn’t — her family’s church did not ordain women.

This was the 2000s, the height of the purity culture movement in the evangelical Christian church, which encouraged young people to not only wait to have sex until marriage, but to forego kissing, making out and even traditional dating, since these activities could spiral into temptation. Broadwick’s parents were divorced, and she split her time between Catonsville and Towson. She attended conservative Christian schools where the only sex education she received exhorted abstinence until marriage.

Teachers and youth group leaders used strong metaphors to explain what happens when people have premarital sex. A teacher would hold up a piece of gum, fresh from the wrapper. Then, the teacher would hand it to a student to chew. When the student displayed the chewed gum a few minutes later, the teacher would ask if anyone else wanted to chew it. Of course not! This is what happens to a woman after you have premarital sex, the teacher explained. She becomes tainted, the flavor gone.

As a teenager, Broadwick reveled in purity culture. Many girls waited for their fathers to buy them a purity ring, a sign of their commitment to wait until marriage for sex. Broadwick was so enthusiastic she bought her own. She was going to remain pure for her husband, for herself, and most importantly, for God. It was the ultimate act of devotion.

“I felt a lot of pressure to show everyone that I was OK even though my parents were divorced,” Broadwick said. Plus, nearly everyone she knew attended the same church and shared the same beliefs. When she was 23, she married Patrick Broadwick, a fellow churchgoer.

He considered getting out of the bed for a cigarette. But then he changed his mind. She would be coming out of there in a second now. He wondered if she would look as marvelous as she always did. Naked and ready for love.

One thing that Broadwick had learned in her abstinence-only sex education classes was that losing your virginity hurt. So, she wasn’t surprised that she felt pain the first time she and Patrick had sex. But the pain during sex persisted. For three years, Broadwick suffered silently. “I didn’t know how to talk about it,” she said.

Finally, a gynecologist diagnosed Broadwick with vaginismus, a condition in which the muscles that form the vagina tense up, making penetration painful. The condition often has psychological roots. People who suffer from vaginismus have often experienced trauma, such as sexual assault or a difficult birth. And, increasingly, they have spent their formative years steeped in purity culture, said Caroline Landen, a therapist who specializes in sexual dysfunction.

“The majority of my clients with vaginismus trace it back to their religious background,” said Landen, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Awakenings counseling center in North Carolina.

“Purity culture says on one level that sex is a beautiful gift from God that you get to enjoy when you’re married. But before you’re married, it’s wrong, it’s dirty, it’s impure. Not just sex, but desire, lust, arousal,” she said. “You have a couple generations of women who have never looked at themselves, never touched themselves, never gone to a gynecologist. Never even used tampons.”

Girls are taught that the mere sight of their bodies can lead boys and men astray. Landen recalls being forced to wear a T-shirt over her bathing suit at a religious summer camp so as not to tempt boys. “There are so many layers of shame in purity culture,” she said. “There are so many responsibilities put on girls. That tension has to manifest somewhere. And one of the ways it manifests is vaginismus.”

Beyond the physical pain of vaginismus, there is sexual frustration, the disappointment of one’s spouse, and, for those steeped in purity culture, a sense that God has forsaken them. “Sex is supposed to be a gift from God,” Landen said. “It becomes an attachment wound with God. What did I do to deserve this?”

Landen invites her clients to work through their concerns about sex, purity and pleasure through talk therapy. Her clients usually also see a pelvic floor physical therapist who teaches them breathing techniques and exercises to relax the vaginal muscles. Landen said all of her clients who have completed the course of treatment recover from vaginismus, even a woman who suffered with it for 30 years.

Vaginismus is just one symptom of what is referred to as purity culture trauma, Landen said. While purity culture trauma is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of mental health providers, there are podcasts, TikTok videos, Instagram pages and Facebook groups devoted to the harms of purity culture. Many former advocates now recognize the purity movement was a mistake. Joshua Harris, who wrote purity culture classics such as, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and “Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is),” announced in the late 2010s that he no longer identified as Christian and regretted his role in promoting purity culture.

For Jocelyn Broadwick, recovery was a process of blooming. She and her spouse, Patrick, left the church. They made new, secular friends. She was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from her religious upbringing and attended a support group for religious trauma. “I had nightmares,” she said. “What if hell is real and I’m going to go there?” She received a master’s degree from Goucher College’s creative nonfiction program, exploring her upbringing in memoir and personal essays.

And, one day in 2018, while drinking sangria at the Highlandtown vintage store Rust-N-Shine, Broadwick and a few friends started passing around old paperbacks and reading the steamiest scenes out loud.

She stepped out of the bathroom. She was completely nude, her well curved flawlessly smooth body an ivory symphony of delights. Her breasts were tipped with delicate pink nipples which jetted out arrogantly and upward, bouncing slightly with each step she took.

Kevin Bernard and Kinsley Ross, the co-owners of Rust-N-Shine, cracked up hearing the outdated prose, and asked Broadwick, who as a writer had experience reading in front of a group, to read at the next monthly Highlandtown First Friday Art Walk. The crowd loved the reading, and Broadwick kept performing at the art walk. The event developed a name, An Evening of Vintage Smut, and a following. At first folks crowded into the store, squeezing past brass candlesticks, gold-embossed highball glasses and wingback chairs to hear the steamy stories. The event eventually moved onto the sidewalk to accommodate the crowd.

The books, which usually date from the 1950s-70s, “are just cringe,” Broadwick said. She is careful to select passages from books that are not offensive, but there are lots of hackneyed plots — horny housewives, salacious salesmen, pleasure-seeking PTA presidents — and awful writing. “There are a lot of very strange descriptions of sex,” she said. “It’s like they’re written by a 12-year-old boy who doesn’t really understand how everything works.”

When the pandemic struck, the smut did not stop. Jocelyn read raunchy old paperbacks on Facebook Live each month, as friends and fans followed along and joked around in the comments.

“It was my favorite virtual event during the lockdown,” said Maria Goodson, a poet and nonprofit worker from Hampden, who met Broadwick through the city’s literary scene and had attended the readings at Rust-N-Shine.

Goodson and her partner Kevin Griffin Moreno, a writer who works in higher education, are among “the naughties,” as Broadwick refers to regular attendees of vintage smut night. The readings kicked off in-person at Rust-N-Shine once again in June 2021, and since then, Broadwick has introduced fresh twists, such as this summer’s “Miss Mistress of Smut” pageant, which combined a reading with a tongue-in-cheek beauty contest.

“There is a joy in the way Jocelyn goes about organizing these events,” Griffin Moreno said. “She has a wonderful way of bringing people into her circle and making it a very inclusive experience.”

Goodson and Griffin Moreno took turns reading some vintage smut as part of a show earlier this year. “I’m a woman in America and a lot of times for a lot of us growing up, sex isn’t even talked about,” Goodson said. “To get up and read these ridiculous scenes with people, it’s empowering. It felt really freeing.”

Pulp novels, despite their lurid covers and often poorly-written prose, have long been a ticket to liberation for many, said Paula Rabinowitz, a University of Minnesota English professor and the author of “American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street.”

In the middle of the last century, pulp novels, named for the inexpensive paper on which they were printed, could be purchased at drugstores, train stations and grocery stores for pocket change, Rabinowitz said. The books were targeted at regular folks, those who were not necessarily interested in high literature, but intrigued by science fiction, hardboiled detectives, the Wild West and, of course, sex.

Some publishers used the books’ widespread appeal to surreptitiously educate readers with titles that were decidedly not smut, Rabinowitz said. Many of them reprinted literary classics, but with raunchy cover art and overblown tag lines. For example, one pulp edition of William Faulkner’s “Mosquitoes” described the Nobel Prize winner’s novel as, “A boatload of Bohemians, a pair of unconventional young girls, a suitcase full of whiskey— and four hilarious days at sea.”

Publishers printed classic novels by great Black writers, such as Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and “Black Boy,” and distributed them in shops throughout the South, sharing important messages of liberation. They published nonfiction about space, scientific discoveries and history.

“The books were a means of democratizing literature,” Rabinowitz said.

Novels about gay and lesbian romances — although they never had happy endings — enabled LGBTQ readers to see some version of themselves in print for the first time. And so many young people learned about sex from sneakily reading the books at drugstores that it became a trope in films of the era, Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz said she has received letters and emails from readers who discovered truths about themselves in the pages of pulp novels. “People wrote me and said, ‘After I read these books, I decided I wasn’t going to be a housewife, but go to art school,’ which is where a lot of lesbian novels were set.”

Her hips were rounded, firm, and they swung with sensual grace. Good galloping God, Holt thought, drinking in her unbelievable beauty and desirability. She’s even better than I could have possibly imagined. And to think all those goodies are mine, all mine from now on.

For Broadwick, reading vintage smut aloud has helped forge a new identity. “I come from such a small community where I was really involved and I knew my place. Coming out of all of that, I was terrified I was going to be completely alone. I needed an identity to cling to and I never ever thought it would be this,” she said. “Having the series so embraced and welcomed has been huge for me.”

As the following at Rust-N-Shine has grown, Broadwick worked up the courage to pitch the event to the Creative Alliance and was delighted the Highlandtown arts organization quickly agreed to host Friday’s event. The evening will feature a vintage smut-inspired performance by Highwire Improv and adult Mad Libs, as well as Broadwick’s readings, which she blends with commentary about the books, their authors and the way they frame sex and sexuality.

Slowly, Broadwick’s family has come to accept her performances. Her father and stepmother plan to attend Friday, she said. Her brother and his wife and Broadwick’s mother and stepfather, who live out of town, have told her they will be tuning in to the virtual broadcast.

But the most dramatic metamorphosis has been Broadwick’s.

Since the reading series started, her spouse Patrick realized they are nonbinary, someone who does not identify as strictly male or female. Jocelyn discovered she is pansexual, someone attracted to all genders. The couple decided to have an open relationship, giving each other the freedom to explore being with other people.

Jocelyn did not find the traditional physical therapy for vaginismus helpful. But standing onstage and reading about virginal sheets, arrogant nipples and firm hips has helped her heal.

“I reject the idea that I need to condition myself out of this pain,” she said. “I would rather read porn in public and feel sexy and powerful.”

An Evening of Vintage Smut will take place at the Creative Alliance on Friday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. Italicized selections above are from “Female and Fatal” by Kendall Hill.

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