Pillow talk

The geek girl’s guide to love and sex

In “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls,” a new anthology edited by Hope Nicholson, diehard fangirls open up about love, lust and orcs

"Babes on a Bike" by Jen Bartel/Courtesy Bedside Press

Love is weird, and love is complicated. It’s little wonder that entire industries (therapy, self-help books) are devoted to helping us wade through the murky process of opening our hearts to another person. The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, a new anthology of non-fiction stories by diehard nerds, explores the atypical mediums that female geeks use to make sense of love, lust, and all the fuzzy feelings between. For the women writing in Secret Loves, the key to navigating relationships lies in all manner of fandom. They learn about romance from graphic novels, find partners at Comic Con, discover their sexualities in fan fiction. They crush on sweet Frodos, and have their hearts broken by orcs.

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls was curated and edited by Hope Nicholson, a Canadian comic book publisher and self-professed fangirl. The anthology includes more than 50 essays and illustrations by graphic novelists, video game writers, and devotees of every geeky medium under the sun. Margaret Atwood contributed a cartoon strip to the collection. These writers are bound by their intense affinity for geekdom, but represent a diverse range of ages, ethnicities, and sexual preferences..

Nicholson’s full-bodied celebration of geek love began with a small typo. In 2012, she decided to approach Canadian broadcasters with a reality show pitch about nerdy women living in Toronto. She named the potential series “The Secret Lives of Geek Girls,” and commissioned a poster to present to executives. When Nicholson unfurled the finished product, however, it read “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls.”

 The reality show never came to fruition, but Nicholson hung on to the poster. “It was just a stupid typo,” she said. “But every time I saw it, I thought, ‘It would be actually nice to focus on that.’ … It just kept bugging me in the back of my head.”

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Illustration by Janet Hetherington, from the story “Both Sides of the Table and Between the Sheets.” (Courtesy Bedside Press)

Nicholson is the founder of Bedside Press, which reprints forgotten Canadian comic book series from decades past. She also served as the editor of MOONSHOT, a recently-released and much-lauded collection of comics by indigenous writers. Nicholson has a soft spot for hidden, neglected stories, which is perhaps why she became so attached to the idea of publicizing the romantic exploits of geek girls. Popular culture has fully embraced the male geek as a figure worthy of our attention and desire, but true geek girls—not faux-dorks like Zooey Deschanel’s character on New Girls—only sparsely populate mainstream offerings.

“The biggest show on TV is The Big Bang Theory, and that pretty much exclusively revolves around the romantic and sexual interests of geeky men,” Nicholson said. “Even without that, there’s the IT Crowd in the UK, there’s Revenge of the Nerds. Any time there’s any shows about any guys who are geeky, it’s about them and not about the women. And if there are women, they’re usually not geeks themselves. They don’t bond over comic books or watch sci-fi together.” 

During the 2014 Fan Expo, a Comic Con-style event held annually in Toronto, Nicholson began asking her friends if they would be interested in contributing to an anthology that highlighted the unique perspectives of fangirls in love. She initially conceived of Secret Loves as a small collection of personal essays, but was soon inundated with submissions that included prose pieces, illustrations and comics. When news broke that Margaret Atwood had agreed to contribute hand-drawn cartoons to Secret Loves, the project ballooned. Nicholson launched a Kickstarter asking for $37,000 to help fund Secret Loves. She ended up raising more than $120,000.

Nicholson connected with Atwood a few years ago over Twitter, and the two met to discuss their mutual love of Canadian comics from the 1940s. When Nicholson later asked Atwood to contribute to Secret Loves, the author immediately agreed to take part. “It made me feel like I was doing something right,” Nicholson said. “Having her support behind Secret Loves, having her enthusiasm, even having her occasionally give me love advice was really nice.” 

And just what words of romantic wisdom did Canada’s literary treasure impart? “She told me that I should stop dating creatives and start dating bankers,” Nicholson said with a laugh. “She’s not wrong. Creatives are very fickle, very up and down, [it’s] very hard to gauge their responses. It wasn’t a money thing — more of a personality thing.” 

Chatting about matters of the heart with Margaret Atwood is an extraordinary experience, but one that taps into the ethos of Secret Loves. “I really wanted it to be women talking to other women about their experiences, rather than telling guys, ‘This is what my life is,’” Nicholson said. “It’s more [about] sympathizing and connecting with other women.”

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Illustration by ALB, from the story “Settings.” (Courtesy Bedside Press)

The writers featured in the anthology grapple with the same sort of emotional turbulence — joy, heartbreak, infatuation, ambivalence — that most women experience while navigating the rocky terrain of a relationship. But their approach to dissecting these emotions is shaped by their geeky passions. “I think a lot of us don’t have as much of a skill relating to the real world as others do,” Nicholson said. “And so we get drawn into fandom because we use this lens to understand ourselves. I don’t know why that is, but that seems to be the core thing of what makes a geek a geek: the ability to relate much more strongly to worlds that other people create.”

Accordingly, Secret Loves offers up a sweeping portrait of romance, filtered through the prism of fandom. “Minas Tirith” by comic book writer Marguerite Bennett is the delicate telling of a relationship that thrives, and then unravels, against daydreams of Middle Earth and Westeros. In “Control Systems of Desire,” video game designer Cara Ellison explores the gulf between rules of love and rules of the console. “I can’t stop thinking about the promise that videogames play on,” Ellison writes. “The idea that if I were good enough, the ending would be spectacular, enthralling, happy.”

Other stories are jauntier. Jenn Woodall’s comic “Shipping” recounts the author’s adolescent — and adorably enthusiastic —obsession with the character Aeris from video game Final Fantasy 7. In “How Fanfiction Made Me Gay,” sci fi author J.M. Frey discovers sexual variance in Internet tributes to her favorite characters. “The only canonical lesbian I had ever seen on TV was Ellen,” she writes. “But in fanfiction anything was fair game. If we could turn protagonists into vampires, bounty hunters, or elves, we could sure as heck turn them homosexual, bisexual, asexual, or any of the wonderful, beautiful in-betweens.”

Nicholson also contributed to the anthology, with determined candor. In “Rise of the Late Bloomer,” she chronicles her delayed and very anxious induction into the world of sex and dating. “For the longest time [virginity] was what defined me more than anything else, and not in a good way, either,” Nicholson explained. “Because of that, I wanted people to read the story and feel comforted by the fact that they weren’t alone.”

The same might be said of the anthology as a whole. With its pastiche of voices, Secret Loves seeks to validate readers’ experiences, to help them feel less isolated and anomalous. “There is no way I could have a story that represents every single viewpoint,” Nicholson said. “But by reading the anthology, you’ll get an idea of the incredible diverse range of viewpoints that [exist]. Even if you have [an experience] that doesn’t fit within the anthology, you’ll know that somewhere out there, there is someone like you, because look at all these weirdos. And we all are weirdos!” 

“Cosplay Love” by Renee Nault/Courtesy Bedside Press

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