Virgins in Romance: An Interview with Jodi McAlister

A Love Beyond Forever by Diana Haviland - a dude walking into the sunset like the sky's on fire holding a woman who might possibly be naked in his arms. And get this- they're headed for a rowboat. Way to rock the bling, Mr. Rowboat. That'll impress her! The Sunday after I arrived in Australia, Kat from BookThingo hosted a tea, and while I was hoovering scones and tea sandwiches, I met Jodi McAlister, who is doing her PhD thesis (or dissertation, as we call them in the US) on romance. 

Specifically on virgins in romance. 

I KNOW. Can you IMAGINE? Such a rare, hard to find subject (heh). So I asked her if she'd be willing to do an interview with me (poor soul) and she agreed (oh, boy). This is a pretty lengthy discussion (heh) (no really, this entry is hella long) but there certainly is no shortage of ways to examine, analyze, or just plain count up the virgins in romance. 

Sarah: Can you tell me about your project, how you landed on that idea (VIRGINS in ROMANCE? WHO would have THOUGHT?), and what books you're most interested in discussing? Anything that surprised you?

Jodi: Thanks so much for letting me ramble on about my PhD work at you. I can talk about my pet virgins and all their virgin-y ways for hours and hours when I get started and it's always so exciting when people are actually interested in what I'm talking about.

My PhD project is on the history of the virgin heroine in literature. Obviously, this is really broad and could cover a whole bunch of things – I spent many, many hours which I will never get back reading through lives of virgin saints, for example – so what I'm focusing on specifically is the virgin heroine in Western love stories. (That's Western as in occidental, not as in cowboy, though I'm sure there's a paper somewhere in my future on cowboys and virgins!) Virginity as a concept is already something that is a) not studied a whole lot, and b) fascinating. “Virginity” is the only word in the English language for something which is actually a not-thing: “virgin” is an identity based on NOT doing something, on not having an experience. It's an absence, and yet it's still figured so often as something transactional – something that can be given, taken, stolen, thrown away. (emphasis mine- S.) Virginity loss episodes are such a key point in so many romance novels, and I find them so interesting.

What I really want to do is work out how virginity functions as a narrative trope in romance, and how this is changed over time. You know those people that pull apart cars for fun to see how they work? I'm like that, but for stories. I guess I'm a narrative mechanic: I love pulling stories to bits to understand how/why/whether they work. I want to work out what function virginity serves as a literary device – how it drives plot, how it drives character, and why it pops up so often in romance in particular. To do this, I'm tracing the history of the virgin heroine in the romance plot – I take a bit of a tour through medieval romance, then through the rise of the novel and its shadowy twin the pornographic novel – before coming back to the modern romance. I'm really interested in what happened once virginity loss scenes started to be regularly represented on the page instead of behind closed doors, something that really kicks off once The Flame and the Flower ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) is published in the early 1970s. I'm looking at virginity loss scenes and comparing to them to autobiographical stories about virginity loss and seeing how they matched up, as well as trying to tie them back to a historical framework.

The short version of all this is that I'm charting the history of the virgin heroine, what role she plays in love stories, and how this changes over time. Exactly how I go about doing this will probably change as well – I still have a couple of years before I submit my thesis, and I'm sure I'll have several OMGIMUSTCHANGEEVERYTHINGANDDOITTHISWAY moments by then. (I have about three of these a day. I think this is pretty common with PhD candidates!)

I came at the idea for my project in a kind of roundabout way. The idea of writing about romance first came when I was an undergraduate. I was living on campus and my friends and I came across this hilariously awful romance novel. I will never forget it. It was a time travel romance a la Jude Deveraux's Knight in Shining Armour,  ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) where the heroine travelled via magic mirror to Cromwellian England. The hero was this dispossessed royalist lord and they travelled all around England in this rickety wagon. He was being chased by the authorities and she was being chased by this evil witch who was trying to sacrifice her or something. There was one particularly hysterical scene where they had sex on a bearskin rug. It was one of those books which is full to the brim of crazysauce. We used to read it aloud to each other and then roll around on the floor laughing, because we were all terribly mature people. Anyway, it piqued my interest – mostly because I like hilarious things (I know, I'm a monster), and even then, I was firmly of the opinion that academia needs more jokes in it. I started reading more romance and vaguely considered something about it for my Honours thesis, but the English faculty at my university was small and there was no one who'd be able to supervise me, so I stuck with something more traditional and wrote about bad girls in the Renaissance theatre instead.This is where the interest in virgin heroines really kicked in. Renaissance bad girls are generally bad girls because they've lost their virginity: it's the old virgin/whore dichotomy that anyone who has ever read anything ever has probably encountered.

After my Honours year, I went out and got myself a proper grown up job in an office, and I hated it. I haaaaaaaaaated it. I was bored out of my brain. (To this day, I shudder when I hear someone use the word “action” as a verb. I can't handle it.) I figured I deserved some hilarity in my life, so I got back on the romance novel train. This time, it was Mills & Boon – they were light and I could carry them around them in my handbag. I spent more than a few lunchtimes (and, let's be honest, extended coffee breaks too) reading them. And when you're repeatedly reading books with names like The Italian Billionaire's Virgin Mistress and The Greek Tycoon's Virgin Bride, the virgins kind of jump out at you. I already knew I wanted to go back to uni and do my PhD – if my shortlived office career taught me anything, it's that I reeeeeeeeeally belong in a university – and the whole idea started to percolate in my mind. It didn't fully come together until I read a string of particularly irritating virgin heroines in a row – you know, the ones that are all, “OMG, anyone who has ever had sex ever is the worst person in the entire world! I am sparkly and innocent and pure!” They were all teamed with these especially douchey alphole heroes, and it made me really angry. Anger and laughter are my two biggest motivators, so from there, the plan started to take shape. I really started thinking about what I wanted to do (after I calmed down some) and looking around for a supervisor. I got super lucky and found a really awesome one, and here I am now.

I'm obviously nowhere near as angry about virgin heroines now, though there are definitely some tropes that raise my hackles: I hate, hate, hate books where the heroine has never, ever experienced any kind of desire ever until she meets the hero. I know that this is used a lot as a kind of shorthand to mark the hero as The Hero tm (particularly in category, where you have such a limited word count), but I still find it desperately irritating. I mean, was the heroine never a teenager? Has she no hormones? Of course, these are also books I like writing about a lot, because I have a lot to say.

I'm pretty fascinated by Fifty Shades of Grey at the moment and the way that virginity works in that book, because it's SO extreme: Anastasia is the virgin-iest virgin that ever virgin-ed. At the moment, I have this idea that you can locate virginity loss episodes in romance along a kind of spectrum: at one end, you have books where virginity loss is figured as this deeply transactional thing – the hero takes the heroine's virginity, and that means that she is His For All Time. At the other end, you have books where virginity loss scenes are kind of a way for both characters to say, “hey, I love you.”

Personally, as a reader, I tend to like the latter ones much more, because there's less emphasis on virginity as this object that has changed hands. The heroine is less defined by her virginity, and she tends to be a much more active participant in the whole experience – I'm thinking particularly of books like Lord of Scoundrels ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) and The Duke and I ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ) here. What I think is really interesting – and something I was quite surprised by – is how much more often the really transactional narratives turn up in contemporaries. Virginity, I find, tends to be far less of a plot point in historicals: because of the setting, it's assumed, and I think in a lot of cases, that takes the emphasis off it. In contemporaries, though, if there is a virgin heroine, she usually has a reason why she's a virgin: it's something she has to justify, and this often turns into this idea of virginity-as-a-gift. I need to read a ton more single-title contemporaries with virgin heroines to see if this really does play out, but that's where my thinking is sitting at the moment. I also want to dive into the world of paranormal: it's not a genre I've read a whole lot of in the past, so I'm really eager to see the different ways virginity is dealt with in those books. Paranormal also often has that paradigm where transformation into whatever supernatural creature stands in for virginity, which I want to explore a lot more.

The thing that has surprised me the most – aside from a lot of historicals arguably being more progressive around virginity than contemporaries – is that virginity loss scenes in romance are not always good. I'm not even talking about the extremely traumatic rape-y ones from the 1970s and 1980s, but ones written more recently. Sure, the actual experience might be pretty good, with all the mind-shattering orgasms and whatnot, but heroines often beat themselves up a lot afterwards, and it's certainly not the end of all the problems for the hero and heroine. There's this tacit admission that sex doesn't solve problems, even if it's sex with your one true love. I think this happened when sex and virginity loss started being located within texts, rather than somewhere in the nebulous land of happily-ever-after. It's not something I'd really thought about much before I started pulling apart the romance plot to see how it works – I think there's this cultural notion that sex in romance is full of rainbows and unicorns and is giving women unrealistic expectations OMGPANIC, but in reality, it's a lot more nuanced than that.
 

Sarah: This is FASCINATING. When you pick apart stories to figure out how they work, why is it do you think that virginity “works?” Why is it a repeated figure? And what's your least favorite example, aside from Anastasia, the virgin-iest virgin who ever virgined? (HA)

Jodi: “This is FASCINATING” is pretty much the greatest thing I can hear as an academic! I can absolutely answer as many questions as you like. (If it's not completely obvious, I LOVE talking about my research.)

I think part of the reason virginity works is simply because it's part of a literary tradition. Romance obviously didn't spring fully formed from the minds of the early Mills & Boon authors and Kathleen Woodiwiss – it's part of a very, very long literary tradition. The tradition is so long and varied that there's no way I could possibly explore all of it in my thesis. A plot that is incredibly common in Western literature is about the menaced virgin – that is, a story where you have a virgin heroine, and circumstances or characters that endanger her virginity. As long as virginity has been valued (and, by extension, thought about as a tangible object rather than just the absence of sexual experience), then endangering that virginity has been a narrative driver. I think this really becomes interesting once you have the rise of the novel, which comes at about the same time as the rise of the idea of the self. For female characters, I think you can argue that this means their sexual status became inexorably tied to their selfhood: losing their virginity became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, decision they would ever make. Samuel Richardson's Pamela is probably the classic example of this – Pamela doesn't really have too many distinguishing features apart from her virginity, and her insistence on maintaining it until she is married despite all the incentives to sleep with Mr B is her defining characteristic.

(One thing I think is really interesting is that you'll often read that Samuel Richardson invented the novel when he wrote Pamela, or maybe Daniel Defoe, but this is doing a great disservice to the ladies who were writing it first: people like Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley, who has one of my favourite author names of all time. These authors – Manley in particular – implictly rejected the idea that if you lost your virginity in the wrong way, you were automatically a bad person. They're really fascinating works, and it bums me out that a bunch of dudes get the credit for inventing the novel when the ladies pretty clearly got there first.)

I think this idea that “virgin” is a key part of, if not your entire, identity is literary baggage that the romance genre has had to deal with. It's obviously not just a literary paradigm – it's a cultural one as well – and I definitely think you can see the effect of social views changing as the romance novel develops. What I find really interesting, though, are the romances where virginity loss occurs within the narrative, especially on the page. In a lot of older books, virginity loss occurs in this sort of nebulous happily-ever-after – the story might be full of sexual tension, but sex exists outside the confines of the story. The publication of The Flame and the Flower in 1972 really changed all that. Romance was already moving in a more explicit direction – the first not-exactly-behind-closed-doors sex scene in Mills & Boon happens in 1967 – but I think it really exploded once Woodiwiss's book came out. This is where virginity loss started to be located on the page and really started to drive the story. They're obviously not the first virginity loss scenes to ever be produced on the page ever, but the heritage of virginity loss scenes before this is mostly pornographic, intended largely to titillate a (presumably) male audience. This is really where virginity loss started to be used to drive the plot.

On a basic level, the literary and cultural baggage of virginity means it functions as a very effective form of shorthand: if you've got the virginity, you've got the girl. I think this happens a lot in category in particular: where you have a virgin heroine, her decision to sleep with the hero makes their happily-ever-after inevitable. What makes virginity work is obviously different from book to book – romance as a genre is so massive, and generalising is always a bit of a dangerous practice. I think, however, that power has a lot to do with it: on-the-page virginity loss episodes are real key tipping points in the power dynamics of the romance novel. I think it's safe to say that if you think of a romance as a contest, the heroine wins: she gets love and monogamous commitment, and the hero is often kind of surprised into discovering he wants this too (with her). There's a great line in Daphne Clair's piece in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women where she writes that, “A smoking .45 and six corpses at his feet is a male fantasy. A woman will settle for one live hero at hers. And if she places a dainty foot upon his neck, it is only to invite him to kiss it.” The virginity loss episode in romance is often a point where the hero seems to be totally in control: sex is his sphere, he knows what he's doing, and she is hopelessly inexperienced and seemingly powerless. (Of course, in some of the rape-y romances of the 1970s and 1980s, she literally is powerless: she has no say in the matter.) Power often seems so unequal in virginity loss episodes – the hero often functions as a kind of teacher. And yet here, at the apex of his power, this is when he begins to lose it. Because he that gets the virginity gets the girl, the virginity loss episode is where they become inexorably tied together. For the hero, there is no escaping the heroine after he's taken her virginity. There's no turning back. Far from getting her out of his system (which is obviously not always the motivation for a sex scene, but it's relatively common), the heroine almost infects the hero. He catches love, monogamy – feelings. It might not manifest immediately, but the textual symbol of virginity creates an unbreakable bond between the two characters. It's the beginning of the happy end. The heroine makes him lose control not only sexually, but more broadly. He forgets how to live without her.

I think virginity often functions as a shorthand to mark the heroine as a good person, though I think this is starting to backfire: virgin heroines who are all like, “I am a virgin because casual sex is disgusting, you filthy sluts” are incredibly annoying, and I think readers are more likely to code them as “unlikeable” than “moral and virtuous person I can root for”. For this reason, I think the virginity = morality thing is becoming a lot more implicit, and the focus has shifted largely to the heroine's sexual awakening. Again, virginity becomes a kind of textual shorthand: the virgin's desire for the hero, when she has never, ever desired anyone ever, is what alerts the reader to the fact that he is the hero. Romance relies on the love story between the hero and heroine being sort of transcendent: they have to be the great loves of each others' lives. If your heroine is a practically asexual virgin, then establishing this on her side becomes easy: she has nothing to compare it to.

Basically, I think virginity works as a trope a) because of its literary heritage, and b) because it's a really convenient piece of textual shorthand. It's rare that you'll see a really detailed explanation into why a heroine is a virgin: in historicals, you don't really have to, but in contemporaries, often you'll get a throwaway one-liner. I have a half-baked theory that there are five different reasons used for why virgin heroines are still virgins, but they're rarely explored in much depth. Then you have the bizarre twists and turns that some authors go through to establish that their five-times-married duchesses who spent time employed as a courtesan are still virgins. Obviously this differs from book to book, but I think it's less about virginity itself than what virginity represents. For the heroine, her virginity loss marks the man she loses it to as her One True Love (even if she doesn't know it at the time, or, as in the case of sweet savage old skool books, she has no choice in the matter). For the hero, it marks the beginning of his surrender to the heroine, and the transfer of power.

As for my least favourite virgin ever… wow. That's hard. There are a lot in categories in particular that annoy the shit out of me: usually the ones that have reached the age of 25 or whatever without ever once experiencing the least flutter of sexual desire. It's not so much because I find them unbelievable as immature – are they really in a position to engage in this intense committed long term relationship? This isn't always the case and sometimes the awakening story is done very well, but it sure as hell isn't my favourite trope. Probably the most WTFy virgin heroine book I've come across is Johanna Lindsey's Prisoner of My Desire, which… yeah, I still haven't recovered. It's scarred me permanently. The heroine's wicked stepbrother has taken her mother prisoner in order to ensure her compliance. First, he forces her to marry this grotesque old man. Said grotesque old man drops dead on their wedding night, though (while chasing the heroine around the room attempting to rape her), and so the wicked stepbrother has to make a new plan. He needs the heroine to get pregnant with a child that looks like it might be the child of the grotesque old man, who once upon a time had blonde hair and blue eyes, so he goes down to the local village and kidnaps the first dude with eyes of blue and locks of gold that he finds. He chains this dude to a bed and forces the heroine to rape him. Of course, the heroine is so sexually naive that she doesn't understand how a penis works and has to get talked through the whole process by her maid and by this time my eyes were the size of saucers because I couldn't quite believe what I was reading. She eventually succeeds and proceeds to apologetically rape him for three days, but then he escapes and comes back with an army, because OF COURSE he is the wicked stepbrother's warlord nemesis whom selfsame wicked stepbrother kidnapped by accident because he doesn't know what he looks like, despite them being nemeses. (The wicked stepbrother is kind of a dumbass.) So the enraged warlord nemesis (who is, of course, the hero) takes the heroine back to his castle, rapes her for three days, and then… somehow they end up together. I can't quite remember how. I blocked it out. It's obviously an interesting book for me to write about, because the virgin heroine as rapist is really not something that turns up very often. But OMG MY EYES BLED.

Sarah: Which romances have been invaluable as you've been researching?

Jodi: The Flame and the Flower is a big one. While it is very far from being one of my favourite books ever, I think you can make a case that it's the most important book most people have never heard of. It revolutionised romance as a genre. It's also such a classic menaced virgin story that it is so easy for me to write about (even if all I ever write about is the first chapter, aka The Most Rapetastic Chapter In The World, Ever). It's a good example of how power operates: Heather is powerless when Brandon rapes her, while Brandon is at his most powerful. This serves to tie them together, a bond that Brandon cannot break, even if he wanted to. When he takes her virginity, he realises that he figuratively owns her, and offers to set her up as his mistress. She refuses and escapes, but even that escape cannot rid him of her: when she's pregnant, her rich family friends force him to marry her. Brandon gradually loses power as the book goes on, while Heather gains it – it's only once they've achieved a happy level of egalitarianism that they can live happily ever after. It's a really easy book to discuss, because the operations of power are so clear.

I also really like talking about Lord of Scoundrels and The Duke and I, because they demonstrate how the genre has changed and grown. Jessica and Daphne are more enfranchised as characters, and their virginity less objectified – virginity loss is a step in their relationships, but it isn't imbued with so much pseudo-mystical significance. And then there's a TON of categories, far too many to name: Diana Hamilton is one author I end up writing about a lot, but there are seriously sooooo many. I'm trying to discuss as many books as I can – because I'm working on a sort of widescale historical narrative analysis, I don't want to end up being one of those people who makes sweeping generalisations about romance based on, like, seven books. (I don't really want to make sweeping generalisations at all, because that is a dangerous critical practice, but I do have to generalise a bit.) However, academic romance criticism is definitely moving towards a more book-focused, rather than genre-focused, approach, which I think is really exciting. (Eric Selinger and Sarah Frantz make this point in the intro to New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction, and they are 100% right.) I'm really looking forward to taking some specific texts and looking specifically at how virginity operates as a trope within them. I've got some work planned on Twilight and Fifty Shades in this regard, but there are SO many romances out there that I want to do this for (and I'm always happy to take suggestions for more!)

Sarah: You said “On a basic level, the literary and cultural baggage of virginity means it functions as a very effective form of shorthand: if you've got the virginity, you've got the girl. “

So what types of things take the place of virginity when the heroine isn't a virgin? What are some virgin substitues – virgin margarine? Virgin Equal? Virgin Egg Beaters? VIRGIN SPAM?!

Jodi: Often, even when your heroine isn't a virgin, she has a sort of fetishised innocence about her – some kind of naivete or inexperience. I think you put it really well in the Bosoms, actually, when you talk about the curse of Bad Wang – heroines who have had a previously fulfilling sexual relationship are rare. (And if they have, their partner is dead. A legitimate rival to the hero who is actually alive is really hard to find.)

I think Nora Roberts' Montana Sky  ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ), with its three heroines, is an interesting example of this. One of the heroines, Willa, is actually a virgin. The pattern her romance with her hero Ben follows is a fairly standard one. Another heroine, Lily, has just come out of an abusive relationship and learns how to really open up and love in her relationship with her hero Adam – love for her is healing, and enables her to find herself. The other heroine, Tess, is a very cynical Hollywood type who has to learn to let her walls down and let someone in: to learn how to love. She doesn't have the innocence about her that Lily has, and she certainly doesn't have sexual hangups, but she doesn't really know how to love, what love means, or what love might look like. This idea of a barrier between the heroine and her ultimate self-actualisation and fulfilment is part of the very basic stuff that makes romance, I think. The hero helps her grow, helps her learn, and eventually enables her to become her best self. She, of course, does the same for him (Lynne Pearce expresses this as a formula in her book Romance Writing – if the heroine is x and the hero is y, then in the romance, x + y –> x' + y').

In the virgin heroine romance, this barrier is amusingly literalised in the anatomically incorrect iron hymen, but I think it's a hallmark of all romance: the hero introducing the heroine to exciting new experiences, sexual or not, is a key part (and one of the best parts!) of the romantic plot.

Sarah: In The Duke and I, there's a scene with Daphne that didn't trouble me at all when I first read it and swooned everywhere, but when I read it again recently, I was really shocked that I didn't remember that scene – and a little horrified at myself for loving the book so much. The scene in which Daphne is the sexual aggressor really bothers me. But as I've thought about it, it seems almost transactional: “you got my virginity, I want a baby.” Is that a trade that you've noticed at all in other books?

Jodi:  That scene in The Duke and I is definitely bothersome: Daphne knows Simon doesn't want a baby, but once she figures out how sex works, she just goes ahead and essentially takes one. It's a totally douchey move, and one I wish she had grovelled for a bit better in the text – I don't know if it's ever really resolved satisfactorily. (That said, I do love that book very deeply!) It's not really a trade I've noticed a lot, certainly not in contemporaries, where pregnancies either happen beyond the happily-ever-after in the epilogue, or they're accidental in the text and drive a lot of the conflict. (Oh, and secret babies, of course, a whole other animal.)

Virgin heroines do tend to end up pregnant a lot – if nothing else, romance really busts that notion that you can't get pregnant the first time wiiiiiiide open. I haven't really noticed a lot of aggressive desire for children in virgin heroine books – I mean, it exists, but I don't think it's a big thing. I'd guess this is probably because the heroines are frequently so sexually repressed that the idea of making children exists in some nebulous impossibility for them. Daphne is a bit different because she's a sexually curious virgin heroine (part of what makes her interesting!), and her desire for children is an integral part of her character. Because her virginity isn't really fetishised in that book and she doesn't really envision it as a sacrifice – she really, really wants to sleep with Simon – I'm not sure how directly transactional the virginity/baby thing is. Maybe reputation/baby is more accurate? It's an interesting case, that book.

Sarah: So where are you in your work? Writing? Reading? Researching? Are you planning to publish any of your work, or hoping to?

Jodi: I am ABSOLUTELY planning to publish some of my work. 2013 is hopefully going to be the big year of publication for me. I think I've reached a stage where I'm confident enough in my positions and my arguments to start putting my stuff out there, so next year I'm really going to go after publication with both hands. I'm planning to go to as many conferences as I can as well (travel funding pending, of course – it costs about a million billion dollars to get from Australia to anywhere). I've had a paper on the Fifty Shades trilogy accepted to PCA in Washington in March next year, which I'm totally excited about – I've never been to the States before! I'm also hoping I can make a trip to the IASPR conference in San Francisco happen in September, as well as taking in the inaugural Elizabeth Jolley conference on romance in Fremantle in August. (I was so excited when I heard there was going to be a romance conference in Australia that I literally fell out of my chair. Like, actually.) I've also got a piece coming up next week-ish on the Popular Romance Project blog, and I'm definitely hoping to write a few more pieces for them!

I'm about eighteen months into my PhD, and I'm pretty happy with my progress. Of course, I'm totally blessed to have this incredibly interesting subject material to work with: I am so, so glad that this is what I chose to write about. I've got a rough draft of probably about three quarters of my thesis. It's going to need a hell of a lot of editing and rewriting and knocking into shape, but the basic bones are there, which is terribly exciting. I'm always reading – at any given time, there are probably about three romance novels in my handbag (and a bazillion more on my Kindle!) – and I often find myself researching these odd little nooks and crannies of literature and culture that I never imagined I would. But it's mostly writing at the moment: once I have a complete draft, which I'm hoping will happen in the next couple of months, I'll be able to stand back, really evaluate where my argument needs shoring up, and begin a new round of research from there. There is so much stuff that I want to talk about that I don't think it's even vaguely within the realms of possibility that I'll fit it all in: I've got enough stuff to keep me busy for quite a while post-doc!

Sarah: What romances do you recommend to those who are curious about the genre, and why? 

Jodi: When someone asks me what I study and I tell them I work on romance novels, there are two typical reactions I get. The first one is awesome, and it's my favourite – it usually goes along the lines of, “Wow! That's so interesting! How did you get into that?”. The second is less awesome – it goes something like, “But you're so smart! Why would you study those stupid books?” This one often comes with a side of, “But all romances are the same, so that must be so easy,” like any PhD in the world ever is easy. This one can turn very sexist very quickly – I've delivered more than a few lectures to dudes who told me I was doing a “chick PhD”, mansplained what “romance” is to me, and told me “you should read Jane Austen instead – she's kind of like romance fiction, except she's actually good”.

In both cases, I have a couple of books that I recommend (forcefully, in the latter case). My two go-to recommendations are Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase and Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ). For people who are genuinely interested in the work I do, I think these offer a really awesome intro to the genre. And for people who think romance is stupid and formulaic? I defy you to read either of these two books and still come out thinking that.

There is a third question I get asked sometimes, usually from people who are romance readers. They ask me what the most bizarrely, cracktastically hilarious romance I've ever read is. I have a bunch of categories that I point them towards. There's this one series in the Sweet line about a magical fairy princess who is cursed by her wicked stepmother to live as a crone unless she gets 21 couples together before her 30th birthday which is HILARIOUS – she takes a job as a concierge in this fancy resort on some island, and she's lurking in the background of all the books manipulating things so the central couple gets together. (And of course she's part of Couple #21, the one that breaks the curse.) But if they want single-title, then I always point them to the very first romance I ever read, the time-travelling one set in Cromwellian England with the witches and the magic mirror and the rug sex: A Love Beyond Forever by Diana Haviland. (Check out the cover. How could you not love this book?)

Thanks so much for interviewing me, Sarah! It's been BIG fun. And now I have a couple of things for you:

1) A review recommendation – I know you probably have a bazillion to get to, but if are looking for stuff, a friend of mine is a YA author, and her book Burnt Snow is BAD.ASS. It's YA paranormal set in a small town on the NSW South Coast (it's actually based on the town I grew up in, so I'm biased). It's got a really strong heroine, a great hero, and I think you'd really enjoy it. The sequel is also coming out soon-ish. (I've had some trouble finding available buy links but here is AMZ | Galaxy Bookshop (AU) | Booktopia | Book Depository.)

2) I think I might have found the most hilarious romance blurb of all time, so I immediately thought of you. I've attached a picture of it, but in case you can't read it, the especially hilarious bit reads:

“Zenobia – a secret metropolis nestled safely in the fertile crescent of the western desert of Glendarra – lay, like its ruler's only daughter Chrysana, untouched by foreign hands.

One thrust was all it would take…”

Gold.


And if you want to read the book that blurb is from, and OF COURSE YOU DO, that's from The Crystal City, by Janice Tarantino, published in 1996.

Thank you to Jodi McAlister for answering all my nosy questions. I realize this is a REALLY LONG OMG interview, but I'm fascinated and very curious about the different things that people see in the standard tropes of romance. And hey, virgins in romance are everywhere. I love that Jodi's looking at why and how that is. Good luck on your thesis, Jodi!

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Kindlelinda62 says:

    Reading about the role of virgins in romance always makes me think about my least favourite book ever, Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbivilles”, which I had to study whilst at university. I know that “Tess” is not a romance novel, but the message of the book being that the poor girl had engineered her own downfall by losing her virginity through her seduction still makes me furious even thinking about it. And she was portrayed as such a “wet” spineless character, her acceptance that she got what she deserved when every single man in her life treated her like a piece of shit. It was a book about a woman, written by a man. I think almost single-handedly Hardy pushed me into my appreciation of the romance genre, because at least romance authors don’t devalue a heroine simply because of the state of her hymen. I would be interested to hear if Jodi has looked at Tess and how she fits into the virgin heroine tradition.

  2. 2

    on-the-page virginity loss episodes are real key tipping points in the power dynamics of the romance novel. I think it’s safe to say that if you think of a romance as a contest, the heroine wins: she gets love and monogamous commitment, and the hero is often kind of surprised into discovering he wants this too (with her).

     

    and

     

    the hero introducing the heroine to exciting new experiences, sexual or not, is a key part (and one of the best parts!) of the romantic plot

     

    I think this is an illustration of how the Glittery HooHa and the Mighty Wang affect each other.

     

    “Virginity” is the only word in the English language for something which is actually a not-thing: “virgin” is an identity based on NOT doing something, on not having an experience.

     

    What about “spinster” (a woman who has NOT married), “teetotaler” (a person who does NOT drink alcohol), “amateur” (a person who is NOT paid to play sport), “atheist” (a person who has NOT had an experience which makes them believe in God), “novice” (a person who has NOT yet made their vows and become a monk/nun)?

  3. 3
    Lucina Hana says:

    But women, persons or human beings are something or better they are someone. So they are based on something, e.g. a spinster is based on a woman, who has not married an so on. I mean for me “virgin” is definitely based on something/someone…

  4. 4
    Jodi says:

    I have definitely looked at Tess! I’m trying to focus closely on the virgin heroine in the romance – what we might think of as a comic virgin, who gets a happy ending, rather than a tragic virgin, who dies – but Tess is so iconic that if I didn’t at least mention it, I’d be pretty remiss – particularly as I am approaching my work as literary history and Tess is very much a product of its time. (Fun fact: it was the best-selling book of 1892. The best-selling book of 1893, Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins, also deals with virginity in a really interesting way: one of the main characters, Evadne, finds out her husband has syphilis right after she’s married him but before she’s slept with him, and then refuses to sleep with him forevermore. It’s a very intriguing book – very different to Tess!)

    Tess is a classic example of the tragic virgin. Probably the other really major canonical one is Richardson’s Clarissa, written about 150 years earlier. As with Clarissa, once Tess loses her virginity, the only way for her really to remain heroic within the framework of that novel is to die. It’s horribly sexist and depressing. (I am not a Thomas Hardy person at the best of times!) I find it really interesting that Tess is the novel that EL James chooses to really explicitly appropriate and use intertextually in Fifty Shades of Grey. She seems to be implying that Christian is Alec and Ana is Tess. But then sometimes Christian is more like Angel. It gets very confusing. And I’m not entirely sure she’s read Tess, to tell the truth. She’s trying to co-opt this very fucked up story into what is essentially a fairly standard romance plot (shy virgin meets emotionally damaged billionaire, love and fireworks ensure), and I don’t think it quite works as well as she hoped it would.

  5. 5
    Jodi says:

    Hi Laura! Those words are very interesting cases. I suppose what really sets “virgin” apart is the implication of not only NOT doing something but NEVER having done it. A teetotaler might once have drunk, an amateur might once have been professional, a novice might have taken other vows, an atheist might once have believed in a god. (“Atheist” is, of course, also the direct opposite of “theist”, so I’m not sure if it counts as a special separate word.) They are identities that can be reclaimed. Virgin, on the other hand, cannot.

    “Spinster”, then, becomes an interesting case, because I’m not sure if you can actually reclaim spinsterhood. It’s also interesting because the fact that I’m not sure is probably indicative of the fact that the word has lost a lot of currency. (The only context I ever really hear it in – in Australia, anyway – is in the context of B&S balls, which are generally viewed as terribly old-fashioned anyway.) Arguably, it’s being supplanted by “bachelorette”. Bachelorhood does seem to be something that can be reclaimed, so it’s interesting that the language seems to be trending in this direction. (This could all be completely wrong – all evidence anecdotal!)

  6. 6

    “I suppose what really sets “virgin” apart is the implication of not only NOT doing something but NEVER having done it.”

    Yes, the virgin is a bit like a vacuum-packed jar of food. In the context of the “lives of virgin saints” one gets the impression that keeping the seal unbroken is considered a very good thing as it keeps the food inside pure and unsullied. In romances, though, virginity seems to have a best-before date.  I definitely get the sense from other romances that for a heroine, virginity loss can mark a transition into womanhood (which, of course, it means that women require men in order to become women). In its own way, this view of virginity is just as irritating and demeaning to some women as the “OMG, anyone who has ever had sex ever is the worst person in the entire world! I am sparkly and innocent and pure!” view of virginity.

    I haven’t kept my copy of Candice Proctor’s September Moon because, as far as I can remember, the heroine, who has lost/given up her virginity and knows she’d therefore be condemned by the other governesses, reflects that they’re shrivelled up old spinsters. I have a feeling this view of virginity ties in with at least some of the uses of the woman-as-flower metaphor that I discussed in For Love and Money: a young woman is a bud which is full of potential and it’s good if she doesn’t get her nice fresh petals sullied by lots and lots of bees. However, she does need to bloom at some point in order to (a) become a beautiful flower and (b) be fruitful; remaining a bud would be a denial of the natural order of things.

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    “Yes, the virgin is a bit like a vacuum-packed jar of food. In the context of the “lives of virgin saints” one gets the impression that keeping the seal unbroken is considered a very good thing as it keeps the food inside pure and unsullied. “

    Is it wrong of me that I now want sound effects like a jar of vacuum-packed food popping open when there’s virginity loss? It goes with the “crinkle” of the condom packet: the popping sound of… well, virginity loss.

  8. 8

    Is it wrong of me that I now want sound effects like a jar of vacuum-packed food popping open when there’s virginity loss

     

    No, that’s the perfect sound effect for “popping the cherry.”

  9. 9
    katherinelynn_04 says:

    What did I take away from this? Apparently I need to read Prisoner of My Desire.

  10. 10
    Jess Granger says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one bothered by Daphne! It nearly put me off of the Bridgertons, and that would have been tragic.

    I find it interesting that Daphne’s rapey scene functions in similar ways to Old Skool rapey scenes in that Daphne is essentially saying to Simon, “You belong to me, and your sexual agency is mine.” And that action forces Simon to mature and let go of the ties to his parent to become his own individual actualized self.

    I suppose in that way, I can see what the book was trying to do, but I can’t entirely forgive it.

    I much prefer The Viscount Who Loved Me.

    Which brings me to another interesting case, To Seduce a Sinner by Elizabeth Hoyt was fascinating to me, because you had a situation where the hero assumed the heroine was a virgin and behaved in a certain manner due to it, and well, those assumptions were a lot off base.

    I think it was interesting in the context of a male character so viscerally against seeing someone in pain.

    The Serpent Prince was also interesting in almost the same way, just because the hero was so apologetic for that first love scene, but in that case, it was more the admission, “I’m sorry you are now irrevocably shackled to my terrible broken soul.”

  11. 11
    M_E_S says:

    Absolutely fascinating interview!  I’m definitely putting a lot of the books you mentioned on my to-read list (especially the bad ones- I too love books that are hilariously bad!).  Best of luck on your Ph.D work from a fellow graduate student!

    FYI, both of the links for “A Love Beyond Forever” are redirecting me to “The Flame and the Flower” on Amazon.

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    I thought so too! I even searched for video of the lid popping on a jar of maraschino cherries. :)

  13. 13
    SB Sarah says:

    Crap – my bad. Will fix!

  14. 14
    Lebdawho says:

    Just one question.

    Any possible way this could be a podcast? It sounds like great listening…..

  15. 15
    Rebecca says:

    Cool stuff!  Have you looked at Ursula K Le Guin’s essay “The Space Crone”?  It’s mostly an essay about becoming a crone (aka menopause), but she discusses virginity as the other side of cronehood (if that’s a word), as traditionally a time in a woman’s life when she is not fertile, and adds that both virginity and cronehood have lost their special apart qualities as childbearing becomes separated from sex due to birth control.  (I’m WAAAY oversimplifying from memory here.  She’s much more elegant.)  The essay’s available in the book “Dancing at the Edge of the World” or online, I think.

  16. 16
    Joan says:

    Who is the author of this series? “They ask me what the most bizarrely, cracktastically hilarious romance I’ve ever read is. I have a bunch of categories that I point them towards. There’s this one series in the Sweet line about a magical fairy princess who is cursed by her wicked stepmother to live as a crone unless she gets 21 couples together before her 30th birthday which is HILARIOUS – she takes a job as a concierge in this fancy resort on some island, and she’s lurking in the background of all the books manipulating things so the central couple gets together.”

  17. 17
    snarkhunter says:

    Yeah, Tess wasn’t seduced. Tess was raped, and Hardy knew it and makes it damned clear. She has a relationship with her rapist after that, but the virginity loss is really obviously framed as a rape in the text itself. After Alec comes upon her sleeping and the narrator asks, rhetorically, “where was Tess’s guardian angel?” the next paragraph reads: “Why was it that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus …. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time.”

    I hate that novel with a passion, but I don’t think Hardy was unsympathetic to Tess. If anything, I think the point of the book is to highlight the brutal injustice of a system wherein women are only valued for their purity.

  18. 18
    Joykenn says:

    Just an aside on covers.  What’s with all the white birds on covers?  Notice there’s one in the lower left hand corner of “Love Beyond Forever” (above).  Also the cover of “The Crystal City” not only has that fascinatingly awful blurb but also two of the most awkward looking cover models ever!  They seem to straining to keep their lips as far apart as the clutch can allow.  Did one of them have bad breathe?

  19. 19
    snarkhunter says:

    This sounds like a fantastic project. I actually enjoy virgin heroines when they’re done well, in part b/c I relate all too well. I, do, however, wish there were more virgin heroines who just happen to be virgins—they’ve just never had sex. It’s not a huge drama or trauma…it just didn’t happen. Nora Roberts is the only author I can think of who actually has those heroines, but neither of the examples I can think of from her totally worked for me.

  20. 20
    Vestusta says:

    Hi from the world of Classics! This is totally outside the time period of your dissertation, but if you’re curious there are five extant ancient Greek romances (and some papyrus fragments, summaries, and other bits of other ancient novels and novellas), all of which feature virgin heroines who manage to cling to their virginity through circumstances hilarious and bizarre enough that the other characters sometimes question how the heck they’re still virgins! They’re pretty fun reading, especially for modern romance fans – you see some of the same tropes in these first through fourth century A.D. romances that appear in modern romance novels (one word: pirates!).

  21. 21
    snarkhunter says:

    Fallen women are a particular research/teaching interest of mine, and while you’re right that Clarissa and Tess are probably the only major *canonical* examples of the tragic virgin, there are also figures like Maggie Tulliver (in The Mill on the Floss) who is a fallen virgin (fallen woman, but remains a virgin) or Marian Erle in Aurora Leigh, whose rape and subsequent pregnancy transforms her into a version of The Virgin—Mary. And there’s Ruth in Gaskell’s novel of the same name, whose heroism is reinforced by her death, but the heroism itself is rooted in her selfless behavior.

  22. 22
    CK says:

    Totally awesome interview. Good luck, Jodi.

    I think we could have a full discussion the Daphne scene, alone. I’ve found it fascinating how polarizing it’s become.

  23. 23
    snarkhunter says:

    In some American Evangelical Christian subcultures, there is such a thing as a “born-again virgin.” It’s supposed to be a way for born-again Christians to reclaim their “purity” and vow to wait for marriage…even if they didn’t before.

    I think there is a kind of reclamation of spinster among young unmarried American women…or maybe it’s just the women I hang out with. :D

  24. 24
    Lindleepw says:

    First, I think I actually read the last book in the “magical fairy princess” series. Crazy!

    Second, I just want to say I’m a 30 year old virgin for personal religious reasons. Virgins in romance usually don’t bother me. The older virgins in comtemperaries usually do. They tend to be ashamed of their virginity. I just get frustrated that it’s okay to make the decision to have sex but somehow the older you get, it’s not okay to have decided not to have sex? And I do think it’s all about choices. It is a little weird for me to still be a virgin at my age but I look back and know it is absolutely the right choice for me. I wish the older virgins would be like “Yep I’m a virgin. Doesn’t define me, but I’m okay with my choices. I’ve made a pretty good life for myself.” Oh and I also get annoyed by the friends who act like the virgin herione “just needs to lose it.” All my close friends know I’m a virgin. None of them feel the need to get me laid.

  25. 25
    snarkhunter says:

    YES THANK YOU OMG.

  26. 26
    SB Sarah says:

    I can try to set up a call in the future with Jodi, sure! That might be fun!

  27. 27

    This sounds really interesting.

  28. 28
    Katie says:

    I’d really love to see what you think about the rise of the male virgin. (Pun so totally intended.) Mark in Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed and Winter in Elizabeth Hoyt’s Thief of Shadows are just two very recent examples in romance. I don’t read inspirational, but I would guess there are more in that sub-genre. How do male virgins complicate the pattern you’re describing?

    (SPOILER ALERT)

    In the Milan and Hoyt books, the emphasis on the men’s sexual prowess despite their lack of experience was interesting. They hadn’t done it, but that didn’t mean they weren’t already good at it. Interesting also that in both those cases, the women aren’t able to conceive. So there’s no transaction of virginity for babies. I’d love to see a good chapter or article on male virgins in popular culture.

  29. 29
    GinnyM. says:

    I loved reading about your work – it truly is fascinating! I hope you keep us updated when you become published :)

    You mentioned that you wanted to “dive into the world of paranormal” and since that is primarily what I’ve been reading the past year I thought I’d offer a few suggestions. Paranormal romances as a whole don’t offer as many virgins as historical and I think this is partly because paranormal romances often have a female empowerment theme of some kind. I could list several books but I’m sticking to my two favorite authors:

    - Nalini Singh writes several (great) series but the one I think would be most interesting for you is her (amazing) Psy/Changeling series. In it there are three races, the Psy (psychically dependent), the Changelings (various animal shifters), and Humans. The major story arc focuses on the fact that the Psy conditioned out all emotion and the ramifications of that (I’m massively oversimplifying it & butchering it compared to her amazing story telling skills). Book 1, Slave to Sensation, book 2, Visions of Heat, book 3, Carressed by Ice, and book 5, Hostage to Pleasure, all have a Psy discover emotion (& sex) with a non-Psy. Since the Psy have eliminated emotion they also eliminated sex, so they are all virgins (book 5 the hero is the virgin).

    - Kresley Cole writes a (wonderfully fun) series called Immortals After Dark. There are several things in her series that I think might be interesting when looked at with your virginity focused literary dissection. In her series once a man has been turned into a vampire his heart stops beating and he will remain this way until he finds his eternal bride. From her website: “Each vampire seeks his Bride, his eternal wife, and walks as the living dead until he finds her. A Bride will render his body fully alive, giving him breath and making his heart beat, a process known as blooding.” This forces the vampire to remain asexual until he finds his Bride and only she can bring him back to life, kind of reversing the gender roles. This occurs in The Warlord Wants Forever (book 1, where the heroine is sexually aggressive), No Rest For The Wicked (book 3, where the hero is a virgin), Dark Needs at Night’s Edge (book 5, where the vampire is actually blooded by a ghost), “Untouchable” from Deep Kiss of Winter (book 8, where the heroine is a virgin because she can’t be touched or her skin burns), and Lothaire (book 12, where the hero believes himself to have been blooded by the spirit occupying the heroine’s body). Also when someone becomes an immortal they go through a period of intense sexual awakening, part of the rebirth. This happens in book 6, Dark Desires After Dusk, and I’m pretty sure the heroine was a virgin before her transformation. The heroine in book 2, A Hunger Like No Other, is a virgin (and near the end she explains why). And the heroine in book 9, Pleasure of a Dark Prince, is almost a virgin (one rape-tastic experience).

    Also, since you like fun:
    - G.A. Aiken/Shelly Laurenston cracks me up – I love her sense of humor (how can you not love a heroine named Annwyl the Bloody?)! If memory serves, there aren’t many virgins in her series though, in fact, most of her heroines are sexually open.

    - Alyssa Day knows how to write crazysauce. I offer the best crazysauce line ever written in a romance novel as proof: “God, even her teeth turned him on. Suddenly he was a horny fucking dentist.” (from Atlantis Awakening)

  30. 30

    Prisoner of My Desire! I read it at a really ridiculous age (13, maybe 12?) and the many many MANY rape scenes left an impression. I’ve never really been able to read medievals because that one was so … wrong. It scarred me. I’d forgotten the title and author, but that scene where she’s learning how sex works on the body of an unwilling prisoner? Whoa. I remember that with such clarity.

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