Virginity in the Romance Novel

Greetings, and welcome to another installment of “Sarah and Candy: The Email of Many Kilobytes.” Today’s topic: virginity in romance, and in the real world. From two women who are decidedly not virgins, so of course we are standing ready to discuss the topic at length.

Sarah wrote:

Check out this article: a very tongue-in-cheek suggestion that women looking for a good man should… look into polygamy, especially black women who bemoan the lack of fine fellas.

I have one friend who would dearly love to meet a great man, but she has a few non-negotiable standards, and one of them is that he agree to wait until marriage. She’s a virgin until married. Period. End of sentence. And no guy will go for that. The minute they find out she’s not available in that way, they’re gone.

Do you know of any dudes who value virginity? Or who even care that much? Hubby didn’t give a crap in the slightest. So of course I wonder, why is a hymen such a frequent character in contemporary romance, including erotica? (cat barb penis CAT BARB PENIS oh GOD make it STOP.) How many times have we read some guy going at it and then, “He broke through her maiden barrier, and felt shock and wonderment pass over him. She was a virgin! He didn’t know! He is the first! And now SHE BELONGS TO HIM FOREVER MWAAAHAHAHAHHA.”

It’s some kind of powerful fantasy construct, either in the sense of being completely and uniquely possessed by the hero, or in the sense of being a remnant from the virginity requirement enforced on so many heroines in past novels. What do you think?

Candy wrote:

Hmmm, interesting article, and interesting tidbit about your friend and her virginity.

I think I can safely say my guy friends don’t give a shit about virginity. However, I can imagine many men feeling sketched out by a woman who wanted to wait until marriage for a couple of reasons:

1. Some people, like me, believe that sexual compatibility is very, very important. Like it or not, that means trying before buying. And sexual behavior CAN be taught and learned, but there’s a certain chemistry that…well, it works, or it doesn’t, and you don’t generally find out until you’ve slept with each other.
 
2. Some guys are jerks who just want to get their rocks off, and finding a girl who’s not willing to help with that is a turn-off. No nookie, no go.

It’s a lot pressure, being somebody’s first, and the older the virgin, the higher the pressure. I think people are sometimes scared of this pressure, because there’s an implication of long-term commitment, and, well, most people don’t want to think of the long-term when they’re still working on figuring out whether the short term will work.

Now, leaving the Good Ship Reality and embarking on the wacky vessel that is Virginity in romance fiction:

I think this primal satisfaction in having deflowered the heroine (at least in contemporaries) is kind of a fictional construct. Romance heroes are usually all gung ho and In Lurve and Ready For Marriage (whether they’re ready to acknowledge these two states or not), and these feelings of possessiveness and GRAR MY WOMAN have become shorthand for “He’s in LURVE, he just doesn’t know it yet.”

Sarah said:

Other people’s virginity is ALWAYS more interesting than just about anything else! I’ve been emailing back and forth with my friend and she also thinks that part of the problem is the attitudes toward sexuality in the secular community versus in the religious community. On one hand, you have people witnessing folks Doing It for whatever reason in sexually explicit depictions at all hours of the day in print, film, and television, and on the other you have those same people showing up in church being told it’s a sin, and there’s no reconciliation between one and the other.

Oddly enough, she talks to her male married friends from church and they are all like, “Yeah it’s great that you save yourself” but when she asks if they waited for their wives they were like, “Oh, hell no.”

Heh.

But I am totally with you on the sexual compatibility question. It is my opinion that you do have to try before you buy. There’s no way to tell sometimes – sometimes the quietest guy is a dynamo in the sack. And vice versa.

And you are SO right about the subtext of the hero’s feelings of possession as far as the heroine’s virginity. It’s certainly enough of a squicky moment that the hero does usually pause and think, “WHY ME? Oh, the honor of her luuuurve® is too much” while he’s gettin’ his bidness done, and it also contains that convenient subtext of traditional historic women-as-chattel ownership.

Candy said:

Hey, this conversation makes me think of some of the stuff we talked about a month back, about sexual empowerment in romance novels. I managed to dig up what I wrote:

See, while I think romance novels are subversive and reinforce the whole notion that women CAN have premarital sex and NOT die horribly by the end of the book, in a lot of ways, the message isn’t subversive at all. In fact, the message is oftentimes quite distressingly sexist.

Look at the obsession with virgins, for example. In no other genre are there so many women over the age of 20 and widows running around with their hymens firmly intact. (However, this may also be due to the fact that almost all of them suffer from some kind of genetic defect that places their hymen 2-3 inches within the vaginal canal.) It’s one thing if historical romances are the only ones guilty of overaged virgins, but SO MANY contemporary romances are obsessed with virginity, too. I mean, dear God, there exists a contemporary romance out there in which the mother of a secret baby IS STILL TECHNICALLY A VIRGIN. (I wish I can remember the title! It was a Harlequin, I remember that much.)

The heroines who aren’t virgins generally aren’t allowed to have orgasms or fulfilling sex lives before the hero comes along with his Monster Cock of Awesome Orgasmatronic power. Many of the non-virgins in Romancelandia are populated with rape victims, abuse victims, unfulfilled widows, women with clueless, sexually selfish exes and neurotic, sexually frigid women. Even in contemporary romances, way too many of these non-virgins somehow skipped sex ed, were never curious about their own bodies and never picked up a vibrator or a woman’s magazine in their lives. They don’t seem to know where the clitoris is, much less know what to do with it—even AFTER having sex. I almost feel like if you asked them what a clitoris was, they’d say, “Wasn’t he that Greek guy who wrote a bunch of tragedies?”

Women are also rarely allowed to be promiscuous the way men are in romance. Most of the heroes are rakish rakes (and somehow miraculously herpes- and gonorrhea-free), but even in contemporaries, the woman is much more constrained in her sexual roles. This becomes especially evident when you read contemporaries in which there’s a Long Separation between the hero and heroine. Usually the hero tries to deal with the trauma by fucking anything that moves. The woman? Why, she stays pure, of course. God forbid that she, too, embark on a slutty phase. I’ve read quite a few books in which the heroine either doesn’t have sex with anyone for years and years and years and YEARS, or she steadfastly remains a virgin.

Erotica and erotic romance have done a better job of blasting through a lot of these walls, in my opinion, and portraying more sexually empowered women. The women masturbate, have hot sex with people they don’t love, enjoy teh buttsecks, have a wider variety of sexual partners and experiences, and hell, they’re allowed to experiment with other girls and multiple partners. This is not something you see in the average romance novel.

Jeeebus. I managed to go on and on and on about that subject, didn’t I? And given the discussion in the comments for my review of Hot Spell about virginity and 20-something-year-old women keeping it, I definitely think this is a pretty hot topic. I’m afraid I came across as an asshole who thinks every woman should lose her cherry by the time she’s 22, or something, and I want to clarify my thoughts on this. (Just to be clear: I’m an asshole, just not an asshole who thinks every woman past 20 should no longer be a virgin.)

Losing one’s innocence is powerful juju in fiction. Having the heroine surrender her innocence (snort!) has been romanticized to a large degree in romance novels, but in the real world…. We attach significance to it, but after a certain age, I think the significance takes on somewhat creepy overtones—or at least, that’s the vibe I get from it.

Sarah said:

Your examination (ha!) makes me think of two things:

1. I think that the revolutionary statement that was “women can have sex before marriage and not die a horrible death like Pamela” was as big a statement to traditional sexual value statements back then as the evolution of the nonvirginal heroine in erotica is now. In other words, to be told it’s ok to have premarital sex AND a happily ever after is as much a challenge to existing standards of female sexuality when romance novels first appeared, as the nonvirginal sexually adventurous butt-plug-wearing erotica heroine is today. It’s just an assault on the castle of virgin/whore dichotomy from a different angle.

To put it visually, I picture the development of the feminist subtext in romance novels as a baton relay race, with the baton of female sexual advancement (maybe instead of a baton it’s a bowl or a big inverted pyramid jutting into the Louvre?) being passed from romance to erotica. With the established structures of romance pretty set, there’s a little wiggle room here and there for clever twists on the theme, but the ideas surrounding virginity and sexual exploration are relatively firm. Then, when you pass the sexual advancement on to the erotica writers, you get a whole new set of rules to explore the sexuality of women and men, and in multiple combinations! That said, the advancement made by the romance writers is not to be denied, though the more identifiable progress now seems to be among the erotica writers.

Note: this is not a slam on romance writers; I go back and forth between romance and erotica, because too much of one makes Sarah a dull girl.

2. What do I personally think of virginity in romance novels? Is it important to me? (And by the way, if we were members of a Native American tribe, my name would have to be Bitch Who Questions Everything Rhetorically, and you’d have to be Declarative Bitch).

Personally, I’m not sure I give a crap if the heroine’s a virgin, except for in a historical, because if she’s not, I’d like to know why, since it was of more importance back then that the bride be unsullied. Not being a virgin in a historical is more than just a characteristic, like hair color. But in a contemporary? Do I expect the heroine to be virginal? Not really, unless there’s, again, a reason for it. Writers, be alert! Sarah needs an explanation if she’s not a virgin in the past, and she needs one if she is the Virgin Connie Swail in the present! And if it’s a time travel, she needs the Hymen-Reattachment/Detachment 2000 module added to that time machine.

However, it is curious that those romances that are populated with nonvirgins are rarely sexually explicit as to why she isn’t a virgin. Certainly the construction of the male hero as The Sexual Powerhouse of Orgasmatronic Power is one way of delineating that he is The One, The One Who Shall Bring Orgasms, and is thus a tired cop out in terms of easy definition of the hero – just like abusing animals is an easy way toward creating a villain.

Virginity is such a tricky issue, especially for characters. Shall we turn this over to the Bitchery and see if we can achieve hymeny — sorry, harmony?

Candy wrote:

Oooh, excellent analogy with the baton-passing. I agree with you: romances revolutionized the way sex was written and viewed in fiction, but it became way too hung up on the Heroines Shall Feel Pleasure Only at the Hands (and Cocks) of the One True Hero trope, and now other related genres are exploring other avenues of female sexuality in fiction.

I think that when it comes down to it, the heroine’s virginity should make sense. I feel that far too many authors are contorting the stories and characters to fit the State of the Hymen, instead of having the State of the Hymen fit the characters.

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  1. 1
    Linnet says:

    I feel compelled to post because I waited to have sex until I got married and I still stand by my decision as a good one for me. My husband waited for three years until we got married, so there are men willing to wait. I’ve heard the “try it before you buy it” argument but because I waited until I found someone I loved and trusted and who loved and trusted me in return sex wasn’t an issue. I think because we care so much about each other it is always good. Sometimes it is mind-blowing and sometimes it isn’t, and that’s okay, we love each other anyway. I think everyone is allowed to make their own decisions about how they want to live their lives but I know the decision I made saved me from a lot of heartache, unlike many of my friends who thought they had something special but in the end just had a jerk.

  2. 2
    sleeky says:

    I think it’s a fascinting issue. The way Sandra Browne contortured her plots in order for heroes to magically discover the utterly unbelievable virginity of the (older, MARRIED) heroine makes my sciatica flare up just thinking about.

    Mary Balogh does favor the Deliverer of the Orgasm, but she did have the balls to have a historical non-virgin and a guy who was cool with it, and I admired that.

    What really gets up my nose are the historicals in which the heroine goes from incredibly pure to multiorgasmic in about three pages.

    Also, I may be willing to buy some blood on the sheets in a historical, but in a contemporary it’s just stoopid.

    (I’m amused to see that the word I must submit to post this is “making37.” Shouldn’t that be the title of a Lisa Klepas story?)

  3. 3
    ShuzLuva says:

    Virgins in contemporaries actually hit my squick factor for some reason or other. Especially when the heroine seems to know nothing about herself, her body and her guy’s body. I guess I expect my contemporaries to really be contemporary, rather than a fantasy land where sex in advertising (and just about everything else) doesn’t exist.

    Maybe – and Linnet (and any other virgins out there) please do not take offense – I simply find it hard to believe that all of these women have managed to keep themselves intact in this day and age.

    Yes, there are women out there, and the vast majority of these women seem to appear in contemporary romance. I would love to meet more than the odd heroine who is as sexually advanced as the hero PRIOR to meeting him. And if he is THE ONE, it’s not just due to his fabulous fizznuckin’.

  4. 4
    Tonda says:

    Great post. Had me laughing out loud, cause I’m sooooooo with you. The modern 30 year old virgin heroine (who isn’t “saving” herself for religious reasons) makes me nuts. And I don’t have the temperament to read “Inspirationals”. Just not my cuppa. And I’m sick and tired of reading about eighteen year old virgins in histoircals (or worse, the dreaded virgin widow).

    Maybe it’s cause I’ve always seen sex as good, clean fun (if done right and done safely). I’ve had great sex with men I barely knew, and I never slept with the guy I loved most on earth. One does not require the other.

    I’m happy to say that in the books I just sold (which are historicals) there are NO virgins. And—gasp!—the heroines had great sex with their previous partner/s. OMG! Widows are so much more interesting (and scandalous ones who take lovers are even more fun; and historically accurate damn-it-all). My vow is no virgins, unless I can come up with a good reason to write one (and, quite frankly, I can’t image such a scenario).

    Having said that, I’m sure I’ll dream up a plot soon that won’t work unless the heroine has never been married . . . LOL!

  5. 5
    Wendy says:

    Sarah – I think your friend’s issue isn’t so much the “no nookie” as it is mentioning the word “marriage.”  Frankly, most men I’ve known in my life will running screaming in the other direction at the mere mention of the dreaded “m” word.

    I’m fine with virgins in contemporaries as long as they aren’t TSTL.  You’re going to put what where?!  Linnet – while you and your husband waited I’m sure you both had an idea of how the whole thing worked 😉  It’s amazing that romance heroines aren’t the same.  Hello?  Have they avoided R-rated movies their whole lives?

    What I find interesting is that when the heroine is a virgin the author rarely sees the need to explain – BUT – if the hero is a virgin he has to have a reason.  For instance, he was raised by wolves and has never seen a human woman until the heroine comes crashing through the forest one day after her car’s radiator explodes.  Whatever.

  6. 6
    sarasco says:

    I agree 100% that contemporaries shouldn’t have non-religious, anatomically retarded heroines. Unless, they were raised on a commune or something. I don’t know anyone who’s a virgin for any reason other than religion—and if you get down to it, no matter how good the intentions, most nice Christian girls don’t seem to make it far past college with their virginity intact. That doesn’t make it implausible, though. It’s a choice made as an adult with an adult’s knowledge. Very few real innocents exist.

    If there has to be a virgin, why can’t she have made it her own choice rather than just a societal constraint? Let it be her decision to want it. Making it the hero’s perogative is just more of women being told not to take responsibility or act on their desires. The message I get is that if you don’t start it, you don’t have to feel guilty later. Which is total bullshit. Contemporaries are often jaded or seem to be worldly-wise sex bombs that don’t seem to be aware that there’s anything between their legs.

    …but even I who went to all Christian school, etc. knew more in middle school than most contemporary heroines do. Would it really be so bad for them to be realistically protrayed? Readers aren’t going to be shocked by the mention of sex in a romance novel. This is an annoying enough thing that I stick to historical for romance and pretty much keep contemporary confined to erotica/romantica. It seems like non-virginal historical chicks are mostly confined to secret baby plots, and those are easy enough to avoid.

  7. 7
    Keziah Hill says:

    I think the reason virgins populate romance is that first sex is such a milestone, even if it’s terrible (and it usually is). But contemporary women are young when they lose their virginity (I was 17) so it’s hard to formulate a story around a character who’s had not much life experience.

    It irritates me to see the losing virginity scene in so many books as a bit of pain and then fabulous orgasms. The books where that doesn’t happen and the heroine is left thinking never again, are more interesting and provide more conflict.

  8. 8
    J-me says:

    I think you have discovered why some authors are stuck in ‘Romance’ and others get the joy of being in the ‘Fiction’ section of a bookstore as ‘chick-lit.’ 

    Also, I have more than one friend who have gotten past 25 and maintained their virginity, not because of religion but for lack of timing and time.  Tho, I do doubt serverely that any of them would act timid if the opportunity and chemistry presented itself.  And since they are avid romance readers and went to public school in this great country, we can be assured that they know what goes where and how and the end result.

  9. 9

    If the heroine isn’t a virgin in a historical, it generally becomes a plot device—is she a widow?  Abandoned by her lover? A skanky ho?  A good girl who thought it was true lurve?  There is an expectation that the author will explain why the heroine has deviated from the “norm”, and the trick is to use the heroine’s sexual history, or lack thereof, to advance the plot.  With a contemporary, this is less of an issue.

  10. 10
    SamG says:

    I believe the non-virgin contemporaries are more realistic.  I get thrown when a woman is 25 and still ‘pure’.  Kudos to you Linnet for making that decision and sticking with it.  I was too curious to wait for my DH (or even my 16th bday).

    I don’t know many men that care.  My DH certainly didn’t.  As a matter of fact, I ‘deflowered’ him. 

    Sam…who wonders what woman kept a flower up there…

  11. 11
    Kerry says:

    After the discussion so far, I’m a bit embarrassed to say it, but I was a virgin until I was 32.

    As an early teenager Catholic upbringing was a factor, but by the time I was in my twenties it was mainly due to lack of opportunity than anything else.  I was one of the highly academic and very socially inept girls.  The very few guys I did go out with just didn’t do anything for me and it ended very quickly.  I never had to decide whether or not to sleep with them because I didn’t like them enough to want to consider it.

    Added to that I developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at 21 and that seriously curtailed my already meager social life.

    I just happened that I was older when I finally found the right guy.

    But I certainly knew how everything worked and wanted to find out for myself – at the time that was right for me and with the person I chose.

    And that’s how it happened.

    I guess that would be a boring plot though.

    (Just thowing in another perspective here.)

  12. 12
    Samantha says:

    Ahh, the virgin. What I hate the most is the virgin heroine who, apparently lacking either fingers or a shower massage, has never even realized her own sexuality. Until, that is the hero “awakens” it.

    And why is it that romance novels so often equate virgin with total lack of experience with the opposite sex? For instance a YA novel that I read recently had a character, Manda, that was saving herself for “The One”. Yet her nickname was Lenda-Handa-Manda until she graduated to The Headmistress. Virgin? Yes. Virginal? No fuckin way. Her life was headed down Virgin Route 69 with road signs reading “Caution, Heavy Petting Ahead”

    Bet she’d make an interesting romance heroine as a grown up.

  13. 13
    DebL says:

    I always found the eroticization of virgins squicky, especially when I was one. Which I was until 28.

    But I’m talking less about first times in romance novels—which I see as female fantasies of (instant) gratification, idealized versions of what was probably for most of us an underwhelming experience, mixed with some wierd good girl politics—and more about the kind of guy who would offer obscene amounts of money for a night with the then-supposedly-virginal Brittney Spears. Or the way the public gobbled up the stuff about Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey.

    I’m not sure if I’m typical. I lost my religion at 27, then started dating. I don’t know if I would have broken the no-sex rule with a nice Christian boyfriend. I suspect not, because they didn’t just tell us to keep our hands to ourselves. They completely fucked us up when it came to sex. Like having us sign abstenance covenants at 13. Actually, it was a covenant for no action below halfway down my neck. I’m 31 and I still freeze around men who demonstrate interest in me, pretty much like I’m programmed to do.

    But like I was trying to say above, I think there’s a difference between the way women and men eroticize virginity—those who do, anyway. I suspect for those men it’s something about power, the difference between girls and women. The latter being so much more intimidating… and critical.

  14. 14
    Madison says:

    He was, I wasn’t—kind of a table turning in the style of Dara Joy’s “Ritual of Proof.”

    and my word to type was “like34”.  I saw the like & was looking for the number to be 69.  🙂

  15. 15
    Monica says:

    I always thought the virgin in romance was all about the fantasy for women who lost their virginity miserably. 

    Is the virginity bit so readers can go back and redo the debacle of that sweaty 20 seconds in the uncomfortable backseat at fifteen, and all the sordid one night stands and sticky condoms later and   pretend they kept their legs squeezed shut until their rich Prince rides in and sweeps them away like Calgon, breaking their unpenetrated hymen with his mighty cat-barb penis, carrying them away to the land of unparalleled passion forevah?

    I thought that was it.

  16. 16
    Taekduu says:

    I only discovered this blog a few days ago (you made a sucky call night far far better).  Excuse me if I violate some rules of the blog. I am gosh 24 pushing 25 and a virgin. On the other hand, I sure as hell know that tab A can fit into slot B, C, and D and it can be a whole lotta fun. Truthfully, it’s cause I had/have shit to do.  So, I am looking forward to a dude who rings my bell.  But no guilt.  If I happen to meet someone and think we will be together, I don’t know if I will wait for marriage.  It would suck to like him and then find out he can’t roll the way I like it.  I see fast track to unhappiness there. 

    Annoying is the virgin heroine who is a pure innocent and doesn’t know she has a clit or that she can get herself off.  Hello, videos, freaking Oxygen/We sex talk, get a clue.  Even better, she is afraid of the lust of the hero. WTF. But that’s the nice thing about erotica/romantica, they can get off and enjoy sex. Thanks for letting me get that out.  The book with pregnant virgin heroine (surrogate motherhood), I have the anthology, I recall saying WTF, it flew nicely.

  17. 17
    celeste says:

    I remember more than a few plots in older historicals and Harlequin Presents where the hero treats the heroine like total crap because he thinks she’s a slut, but then is undone by remorse and luuurve when he finds out during The Act that she’s a virgin.

    Pretty interesting message there, huh? Not something I’d choose to perpetuate, that’s for sure.

  18. 18
    Meghan says:

    I tend to read romances and then toss them aside. The plots are too canned to keep most of them. Thus, when I keep a romance novel, it’s for a very good reason.

    I remember reading a historical and it was canned line, canned plot, canned characters… and then WHAM… the characters jump into bed and when the guy penetrates the herione he freezes… because she’s NOT a virgin. Duh Dun!

    The book took off from there. I think if more romance novels broke away from the canned virginity plot structures they would be a lot better.

  19. 19
    Robin says:

    I read mostly historicals, so I tolerate virgin heroines more easily than in contemps. But even in historicals it’s getting pretty tired.

    As for Monica’s point about the virgin heroine being a rewrite for the reader, a well-known Romance author made that same argument about her own work on AAR, so I’d have to say it has validity.

    The thing I hate more than the standard virgin heroine is the almost virgin heroine who has had like one really terrible experience and who opens up like the proverbial flower of luv for all 10 throbbing inches of the hero (who was also the love of the heroine’s life at 13), going from 0 to 60 orgasms in a weekend.  I actually think that type of heroine is MORE effective at undermining women’s free and shameless sexuality in Romance than the regular old virgin heroine.  Oh, and let’s not forget the sexually abused heroine (i.e. in Linda Howard’s Dream Man) who, after a short time, opens up like the proverbial flower of luv to all 10 throbbing inches of the hero (Jo Goodman is probably the only Romance author whom I forgive for this plot device).  When the hero of Dream Man proceeded to push the heroine face-down and penetrate the her almost violently, I felt a rage matched only by that which I experienced when reading Brenda Joyce’s The Conqueror (see, just typing that is pissing me off).

  20. 20
    Victoria Dahl says:

    I don’t mind virgins in historicals. My pet peeve is the “One quick moment of pain and then, OH!, the ass-clenching pleasure of it all! It was so good, in fact, that we’ll do it four more times before morning and then a quick bath will heal my abraded pussy.” Puh-lease. Honey, I’d close the store after a few times and I’ve birthed two children. These women must have Teflon coated gineys and callused clits. Or is it that special Healing Salve O’ Lurve in his come?

    I’m still a big fan of True Love = Big Orgasm. Probably because I’ve never had mind-blowing sex with someone I wasn’t into. Though I tried. Many times. And masturbation just ain’t the same. Though I’ve tried. Many times.  8-/

  21. 21
    Claudia says:

    Great discussion 🙂 For this year’s NaNoWriMo, methinks I’ll write about an old fart virgin heroine whose 20-something psychologist boyfriend makes a telepathic connection with her hymen. He’ll assuage its existential angst over its impending destruction so that Mr. and Ms. can finally get busy with guilt free consciouses…

  22. 22
    Darla says:

    I don’t think it’s the state of the heroine’s hymen that bothers me—it’s the lazy writing. 

    How to make a heroine likeable, and worthy of the oh-so-hot hero?  Well, you could do some tricky character building, or, what the heck.  Make her a virgin, or at least virginal.  Innocent, pure, waiting for the hero—yep, all good. 

    How to show that the hero’s The One? Show the development of emotion between them, how their characters complement each other, or…. Easy—he’s her first, or at least the first to give her an orgasm (because we all know that Orgasms are Gifts from the man-gods). 

    Which is not to say that I think all virgin heroines are the result of lazy writing.  I’ve read plenty that aren’t.  But because so many of them are, an author has a harder time convincing me with a virgin heroine than she does with one who isn’t.

    Love the theory, btw, that the fantastic first time is wish fulfillment for those of us whose first time was… not so great.

  23. 23
    Elayna Smith says:

    This is an issue that really does get to me.

    I started off with Mills and Boon (although I have to say, only because I was a speed reader, read through most of the library by the age of 12 and needed something to read that was regularly updated).

    It always bothered me that 90% of the books had two types of storylines.  Both types had a relationship with a guy, which was then scuppered when the guy thought the girl had cheated on him with someone else. Years later they meet again and the guy is all bitter and twisted about it.  In one arch they have sex, he finds out that she is still a virgin, he is all repentant, and they live happily ever after.  In the other arch they had already had sex, and she was a virgin at the time.  When they re-meet she has had a child, which looks like the guy, she has had sex with no-one else, he realises that she didn’t cheat, he is all repentant and they live happily ever after.

    So you can either be a virgin or be pregnant.

    Remind me to never live in Mills and Boon land.

    I moved from Mills and Boon to the other extreme – Jilly Cooper, which were far more interesting and (a little) more realistic.

    Personally I think I would like a book where the heroine has had all the sexual experience and the hero is the virgin, or scrap the virginity all together!

  24. 24
    Becky says:

    I stayed a virgin until I was married but, I also got married on my 23rd birthday, just after I finished grad school.  For me, keeping my virginity was all about a mistrust of birth control.  I had seen too many of my friends play the waiting game and decided to wait until, if I did get pregnant, I could support myself and the baby.  That meant waiting until I finished schooling and could get a decent job.  If I hadn’t gotten married so young, I probably would have sewn some wild oats.

    On the issue of virgins in romance, SEP is the only consistant 30-year-old-virgin author I will still keep on my “buy” list and even she annoys me.  What I want to know is, where are all the male virgins- especially in historicals.  Where did they find all these women to gain their lusty experiences?  Where are all the bastard children- if you do it with anything that moves for 15 years before finding your true love, there have to be a few “souveniers.”  And how are all these horseback riding women hanging on to their hymens- wasn’t that an issue?

    For the older virgins in contemporaries, I wonder where there hang-ups go.  I would expect to see some body issues, some aprehension, perhaps some history of abuse, some therapy needs- not in all of them, but it should be present in at least some cases.  After all, it’s not realistic to think that ALL of them are waiting for religious purposes- some of them MUST have hang-ups.

  25. 25
    Becky says:

    Oh!  And I forgot my favorite virgin romance corallary- if you have sex you will get pregnant, even if it’s just once and you did use some form of birth control because, we all know, them virgins is easy to knock-up…

  26. 26

    Just as an aside—wasn’t “Connie Swail” the heroine in the Tom Hanks/Dan Ackroyd “Dragnet”?  The one who was always introduced as “the virgin Connie Swail?”

    Anyone?  Bueller?

  27. 27

    Yo!  Bitches!  I need a post-upload edit key!  The question mark in “the virgin Connie Swail” belongs on the outside.

  28. 28
    Sam H says:

    I get annoyed by scenes where the two lovers are getting it on and suddenly he realizes that she is a virgin and then he is in awe and it makes her such a better person and all that. I don’t understand the appeal of virgins to some men. My theory is that it’s an ego thing for these men-maybe a guy will think that if he sucks at what he’s doing in the sack she won’t know because she will have no other experience to compare it to. I bet a lot of girls who makes those true-love-wait pledges believe they will probably marry young away. I didn’t wait until marriage and I’m glad since I’m 30 and still single so I would be climbing the walls by now! I grew up thinking I would marry around 20, but it didn’t happen. Since there is an unequal number of men and women there is no way everyone can get married. Therefore, I think it will be unfair and make no sense to only allow married folks to enjoy what I think is the birthright of every man and woman.

  29. 29
    Valeen says:

    Wow! Try reading that post in between bosses popping up and the phone ringing.

    My gripe is the virgins – of any time period – who are blasting out orgasms within three minutes of the hero touching her through her jeans. I read one yesterday where the hero grinded up against the heroine with both their clothes on and she’s seeing stars twice.

  30. 30
    SB Sarah says:

    The virgin Connie Swail is indeed from “Dragnet.” Good on you for catching my dorky movie reference!

  31. 31
    Shaunee says:

    Darla, excellent excellent post!  I couldn’t agree more!  Nevertheless, I shall put my two cents in.  I’m probably reiterating, but who cares?

    The fact is, if you were raised in this country you can not help but be familiar with the “good” girls don’t and “bad” girls do social norm.  Certainly religious influence takes that norm to double espresso proportions, but we all know a girl or two in high school who was a slut because she “slept” around.

    Romance (I’m speaking very generally here) takes that norm and bears out its significance very formulaically:

    virgin= a rich wonder cock, sacred, perfect love, a blissful marriage, and a general reversal of all the bad that has happened.

    nonvirgin= heartbreak, poverty, loneliness, and more bad on top of bad.

    This may seem an example of extreme fictionalization, but think about the slut you knew in high school.  How was she treated by her peers?  Did your parents let you hang out with her?  Did anyone expect her to do anything successful with her life?  (I met my high school slut at a reunion, with no expectation about her in mind.  In fact, I forgot she existed, but when I saw her again, it all came back to me.  I’m humiliated to say, was actually surprised that she had an enormously successful life.)

    Okay.  Naturally, historical romance can get away with this ideology because of the constraints of the time period within which they are set (though, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels is fantastic example the difference between virginity and innocence AND deliberate versus lazy, unconscious writing).  Contemporary romances with virginal heroines, I believe, still try to bear out that tired ideology because, it has, sadly, not outlived its usefulness.

    I remember reading about a “Sex in the City” poll (a couple or three years ago):  of the four leads who would men want to date the most and least.  Naturally the Charlotte character (the relative good girl on the show) got all the votes while the Samantha character (the bad chick) got very few.

    Sure, a lot of the virgin/heroine thing is, as Darla beautifully said, lazy writing and to that I would add unconscious, but how much of it is just reflective of who we are as a people and the ideology that we are most comfortable with?  It would be one thing if these virgin/heroine contemporaries didn’t sell, but they fly off the shelves.

    Sorry for the long post, but it’s a complex and fascinating issue.

  32. 32
    SB Sarah says:

    Well, as the wise professor of human behavior Ludacris once said, “We want a lady in the street, but a freak in the bed.”

  33. 33
    Anonymous M says:

    Sarah – every time I read the “virgin Connie Swail” comment in this post or the comments to it – I get a flashback to the end of Dragnet… the ‘dum-de-dum-dum’ and Friday’s raised eyebrow.  😆

    As to the virginity-in-modern-romance novels thing, I think a part of it is that ‘traditional’ romance novels are accepted, in some areas considered almost ‘mainstream’, and you tend to write conservatively.  I’m certain that you can’t complain that for the most part America is swinging toward a ‘publically conservative’ morality… right down to the ‘don’t talk about sex where any child can hear it’ reaction of the FCC lately, ie. WB’s The Bedford Diares reedit for broadcast.

    So, erotica and erotic romance, essentially outside the mainstream, can be a bit more ‘liberal’ in their dealings with sexuality and virginity then the traditional romances.  In many ways it’s just the thing – no worries – the pendulum will swing the other way soon enough.  (Just look at the popularity of all the Gay romances. 🙂 )

    [And gee – my code word reflects me today… lost22.]

  34. 34
    Erin O'Brien says:

    Losing my virginity was the single most interesting event in my life.

  35. 35

    I freely admit that my early teenage thoughts about M&B/category books were something like: There’s a possibility of sex! In a book! In the library! That I can reeeeeaaaaaddd!!!! Hahahahahaaaa!!!! But it also really bothered me that in so many stories any betrayal was automatically linked with sexual betrayal. This meant the heroine’s virginity was the proof of her innocence of all accusations. And so they fell by the wayside.

    What I mean by this is that in a typical plot Carlos-the-hero would at some point become convinced that Gwendoline-the-heroine or one of her relatives had done him (or a vulnerable relative) wrong, cueing flinty eyes and steely rage. Needless to say, this was invariably due to something like Carlos seeing Gwendoline with another man, usually a wastrel relative who was the cause of the betrayal. Carlos would then automatically assume Gwendoline was sleeping with said wastrel, and therefore convince himself of her impurity, giving him licence to treat her most foully and shag her. Poof, no hymen. Poof Carlos realises he’s been So Very Wrong All Along About Everything (possibly only after Gwendoline experiences a nearly fatal accident). Poof, happy ending.

    Which seemed weird. For one thing, even in my then-virginal state, I had an inkling that my parents would not accept the continued existence of my hymen as proof that I was thereby incapable of sneaking into pubs with badly-forged ID, smoking or plotting the hideous murder of those who dared to thwart me in my quest for world domination. What’s also interesting about this is the way her losing her virginity is a pivotal point in the story.

    I’ve also got a few pet theories about virgins being blank slates on which women can project their own desires without guilt, as well as the age-old confusion of sexual desire with luuuurrrrvvve which I think come into this.

    Of course, there are other plots, and other virgins. So many other virgins. I’ve rattled on elsewhere about the teeth-grinding annoyance of the “mental” virginity of heroines, and the contemporary heroine’s complete ignorance of sexual matters, and the way this knowledge is bequeathed by the man. To say nothing of the way he “knows” the way to arouse her into a frenzy of passion.

    So it’s not the existence of virgins per se, but their astonishing naivety and disproportionate number in romances in general that I find annoying; the way it seems to still be the default setting for a heroine, and nothing to do with the choices she makes.

    As for those technically virgin births… I make condescending doggy-pants and patronising little “ooh! ooh! push harder!” noises at them and their angelically perfect, vomit-free children. I’ve definitely read more than one, including a Diana Palmer where the heroine was still intact after childbirth. The name of the book eludes me, but it’s one that’s set in the town populated by billionaire cowboys and secret agents with the great big sign out the front that reads: “Welcome to Cowboyville. No male dress shoes or non-virgin heifers aloud (sic).” Sigh.

  36. 36
    Jennifer says:

    It’s so refreshing when you read a Jennifer Crusie book and the first time between the h/h is boring or just kinda sucks. It’s just…not going to be that good, probably. Hell, I can’t even REMEMBER the first times I slept with my exes. I’m guessing it was that bad 😛

    Oh, hey, I thought of another virgin mommy book: The Jewels of Tessa Kent. The guy had a microdick and didn’t even stick it in far enough to break the seal, and yet managed to impregnate. I think she even had an intact hymen post-birth too somehow, because it was this Big Deal that she married her husband as a “virgin” and never told him otherwise.

    But I must second the SB line that there needs to be an explanation for why someone’s a virgin or not in the time period that they’re in. Sorry to all y’all real life virgins, but I think there needs to be one. Especially so the story doesn’t come across as, well, some of the bad examples mentioned in this entry and in the comments.

  37. 37
    Robin says:

    I’ve also got a few pet theories about virgins being blank slates on which women can project their own desires without guilt, as well as the age-old confusion of sexual desire with luuuurrrrvvve which I think come into this.

    I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but I think Americans are rip roaringly screwed up about sex (and NOT in a good way).  Women, especially, for all our strides elsewhere still, IMO, feel guilt and shame regarding our sexuality and feel really uncertain about what’s okay and what’s not to express (let alone feel any automony and confidence in).  If we want too much (whatever that is), we’re sluts and nymphos, but if we don’t want enough (whatever that is) we’re frigid.  Then, of course, are all the ways virtue is almost exclusively associated with a woman’s sexuality (as opposed to virtue as a male ideal, of course, as in virtu=the best that man can do).  Romance, being concerned with all things woman, reflects this ambivalence, of course.

    I don’t find virgin heroines necessarily good or bad, but I am concerned about the ways some Romance may, somtimes be affirming a persistent ambivalence toward women’s sexuality rather than healing our torn sexual-cultural psyches.  Ironically, I’ve found some of the most conservative messages in erotic Romance, perhaps because I was so blatantly expecting something else.  And I do actually believe that on the flip side, some Romance is really trying to work through these ambivalences, to find some empowering and positive resolution (i.e. Jennifer Crusie or Lisa Cach’s Dream of Me, which was one of the first Romances I’ve read that explicitly deals with transforming negative sexual messages and experiences into positive ones).  So I don’t think the genre’s wholly one way or the other.  What I really do believe, though, is that when women really do take control of our sexuality and declare it ours and ours to keep or share as we wish and desire, the Romance genre will change substantially.

  38. 38
    Robin says:

    On the issue of virgins in romance, SEP is the only consistant 30-year-old-virgin author I will still keep on my “buy” list and even she annoys me.

    Am I the only one who is disturbed by the way she seems to use a heroine’s being boinked by the hero as a way of “reclaiming her womanhood” (I think that exact phrase exists in Nobody’s Baby But Mine when Phoebe mounts Cal).  It reminds me of all those historicals that refer to a woman’s vagina as her “womanhood” and SEP is no less essentialist, IMO.  I’ve tried to find evidence of subversion for this stereotype in her books, but I can’t.  And it’s weird because in other ways she creates seemingly strong heroines who appeal to me in some ways.  Then there was that horrifying “uptight heroine who needs to be sexed up and loosened up by the hero, whence she proceeds to fully domesticate the heretofore untamed but still deliciously dangerous hero” deal in Breathing Room.  I feel toward SEP the way evangelical Christians must feel about that apple.  I’m attracted and repulsed at the same time. I read almost for the sheer fascination and then feel horrible afterwards.

    What I want to know is, where are all the male virgins- especially in historicals.

    Try Patrica Gaffney’s Wild at Heart.  Oh, what a delicious book that is!  AND very affirmative in its treatment of BOTH the hero and the heroine’s sexuality.  Laura Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star also features a virgin hero, but the book is a lot more angsty (necessarily and powerfully, though).

  39. 39
    Beverly says:

    I was 26 when I lost mine.  It was a mixture of religious reasons and timing and I did think my ex bf was going to be “the one”.

    I don’t mind reading romance novels with virgins. My problem as a few others have said is the idea of the first time being some mind blowing orgasmic thing and then having sex three more times that night.

  40. 40
    anu439 says:

    Well, I’m (god help me) almost 28, and a virgin. No religious reasons, no waiting for marriage, I just got to an age where I decided, hey I’ve waited so long, I might as well wait for a guy that makes the wait worth it. Til then, I uh keep myself occupied. But I also know that I AM an oddity. My friends are all like WTF is wrong with you?

    So like others, in romance, it’s not the virgins per se, but their disproportionate, irritatingly ignorant prevalence that’s just so ridiculous and insulting. I mean who the hell hasn’t heard of a vibrator for gods sakes??

    OT: I’m always been puzzled by the idea that romance is a subversive genre. I know that it CAN be, but the stories that are subversive are usually subverting societal AND genre norms and/or perceptions. But still those types of stories, while arguably increasingly common, are a relatively new thing. I find most romance past and present overwhelmingly traditionalist, even erotic romance. I’m curious what it is that people find about the genre itself—as opposed to individual books—subversive.

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