Back in the good old days of romance, a manly historical hero could skillfully ravish a willing virgin in the midst of swirling shared emotional angst, and nobody batted an eyelash. The dedicated reader was perfectly comfortable with the emotional conflict she implicitly understood: the heroine wonders, "Does he love and respect me, or will he leave me once he's had me," while the hero's thinking, "Good God! This is the best sex of my rakish, had-every-willing-woman-in-Christendom life...yet what are these curious pangs in the vicinity of my heart and conscience?"
Readers took for
granted the hero's eventual capitulation to love. Yet the emotional conflict spoke to the way
many contemporary women were brought up to equate their value and "goodness"
with the intact states of their hymens and sexual ignorance -- as well as their
concern about "giving it up" outside of marriage.
But wait a sec! Even though many young women now consider themselves equal with men in terms of fulfilling sexual needs outside of commitment, seems I'm not the only one who still likes to read a lusty virgin ravishment! They're still being written in all their tempestuous, joyful and sometimes fumbling glory -- and romance readers of all ages are snapping em up. Why? Because chicks who enjoy or look forward to shared emotional and/or sexual intimacy still have the emotional intelligence to understand the any human contact comes at the possible price of rejection. And a woman's gaining the power to act in the face of her fear is what romance is all about.
Yet, what if our virgin heroine's more eager for the deflowering than her hero? In Loretta Chase's intelligent, witty and deliciously sexy "Don't Tempt Me ," Zoe Lexham's returned to England after having been sold into an eastern seraglio. She spent years forced to perfect "everything that pleases a man," while managing to remain a virgin. Her childhood friend, the cynical, womanizing duke of Marchmont, offers to help rehab Zoe's image in society, and find her a husband. The virile aristocrat soon learns his tempting, still harem-influenced protégé is out to prove she'd be his perfect wife -- as adept at handling estate ledgers as she is sharing with him loving sensual intimacy.
Desire to shed one's virginity while retaining one's honor isn't just for heroines anymore. In fact, the phenomenon of the "virgin hero" is sweeping romance, not just as a device for women readers to learn how it feels to lay claim to uncharted territory, but also as a way to understand that some men care about the self determination of their sexual boundaries regardless of societal pressure. Anna Campbell presents in "Untouched," the story of Lord Matthew Sheene, imprisoned in semi-luxury for years by a greedy uncle. Matthew's uncle throws into Matthew's "prison" a beautiful widow knowing Matthew, a virgin, will be sorely tempted to "take" her. Yet Matthew doesn't simply desire Grace Paget sexually, he longs to find with her emotional connection he's been denied. His honor won't allow him to use Grace for simple release - but her need to seduce him to save her life ultimately may save them both.
Recently, I explained to brilliant author Stephanie Coontz (Marriage, a History ) that I greatly enjoy the power dynamics portrayed in novels in which a virgin heroine is torn between sexual desires and social mores, independence and mature, shared intimacy. I find the struggle itself very arousing because it parallels issues many women of my generation dealt with - and many still are "recovering" from. Coontz non-judgmentally described to me the phenomenon of this type of arousal as a kind of "eroticization of fear," not of being physically harmed, but emotionally abandoned or broken.
The thing that makes getting off on that fear factor absolutely okay and wonderful is that fantasy is a feminist issue. Ours isn't to judge whether it's "healthy" or "positive" to place value on virginity - or lack of -- within a work of fiction. Ours simply is to support our sister readers and authors in their choosing to embrace their sexualities and to independently decide which fantasies they love best - and about which they best love to read and write.
What's your take on virgin heroines and heroes and your fave books that include them?
N.B.: Since the
virgin heroine generally never met a bad boy she didn't like...you'll want to
read more about class distinction and the bad-boy hero in Eloisa James' June Barnes&Noble.com
Review column, "When Love Crosses the Tracks." Don't miss it!
Michelle Buonfiglio writes about romance fiction and pop culture daily at Romance: B(u)y the Book (RBTB). Read all her "Unabashedly Bookish" posts here.