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.

 

 

Message Edited by Michelle_Buonfiglio on 06-02-2009 02:11 PM
Message Edited by Michelle_Buonfiglio on 06-02-2009 03:48 PM
Message Edited by Michelle_Buonfiglio on 06-09-2009 02:38 PM
Comments
by Author Anna__Campbell on ‎06-02-2009 02:55 PM
Hi Michelle! Great thought-provoking column as ever. Actually there's an amazing chapter about the mystique of the virgin heroine in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women. I think you automatically have high stakes emotions when one of the protagonists is sexually inexperienced. Or even both! ;-) Love the sound of the new Loretta Chase - mind you, she could rewrite my shopping list and I'd be lining up to buy it. And thank you so much for the mention of Matthew from Untouched. Anna x
by Author PortiaDaCosta on ‎06-02-2009 05:26 PM

Ooh, 'Don't Tempt Me' sounds fantastic! I love Loretta Chase's writing. I must get that one.

 

And thanks for reminding me about 'Untouched'. I have it in my TBR pile and have been intending to read it for some time. Shame on me...

 

Have never written a virgin heroine myself, at least not in any books that got published! But I have written a virgin hero a couple of times... find the idea of an innocent man being initiated by an experienced woman extremely erotic and compelling.

by Moderator dhaupt on ‎06-02-2009 05:30 PM
Well I'm really torn on this issue, while it's true that I like a ravishment as well as the next girl I'm past middle age and in the times of Regency England would be in my dotage. So while I don't mind a virgin heroine in a historical novel because the heroine is usually 17-20 (which is why I don't enjoy historicals too often) I don't enjoy reading about younguns gettin it on.  I like when the man and his main squeeze are a little long in the tooth at least in their 30's but more like 40s and up, and we all know that the only 40 year old virgin heros in novel land get there jollys by killing all the pretty girls and I've never met a 40 year old virgin heroine in a romance novel yet. Now I know there's a good reason they don't make geriatric erotica a visual art because who in their right mind would want to see all the wrinkles and sags, but a visual for the mind, well that's right up my alley.
by Moderator becke_davis on ‎06-02-2009 06:18 PM

I would just like to point out I mentioned Anna C.'s Untouched in response to Michelle's post about this blog before I knew she singled it out in the blog!  I LOVED Untouched and I have bought copies for numerous friends in my convert-people-to-romance movement.

 

I've been an avid romance reader since the 1970s but didn't get into historicals until about a year ago. My TBR pile has exploded under the weight of all the historicals I'm trying to read, and the Loretta Chase book you mentioned is right at the top. Well, almost at the top -- the top is actually a layer about 10 books wide, as the bins and bookshelves holding my TBR pile have now overflowed into a big box. (My husband, who is not a patient man, on the whole, simply shakes his head when he walks by the TBR corner. . .ah, room.)

 

The virgin heroine seems to be alive and well in historicals for the simple reason that losing their virginity simply wasn't done. Or, when it was, the consequences could be appalling. I can see the appeal of watching a strong woman, trapped by the conventions of the period (and no reliable contraception) having to deal with the desire to lose said virginity while dealing with the knowledge that it is a step that can't be undone.

 

In contemporary stories, the conflicts are just as real but reputation is less of an issue. In fact, one of the reasons I started stretching my boundaries and reading hotter (and still hotter) stories, despite my initial reservations, was when I read a mission statement on Ellora's Cave's website. I don't remember the exact wording, but basically, they were saying that women haven't always had the freedom to read and write stories that pushed the envelope, sexually speaking, and I liked the feminist aspects of women making a career out of writing for other women.

 

I think you've hit the nail on the head: it's about the fantasy.  I've been married for a LONG time and love my husband -- he's my best friend, and I'd marry him again in a minute. But. . .forty years is a long time. There's room for fantasy in my life and I daresay it has helped our marriage. Whether we're reading (or writing) about virgins or alien nymphomaniacs, I celebrate our freedom to do so, and to choose the books that let our fantasies fly. 

by Moderator becke_davis on ‎06-03-2009 06:21 PM

Debbie and I have been talking about this at Romantic Reads, too. The problem for both of us isn't necessary the virgin heroines but the YOUNG heroes and heroines -- the ones who are the same age as our kids, or even younger. Something a little creepy about that.

 

I'm just at the age where I'm especially fond of the lovers who screwed up the first time and are getting  a second chance -- nary a virgin in sight! 

by Blogger Michelle_Buonfiglio on ‎06-09-2009 02:37 PM
Hullo, Anna!  "Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women" surely is a classic.  It's still remarkable because of the way the romance authors each wrote about the importance of the the novels -- and issues surrounding them -- in a way that was respectful and supportive of readers.  No axes to grind, no scholarly papers to publish.  It was and remains a collection of thoughtful commentary on the sort-of "psychodynamics" of romance reading.  It's also 'down home' in that it's written by the women who created the novels and who also were comfortable analysing them.    ah, Matthew...  Really, how can we possibly be contemptuous of virgin heroines when everyone's having so much fun deflowering the heroes? :smileyhappy:

Portia, where are these boys?

dhaupt, you're definitely not alone in the squick factor of reading about young'ns losing it.  Occasionally, someone writes an 'older' virgin hero or heroine and it works.  But we're seeing more and more 40+ heroes and heroines, especially in erotic romance, if you can believe it!  I have a bigger time suspending disbelief on those, being 'of an age,' myself and reading about woman who've had many children described in terms used for above id'd young'ns.  That said, the books are pretty remarkable and sort of daring because they're paving the way, not for doing away with young'ns, but for expanding the 'demo' of protags/h/hns. 

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