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Hopeless Reimantic Part 1: Virginal Heroines

2012 August 20

For more about this series on Romance Novel Tropes, read Rei’s Hopeless Reimantic intro post.

“You were a virgin, Jess.”

“Yes.” This time she didn’t deny it. “And the reason I was still a virgin was because you’re the only man I’ve ever wanted. I was never interested in anyone else. Even when I thought I hated you, I still didn’t want anyone else.”

Bought: Destitute Yet Defiant, Sarah Morgan (Harlequin Mills & Boon Ltd, 2010)

I pretty much picked that first reference at random. Bought was the first Mills & Boon I ever actually purchased (I say purchased; at the time of writing it was still a free download on Amazon) and it was absolutely everything I thought a contemporary romance would be, so it holds a special, slightly nauseated place in my heart. It was a lucky choice, though, because a great deal of what I want to say about this trope is contained in this book.

Cover for Bought by Sarah Morgan showing a Caucasian man and woman embracing in evening wear. Image shared under Fair Use guidelines.

My first romance novel. I promise it’s cheesy in a whole different way than it looks.

The virginal heroine trope is one that holds a great deal of interest for me. Bought is a pretty straightforward example of it – the heroine is a virgin who has never had eyes for anybody but the hero (and she’s twenty-two when the story takes place, taking this out of the believable realm of the adolescent crush), so not only is a sexual relationship with him her first experience of sex, it’s her first experience of emotional intimacy as well – and there’s no mention throughout the book of her having any other friends, so her connection to him is pretty much her only in this world. Not even Fifty Shades of Grey, with its asexual-at-the-start heroine, sets the trope up so perfectly. (Yes, I have read the Fifty Shades trilogy. No, I’m not ready to talk about it yet.)

There’s a lot of – entirely justifiable – outrage over how prevalent the virgin heroine is, even today. I am not going to go into the whole problematic mess that is the idea that a woman’s ability to love truly and purely is somehow connected to her physical “purity”, or the idea that a woman can only give herself fully to a lover – as if that’s a healthy focal point for a relationship anyway – if she’s unclaimed territory when the book begins, so to speak. (You would not believe how many romances I’ve beat myself over the head with in which the hero cries “I can’t take this anymore! I don’t care if you were a dirty slutty hobag before we fell in love! I love you anyway! …wait, you were a virgin? OH THANK GOD YOU BELONG ONLY TO ME NOW”.)

Pink and black pastiche of a parental advisory label, from Smart Bitches Trashy Books. It reads "Smart Bitch Advisory: Heroine is not a virgin OMG SLUT". Copyright Smart Bitches Trashy Books.

This’d be pretty much the standard response to non-virgins in many romance novels. Source: Smart Bitches Trashy Books, link at end of post

Nor am I going to touch on the huge double standard that is the the common pairing of the virginal heroine with the Virile Manly Man, who has explored delightful bedroom adventures with many a lady fair – but still takes the heroine’s virginity as proof that she’s someone special. (But of course has nevertheless been totally respectful of all of his previous partners. Of course.) I may write about them sometime, but this is an overview with a word limit, so I’ll put some further reading links at the bottom of the post and we can call it even for now.

She spans all genres, does the virginal heroine (insert your own pun here. Yes, I said insert. No, I didn’t mean – look, just go and sit in the corner, okay?), and some are easier to deal with than others. The historical probably has the most easily explicable virgin heroine of all; it’s history! We know what women were like in history! Virgins were the most highly prized of all the ladies, weren’t they? Non-virgins were cast out and shunned and other antisocial-type punishments as well, and they would never marry, so any heroine worth her salt is going to have to be a virgin, or she’s not going to be good enough for the hero. Duh. It’s historical accuracy! Everybody’s actions always correspond perfectly with prevalent attitudes of the time, didn’t you know that? The paranormal and fantasy genres get away with it pretty easily as well, often with some kind of mystical bond that predestines the two central characters for one another – although that doesn’t necessarily preclude one of the characters having had sexual relations beforehand. Sound like a contradiction? I don’t think it is – more on that in a moment.

Which brings me neatly to the virgin heroine who gives me the most trouble; the contemporary one. This lady can be anyone, you guys. She’s a businesswoman or a hairdresser or a secretary or a recluse. She’s shy, or she’s loud and brash. But she always has this part of her that is…untouched, as it were, and I’ve seen authors who will write themselves around some pretty amazing corners to keep that so. She’s never found the right guy. She’s never experienced sexual desire before, or if she has it’s been fleeting or fumbling enough to ignore – this is overwhelmingly common. Which brings me back to Bought, with its heroine who waited through an entire book for a hero she was never even really sure she wanted, because the true and deep love she felt for him superceded all other possible emotional connections.

In some ways, it’s not just the heroine who gets this. A discussion on I (Heart) Presents brought me this, from an interview with romance author Julia James:

I must say, I’ve done this several times, when the hero, realising the heroine is a virgin, goes to great lengths to ensure her first experience is really special, and, of course, in doing so, makes it really special for himself as well. In a way, she gives him her physical virginity, and in exchange he gives her his emotional virginity.

Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has its own epithet for the hero’s “emotional virginity”; they call it his coming into contact with the Magic Hoo-Hah. (The hero’s counterpart for this is the Mighty Wang, if anyone was interested.) The principle is pretty much the same; somehow, during sex, the hero and heroine exchange a piece of each other that nobody’s ever seen or touched before. And, because of the underpinning idea that men are physical creatures where women are emotional ones, that usually translates to the heroine being physically untouched before she meets the hero, and nobody ever having touched His Heart1.

In a lot of ways it is this, more than a heroine’s physical virginity, that worries me about the trope as a whole. Because it’s been occurring to me more and more often than the virginal heroine does not necessarily need to be a virgin, per se; the second most commonly occurring version of this trope that I’ve read, usually in contemporaries, is one in which the heroine has had sex. Not, in most cases, often – maybe once or twice, and always with the man she fancied herself in love with before she met the hero. But she didn’t really enjoy it; it was uncomfortable or even painful, and after that relationship ended she never really thought of doing it again, and she figured she’d never really understand what about it was so much fun.

Even LGBT romance has its own version of this, in the form of the straight-person-turned-gay (rarely if ever is there a story of a straight person turning bi), who had sex – even lots of sex! – with the opposite gender, but never really experienced attraction before meeting their same-sex true love. Which is a plausible enough narrative, in fairness, but loses something in that the true love in question tends to be the only person our straight-turned-gay hero/ine experiences any kind of attraction towards at all.

I’ve seen justifications of this, and I can see why it’s popular. If romance is fantasy-fodder, what creates a more perfect fantasy than two people exploring new emotional ground together so that you, the reader, can vicariously experience all of that awe-struck joy and wonder? You only fall in love for the first time once, after all, and this creates a world in which the first time you experience this all-consuming emotion is also the only time. You wander into this amazing place, all innocence, and you are thrilled and delighted – and then you never have to leave again. What could be more perfect than that?

Okay, who here has witnessed somebody they’re close to fall in love for the second (or third or fourth) time? And – and I’m aware that not everybody does this – who’s also seen them perform this amazing feat of selective memory, where suddenly their past relationships no longer really “count”? Oh, sure, they’ll say, we had some good times, it was fun while it lasted, but it was never really all that – I always knew something was missing. And now I’ve found it, because this – this – is the real thing.

Who’s seen that repeated over and over again through a cycle of partners?

Because watching that happen? That’s the kind of feeling this trope gives me. I want to be happy that this kind of “mine is a love that I’ve never yet loved” tabula rasa brings happiness to people, but – I can’t. It kind of depresses me, if I’m honest. I’m more a believer in there being A One (or more than one One!) than there being The One, but I wasn’t always, and even when I wasn’t I’ve always kind of thought – so what if somebody’s not The One? Do they have to be secondhand? Even in Fantasyland, is it so important that every single other relationship a person has before they meet The One be denigrated like this? Even stories about a person loving again after they’ve lost a partner to death suffer from this kind of “it was never like this before, this person is touching a part of me that has never been touched” thing, bar a very rare few.

There are exceptions to this, of course. I’m desperate to get my hands on A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant, which unfortunately is only out in print, but features a courtesan heroine who actually enjoys sex, even before she meets the hero. I recently read a pretty damned excellent book by Molly O’Keefe called Can’t Buy Me Love, whose hero and heroine are many things, but untouched ain’t one. In LGBT-ish fiction, and incidentally also one of the “very rare few” widower-whose-previous-relationship-meant-quite-a-bloody-lot books, Deirdre Knight’s Butterfly Tattoo has two people loving again without discounting their prior experience. And the hero’s bisexual. Right on.

So that’s Virginal (Emotionally and Physically) Heroines (with the occasional Hero). Next up, I…haven’t actually decided what I’m covering yet! Enjoy the mystery.

Further reading:

  1. Anybody ever saying this sentence out loud is required by law to finish it up with a single emo tear. []
5 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    August 20, 2012

    I think I’d prefer not to read ‘Bought: Destitute Yet Defiant’, but wonder what (or who?) is bought. I’m put in mind of ‘A Bird in a Gilded Cage’:

    And her beauty was sold,
    For an old man’s gold,

    Bought and sold are, after all, the same transaction viewed from different perspectives. I assume that the beauty of the ‘Bought: Destitute Yet Defiant’ heroine was not bought by an old man’s gold.

    • Rei Hab permalink
      August 20, 2012

      Pet, the story is a fairly standard “impoverished heroine swept off her feet by millionaire” one – I assume what is bought is…her…

      You know, that’s actually a very good question. He buys her…security? Maybe that’s the idea? I don’t know. I’m not sure the publishers thought the title through all the way.

      (And the heroine is bought by a young, sexy man’s gold, because otherwise it wouldn’t be romantic.)

      • Pet Jeffery permalink
        August 21, 2012

        Buying her security — I don’t know. Security is a long term, and not very sexy thing. Their relationship sounds very unequal, and I’d have thought unstable. Not that (as far as I know) I’ve ever met a millionaire. Perhaps impoverished heroines are what millionaires are looking for… someone with whom to share their millions unstintingly… Maybe I’m just an old cynic.

        Also security makes me think ‘maximum security’, as in prisons.

        • Pet Jeffery permalink
          August 21, 2012

          Maybe security places too much emphasis on the second syllable of ‘wedlock’.

  2. Pet Jeffery permalink
    August 20, 2012

    At risk of stating the obvious, I suppose that the high value placed on virginity stems from the fact that, before modern paternity tests, the only way in which a man could be certain that he was the father of a child was if the mother had never had sex with anyone else. (Given how easy it is to determine the mother of a child, it would have made a lot more sense for titles and property to descend through the female line. Patriarchy made a rod for its own back.)

    A bizarre and unpleasant example of valuing virginity comes to mind. An ex-partner’s uncle owned a pedigree bitch who conceived a litter of non-pedigree puppies. There’s nothing remarkable about that, except that — my ex-partner told me — the uncle had the poor creature put down, in the strange belief that sex with a non-pedigree animal ‘spoilt’ a pedigree bitch.

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