Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor
Why are so many female leads in romance novels (and novels with significant romantic subplots) virgins? Or maybe she’s not a virgin, exactly. Maybe she’s done it before—once or twice. Maybe the guy was a jerk. And she definitely didn’t like it. But of course, when she has sex with the romantic hero, it’s fantastic, Earth-shattering, and blah blah blah. Multiple orgasms abound. (Of course, the idea that a woman would have multiple orgasms during her first sexual experience is patently unrealistic, but that’s another story.)
Romance is a genre written and read primarily by women. And here in 2011, it’s supposed to be socially acceptable for women to have a healthy, active sex life. So why is it that many romances still reflect the Madonna-and-whore archetypes that can be so damaging to women’s psyches?
I don’t have a problem with women (or men, for that matter) maintaining their virginity until they’re older or married; I’ve known some who have. But the reality is, most of the women I know lost their virginity before they were out of college—or even out of high school, in many cases. If we’re talking about a historical romance, something that took place in a time when it was socially mandated that women remain virgins until marriage (though how often that was actually true, I don’t know), it makes sense that a romantic heroine would be a virgin. Or, if the heroine is very young or has other reasons for not becoming sexually active (e.g. religion), then again, it makes sense. But given my experience of sexual practices in the real world, it seems female virginity is overrepresented in romance.
I don’t understand this for a few reasons. One, as I mentioned, romance is a genre written primarily by and for women. So why would women want to be told, however implicitly, that their sexual histories are something to be ashamed of, that they should have waited for “the one.” (Funny how hindsight is 20/20 about those things.) Second, shouldn’t romance novels reflect the culture and mores of the time? Yes, you can make the argument that romance novels are largely fantasy and escapism, but I would counter that the fantasy should be aimed at the intended audience. Why would women create fantasies in which they should be ashamed of their sexual histories?
I think the reason it really bothers me is because I see it as one of the subtle, insidious ways women are told that if they do not remain pure and chaste until they meet the man they will eventually marry, they are lesser somehow. It’s a way of reinforcing outdated ideas about gender roles. The virginal woman, being taught, being led, by the more dominant, more experienced male. To me, such archetypes are damaging for both women and men.
Isn’t it time that we, as a society, get away from such foolishness? Let’s stop reinforcing it in our fiction.
Some of my favorite non-virgin heroines:
Claire Beauchamp Randall in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. In this romance/time travel/historical fiction series, Claire was already married when she meets the hero, Jamie Fraser—who is, as it happens, a virgin. She also admits to having had sex before she married her first husband—scandalous!
Lady Ruth Attwood in Pleasure Me by Monica Burns. This book, which came out earlier this year, turns on the conventions of romance on their heads. Lady Ruth is an aging courtesan. Barron Garrick Stratfield is 11 years her junior, wealthy, handsome—and a virgin, deeply ashamed of a physical deformity that he believes would drive any woman away. Their romance is tentative at first as each must overcome their own insecurities.
Jane Whitcomb in Lover Unleashed by J.R. Ward. Okay, so I might get some crap from other J.R. Ward fans, because this is arguably the most controversial book in Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series. But Jane is one of my favorite heroines in the series. (The fact that she’s better developed than several of the others doesn’t hurt.) She more than holds her own—both physically and intellectually—with the S&M-obsessed vampire Vishous.