I get a lot of notes from readers about the topic of virgin heroines in my books. Because people don’t typically take the time to write the author about a book unless they have some pretty strong feelings about it, the notes I receive are typically of the ‘love’ or ‘hate” variety on the topic.
First, I’ll talk about the readers who are horrified and offended by the virgin heroine in a contemporary romance. Even though I do sometimes (but certainly not always) write the trope, I do understand where these readers are coming from. It’s the year 2012. How realistic is it in an adult romance that a grown woman is still a virgin?
What’s more, how appealing is it? the concept hearkens back to dark days for women–time periods where a female’s value was largely tied into concepts like purity, innocence and motherhood. Her body was not her own, to be experienced and enjoyed, but the property of a male dominated society, meant to be bartered, to provide pleasure and to procreate. If a woman broke the social code and had sex before marriage–don’t even think about if she liked it–she was ostracized and marginalized. Of course, many cultures still exist in the world with this patriarchal viewpoint, and I would say definite threads still exist in western society today. The romance novels of the past clearly reflected this restrictive moral expectation. As women have begun to make their way in society and find their power–including owning their sexuality– the idea of continuing with the trope of the romance heroine virgin seems not only old-fashioned and unappealing, but abhorrent to some.
But wait. Isn’t this way of looking at the ‘virgin’ all from the male-dominated point of view? The virgin in a romance novel is seen as sneer-worthy because the author is perpetuating those old, restrictive codes? But what if we, as women romance readers, could put on a new pair of glasses to take back the concept of the virgin? What if WE took ownership of the concept, just as we should take ownership of our bodies and our sexuality? The virgin can be ‘our’ thing. We were all virgins once, and the virgin-state-of-mind continues inside of us until our dying day. It’s a female archetype, just as are those of the mother and the crone (See, among others, The White Goddess, by Graves). Can’t we don the symbolic attributes of the virgin, if we so choose, for the short period of time allotted to us between juggling careers, partners, children and family politics? We get to be kick-ass heroines through our reading, we get to be witches and redeemed outcasts and crime-solvers and savvy, accomplished businesswomen.
But not a virgin?
Is the old-guard, restrictive, male-dominated frame of mind really going to tell us it’s not okay to also choose to be a sexual innocent, a virgin? Have we internalized the idea and turned it against ourselves? Yes, I think so, to some extent. We really shouldn’t let anyone decide what the virgin means to us. We should decide for ourselves.
We should claim it.
Here are some of the things I love about writing and reading a virgin–yes, even in an erotic romance.
It’s such a paradox of life that we can’t see or sense our youthful power when we have it. It’s only until later in life when we observe youth that we begin to realize how wonderful it all was–seeing the world through fresh eyes, possessing health and beauty, the world lying before us like a vaguely anxiety provoking, totally exciting adventure ride. When we see the through the virgin’s eyes, we not only get to experience that newness again, we have the added benefit. Now we can appreciate all these things for a standpoint of a bit (or a lot) more maturity. Maybe the virginal heroine doesn’t recognize her power and vibrancy, but we as the reader do.
The virgin potentially has a gift to give, even if she isn’t aware of it. Her powerful innocence triggers something in other characters…something that will allow them to transform. She isn’t the blank slate, waiting to be written on. Instead, she’s a catalyst for other character’s healing and growth. I love to see how the experienced alpha male interacts with her virgin energy, how he re-thinks himself and his motivations, how he re-positions himself in order to earn her love.
Lastly, for the most part, most of us weren’t first made love to by a virile, handsome and masterful alpha male. What woman wouldn’t want to fantasize about it being the most memorable, sexually fulfilling experience for that first time? In a book, those lucky ones who had the experience can re-live it. And for those of us who didn’t, we can live the experience through the virginal heroine.
What are your thoughts about the virgin-heroine in contemporary romance?