ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

February 19, 2010

Virginity as Shorthand: the virgin and the playboy strike again

I read this article yesterday – An Insider’s Guide to Writing for Mills & Boon. In it, three authors of category romance are interviewed – Penny Jordan, Sharon Kendrick and Maisie Yates.

Now, there were a ton of interesting issues raised in this article that I could write about for ages and ages and ages – one of which being that Sharon Kendrick apparently doesn’t like writing career women as heroines because she wants them to be able to spend time with the hero. Even though a lot of her heroes are sheikhs and mediterranean millionaires. With, you know, careers. Hello, Captain Double Standard.

But that wasn’t what I really wanted to talk about today. What I found most interesting in terms of what will hopefully one day be my PhD thesis – tentatively titled Defloration and Declaration: virgin heroines and the playboy heroes that love them in category romance fiction – was this comment from Penny Jordan on why she makes a lot of her heroines virgins:

“I think of it as a shorthand for me. It’s always by choice. When my heroine meets the hero, she wants to go to bed with him. For the reader, that’s the mark of the effect he has on her. Because you’ve only got so many pages, it would be very difficult for me to create a heroine who’s had lots of partners and immediately knew there was something different about this one.”

Now this is something that I found very, very interesting – and something that I hadn’t really considered, to tell the truth. Virginity as shorthand. The heroine chooses to sleep with the hero because he is different from all those other men – and by sleeping with him, this difference becomes tangible, because he is the only man to have slept with her. (That sounds a lot more convoluted when you write it down. Whoa.)

I think this is compatible with the theory I had about sex as moral currency, wherein the virgin heroine is rewarded for sexual morality by sexual pleasure when she meets the right man. By sleeping with him, she marks him as the right man, and she knows he is the right one for sure because she has a damn good time. However, there are troubling assertions underlying this theory – the first being that virginity and sexual morality are equated, which ties into the notion of the madonna vs the whore. Sure, the heroine gets to experience extreme sexual pleasure outside the traditional institution of marriage, which is a pretty subversive concept when talking in patriarchal terms, but the fact that this sexual pleasure is a reward for her sexual good behaviour is still intensely troubling. Through sex, the heroine and the hero are inextricably tied together. They might not have exchanged vows, but they might as well be married.

And the concept of virginity as shorthand exacerbates this even further. I don’t think Jordan is making any conscious assertions to equate virginity with sexual morality or anything, but I think the underlying assumptions are still very disconcerting when you consider the types of heroes that these heroines are paired with. The virgin heroine and the playboy hero. A study in double standards.

Let’s expound. I’ve pretty much covered this ground before but I’ll go over it again. The virgin heroine is untouched. As Jordan says, her virginity is a choice – it’s rarely because she just can’t get any. She’s nearly always made a conscious decision to remain a virgin because she hasn’t found that right guy yet. Which is totally fine.

However, the playboy hero is doing anything that moves. He’s had a thousand billion paramours and usually hasn’t cared a jot about any of them. Actually, I read a sheikh novel on the weekend where the hero was extolling the virtues of what he called ’empty sex’. This is a literalisation of what a lot of heroes go through. Even if the hero isn’t a playboy, it’s a pretty rare category novel where is less sexually experienced than the heroine. And I can’t say I’ve ever read a virgin hero, even paired with a virgin heroine.

So why does Penny Jordan get to use virginity as a shorthand to express the effect the hero has on the heroine – she wants to lose it to him – whereas there is no such shorthand for the hero?

I quoted way back at the beginning of this blog a line from Talbot, who said:

“Eroticisation in Mills & Boon depends on the maximisation of gender difference.”

I think what disturbs me most about the notion of the virgin heroine and the playboy hero is that this gender difference is often coded in terms of sexual morality. The woman is virginal, the man is virile. And this is a perfect match.

I think this is made pretty clear in Jordan’s shorthand – she says that the heroine knows the hero is different because she wants to go to bed with him. Does this mean she has never experienced any kind of sexual desire before in her life? The hero, on the other hand, clearly has experienced sexual desire – I mean, hello, he’s had sex. Usually a lot of it – even if it is this so-called ’empty sex’.

The hero knows the heroine is different because, as I have harped on and on and on about before, she inspires him to replace his free-wheeling do-anything ‘wild’ sexuality with her model of monogamy, usually leading to marriage and domestic bliss. However, the heroine knows the hero is different because he is the only man she has ever experienced sexual desire for, ever. This goes back to that crazy stereotype of men as sex-crazed beasts and women as the gatekeepers of sexual morality. A woman only has power and standing while she is untouched – once she has had sex she is effectively claimed, and her power is ceded to her seducer. And if her seducer is not in the picture, well…

This is the underlying basis of the stereotype and not what literally plays out in romance fiction. However, I find it very, very interesting in terms of power. The heroine desires – for the first time – to sleep with a man, the hero. When she does, he – cue Foucault – ideologically completes her and she cedes her selfhood to him. The man, of course, is already ideologically complete, but the heroine sort of modifies him, turning them into a unit. But what happens sexually seems to indicate something else, power-wise – the hero can function without the heroine. He’s had sex, and though he might not be emotionally fulfilled, he’s whole. The heroine, however, becomes dependent on the hero, because he is the agent of her completion.

This leads to an interesting debate on how sex and emotion are equated for the heroine but separate for the hero – but I’ll write about that another day. The crux of my point and the issue I take with the playboy/virgin dynamic is this – why can virginity function as a shorthand for true love for the heroine but not the hero?

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4 Comments »

  1. “I can’t say I’ve ever read a virgin hero, even paired with a virgin heroine.”

    A colleague and I have a paper coming out in JPRS soon which, though it’s not focussed on virginity, nonetheless touches on lots of the issues you raise here. I won’t subject you to an extended synopsis of it, because I don’t want to bore you, but it does include quotes from M&B novel with a virgin hero paired with a widowed heroine. Virgin heroes are rather rare, though, which is why they’ve got a special list of them at All About Romance. Virgin heroines are so common that if one started making a list one could go on for a very, very long time.

    When you say that “The heroine desires – for the first time – to sleep with a man, the hero. When she does, he – cue Foucault – ideologically completes her and she cedes her selfhood to him” are you equating virginity with selfhood? Or are you arguing that the novels equate virginity with selfhood?

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — February 19, 2010 @ 2:41 am | Reply

    • I’m going to check out a few of the virgin heroes on that list – thank you! It’s a dynamic I find totally fascinating.

      Reading back that thing I said about selfhood, I don’t think I worded it very well. I was going back to an idea I wrote about a while ago that came from this:

      “The idea that the individual ‘has’ a sexuality and that this is a – perhaps the – defining feature of his or her being is, according to Foucault, a recent historical development. It is related to the idea that in order to find out what is essential about ourselves we need to bring to light the latent truth inscribed within sex: ‘We tell it [sex] its truth by deciphering what it tells us about that truth; it tells us our own by delivering up that part of it that escaped us’. [Foucault 1979 (1976): 69-70].”

      – Harvey, K. and Shalom, C. [eds], 1997, Language and Desire: encoding sex, romance and intimacy [Routledge: London] p.13

      If you consider that sexuality is a defining feature of the individual, then the virgin heroine is not yet a whole person. The hero, on the other hand, in possession of an active sexuality, is. This is wildly simplistic, but in the case of the virgin heroine, I think you can claim that the hero thus ‘completes’ her by sleeping with her, awakening her sexual self. However, because he is the agent of her ideological completion, she is only a whole person in respect to him – he has ownership over some part of selfhood. Previously, she may not have been a ‘whole’ person (whatever that means), but she had not yet been claimed. That was what I was getting at that – it ties into the ideas around sex as possession.

      Comment by Jodi — February 19, 2010 @ 2:58 am | Reply

  2. Here’s another list of virgin heroes. It maybe repeats some of the AAR ones, but you might find some new ones, too.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — February 19, 2010 @ 1:40 pm | Reply

    • Thanks – I will definitely track some of these down!

      Comment by Jodi — February 19, 2010 @ 10:00 pm | Reply


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