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Posts Tagged ‘Male Virginity’

“Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels” by Jonathan A. Allan

Almost every major critic of popular romance fiction—and probably minor ones too—notes that in reading the romance novel, readers will encounter virgin heroines. “For most of the genre’s history,” Pamela Regis explains, “the romance heroine was depicted as a virgin” (35). Indeed, in the first wave of romance scholarship, the trope of female virginity was often presented as a necessary feature of the genre. “Virginity is a given here,” Ann Snitow thus declares in her influential early article, “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different”:

The heroine is not involved in any overt adventure beyond trying to respond appropriately to male energy without losing her virginity. [ . . . ] [S]ex means marriage and marriage, promised at the end [of romance novels], means, finally, there can be sex. (309)

Snitow’s study was not based on a very broad sample of the genre—she only considers a handful of Harlequin romances—and it is tempting to dismiss her claims as dated, given the evolution of romance fiction since the 1980s.[1] But consider some recent Harlequin titles: The Timber Baron’s Virgin Bride (Clair, 2009), The Spaniard’s Virgin Housekeeper (Hamilton, 2009), The Playboy Sheikh’s Virgin Stable-Girl (Kendrick, 2009), Capelli’s Captive Virgin (Morgan, 2009), Rescuing the Virgin (Rosemoor, 2009), The Virgin’s Price (Milburne, 2009), His Convenient Virgin Bride (Dunlop, 2010), Virgin on Her Wedding Night (Graham, 2010). And novels with female virgins in the title are not the only ones where such characters appear. Clearly, the virgin heroine is still a regular character in popular romance fiction.

Indeed, even if modern romance fiction no longer insists on “making heroines compulsorily intact and reifying a hymenal virginity,” as a more recent scholar, Jocelyn Wogan-Brown puts it, what she calls the “cultural performance” of female virginity, at least in some metaphorical sense, remains remarkably important to the genre (346). “Harlequin romances (within the many subgenres)” have come to “represent virginity not as an essentialized and mystical anatomical condition,” this scholar writes, “but as an interior state, produced by volition and emotion” (346-7). Bloggers Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, whose familiarity with the genre is far broader than most scholars’, concur: the “sexually unawakened heroine” who is “relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity,” remains “one of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica” (37), they explain in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance. “No matter what type she is,” they add, “she is definitely not the ho-type” (37).

What, though, of the sexually unawakened hero? Is there a “type” for the male virgin in popular romance? At first glance, this figure is perhaps a rarity, both in fiction and in scholarship. Many current studies of the popular romance hero, for example, focus on the “alpha male” hero, a figure who tends to be as sexually experienced as he is powerful, masterful, and—at least as the novel begins—emotionally reserved. In fact, as an anecdote from romance author Monica Burns reveals, the alpha hero may seem hard to square with the idea of male virginity:

A little more than a year ago, I was getting ready to write my March 2011 release Pleasure Me. My editor and I had talked at a conference, and she’d asked me to make the hero a virgin. My initial [response] on the outside was, ummm . . . sure, I supposed I could. Inside I was thinking WTF? I write alpha heroes. How in the hell am I going to write an alpha male who’s never been with a woman?

Even Laura Vivanco and Kyra Kramer’s discussion of the virgin romance hero, which appeared last year in the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, finds oddly little to say about him: “Virginal heroes do exist in the genre,” they point out—but their discussion quickly moves on to cite a short questionnaire attached to the Mills & Boon edition of Susan Napier’s Secret Admirer, which seems to play down this figure’s importance. “[M]any heroines in our stories are virgins, but it is rare for the hero to be sexually inexperienced,” the questionnaire explains.

In this article, I hope to move beyond merely acknowledging the virgin hero’s existence to a more complex, theorised understanding of him as a complex character within the genre of popular romance fiction. My argument is that male virginity in romance novels is worthy of a more significant study than it has thus far been afforded—in part because male virgins are treated so differently in these novels from the ways they appear in cinematic representations, and in part because studying the virgin hero allows us to revisit some of the most puzzling and provocative of Northrop Frye’s pronouncements on the “romance,” broadly considered: in particular, his claim that in “romance” there is a “magical emphasis on virginity, the fact that virgins can do things other can’t” (CW XV:219, 236), but that “this prudery [about virginity] is structural, not moral” (CW XV:187). With Frye in mind, my approach to the topic will be anatomical; that is, I will anatomise various “types” of the virgin hero in modern popular romance fiction, with some exploration of how they overlap and relate to one another. I will close with an extended discussion of one recent romance novel, When the Duke Returns, by Eloisa James, to demonstrate how a single text can make use of several distinct tropes concerning male virginity and the quest-like narrative structure surrounding its loss.

To understand the construction of male virgins in popular romance, we might begin by turning to the burgeoning field of “virginity studies.” Unfortunately, this body of research so far only contains the scantest of mentions of male virginity. In Hanne Blank’s book, Virgin: The Untouched History, the most “untouched” of topics is the male virgin; and the culture surrounding male virginity is surprisingly peripheral to Anke Bernau’s Virgins: A Cultural History. Laura M. Carpenter’s Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, however, offers us insights not only into the modern social realities of male virginity, but perhaps also into the silence surrounding it in scholarship. While “girls can be labelled ‘sluts’ if they have sex without love,” Carpenter reports, “boys can be labelled ‘wimps’ or even gay should they not have sex early enough in their adolescence” (12).[2] Male virginity not only must be lost; it must be lost as quickly as possible: if Virginia is for lovers, as the old advertisements used to proclaim, then (male) virginity is for losers. In Frygian terms, when the male is beyond the ‘normal age’ to lose his virginity, he becomes an alazon figure, the kind who serves as “an object of ridicule in comedy or satire” (CW XXII:331).

I am not the only scholar to make this connection between the male virgin in popular culture and the alazon. In his reading of the recent Hollywood comedy The Forty Year Old Virgin, Celestino Deleyto struggles to argue that Andy, the hero of the film, cannot quite be seen as “a ridiculous man or as an Aristotelian alazon” because of “other traits of his character [that] are more affirmative” (259). We might, however, reverse the argument, since those affirmative traits serve precisely to contrast and counterpoint Andy’s long-enduring virginity, which otherwise would indeed leave him simply “an object of ridicule” (Frye, CW XXII:331). He often seems like one in any case: as Deleyto himself notes, “one of the narrative and commercial goals of the centrality of Andy’s sexual innocence is its exploitative potential: it becomes the perfect excuse for the deployment of gross-out discourse on sexuality” (260). Inasmuch as the film moves beyond that “gross-out discourse” into telling an actual love story it proves itself to be a romance, rather than simply a sex farce, but it’s clear that the “Happily Ever After” of Andy’s romance plot requires him to lose his virginity to the film’s heroine, Trish—after which, we are assured, he will not only retain all those other, “affirmative” traits, but will put them to their proper use in the context of a truly “adult” (which is to say, sexual) relationship.

The Forty Year Old Virgin frequently invokes the discourse of ridicule that Carpenter describes surrounding male virginity: that is, the question of whether Andy is “a wimp” or “gay.” It does so for comic effect, notably in the film’s repeated bantering exchanges about “how I know you’re gay.” But one might well wonder how the representation of the virgin hero in this film, which was written and directed by men (Steve Carell and Judd Apatow), differs from the representation of the virgin hero in popular culture that is written by women, for example, popular romance fiction.

As Sarah S. G. Frantz and Katharina Rennhak write in their introduction to Women Constructing Men: Female Novelists and Their Male Characters, 1750-2000, several issues are at stake in the study of female-authored masculinity. The first of these arises from questions of power. As Frantz and Rennhak explain, feminist scholars have long studied the ways that male characters in female-authored texts serve as “catalysts for the subject-formation of the female characters, sparking in them emotional reaction and ideological resistance,” but this is not their only func