Sex and virginity in Romance novels

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Virginity, sexual awakening, and inexperience in romance

On the importance of both virginity and sex in romance, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan have quite a lot to say – all interesting. They write that “One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.

Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance. No other genre is as obsessed with the heroine (a) having excellent sex, and (b) not having sex at all unless it’s with the One True Love, who’s also usually the sole person who can make her come. Got orgasm? Got true love! The heroine’s sexual inexperience remains intact only until the hero’s wang of mighty lovin’ introduces her to the wonderment of the fizznuckin’. It’s part and parcel fo the fantasy: the awakening to love  is that much more powerful when it’s accompanied by a sexual awakening as well.

Everything about the love has to be superlative, and on the [-p.37] heroine’s part, it’s easiest to use an association we’re already comfortable with: sexual purity. The sexually experienced woman in fiction still raises hackles and creates uncomfortable associations with uncleanness, the threat of infidelity, and moral degeneration. Interestingly enough, the sexual experience is also superlative for the hero, but authors choose to portray it using, not inexperience (which would ruin the fantasy, because we’re not necessarily interested in reading about lovers who come a little bit too fast and use a little bit too much tongue when kissing), but what we and many others online refer to as the Magic Hoo Hoo. The Magic Hoo Hoo does it all: it heals all ills, psychic and sexual. It provides unparallelled pleasure to the hero, despite the heroine’s reluctance, inexperience, and awkwardness. It’s capable of experiencing (and inducing) earth-shattering multiple orgasms on its first outing. It also creates an instant emotional bond that’s even more irrational and persistent than a newly hatched chick imprinting on the first living thing it sees. All that, and it makes you coffee in the morning. One taste of the Magic Hoo Hoo is all it takes; the hero won’t be satisfied with anything else, physically or emotionally.” (p.38)

“In contemporary romance, virginity is treated differently. The heroine can be:
A: A bona fide virgin, for any number of reasons, many of them completely neurotic and serving as backstory for why the heroine doesn’t believe in herself.
B. Sexually experienced – but it’s never been like it is with the hero….
c. Sexually experienced and perfectly happy with her past orgasms, so much so that it’s a nonissue, but inexperienced in some other, very significant way.” (p.51)

Most contemporary romance novels published after the early 1990s allow the heroines to have sex. They have sex before marriage with somebody who isn’t the hero. They aren’t presented as pure, pristine vessels of womanhood…. So how to create the imbalance of power? What can substitute for viriginity?
Ignorance and inexperience, of course! And maybe life-threatening danger.
Many a contemporary heroine finds herself a fish out of water in the plot of a romance. The city girl moves to the small town in the coutnry. The country girl moves to the city…. …you can make a fool of yourself and charm or fight your way out time and again – it never gets old!” (p.52)

Paranormal romances: from virginity to turning/changing…

Wendell and Tan take this discussion into the paranormal arena, describing the way in which the heroine’s virginity is given new life (as it were) in this genre:

Paranormal romances have a different spin on the virginity angle. Not only is there a chance for an otherworldly protagonist and an innocent human becoming mixed up in each other’s worlds, [-p.53] but there’s always the question of whether he will change or turn her into whatever creature he is. Lilith Saintcrow theorizes that the ‘changing’ or ‘turning’ motif of paranormal romances is the new virginity, and we Bitches think she’s on to something. How many conflicts in paranormal romances are created because he bites her and turns her into a vampire…? Rarely is there a cure. Instead, the happy ending hinges on the communion and then a new community – the heroine becomes like the hero after he initiates her into his world.” (pp.52-53)

Saintcrow traces the modern origins of the virginity/paranormal change parallel to Anne Rice and the first several books of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series. Rice’s ‘florid descriptions of teeth puncturing skin in her vampire series are downright erotic, code-talk for sex.’ As Saintcrow tells it, among a generation of women who had grown up in a time when unprecedented developments in birth control finally allowed women largely to avoid the risks of pregnancy, and record numbers of women were graduating from college, in swaggered Anita Blake, a gun-toting vampire hunter who was not only strong and competent, but ‘morally and ethically ambiguous,’ in a way mostly allowed in male characters at the time. The mix of unwilling penetration and transformation with strong female characters led to a transgressive space in which a woman is allowed to own her own body and sexuality, but lingering cultural anxieties about ownership over the wandering vagina meant the “metaphor of contamination’ by werewolf, vampire, etc., takes the place of the defloration.”

Saintcrow also points out that the language between the heroine’s unwilling loss of virginity and the unwilling change is startlingly similar. As she wrote in an interview with us:
‘The heated descriptions of breaking the hymen can, with very little trouble, be transferred over to the male vampire/werewolf biting the female human to transform her. Through this agency of contamination the female human is initiated into the world of sex [-p.54] or ‘darkness’ and discovers sexual autonomy/Phenom Cosmic Power. It’s simply not workable to have a believable female virgin over thirty anymore. Not because it’s socially impossible anymore, but because the women shelling out the dough to buy the romances won’t buy it the way they would in the seventies….’

And really, that’s the basic plot of any virginity loss: he initiates her into his experience, and includes her in his world.” (pp.53-54)

Ref: Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan (2009) Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. Fireside: New York

Romance reading pleasure… how much, when and where is the sex?

It’s an interesting discussion, and one which connects with what Joyce Saricks has to say on the matter of reading Romance… On conducting the reader’s advisory interview, Saricks writes: “There are three vital pieces of information we need to discover: what does this particular reader mean by Romance? Does this reader want a book set in a particular time period or with Paranormal elements? And, finally, how much sex does the reader want – or how much will she tolerate?” (p.143)

A “…crucial piece of information we need to discover when we talk to readers is the amount of sex they want in their Romances. By this, I do not simply mean whether they want a lot of sex or very little and how graphically it is described. Sometimes one very explicit interlude leaves readers feeling this is a very sexy book, even if that was an isolated occurrence. The real point is the intensity and frequency of the sexual encounters, and whether they occur at the beginning, before the reader really knows the heroine and hero, or farther along in the story. Often if the sex comes later, it feels different than books in which there is graphic sex right from the first few pages. If the sex is later and between a couple seen by readers as ‘made for each other,’ it is less likely to offend or even really be noticed, almost regardless of how graphic. We are often surprised by readers  who say they are looking for books without a lot of sex, like those by Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Stephanie Laurens, when we know that explicit sexual interludes figure prominently in novels by these authors. This is a phenomenon I am unable to explain, even though I have encountered it with regularity in speaking with readers. It may have something to do with the reader’s perception of the heroine. If she engages in sexual activity too early in the story, before we know and care about her, we may be more likely to view her as promiscuous. That perception creates a different tone in the story, and for many readers it is not as satisfying.” (p.144) “Readers are really looking for that satisfaction Romances give them, and for some, sex too soon or too much sex destroys that feeling. The atmosphere and when sex occurs can make all the difference.” (p.145)

Not that Saricks reduces the genre to the positioning of the sex in the book! (I get the pun, but I’m feeling short on words). It is simply an important part of the appeal that she discusses…

Saricks also notes (and is this comment relevant?): “Judging from my personal experience, when we come face to face with a Romance reader, we have only about five seconds to make a connection with the reader. This may sound absurd, but we have no more than a few seconds in which to let this reader know that we understand Romances and their appeal.This is not the time to be aloof. Romance readers are accustomed to being looked down upon, and we need to learn ways to indicate immediately that we have read in this genre, that we are someone they can talk with about their favorites.” (p.145)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago

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