Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Male Virgins: A Small Note

I have written previously here and at The Educated Imagination about male virgins in romance. When I set out to write about male virgins, I was interested mostly in the nineteenth century, and truthfully, it was more of a theoretical exercise than anything else. Northrop Frye writes, "the prudery [about virginity in romance] is structural, not moral", and yet nearly every observation that appears about virginity in his writing on romance is about female virgins. So my question became: could the structure of romance hold if it were the male that was a virgin and not the female?
When I presented initial findings at the IASPR meeting in Belgium, my work focused on the Twilight Saga and perhaps the most famous of all 107-year-old virgins, Edward Cullen.
Now, however, I have new ideas and new concerns with male virgins in popular romance. For instance, though male virgins are not everywhere in romance, they are present enough. Many major writers of popular romance have included heroes who also happen to be virgins. The earliest male virgin in popular romance seems to be found in the 1970s and a few others appear in the 1980s. In the 1990s we see a rising interest in male virgins, and in 2000s the male virgin can be called a niche commodity.
In the 1990s, for instance, the male virgin is presented as more of a surprise for the reader. The author, in these instances, was playing with a trope, the hero, and seeing what would happen if the heroine were confronted by the fact the hero is a virgin. Of course, the virginal hero was also a surprise for the reader.
In Secret Admirer (1992) by Susan Napier, we read (toward the completion of the novel):
“Why, that it was my first time, of course.” And, as she continued to stare at him uncomprehendingly over the top of the cup, his smile gentled into a tender warmth.
“You were my initiation, Grace. I gave you my virginity; you gave me my manhood.”
It is only after the first time that Grace and by extension the reader learns that this was Scott's first time.
Later in Eloisa James’ When the Duke Returns (2009), the opening words of the novel are:
“He’s a virgin.”
“He’s a virgin—”
“Your husband is a virgin?”
“And he won’t bed me.”
In James’ novel, the hero’s virginity is almost unbelievable. The opening of the narrative is a shocking one for both the reader and the heroine.
Today, nearly twenty years after Scott’s surprise virginity in Secret Admirer, virginity is not nearly the narrative surprise it used to be. In Cheryl Brook’s Virgin (2011), the hero’s virginity is announced in the first chapter (as are his thoughts on what the first time will be like). In Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed (2011), we read: “Sir Mark Turner did not look like any virgin that Jessica had ever seen before.” Indeed, even the marketing (which I noticed at Dear Author) for the novel reads: “In which a male virgin meets a courtesan.” And on her webpage, Courtney Milan explains: “All of my books get code names as I write them. The code-name I used for Unclaimed was Blasphemy. Because, you know, there’s a certain sense of blasphemy in seducing an upright moralist who also happens to be a virgin.”
I am now beginning to think historically – mostly thanks to Sarah Frantz and her very exciting work on the Alpha Male – about the male virgin in popular romance. I have ideas as to why the male virgin has appeared, but his place in the history of popular romance seems important given the fact there hasn’t been a year since the 90s in popular romance in which a male virgin has not appeared (and often enough we see as many as ten male virgins in a given year).
The question that continues to fascinate me is about the interest in male virgins. My interest was purely theoretical, at least initially, but what is the reader’s interest?


  1. My interest, first and foremost, is that a virgin hero is transgressive, and in comparing to earlier days of category romance when it was transgressive to have an experienced heroine.

  2. I wouldn't have thought to call it transgression, although that hits the nail on the head. A male virgin is intentional in a way that a female virgin is not. In most contexts, men have means, motive, and opportunity to engage in sexual experiences in a way that women do not. So a male virgin signifies self-control, choice, and thoughtfulness as opposed to the sexually experienced lead, who follows the other lemmings off the cliff.

    Using virginity to characterize a male lead indicates the author's intent to write against a trope (magic hoo-ha taming the male lead) and prompts reader interest in what makes the character march to a different drum beat.

  3. Using virginity to characterize a male lead indicates the author's intent to write against a trope (magic hoo-ha taming the male lead)

    It certainly isn't going to be a "taming of the rake" story if the hero's a virgin, but I think you underestimate the powers of the Glittery HooHa :-)

    Kyra Kramer and I refer to Napier's novel in our essay about the bodies of romance protagonists and we found that:

    In romance [...] it is often “the heroine’s task to remake male sexuality, to subordinate it […] to love” (Cohn 30) and her success is made possible by her GHH.

    Not all romance heroes need their sexuality to be “remade” in the same way. Some heroes have repressed, rather than hyperactive, MWs. Heyer’s Simon the Coldheart, for example, states that “There is no place for women in my life, and no liking for women in my breast” (16). In this case, the GHH regulates the MW by bringing forth a “new-born passion” (298).

  4. I think it's challenging, perhaps in the way the introduction of experienced heroines might once have been. It unsettles because it undermines one of the experienced romance reader's expectations about romance heroes: that they are experienced (and almost invariably accomplished lovers, though Eloisa James has written about an experienced but unaccomplished hero).

    From the various virgin books I've read, I think there are potentially quite a few different components to the male virgin trope, some of which relate to other romance novel elements. For example, virginity may be used to exacerbate angst (e.g Anna Campbell's Untouched), or to underline the fated-ness of the hero and heroine's partnership (Kresley Cole's No Rest For the Wicked/ or Demon in the Dark). I think Susan Napier uses it to play with genre expectations and to challenge ideas about masculinity (something she's generally interested in - she's also used heroes who are slightly shorter than their heroines and a man who's self-conscious about his lack of chest hair in books I've read).

    It's an interesting reflection of how the genre evolves that an element that has been used in this genre-challenging way is on its way to being it's own little sub-genre now.

  5. FYI: here's a comprehensive list (up to 2009) of male virgins: http://www.likesbooks.com/virginal.html I could write a book -- or at least a serious paper -- with all my opinions. It seems to me there are so many types and kinds of male virgins, and for some (Simple Jess by Pamela Morsi; Patricia Gaffney's Wild at Heart) their virginity is not a conscious choice as much as a by-product of their lives up to the point they meet the heroine. The male virgin/experienced*courtesan heroine -- whether it's Francis in Jo Beverley's Forbidden or Ferdinand in Mary Balogh's No Man's Mistress -- this is a fascinating subject for exploration because like *from what I've read* Milan's hero (a book I'm downloading to read) these men are educated, wealthy, able to make a different, say more "conventional" choice, and they've chosen not to.

    I could go on ... I certainly look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this subject. Janet W

  6. Thank you all for taking the time to comment. I certainly have begun the work of theorising male virginity in popular romance and I am now beginning to think historically about the male virgin. I think a part of it is certainly about the generic transgression. When an author tells the story of a male virgin, that is fully, I think, at least within the confines of popular romance, intentional.

    In my own work, I have summarised a few types of male virgins: the sickly male virgin (who is a virgin because of some illness), the genius virgin (too smart for sex), the student virgin (must be brought into the sexual arena), the virgin as commodity, and the virgin as monstrous (Edward Cullen, it is his virginity rather than his vegetarian vampirism that renders him monstrous). I think there are likely other types of male virgins, but these are the "types" that I have most theorised.

    Susan Napier's virgin in Secret Admirer is very interesting because, in many ways, he seems more like an alpha male hero. Meanwhile, in a book published around the same time, Katherine Kendall's First and Forever, the virgin hero is more like a sentimental hero. At any rate, 1991 seems to be when the male virgin begins to appear in popular romance fiction.

    I have collected a list of male virgins in popular romance, mostly heterosexual romance, and have a total of about 150 novels.

  7. My attraction to stories with male virgins centers around three things.

    1) I find the stereotype of men as masterful, unfeeling beasts that live only to spread their seed far and wide without emotional connection unattractive to the point of repulsion. It doesn't matter to me if the rake reforms; he does nothing for me. I prefer male characters who seek emotional connection with others and for whom sex has some significance. In male virgin characters I can be assured that I'll probably get both those things.

    2) I vastly prefer dynamics of power and experience in sexual relationships to be more egalitarian or tending toward the power being in the woman's hands, and male virgin characters tend to provide that, though not as reliably as I'd like.

    3) As a youngster I imprinted on Marcus Cole from Babylon 5, who was basically a virgin knight with devoted love for Commander Susan Ivanova. He valued emotional connection and honor, respected her power, and... well, it was all very appealing. I imprinted on the same dynamic with Sara and Ian on Witchblade. Another knightly virgin dude (she actually calls him Galahad at one point! lol), that character way less well-adjusted than Marcus, though.

    Anyway, the trope of the knightly virgin is very appealing to me. The dedication and chastity represents constancy and nobility of spirit, which are really attractive qualities. And there's an element of D/s to the whole thing, if the virgin knight is choosing a woman to dedicate himself to.

  8. *I mean the television show Witchblade, not the comics. The comics are execrable sexist tripe, and don't have the dynamic I described.

  9. Ack. Lemme clarify: "rakes" like Alistair Carsington in Miss Wonderful don't disgust me because he genuinely was in love with all the women he slept with. It's male characters who treat women like disposable tissues or conquests that I can't stand. A magical hoo-ha transforms them and I'm left with the feeling that there wasn't anything there worth transforming to begin with. It's not a moral issue for me in the sense of purity vs. casual sex or innocence vs. experience, it's about respect. With male virgins, there's a higher likelihood that the character approaches sexual partners with respect.

  10. Interesting topic! I don't have much to add but a question: What happens to the male virgin trope in M/M fiction? The short story "Pricks and Pragmatism" by J. L. Merrow made me think of the question, but I'm sure there are other examples and other dynamics out there.

  11. Jonathan's paper on “Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels" has just appeared in the latest issue of JPRS. In it he

    seeks to explore and theorise the male virgin in heterosexual popular romance novels. Initially, I demonstrate at least four “types” of male virgins: the sickly virgin, the student virgin, the genius virgin, and the virgin as commodity. I conclude this theoretical groundwork by considering Eloisa James’ When the Duke Returns, which brings together each of these “types” of male virginity. Ultimately, I argue that male virginity in romance fiction is complex and is distinct from other treatments of male virginity in other popular media.

  12. https://www.facebook.com/NothingWrongWithBeingAVirgin