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.”“What!”“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?