Often enough stereotypes of romance novels rely on a simple yet seemingly appropriate enough logic: alpha male + virgin = romance.
While there are certainly more than enough virginal heroines in popular romance novels, we have, in recent years, seen a growing presence of male virgins in romance. Our oversexed alpha males in need of taming have been re-written as under-sexed heroes in search of being initiated.
The most famous of these male virgins is, of course, Edward Cullen, the 107-year-old virgin. While we may debate about whether or not the Twilight Saga is a romance, the point is that male virgins are also appearing in the romance novels of Eloisa James, Monica Burns, Bonnie Dee, Jo Davis, and Courtney Milan, to name but a few.
The male virgin is an interesting character whose history in the genre has yet to be tracked. However, it seems that beginning in the 1990s we see the advent of the male virgin. Novels like First and Forever (1991, Harlequin Temptation #360) by Katharine Kendall and Secret Admirer (1991, Harlequin Presents #1554) by Susan Napier introduced the male virgin hero. In both narratives, the virgin hero is something of a surprise for the reader. The reader, like the heroine of Secret Admirer, is shocked to learn that the hero is a virgin:
“What?” Grace stared at him blankly.
He scooped up a slice of toast and bit into it. “Couldn’t you tell, Grace? Was my gift such a paltry thing? I thought one’s partner could always tell.”
What was he talking about? To her horror, Grace suddenly realized that, although he had used protection afterwards, the first, rough coming-together had been utterly spontaneous and Scott certainly hadn’t held back. [. . .] “What gift? T-tell—what?” she stammered, raising her cup to hide the quiver of her mouth, hoping he wasn’t going to prove as selfishly arrogant as she suspected!
“Why, that it was my first time of course.”
Virginity in the romance novel has changed, however. In Courtney Milan’s Unclaimed (2011), the opening sentence reads, quite matter of factly: “Sir Mark Turner did not look like any virgin that Jessica had ever seen before.” Heroic males are now virgins.
There has been a paradigmatic shift that relocates sexual inexperience in the romance novel in the past twenty years: the heroine can now be experienced and the hero entirely virginal, untouched, pure. Ann Snitow’s claim that “virginity is a given here” can nicely and provocatively be re-read precisely because it is no longer the heroine who must be a virgin. While virginity may be a given, it does seem that progress is being made towards virginal equality. Male virgins are not yet as popular as female virgins in romance, but they are also not the exceptionally rare commodity they once were.
In forthcoming entries, we will speculate about why there are so many more virginal heroes now than ever before and how the culture of virginity, abstinence, and purity have, perhaps, informed these discussion.
Jonathan A. Allan is affiliated with the University of Toronto. Find out more about Jonathan Allan.