Remaking the virgin hero
Back in 1979, during the first wave of popular romance criticism, Ann Barr Snitow claimed that “virginity is a given” in the mass-market category romance. Things changed for heroines some time ago; in fact, they’d changed in longer historical romance novels well before Snitow published her essay, and in Harlequins shortly thereafter.
Is a comparable shift underway for heroes, this time in reverse?
Some of the genre’s biggest authors, at least in North America, are now writing novels with virgin heroes, not sexually experienced alpha males. By my rough count, since the early nineties, over 100 male virgin heroes have starred in heterosexual romances, and male/male romances undoubtedly provide a significant number of male virgins as well.
Numbers this large mean that the virgin hero isn’t a novelty anymore. Courtney Milan’s recent novel Unclaimed (2011) seems to be aware of this glut in the market, taking it as a challenge. “Sir Mark Turner did not look like any virgin Jessica had ever seen before” reads the very first line of the novel. So, what’s he like? How does Milan make the virgin hero new?
In the opening pages, we learn that Sir Mark has “made chastity popular” by writing a book called A Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity,” a book so influential it’s led Queen Victoria to knight him for his “contribution to popular morality,” while male followers have organized themselves into a brotherhood (the “Male Chastity Brigade”) and female fans slip a “diminutive version” of the Guide into their petticoats, “as close to their naked thighs as they could manage.”
This mass-media popularity marks Sir Mark as a version of what I have called the “male virgin as commodity” character type. (I talk about this and other archetypes, like the “sick virgin” and the “virgin genius,” in an essay at the Journal of Popular Romance Studies.) But Unclaimed does not simply fetishize Sir Mark’s chastity, nor does its heroine, unhappy courtesan Jessica Farleigh. Some other game is afoot—and to see it, we have to consider Unclaimed and the Practical Guide in light of contemporary American virginity culture.
In the preface to his book, Sex is Not the Problem (Lust Is): Sexual Purity in a Lust-Saturated World, Joshua Harris, senior pastor at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, also does his best to “make chastity popular”—which does not mean, he quickly explains, to say anything bad about sex:
When I first told my father-in-law I was writing a book on lust, he humorously asked, “So are you for it or against it” I laughed and told him that I’m against lust and that I think there’s already enough literature in favor of it! But later I realized that the message of this book is not that I’m against lust, but that I’m for God’s plan for sexual desire. Yes, lust is bad. But it’s bad because what it perverts is so good.
This theology is not new. As Peter Gardella argued a generation ago, American preachers and teachers have long extolled an “innocent ecstasy”; his book of that name is even subtitled “How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure.” No, what’s remarkable about Harris’s book (and others like it) is the way it targets men as its audience, linking purity with masculinity in a way that hasn’t been common for almost a century.
Read in this light, Unclaimed looks like a romance author’s active and thoughtful engagement with the mix of religious and secular discourses of purity and chastity that thread through contemporary America. The novel explores the different ways that these ideals play out in practice for women and for men, the various meanings they might have for those who pledge themselves to remain or (somehow) return to virginity, and the motivations that drive them.
Above all, the novel meditates on the tension between a chastity that is freely chosen, on Sir Mark’s part, and on Jessica’s, a sex-life that is profoundly unfree, imposed by male power and social self-righteousness. Framing the two extremes of sexuality in this way, she upends our expectations, and raises wonderful questions. What happens when characters who embody these extremes begin to fall in love? How can each know the authenticity of his or her desires, or the other person’s, in such a confounding mix of public and private contexts?
It’s easy to think of popular romance fiction as the kind of literature that is either simply “in favor of” lust, as Pastor Harris might say, or else—if it’s a “sweet” or Christian romance—”in favor of” chastity. As Unclaimed ably demonstrates, however, the genre has room for ambiguity and complexity, just like the broader culture. Virginity isn’t “a given” in either, anymore.
Jonathan A. Allan is a lecturer in the Gender and Women's Studies Program at Brandon University. Find out more about Jonathan Allan.