Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Do Virgins Suck?

An astute Specrom member sent me a challenge on my disdain for virgin heroines. She had a story to enter the (cancelled for lack of entries) Zircon contest, but, knowing the market, knew that submitting a virgin heroine to the Zircons would be like submitting hot, same-sex polygamy to Guideposts. She suggested that in a genre like romance it's hard to escape the virgins, and because of my prejudice against virgins I'm missing lots of good fiction.

She might be right. Then again, maybe not.

In one of my very first reviews for SpecRom, I encountered a contemporary paranormal romance featuring a VH. The story could have been just as effective if she wasn't a virgin. Although a plausible (for some) reason was provided for her virginity, it just smacked of manipulation. I asked myself WHY an author might choose to write about a VH in contemporary America, and didn't like the reasons that came to mind.

Reason #1: The heroine must be a virgin because Virgins=Goodness. If an author chooses Reason #1, then I think it's just an example of sloppy characterization. Halos, white hats and intact hymens are lazy ways to cue the reader to cheer. You may in your personal philosophy believe that virginity is a sign of goodness. All well and good, but recognize that it won't connect with all readers unless you are writing to a niche audience.

Reason #2: The heroine must be a virgin so she won't make sensible choices about romance and sex, and then the plot can go on for 90,000 words. Insulting on so many, many levels, is it not? To assume that a contemporary heroine who has no sexual experience hasn't the wits to make good choices…yikes. To assume that a contemporary heroine who has sexual experience also has the wits to make good choices…yikes, again. I have yet to find a biology book which equates sexual experience and intelligence.

Reason #3: The heroine must be a virgin because this is a romance novel, and I don't want to defeat my reader's expectation. Get a calendar.

So I just couldn't figure out why an author writing a contemporary would choose to write a VH except out of personal storytelling choice. And hey, that's great. But expect me to exercise my personal reading choices right back. With few exceptions, stories set in our contemporary world with a VH aren't going to be great fiction to me. I mean, if the heroine is a virgin because she was abducted as a two-year old and kept in a basement by a gang of alien Satanists for sacrificial purposes, hell ya I'm interested. Chances are, you're not. Remember, the greatness of fiction is always subjective.

But, I hear you asking in legion, about speculative worlds? Can't the VH be plausible in those settings? The answer is of course. I have myself written and am trying to sell a short story set in the future featuring (gasp) a Virgin Heroine, and I didn't even realize it until Astute Specrom Member brought this issue up and exposed my own base hypocrisy. My compliments to you, Astute Specrom Member!

I guess I would ask authors to ask themselves, as they sit down to craft a speculative world, WHY are you creating a world in which virginity matters? As long as you can answer that question honestly and completely from either personal or story logic, then you write what moves you and audience be damned. If the characters ring true and the plot sweeps me off my feet, even a hypocritical virgin-hater like myself probably will like it.

Or not. Such is the subjective way fiction works. We write what moves us and hope that it connects with a reader somewhere. It's the nature of the beast we ride. It truly has two backs -- the reader and the author -- and one cannot control the other. It's a courtship, as tricky as any held in singles bars or speed dating sessions.

So I am officially no longer the founding member of the Deflower the Virgins Literary Action Committee, and I think a better author and reader for it. So bring on the virgins, but don't expect me to like them. Not all of them, at least.

So I put the question to you, speculative romance readers and authors: Do Virgins Suck?


Racy Li said...

Excellent post. I totally agree with you. I think the tendency to write about virgin heroines comes from the historical/regency influence, which is fine if you're writing historical/regency romance. But unless it ties in to the story or the world-building, which again, ties back into the story, I don't see why having virgin heroines are necessary.

Actually, what's funny is that I just won a book over at Alison Kent's blog for saying if I read one more story about a middle-aged virgin, who decides go out one night and "go wild,' I'm going to fall asleep.

Nonny said...

I don't mind reading about virgins, if they're realistically done. The problem I see with a lot of virgins in contemporary fiction is that they act like young girls who never went through sex ed. Unless there are some extreme circumstances, that's just not realistic. Hell, I was homeschooled growing up, only got to see people outside my family once every four to six months, and my folks did nothing of the sort for sex ed... but I had net access.

It doesn't make sense to me for a heroine to be totally disinterested in sex and anything relating to it until she meets the hero. Um, wtf?

If there's a good enough reason for it and the heroine is realistic in her behavior and attitudes, then I really don't mind. Otherwise, I find it annoying.

TL said...

"It doesn't make sense to me for a heroine to be totally disinterested in sex and anything relating to it until she meets the hero. Um, wtf?"

Why? I'm not interested in having sex, or even dating. I don't believe virginity=goodness or anything, I just don't care to. Of course, not wanting to have sex with anyone doesn't mean a person has no sexual feelings. There's also such a thing as asexuality.

R said...

tl - I think nonny is saying that it doesn't make sense for someone to not have any interest in sex or her own sexuality, and then suddenly become interested only when/because she meets the hero.

SpecRom Joyce said...

Yes, r I think has the right idea.

It leaves a greasy ring around my brain when the otherwise sexually uninterested heroine is transported to orgasm heaven...when she meets THE RIGHT MAN. As if we aren't all responsible for our own ticket to orgasm heaven.

I think this topic has the unfortunate effect of being filtered through the personal. The reader's sexual state is not at issue. The fictional heroine's is, and the motivation behind the author's decisions to make her a virgn.

Christine said...

I'm with Racy Li, if it's part of the story in a sensible context (historical, or in speculative settings where the woman might be under social constraints similar to historical settings from earth). The modern era Virgin, unless she just checked out of the nunnery, is to stupid and insulting for words.

I like heroines with a bit of experience who are not afriad to enjoy sex for the sake of sex, then have to take the consequences the day after. I don't mind an innocent heroine if she goes through a self discovery period, but if it's all laid at the feet of the man, it's just trite.

Lynne Simpson said...

"A greasy ring around your brain"? LOL! I can think of a FEW things that do that. ;-)

One of my big pet peeves is the "shag to save the world" plot, and these types of stories almost always feature a virginal heroine.

That's not to say I won't read a book with a VH -- far from it. But when the heroine's virginity, or lack thereof, becomes a character unto itself, that's when I'm ready to put the book down and back away.

Yonmei said...

Reading this, I realise I don't care if the hero is virginal or not - if any woman in the book I'm reading has an intact hymen or not.

Unless it's important to the plot in some useful way, why should it matter?

What is annoying is when the novel makes a big deal out of a woman's decision to have sex, but doesn't make an equivalent deal out of a man's decision. And what also bugs me is fictional worlds where it is absolutely improbable that people wait for sexual experience until they turn 18 - and yet, the author drops that factoid heavily into the first chapter.

I remember being very amused, though, when I recognised that an almost-as-standard trope in novels is the "One Previous Boyfriend" syndrome. I noticed it first in Dick Francis, but it exists in a lot of places: the OPB means that the writer can have het woman meet het man, they both like each other and are attracted, and because of the OPB the issue of the woman's virginity doesn't arise, and because it's only OPB (and usually the woman says "I thought I loved him" - but not really: also, OPB tends not to have been very good at sex...) the woman can't be typed as a slut or a whore.

Anonymous said...

Hi Joyce,

Gratuitous virginity is annoying to read about. However, the power of the virgin archetype is not. In Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women someone (Anne Stuart? Sorry, I don't have the book at home to check.) wrote an essay about that power. Read it and you may wish to retract. In fact, it was reading that article that made me first try writing YA, because the only virgin I could sympathize with was a young one.

Candice Vetter

Anonymous said...

IMHO the reason for a characters virginity in a story needs to be addressed. Why is it important to the plot? Why has she remaained a virgin? For that matter what if HE is the virgin? I do not agree that modern society makes virginity in a story unrealistic. Society dictated that one maintain at least the appearance of virginity for centuries and used it to keep women in subjection, missing the point of why it was considered an honorable thing in the first place.
Originally, the Biblical principle behind it was that once you have become distracted by sex and your mind is on it, your mind will not be on more holy pursuits. Or at the very least it gives a whole new context to uttering the phrase,"Oh, God, Oh, God, Oh, God."