Content warning: childhood sexual abuse —ed.
By Katie Rose Guest Pryal
I’m reading my way through a romance series. I’m on the fifth installment, and I’ve gotten a feel for the unique quirks of the books as well as for the ways the books heed romance novel conventions—especially the less enticing conventions.
The convention I’m having trouble dealing with most, one of the most common romance novel conventions of all, is this: All of the heroines, no matter what their age, no matter what century they were born in (there’s some time-traveling involved), are virgins when they meet the heroes.
There’s nothing wrong with being a virgin, of course. Lots of people are virgins, even into their mid-twenties (or later), just like the heroines of the novels I’m reading. But lately, the way virginity is used as a trope in romance novels has started to get to me.
With few exceptions (Courtney Milan, I’m looking at you), one can’t read a historical romance novel, or even many that are set in contemporary times, without encountering a virginal heroine. It’s simply that common of a genre convention.
What’s the big deal?
The big deal, for me, is the particular trope of virginity-as-sacred-gift to the hero. The big deal, for me, is the other trope of virginity-as-stand-in-for-honesty, resolve, valor, courage, and an assortment of other qualities that a romance heroine has no other way of proving she possesses except by guarding her hymen.
In a romance novel that uses these tropes, when the moment of truth—that is, cherry-picking—finally comes, and inevitably the reader enters the hero’s point of view for at least a moment, he feels such gratitude that he’s the one to have received the gift of the heroine’s virginity. And in that moment, he truly admires her.
And in that moment, I feel sick and cheated. I feel like a failure. I wonder why I’m reading the book and consider stopping. Every time. But I set aside my bad feelings and keep reading. After all, it’s not the romance novel genre’s fault that I was raped when I was a child and never had a chance to be a virgin at all.
When I was a freshman in college, my best friend was a girl named Bel. She and I were walking through the student union during what turned out to be rape awareness week. I, of course, was so wildly unaware of everything in college that I didn’t know such a week even existed.
A campus activist group had set up a long, white bulletin board—a memorial. It stretched as long as the building itself. When Bel and I found it, the board was covered by a flurry of yellow index cards, so many that the board looked like a field of daffodils. On a nearby table were more cards, pens, and push-pins so you could write a note and stick it on the board.
I’d never told Bel what happened to me as a child, so I was nervous about writing anything on a card. But she strode to the table, picked up a card and wrote a note, and then stabbed it into the board. Her note read, For the girl who never got to be a virgin.
For a moment, I had a strange feeling that Bel had read my mind. She could have written that note about me. She hadn’t, though. I quickly wrote a note for myself, and we walked outside onto the quad. We sat in the spring North Carolina sunshine on a patch of grass by the gothic-inspired chapel and told each other very similar stories.
Then, Bel told me she had a theory. It went like this: Since she never had a chance to choose whom to have sex with the first time, she got to be a virgin forever.
Bel was an eternal virgin.
At first glance, Bel’s theory seemed similar to the advice given by nurse practitioner Carol F. Roye, in her article about the uselessness of our cultural misconceptions about hymens and virginity: “I believe that virginity is what the individual thinks it is. It certainly is for men, who bear no tell-tale signs of lost virginity. The concept of virginity has an emotional connotation. It is more than just the physical disruption of hymenal tissue.”
But in reality, Bel had flipped Roye’s advice on its head. Bel had declared herself a virgin for as long as she wanted to be one.
Roye, however, was not advising a perception of virginity until you felt like you weren’t a virgin any more. On the contrary, she was advising women to take a broader, not narrower, view of virginity loss: “If a young woman has had a sexual relationship with her partner, and she feels that she has lost her virginity, then she has, regardless of what actually happened to her hymen during the encounter. There are ancillary issues that each woman must answer for herself. Is oral sex ‘de-virginizing?’ Anal sex?”
Roye’s article didn’t consider me or Bel at all. How do you think about virginity when yours was gone before you were sexual being in the first place?
Just a few months before my conversation with Bel, I’d had sex for the first time since since I was raped by a grown man when I was in middle school.
My first adult sexual experience was not the most romantic experience in the world. In fact, in retrospect, I don’t think I wanted it to be. I think I wanted to get it over with. I didn’t have a hymen (metaphorical or no) to discard, but I did have plenty of baggage. I chose someone I knew I would never see again—an ex-boyfriend from high school. I selected him carefully for a one-night stand.
Before we went at it, I told Ex-Boyfriend I was raped when I was a child—I’d never told him before. He seemed, weirdly, relieved. “So you’re not a virgin, then.”
What did that question mean? That he was going to do things differently? Would he have done things differently if I’d said nothing? What if I’d had the eternal virgin conversation with Bel sooner and kept my rape a secret from him? What if I’d told him I was a virgin—what would have happened then? Did he think my body was transformed somehow by its less-than-virginal status, his own duty to me therefore lightened?
Sarah Wendell at the romance novel website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books addressed what she called the “Surprise Virgin” trope in romance novels. It goes like this:
The hero figures out the heroine is a virgin because he encounters some resistance (which, don’t even get me started) and she flinches and of course he Is Very Alarmed and tries to stop but she tells him not to so it’s ok for him to get on with it.
Then after they’ve crested and reached peaks of joy and done the dance as old as time, he says something about how if he’d known she was a virgin, he’d have done it all differently, been more gentle or something.
Wendell has all kinds of criticisms of this particularly weak trope: “First, why would you not bring your A game the first time you sleep with a woman you have major lust pants for? If you groin is on fire and it’s not because of Gold Bond, why would you not do your very best scrumpin? What is this ‘I’d have been more gentle and sensitive’ crap?”
Ex-Boyfriend and I had the awkward I-was-raped conversation. Then I, with my non-virginal eighteen-year-old body, and he, with his extremely non-virginal twenty-year-old body, fucked in my friend’s guest room. It hurt like hell. I cried and made sure he didn’t see. Sex felt terrible, and I never wanted to do it again. Maybe that was his A game. Maybe it wasn’t.
My de-baggaging (you really can’t call it deflowering) did not involve peaks of joy.
I was an unusual species of surprise virgin. I’d been deflowered, yes, when I was a child. But in no way was I sexually experienced. Bel was right, in this instance—that night I was an eternal virgin.
But I didn’t understand any of this back then. After my de-baggaging, I was in so much pain that I believed my body was broken. When Ex-Boyfriend asked me what was wrong—he wasn’t so dense that he couldn’t sense that something was off—I insisted I was fine. He fell asleep. I didn’t sleep at all.
I was probably in shock.
The romance novel is a beautiful genre. That’s why, despite these painful virgin tropes, I keep reading them. When they’re written well, books about the struggle to find human connection—emotional and physical—are deeply gratifying.
Some readers criticize the predictability of the genre. But, like it does for most genres, predictability makes romance novels more enjoyable, not less. Romance is predictable as any genre is predictable: as predictable as a Sherlock Holmes story, as predictable as a sonnet.
“Predictable” simply means that the books share genre conventions to which they must conform and use to tell their stories. These conventions can be constraining, like the quatrains and couplets of a sonnet. But they can also create a freedom within that constraint, as any author of metrical poetry will tell you. Readers appreciate an author who can dazzle from within those conventions.
Any acrobat can flip and twirl. The acrobat who flips and twirls on a tightrope is astounding. The tightrope is the genre with its constraints and conventions.
But here’s the other thing about genres: they are allowed to grow and change as the needs of their audiences grow and change.
Wendell and her co-author Candy Tan, in their book on romance novels, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, take on the trope of innocence—usually depicted using virginity—in romance novels of all stripes, not just historicals:
One of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels, from historicals to contemporaries to paranormals to even erotica, is the sexually unawakened state of the heroine. She’s relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or her outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type.
Therein lies the deep, humid, dark, and somewhat curious den that is home to the two sacred mythical beasts beloved to Romancelandia. They’re interconnected, if you know what we mean (and we think you do): the Unawakened Woman and the Heroic Wang of Mighty Lovin’. They are the plague and the backbone of romance.
The virginal heroine and heroic wang are long-entrenched conventions of romance novels. But they need to go. They need to go along with the interminable whiteness of the characters of most romance novels, and other sad holdovers.
Romance writers do push genre boundaries. They stay on the tightrope but retrace the conventions in ways that allow for new ways of thinking about sexuality. For readers like me, for rape survivors, abuse survivors, for those of us whose virginity never was ours to begin with—we are grateful.
Courtney Milan, in her historical romance novel Unclaimed, features a virginal leading man, Sir Mark Turner, and a courtesan, Jessica Farleigh, hired to seduce him and destroy his reputation. The book is sexy, conventional (genre-wise), and wound up tight. And yet it flips the virginal heroine trope on its head. That Milan could do all of this and remain on the tightrope only makes her writerly acrobatics more amazing. Milan avoided the plague and maintained the backbone. And with the rest of her novels, she does it over and over. Other writers manage to avoid the plague as well. (Hello there, Alisha Rai.) But they are rare, still.
I know that having sex for the first time is not usually like it is in a romance novel. Even friends who aren’t rape survivors have told me that their first time was similar to my de-baggaging. Terrible—painful, with insensitive partners who are snoring before you know it’s over.
But usually a girl or woman gets to choose whom she’s with when she loses her virginity. I never got to choose. Bel never got to choose. But more than that, we never got to be virgins. From the moment I was aware of my sexuality, I was already not-a-virgin. The first person to press his lips to mine was the first person to stick his dick in me. I didn’t know what a condom was, and, no, he didn’t use one.
I lost so much that day. Not just my virginity.
It’s curious that we say “lose” when we talk about virginity. The language of “lose,” of “loss,” implies that virginity is something that can be found again. After all, few things are lost forever. The old-fashioned term “ruined” seems far more accurate. Thomas Hardy, ever interested in ruination, wrote a poem called “The Ruined Maid,” taking on Victorian notions of virginity and its close bedfellow (heh), ruination.
“O ’Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such pros-per-ity?”—
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
And on it goes, the poor country girl amazed by the dazzling jewels, dress, and speech of her former counterpart, now “ruined,” the reader supposes, by a coincidence of her sexual actions and the rigid moral dictates of society.
What’s not mentioned in the poem is that the ruined woman must be well provided for in her new role as a rich man’s mistress. Ruination in Victorian society did not immediately mean wealth and education, after all, but it could. And, by the end, it appears that both women—the poor working woman, aged early by her hard life, and the rich man’s mistress—are ruined after a fashion. The double meaning of the word “ruined” makes the poem work.
Nevertheless, the line of demarcation is clear. The overworked country girl and the socially ruined mistress are not the same.
A girl does not come back from being ruined. What’s lost cannot be found. You just have to pick up the ruined stuff of yourself, and move on.
KATIE ROSE GUEST PRYAL is a novelist, freelance journalist, and erstwhile law professor living in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Hollywood Lights Series, which includes Entanglement, Love and Entropy, and Chasing Chaos, all from Velvet Morning Press. As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to Quartz, The Chronicle Of Higher Education, The (late, lamented) Toast, Dame Magazine, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. When not writing, she teaches creative writing and works as freelance editor. Find her on Twitter: @krgpryal.