Although I've read a few romances that feature male virgins, particularly historical romances and YAs, I was curious to see what scholars of the genre have written about this fairly uncommon trope. My research turned up Jonathan A. Allan's 2011 Journal of Popular Romance Studies article, "Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Novels." I'd like to outline Allan's main arguments about how the trope of the sexually inexperienced man functions in romance, raise some questions in response to his ideas, then invite you to do the same.
Allan approaches his study by noting that while not all male virgins in romance are the same, they do tend to fall into one what he suggests are four distinct categories: the "sick virgin," the "student virgin," the "genius virgin," and finally, the "virgin as commodity."
|Does the romance find male virgins fearful?|
The "student" virgin type, in which the heroine becomes the sexual teacher to an inexperienced hero, seems to have more potential to disrupt gender roles by disrupting the power dynamic most often depicted in romance novel sex. Having less to do with who the hero is or what he lacks, the student virgin type focuses more on what the heroine has: sexual experience, and the power to wield it in the face of the hero's lack of same. As Allan notes, though, in the book he uses to illustrate this type, First and Forever by Katherine Kendall (1991), once sex begins, the sexual power dynamic flips, and the student becomes the master. Is this true of all student/teacher virgin male romances? Does the generic demand that one's true love always makes the sex fantabulous override the very real possibility that a sexually-inexperienced hero might not be able to satisfy his partner right from the get-go?
|An example of the "genius virgin" romance|
The final male virgin type is "virgin as commodity." Like the student virgin, this type has less to do with anything that inheres in the hero himself, and more to do with how he is perceived by others. Male virginity is seen as a prize, its owner an object, rather than a subject, a rarity to be desired and acquired. This type is often used in comedy, Allan notes, but I'm guessing that, at least in romance novels, the joke is on those who see the virgin in this way; I can't imagine that a romance would allow a male virgin to be won by a heroine who saw him only as a commodity. In books that feature the male virgin as commodity discourse, how often does the butt of the joke collude with or benefit from his own commodification? Does this trope function to point out the limits of commodity culture? Does the hero use his virginity to control others' reactions to his sexuality? To call into question sexual norms? Are readers invited to see him as commodity, too, or are they supposed to laugh at or look down upon those who do?
In the course of his article, Allan uses only a handful of books to map out the entire territory of virgin male romance hero-land. Allan thus seems to repeat a move that many of the earliest students of popular romance have been rightly criticized for: creating a topographical map without accurately surveying the wider genre. Would these categories still work if we tried to fit all of the books on All About Romance's "Virginal Heroes" list into them? What of the more recent list of "VIRGIN HEROES" on goodreads? Do the categories still hold if we include not just virgins, but also "Romance Novels with Celibate and/or Lesser Experienced Heroes", too?
Other questions that Professor Allan's article raised for me:
• Does it make sense to create a taxonomy of male virgins in romance when some of your categories are based on qualities of the hero himself, while others are based on how he is perceived by others? Or, in other words, does a taxonomy only make sense if its categories are based on the same metric?
• Must the hero always make a declaration of his virginity? If so, does this declaration function in different ways in different types of virgin hero novels? Or does it serve one particular purpose?
• Are certain types of male virgins more common in comedy than in works of realism? In historical romance than in contemporary? In erotic romance than in inspirational?
• Were virgin heroes more popular during specific historical periods of time? For example, less common in the 60's and 70's, more so in the 80's? To what specific cultural anxieties does the male virgin speak?
• How do heroines react/respond to the male virgin? Are they always teachers? Or do they play other roles?
• How are readers invited to view the virgin hero? Are readers aware of his virgin status before the heroine is? If so, what effect does such knowledge have on the reader?
Clearly, when it comes to the virgin hero in romance, there are still many, many roads yet to be mapped. What questions does the virgin romance hero raise for you? What are your favorite male virgin romances, and why do you like them?
• Oldest Male Virgin T-shirt: "Great Things About Being a Virgin Male"
Next time on RNFF
Laura Florand's The Chocolate Kiss