Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Challenging the Virgin Myths: Anne Calhoun's UNCOMMON PASSION

Virgin heroines, or at least sexually unawakened ones, have long been a staple of the romance genre. In historical romance, the trope is hardly surprising; in times when primogeniture served as the backbone of ruling-class feudal and early modern societies, the virginity of one's potential wife was one of the few safeguards a man had that the child to whom his estate would pass would be of his own blood, rather than another man's. In contemporary romance, however, the number of virgin heroines seems strikingly out of proportion to the number of actual women (at least in the United States) who have never engaged in sexual intercourse (see this 2010 report from the Centers for Disease Control on American teen sexuality). As recently as 2009, in their book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels, Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell could proclaim the sexually inexperienced heroine "one of the more peculiar constants of most romance novels"; even in many paranormals and erotic romances, a heroine is often "relatively innocent, as proven by her inexperience or outright virginity. No matter what type she is, she is definitely not the ho-type" (37).

The "ho-type" label that Tan and Wendell suggest the typical romance heroine deftly avoids may be the key to her continued presence in Romancelandia. "No other genre is as obsessed with the heroine (a) having excellent sex, and (b) not having sex at all unless it's with the One True Love, who's also usually the sole person who can make her come. Got orgasm? Got true love!" BHB's authors proclaim, arguing that the virgin trope allows for the conflation of sexual and romantic awakening, thereby intensifying the heroine's (and through her, the reader's) experience of both (37).

But the conflation of these two tropes serves another, more ideological purpose. Romance authorizes women to enjoy sex, nay, insists that sexual fulfillment is a basic right. But in a society still haunted by the sexual double standard, women who demand sexual fulfillment can all too easily be labeled promiscuous, trashy, sluts, or "hos." By both insisting that women have the right to sexual pleasure, but simultaneously insisting that only the "right" man can give the right woman the pleasure she deserves, the trope of the sexually unawakened/virgin heroine functions to mitigate the anxieties that the sexual double standard inevitably invites. I love good sex, but I'm not a slut; see, I only enjoy sex with that one special someone, not with any or every good-looking guy in the bar...

Equating great sex and true love may have been a step forward toward the goal of acknowledging and accepting women's right to their sexual feelings and desires, and their right to have those feelings and desires met by a partner. Yet the great compromise of Romancelandia has not come without its costs, costs that Anne Calhoun deftly explores in a contemporary erotic romance featuring, yes, a virgin heroine.

In 2013, a twenty-five-year-old virgin strains at reader credibility. Calhoun addresses the problem of reader buy-in by making her heroine, Rachel, a member of a strict Fundamentalist religious community, one in which patriarchal male dominance is a given. Yet Uncommon Passion is not about how Rachel comes to reject her community's sexist strictures; as the novel opens, it's been six months since Rachel left her father and the Elysian Fields Community of God behind. And Rachel, though thoughtful and quiet, is hardly the shrinking violet one might picture having just escaped from a strict religious community that insisted any negative feeling was a sin against authority. "Leaving Elysian Fields meant gaining a measure of not just control over her body and emotions, but also her privacy. She wanted the full range of human experience, and she wanted the option to keep it to herself" (12).

And for Rachel, an important part of that human experience is to know what it is to have sex. The annual fundraiser at the farm where she works presents her with the perfect opportunity: a bachelor auction. Rather than bid on the farm's owner, whom she knows to be kind and friendly, Rachel chooses Ben Harris, a police officer whose reputation suggests is only interested in sex, not a relationship: "the perfect man to take her virginity. Rachel wasn't the gambling kind, but she'd lay odds he wouldn't even notice" (13).

And Ben, wired from a run-in with an armed robber, doesn't—at least not until the morning after. He confronts Rachel, angered that she didn't tell him, equally upset at what the incident says about him: "was this who he'd become, a man who didn't notice a virgin in his bed?" (33). Part worried about his own callousness, part afraid of the danger the inexperienced woman might get into as she explores her budding sexuality, and part driven by his own attraction to her, Ben insists that Rachel give him "another shot."

And Rachel wants more experience: "A woman's most precious possession, according to her pastor and every other male authority figure in her life, the thing valued higher than rubies, more treasured than gold, was gone forever, and all she felt was a longing to know more" (30). Unlike her boss Rob, and all the other people who she's met since she left Elysian Fields, Ben doesn't see her as a fragile girl, but as a strong woman, who "expected her to know and take what she wanted... [who] had the courage and strength to do just that" (49). And so Rachel decides to take Ben up on his offer, the two agreeing to meet once a week for mutual sexual exploration, no romance, and no strings, attached.

Another aspect of the virgin heroine trope's appeal is that a man can and will satisfy a woman's sexual needs, without her having to explain those needs to him, or even to herself. A sexually inexperienced woman is one who doesn't know enough to ask for what she needs, the trope assumes, and insists that the right man can magically intuit her needs without her even having to acknowledge them, in thought or in speech. Through Rachel, Calhoun rejects this fantasy, replacing it with a more realistic, and more empowering, one: "Because you need to learn what works for you. Don't rely on the man to take care of you. Know what you want and how to ask for it," Ben counsels Rachel (86). Even before she heard his advice, however, Rachel was eager to discover the pleasures of being an active, rather than a passive, participant in the game of sexual exploration: "This wasn't about what she wanted him to do to her. It was about what she wanted to do to him, to feel with him" (84). After years of being told what to do, how to think, Rachel is eager to act, and in particular, to discover "what it's like to be in control" (171).

Ben plays out the fantasy of being the competent, experienced teacher to an inexperienced virgin, another aspect of the appeal of the rakish male/virgin female trope. His ultimate goal, though, is turning Rachel into himself: "She'd be easy to teach, easy to toughen up and prepare for casual sex in the modern world," he thinks to himself (102). Ben has spent his adult years using sex as a tension-reliever, a physical act valuable not just for the pleasure it offers, but for the way it distracts him from his own feelings, especially his feelings about his painful estrangement from his family. Sex allows him to substitute adrenaline for emotion, losing himself in the physical, a technique he convinces himself it would be to everyone's benefit to learn.

But Rachel left Elysian Fields in order to feel, not to repress her emotions. For Rachel, adrenaline alone is not enough. In his fear, Ben refuses to accept that Rachel has as much to teach him, both about emotions and about sex, as he has to teach her. When he attempts to train her in the ways of modern casual sex with one final, humiliating lesson, though, it is Ben, not Rachel who emerges devastated. Refusing to learn what Ben insists she must, Rachel turns the stereotypes inherent in the uneducated virgin trope on their head.

After such a dark black moment, it's difficult to imagine how Ben and Rachel could ever recover from the damage. That Calhoun manages to bring the two back together, and without any easy fix or glib words, provides yet another challenge to the assumptions that underlies not only the virgin heroine trope, but almost all romance fiction—that once you say "I love you," all other problems fall by the wayside.

What other reasons can you think of for the prevalence of the virgin heroine trope in romance fiction? And what are the dangers of its myths?

Photo/Illustration credits:
Chicken sex/love: Doug Savage
Bachelor Auction: The Art of Being Humane
Virginville: Photobucket

Anne Calhoun, Uncommon Passion
Berkley Heat, 2013


  1. I *really* want to read this book. The topic really interests me because I was part of a fundamentalist, patriarchal (is that redundant?) sect throughout my teens and early twenties. A 25-year-old virgin does not strain my credibility. In fact, I get uncomfortable when people dismiss adult virgins as being rarities, because a good proportion of the people I know - men and women - remained virgins well into their twenties and thirties. I realize that won't be everyone's experience, but I'd be willing to bet it is the experience of more people than you'd expect, no matter what surveys say.

    For me, there is one big problem with virgins in romance, and it's not that it's unrealistic. It's that the women's personalities are usually as sterile as bleach. Naive, good to a fault, utterly boring, as if being inexperienced in sex equates to being inexperienced in every aspect of life. These are not the kinds of people I know, nor are they the kinds of characters I want to read about.

    When I read a contemporary virgin character, I want to know how it affects their life - because it will. Being a virgin in the U.S. (or Britain or Europe, the places I have most experience of) is unusual and is usually the result of a person making a conscious decision not to be like the masses. That's interesting. I want to see how that's explored. I want to see how that has shaped a person's life and whether it changes or challenges the people who love him or her.

    You mention conflating the stereotype with a "ho-type". I'm more interested in authors who challenge the status quo by writing about virgin (or virginal) men. I like reading about men who are not typical romance novel man-hos. I like heroes who want an emotional connection with the women the share a physical connection with.

    But perhaps I'm in the minority there, too.

    1. Kat:

      I think you'll find Rachel far more interesting than the typically sterile, dull women virgins in much romance. And if you're in the minority in wishing for a hero who WANTS an emotional connection with the woman he sleeps with, it's a minority that is growing, and becoming more vocal about its desires.

  2. I think the virgin trope has to do with the fantasy of the great first time.

    Usually the virgin heroine's first time is with the hero, and therefore, due to another trope, is going to be fantastic and she'll have an orgasm. So the fantasy is that this woman didn't have to come by sexual experience in with other inexperienced teenagers. It also is a metaphor for readers who, while not virgins, maybe also feel inexperienced.

    If there's a danger in the myth, it's that it minimizes the learning and wisdom that comes from, frankly, bad sex. I'm interested in stories of women that come by sexual experience and gratification with some hard work (sorry, bad pun).

    In the "writing sex" workshop at RWA13, Elizabeth Hoyt and the other authors specifically mentioned we need more "bad sex" (not the magic of multiple orgasms the first time) and the issue of virgin heros was discussed too. So I think many authors are thinking about this and trying to evolve the genre.

    Which brings me to Anne Calhoun - she is an interesting author for me. I like her early work (What She Needs, Liberating Lacey) and Unforgiven had some really lovely and compelling, poignant moments. I think she is trying to work against stereotype and not take the easy path. But for some reason the rest of the series that includes Uncommon Passion (Ty's story, Nathan's story, etc.) left me cold. I felt that she was trying to be more consistent with mainstream romance and some of the threesomes were just wow - not organic to the story or characters for me. I was disappointed in those books. But I'm intrigued by your review. Ben was an ambivalent and highly interesting character from a previous story, so am curious about this one and will definitely give it a try.

    1. Yes, the myth of the fantastic first time definitely is part and parcel of the virgin heroine trope. I wasn't able to attend the "writing sex" workshop at RWA13; so glad to hear that Hoyt and other authors are thinking about the problems created by the amazing first time trope, and are pondering how to depict bad sex in a good way.

      I've only read a few Calhoun books, and not the earlier ones in this series. I'm looking forward to reading others, and seeing how she strives to work against stereotype, and how even when you're trying you don't always manage to get it right.

  3. I agree that Rachel is a different kind of virgin than we normally see in romance. I liked her backstory and found the lack of insta-love refreshing. But I struggled with Ben. From his first appearance on the page (Her: "You can't park there." Him: "Sure I can.") I was questioning his appeal. And maybe that's why Rachel chooses him. She sees a jerk who won't care. He does not subvert the rakish hero trope. I noticed a strong contrast between Rachel (good, innocent) and other women. Ben's not interested in a party girl who's slept with several of his coworkers. He doesn't seem aware of the fact that he's just like her. I don't know if the narrative challenged the idea that promiscuous women have a lower value than 'rakish' men.

    1. Yes, Ben is definitely not an attempt to subvert the rakish type. And yes, that is exactly why Rachel chooses him; both because she's personally attracted to him, but also because she intuits that "he had no interest in a relationship, no sense that sex was something special reserved for the marriage bed, no inclination to call again" (11). "It didn't matter that Ben wasn't her type. She wasn't going to fall in love with the first man she had sex with. She wasn't going to tie herself down, not after she'd paid so much to get free from that old life" (13).

      There's definitely some slut-shaming in Ben's attitude towards other women, at least after he sleeps with Rachel. I think we as readers are meant to see, though, just what you did, Jill: he is just the same as the girl who slept with several of his coworkers. Part of his immaturity is his investment in the belief that men who engage in casual sex are better than women who do the same, I think.

  4. I really love Seduce the Sinner (a historical) where our heroine is not a Virgin and the first time the couple is together is not so great and her sexual experience is the past was satisfying. She works to make the next time better and the hero does not slut shame her. Love this book.

    Why Virgins? Well, its the one and only love fantasy. Penny Reid's new book Friends Without Benefits is a fun book that explores a heroine who believes for various reasons that we only get one great love. She is not a virgin (and has sex for non love based reasons) but it is a interesting exploration of this cultural or youthful feeling about romantic love.

  5. I liked the last book I read, Worth the Wait, because I liked how the virgin heroine had an idea of what she wanted. She also went against her religious upbringing, and though she did fall for her sex partner, she was thoughtful about who he really was and why he might not be a good romantic partner. She even dated other guys in the book.
    I liked the idea that he was experienced and made her first experience pleasant.

    I know my first time was terrible, and it got worse when the relationship ended. I had this feeling of "wasting it". I remember making friends with a group of girls in college who were all virgins and I acutely wished I could get in the wayback machine and have a do-over. I felt like they weren't yet jaded or disappointed in the way I was.
    I think the adult virgin heroine lets people imagine having their same exciting exploration that a lot of people have in their teens combined with the adult ability to pick a partner more carefully.
    I think there's still some internalized feelings of wanting someone to be "the one", romantically and sexually.

  6. "I think the adult virgin heroine lets people imagine having their same exciting exploration that a lot of people have in their teens combined with the adult ability to pick a partner more carefully." LOVE this idea, Shannon. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Based on this post and comment discussion, I read Uncommon Passion (with some trepidation), and, with a few minor issues, loved it.
    Two thoughts - Rachel was so strong from the beginning she was almost too perfect. She didn't have much of an internal arc. I thought Ben's character arc overshadowed hers, which is amazing when you consider that she was a virgin from a fundamentalist cult. I kept expecting more backwash with how she was raised, more confusion on her part as to emotions, more missteps. She didn't jive with the people I know who've spent time in similar communities.
    The other issue is that Ben's family conflict felt really strong for a subplot. As a reader, I had to assume that the family did a lot of additional work "off screen," otherwise the resolution was too pat.
    But otherwise, a great book that avoids a lot of annoying virgin tropes. I loved reading Ben's point of view - somehow I feel like she took what could have been a cardboard character and made him interesting. And fingers crossed that Rob, Jess, and Juliette, get their stories told one day? Juliette needs an HEA.
    Also - the fact that when we first see Ben he's parkomg in a fire zone also irritated me, similar to another commentator. I loved how the whole "because I can" part of his personality get demolished over the course of the book.

    1. Thanks for letting us know your thoughts and reactions, Eliza. Glad you enjoyed it!