Friday, December 14, 2012

Male Virgins in Popular Romance

A few posts ago, a commenter wondered if and how inverting the most common knowledge dynamic of romance—a dynamic in which the man has all the sexual experience, the woman all the innocence—would disrupt gender roles. In particular, the commenter wondered how books featuring male virgins fit into the romance genre.

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 first type is fairly self-explanatory: an adult male who, because of illness or accident, has been unable to begin sexual activity during the "correct" or "normal" developmental period, as all of his peers have. After describing this type, Allan veers off into a (intriguing) discussion about how male virgins must "speak," or announce their virgin status at some point during the course of a romance. I'm curious, though, to hear more about how the "sick virgin" functions—does his "abnormality" in regards to sexual experience disrupt our ideas of normal male sexuality? Or does it simply re-inscribe them? Does it evoke our pity? Does the "sick virgin" inevitably turn into the "healthy" i.e., dominant male? Or does his sickness temper him, making him a beta hero?

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 "genius virgin" is a man either too caught up in his intellectual pursuits to give a moment's thought to sex, or one who openly rejects sex as belonging to the world of base emotions, not the higher rationality with which he identifies. Allan briefly mentions that the genius virgin nods to the "enduring dichotomy in patriarchy... the association of men with intellect and the mind, and women with emotion, sex, and the body," but claims that it also simultaneously deconstructs said dichotomy. He doesn't really explain how it does so, though. Is it simply by having the hero who once rejected the (feminine) body and its sexuality later embrace them? Or does it offer the heroine a chance at performing intellect and rationality as well? Or does it place body and mind in relationship together in some transformative way?

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?

• How should we categorize heroes who have chosen for moral or personal reasons, rather than intellectual or health ones, to embrace virginity? For example, in Mary Balogh's No Man's Mistress, Ferdinand, having witnessed the poor relationship experienced by his parents, caused in part by their infidelities, cannot bring himself to pay a woman for sex, and thus chooses to abstain.

• 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?

Photo/Illustration credits:
• Oldest Male Virgin T-shirt: "Great Things About Being a Virgin Male"

Next time on RNFF
Foodie Feminism:
Laura Florand's The Chocolate Kiss


  1. I have no trouble with male virgins, especially those who are so from moral conviction. HOwever, I do have trouble with sexually experienced women initiating the man. I generally do not care for books in which the female is the main protagonist and takes the lead in sexcual matters. Not a feminist viewpoint, I am afraid, bit I never could see the appeal of a rake nor why a free woman had to repeat the mistaks of the males.
    I think traditionally, the idea that the man was experienced and the female not, fit in with the idea that the man was to be the teacher to the female student. Actually, two intelligient virgins can learn what goes where and have fun doing it.

    1. What about books with sexually experienced women initiating men into sex troubles you, anonymous?

      Yes, your point about two virgins exploring the possibilities is a great one. There's an aside in Mary Jo Putney's THE BARTERED BRIDE when the hero tells about (or perhaps only thinks about?) his sexual relationship with his first wife, which was just that type of virgin/virgin pair working things out together, with joy and pleasure. Would be fun to have more of those, especially in 19th chistoricals, when, as Laura V points out below, it was far more common for chastity to be seen as a masculine virtue rather than as a male lack.

  2. "Must the hero always make a declaration of his virginity?"

    I raised that issue with Jonathan (who I think is Dr Allen rather than Professor Allen) when he first posted about virgin heroes at the Popular Romance Project. In his follow-up post, Jonathan stated that:

    In my work on the male virgin, I have simply relied on the hero to admit his virginity as my marker of whether or not he is a virgin.

    [Jonathan's also written a further post for the PRP, which is here.]

    There could therefore be plenty of heroes who could be read as virgins, but who, since they never state that they are, are not included in Jonathan's scheme.

    "Were virgin heroes more popular during specific historical periods of time?"

    Going back a bit, I think it would be quite plausible to assume that Jane Austen's Henry Tilney, Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars are virgins since they all are/become clergymen and seem to take their religious beliefs seriously. In addition, in a number of her novels single men who are not virgins before marriage (John Willoughby, Henry Crawford, George Wickham) are rakes, and not hero (i.e. good husband) material.

    Of course, Richardson's Mr B was not a virgin and he was a rakish hero, but then he's kind of balanced out by Lovelace, who is a rake and definitely a villain.

    I get the impression that sexual skill has become a much more necessary part of masculine identity in the 20th and 21st centuries. Of course there were many, many men before that who would have boasted of their sexual prowess, but celibacy could also be considered a manly choice which showed self-restraint/control and, often, religious devotion (as is the case with religious orders of chivalry such as the Knights Templar and Victorian "muscular Christianity").

  3. Yes, I definitely agree that male sexual skill has become a much more necessary part of masculinity in the 20th and 21st century (at least as compared to the 19th). Is it simply because of the waning of religion? Or are there other forces at play? And are there particular moments, even during the last hundred years, when male virginity becomes more/less valued?

    And yes, many of Austen's heroes might well be virgins, especially when, as you note, we think of the "villains" and they are almost always sexually experienced men. An indirect endorsement of chastity before marriage?

    Thanks for the links to Dr. Allan's post on PRP. I had read one of them, but not the other.

    1. Is it simply because of the waning of religion? Or are there other forces at play? And are there particular moments, even during the last hundred years, when male virginity becomes more/less valued?

      I don't know, because this isn't something I've studied. I suspect racism has played into this. For example, in an essay in JPRS Hsu-Ming Teo writes that:

      nineteenth-century British Orientalist writings of men such as James Cowles Prichard and Richard Burton conflated Arabs, Africans, and animals as savage “creature[s] of instinct, controlled by sexual passions, incapable of the refinement to which the white races had evolved” (Kabbani 63)

      Fears about sexually transmitted diseases may also been different in different periods, and I imagine that could affect people's behaviour.

    2. Although if you look at the history of attitudes towards the human body, it was believed into the 19th C that a woman had to orgasm to be able to get pregnant, so probably much more emphasis was placed on active female sexuality (i.e. male skill in bringing her to orgasm). Once it was discovered that this wasn't true, then female orgasm could become "unnecessary" . I don't have the book with me where I read this, but will add the title when I get home.

    3. Now that you mention it, that does ring a bell. So being lazy, instead of checking my notes, I checked Google and:

      In the Middle Ages, as the historian Thomas Laqueur has written, there were two different views of reproduction. According to the Hippocratic model, both parents made seeds from materials throughout their bodies, a process called pangenesis. Both male and female seeds were needed to make a new person.

      A second theory of reproduction was offered by Aristotle. For Aristotle, everything in nature is composed of both form and matter. Form is what makes a particular thing that something: it is the kiwi-ness of a kiwi. But that form is expressed in matter appropriate to the form: you can’t make a person out of kiwi matter.

      According to this model, man provided the form and women provided the matter; men provided the semen and women provided the menstrual blood. Inherent to this discussion was a system of values: in the Aristotelian world, hot was better than cold. Men, who had the heat to make seed, were superior to women, who lacked such heat. Girls purportedly came from weak seed, boys from strong seed.

      If sexual intercourse resulted in female orgasm, her seed became hotter and more refined, therefore conception took place.
      (New York Times)

      Women's lack of heat (our "humours" are cold and wet) was also, apparently, what makes us all sexually voracious. According to this theory of human sexuality, sex was, however, not all that good for men because too much of it could dry them out. I'm sure I have some notes about this somewhere too, but I found this on the web which corroborates my recollection:

      The heat of the male was what supposedly created great sexual desire in females, as illustrated below by a passage from the late medieval medical tract Secrets of Women, and many believed that through intercourse, a woman gained the vital heat that she lacked (Salisbury, 90):

      The more women have sexual intercourse, the stronger they become, because they are made hot by the motion that the man makes during coitus. Further, male sperm is hot because it is of the same nature as air and when it is received by the woman it warms her entire body, so women are strengthened by this heat.

      It is apparent from this passage that female "coldness" was considered a negative quality, whereas the heat associated with men was perceived as beneficial. Accordingly, Secrets of Women also argues that "woman has a greater desire for coitus than a man, for something foul is drawn to the good" (Salisbury, 93).
      (Decameron Web)

    4. Yes, so medieval historical romance, if historically accurate, would feature far more lascivious females (or at least have people expressing the attitude that women were the more lascivious sex). And perhaps would feature more male virgins??

    5. The whole hot/cold thing is ringing many bells. The book I read about it in was The Making of the Modern Body.

  4. Thought-provoking post, particularly regarding the categories of this type of character.

    1. Thanks, Angelyn. Are any of your forthcoming books going to feature virgin heroes?

  5. Thinking about the virgin heroes I've encountered, very few fall into those tropes. They're primarily of the moral/sensitive/fastidious type you mention. Examples would be Samuel in The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale and Francis in Forbidden by Jo Beverley.

    I think a lot of the appeal is that it adds freshness to the discovery of sex, which so often is only told from the heroine's end. The sex scene in TSatS, in which both are not only virgins but extremely ignorant, has a momentousness to it which is absolutely mindblowing.

    Virgin heroes also often have a vulnerability to them that I find very appealing, in a genre filled with utterly confident, perfect men.

    1. Yes, those are the two books that immediately came to my mind, in addition to Ferdinand in NO MAN'S MISTRESS and several of Eloisa James's heroes. The vulnerability of the hero can definitely disrupt gender roles, I think, as well as having a heroine with more sexual experience.

      Not including YAs, are there any contemporary romances you can think of that have virgin heroes?

    2. From my shelf: Courageous by Diana Palmer (gawdawful book, a DNF.) The Mistress Deception by Susan Napier, which I loved. Waking Up by Amanda Carpenter (now Thea Harrison) -- don't remember much about it. Hard Tail and Pricks and Pragmatisms by J.L. Merrow have virgin gay heroes. And a few other Palmers I won't bother to list. Also a few in paranormals. Here's the shelf:

    3. You will also frequently find the hero of Robyn Carr's Shelter Mountain on virgin hero lists. I don't read the book that way, myself, and think it's interesting that so many people do.

    4. Thanks, Willaful. Interesting that my local library system (which is quite extensive) doesn't have many of the titles on your list. Because they are older, or because the male virgin isn't that popular, I wonder?

  6. Wow, Jackie--you have made me think. In my Regency spy trilogy, my first book has a sexually experienced hero educating the innocent heroine. My second has the hero (now a widower) having married a young woman when he, too, was young and inexperienced--and they learned together. And my third (which I'm writing now) features a hero wounded by a relationship in which an older woman brought him into his first physical relationship where he fell in love and she didn't. Didn't plan it that way, either. But now I'm thinking that in the 19th century certainly all were possible scenarios. I don't think the male needs to declare his virginity; in fact, in many cases its very fact would prove embarrassing unless for moral reasons he was fine with espousing.


    1. Regan:

      Sounds as if you are creating different types of masculinities in your books, rather than repeating the same type over and over. I have to admit that I hold romance authors who can draw on different visions of what it means to be a man the most accomplished writers. Although I'm certain that many readers prefer the opposite -- knowing that they'll get the same "man," even if he has a different name, in every book an author writes.

    2. I do think that my heroes have some similarities (given their roles, they are all strong men) but I try to see them as unique beings, each with a different past and different challenges.


  7. I've only written one male virgin, an impoverished viscount who couldn't afford to take a wife and wouldn't take advantage of the help. However, I didn't pair him with an experienced heroine. She was as pure as he, though she did have access to a courtesan's memoirs for guidance. Writing their fumbling explorations was great fun.

  8. Which book, Mia? The two innocents seems to be the rarest combination in romanceland...

  9. Firstly, my sincere thanks for discussing "Theorising Male Virginity in Popular Romance Fiction." I am currently writing a book on the subject, and I am thus grateful for this post and the commentaries.

    Looking back at the article has been an interesting experience. And I would likely change things if I were writing the article today, for instance, I would add the "traumatized male virgin," a category, which makes more and more sense.

    I want to be very careful about speculating if one is or is not a virgin. While I recognize the veracity of a project such as this, I worry that it is interested in "outing" virgins. I am reluctant to theorize along these lines because there seems (at least for me) to be something phobic at play, or it turns the (likely but never confirmed) virgin into a spectacle.

    The history of male virgins in romance is one that needs to be written; however, we have seen a rise in the male virgin since the 80s. In the first decade of the 21st century, it is not uncommon to see a dozen male virgins in a given year. To date, I have located about two hundred in heterosexual romance. (Incidentally, one of the flaws of my article, which is noted in a footnote, is that I have not attended to virginity in male/male romance. Indeed, I would be quite uncomfortable if this study were simply applied to male/male romance.)

    My approach to virginity is less about a totalizing vision of the genre (I hope), and more about trying to understand how male virginity works within the genre. There will, of course, always be new approaches to male virginity in romance. A quick example: the virginity of virgin heroes used to function as something of a narrative surprise; however, Courtney Milan's Unclaimed announces male virginity on the very first page (

    Once again, thank you.

  10. Jonathan A. Allan:

    Thanks for stopping by, and adding your voice to the dialogue. Since you're in the midst of writing a book on the topic, we won't ask you to give all of your insights away here!

    A few questions, though, in response to what you have written:

    • You write that you worry that there seems to be something phobic at play in "outing" virgins who haven't declared themselves as such in the course of a novel. Is that a worry that characters in the text have? That you as a critic have about "outing" characters? That you worry readers are indulging in?

    • You also note the connection of "outing" to "spectacle." How does this connect to your ideas about the "virgin as commodity"? Is a spectacle also a commodity?

    • Is the trauma experienced by the traumatized virgin typically of a sexual nature? Or are there other traumas that are also at play in this category (OK, this is asking a for more information, I admit it ;-) -- feel free not to answer!)

    • The 200 titles you mention, these are all in category romance? Or do they include stand-alone books, too?

    I'm really curious to hear your thoughts about the efficacy of a taxonomy that uses both character-based categories AND categories based on how others perceive a character. Is it something you've considered?

    Thanks again, Jonathan, for stopping by.

  11. The traumatized virgin: I think this can be of a sexual nature, but also, I can imagine, a scenario in which the hero suffered the loss of a partner/fiancé and has been unable to recover.

    On the 200: category and stand-alone titles.

    My worry with "outing" virgins is that one can never be quite certain, and thus I prefer to work with texts wherein it is quite clear. An example, "Galahad in Blue Jeans" would fit into this "outing" model. There is no textual "proof" that the hero is a virgin, but there are various cues and clues that would indicate his virginal status. I am not entirely certain what is to be gained from a reading of a text that attempts to demonstrate that the hero (or heroine) is a virgin. This might say more about my role as a critic, but I am not interested in pointing out suspected virgins and arguing for their virginal status, treating them as a case study, and determining that if the example meets a certain rubric that we can determine he is a virgin. I think the most important phrase -- at least, in my own work -- is, "I'm a virgin" or "I was a virgin." I think that self-definition is important and it shouldn't be imposed on a potential virgin.

  12. Oh, I hadn't thought about the loss of a partner/fiancé!

    The declarative "I'm a virgin" -- interesting to think about that declaration in comparison to the declaration that comes (usually toward the end) of "I love you"...

  13. I just took a look at the list, "Romance Novels With Celibate and/or Lesser-Experienced Heroes." What is interesting, at least from the perspective of virginity studies, that the list explains itself as: "These books have heroes who were celibate before they got involved with the heroine, for at least a year, and often for a much longer period. Also included are heroes with less experienced (three or less sex partners before the heroine). Virgin heroes don't belong on this list."

    First, the question of the "second time," which is particularly interesting for me, is quite fascinating. Often enough, the "second time" is framed in response to, or in negotiation with, the "first time." That is, the "second time" returns the hero to his "first time."

    Secondly, another remark about this list, or what I would be interested in knowing more about, is whether or not these heroes see themselves as having a second virginity. The "one year" figure is the same as the period used in purity movements (one is able to reclaim purity after a year of abstinence).

    The other aspect of this, the "less-experienced," which is to say, less than three sexual partners. Not to be overly academic, but that hardly means (at least not necessarily so), less experienced -- after all, one can have a great deal of sex (and variety) with one partner. What is interesting there is that it is the number of partners that matters, regardless of how much sex was had between the partners -- the "experience" there is measured not by sex, but by sexual partner. Additionally, and still apologies for being overly academic, but what is sex in these novels?

    Attached to both of these questions is why the nearly-virginal hero is virginal.

    Thus, to bring this back to the declarative, "I'm a virgin." I think this is very much a subjective question, particularly in the first decade of the twenty-first century, which has seen renewed (once more!) interest in virginity. I think here of reclaiming virginity/purity, revirginization (as a medical procedure), etc. We've also seen "virgin pride," for instance, an interesting feature of the comments on a posting about virginity at Smart Bitches mentioned the age of the virgin commenter (

  14. I'm a fan of virgin heroes and enjoyed your post. In discussions with other writers about the probability of male virginity in an historical (in my case Regency) context, I've argued that male virgins were probably more common than is supposed. Short of resorting to prostitutes (not everyone's cup of tea) not every man had easy access to pre-marital partners. In an often quoted 18th century English letter, a gentleman complains that the trustees negotiating his marriage settlement are taking far too long because they were not “so eager for a f**k as I am.” We have no reason to know if the man was a virgin, but he was certainly celibate in anticipation of his wedding.

    As a writer I find the importance of the declaration of virginity less significant. In a story in which sex plays a central part, sexual experience is merely necessary back story. But I accept that once a book is published authorial intent is no longer relevant.

    I've written one virgin hero, in The Dangerous Viscount. Sebastian is a misogynist. Often woman-hating characters are of the "all women are sluts" type who therefore feel justified in using women as sluts. I took a different tack. Because he despises and avoids women, Sebastian finds it illogical to use them for his own pleasure and has repressed his sexuality (not without difficulty). Once he falls for the heroine all bets are off.

  15. Hi, Miranda, and thanks for stopping in!

    Access to sex may well have meant that many men wouldn't have had the opportunity to engage in sex before marriage. Given how central religion was in many peoples' lives during the 19th century, it too may well have been a factor. Possibly more for the middle classes than for the upper ten thousand, though, I'd guess. With little power of their own, many women might consider trading their sexual favors to get close to those with privilege and money.

    Thanks for letting us know about your own virgin hero book, too!

  16. I am definitely going to have to go back and read The Dangerous Viscount. I think that the issue of the male virgin in romance is especially important to consider -- not because he is an oddity, but because authors are consciously and actively using the male virgin in exciting, interesting, and provocative ways. I'll be especially interested in seeing how repression is used.

    This has been a fascinating discussion.

  17. Yes, I think I failed to point out that piece of your argument in my blog: that depictions of the male virgin can be used by (largely female) romance authors to question constructions of gender and power roles in heterosexual romance.

    "how repression is used" -- by whom? Authors? As a plot device? By characters, as a way to constrain their own or others' sexual urges?

  18. How repression is used -- I'm interested in what is being repressed and why. There are many psychoanalytic implications that could be attended to (I don't have the novel at hand, so I can't comment about the particulars). But why, for instance, does the hero repress his sexuality? I will have to read the book, but already my mind is thinking about the theoretical side of this discussion.