We’re all used to stereotypical rakes with mad sex skills gleaned from years of practice who sexually awaken virginal heroines. It’s the dominant theme of the romance genre. But let’s take a moment to consider the elusive virgin hero.
I’m not talking about Steve Carrell in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. No, us romance readers want very sexy virgins (sorry, Steve). If mishandled by an author, a male virgin could have a question mark over his masculinity and his sexual competency—the very characteristics that drive the romance novels. So for the story to work, for the hero to be untouched without being emasculated, they have to be endowed with physical strength, good looks, wealth or a super alpha personality. This requires some deft characterization, with heroes requiring almost superhuman sexiness to make up for their lack of experience.
In Unclaimed, Courtney Milan introduces us her to a handsome virgin hero, with the note, “Sir Mark Turner did not look like any virgin that Jessica had ever seen before.” In Love Hacked by Penny Reid, virgin Alex is gifted with deep-set indigo eyes and although he’s kind of a super weirdo, he’s also a sex god (virgin or not). And then there’s Jamie Fraser… (Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander) Jamie is six-feet-four-inches of perfection, broad shoulders, muscled, strong, ridiculously handsome. To say nothing of his personality, his courage, humor, protectiveness and confidence.
Of course, wealth, physical strength and good looks aside, there is still an inherent vulnerability to the male virgin. While female virginity may be a commodity (at least historically), this is not considered the case with male virgins. If American Pie taught us anything, it’s that men must get rid of their virginity as soon as possible to avoid ridicule. Male virginity is therefore awkward, it becomes a plot twist, worthy of a moment of “confession.” In nearly every contemporary/historical book mentioned in this post, there is a shocking revelation of virginity to the stunned heroine. For example, in Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James, the hero Gowan grimly confesses his inexperience to Edie: “A virgin,” he said, growling it, after all, a man isn’t supposed to be a virgin. Ever.”
Authors have often gone to great lengths to give heroes a reason for their purity, as though a legitimate explanation is required. After all, it’s intriguing. Why is the handsome hero a virgin? The answer can’t be that the hero simply has no game with the ladies! In Untouched by Anna Campbell, we have a hero imprisoned in a remote country manner. Bonnie Dee’s Bone Deep gives us a tattooed man mysteriously trapped in a carnival freak show (it’s even weirder and cooler than it sounds). In Transcendence by Shay Savage, we have an isolated cave man unable to communicate. In Born in Sin by Kinley MacGregor, an illegitimate hero is unwilling to bear a child out of wedlock. Then of course, there are Edward Cullen’s moral convictions in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series which make him a pretty famous 107 year old virgin.
It’s taken for granted that a romance novel hero will be pretty skillful in the boudoir. Where does that leave the virgin hero? Who actually gets it right on their first try? In Outlander, heroine Claire comments, “As yet too hungry and too clumsy for tenderness, still he made love with a sort of unflagging joy that made me think that male virginity might be a highly underrated commodity.” Indeed, in most romance novels, the virginal heroes possess an ultra- attentive drive to pleasure the heroine, usually derived from their feelings towards the lucky lady.
In Nalini Singh’s Caressed By Ice, Brenna is delighted to discover Judd the virgin is so skilled, and he tells her, “I’m very good at research—some might say I was obsessed with this particular topic.” Perhaps even more interesting are the novels where the inexperienced hero struggles a little to please his lady. This works particularly in historical novels where a lack of internet probably made it difficult for a man to learn anything without hands on experience, which is the case in Once Upon a Tower by Eloisa James.
Consider the paradigm shift between an adult male virgin and a sexually experienced heroine. In All of You by Christina Lee, we have a virgin male Bennett pursuing Avery, who only does one night stands to avoid getting hurt, this difference drives much of the conflict of the novel and demonstrates how male virginity doesn’t have to just be a gimmick, but part of a deeper, clever use of characterization. In Kresley Cole’s Dark Skye, novice Thronos is constantly slut shaming the more experienced enchantress Lanthe, until she finally snaps and asks, “Should I make you think I’m totally a virgin, or maybe that I only had a couple of fuck buddies?” Of course, Thronos eventually manages to overcome his insecurities pretty well, and despite his inexperience is able to more than hold his own with Lanthe. “Somehow he was beguiling her. The virgin was seducing the seductress!” It seems that even when a lady has a couple of notches on the bedpost, a virginal hero can sometimes make it work.
Finally, there is something damn romantic about a virginal hero, after all – his first lover is going to be his last. In Archer’s Voice by Mia Sheridan, the hero Archer tells Bree: “There has only ever been you. There. Will. Only. Ever. Be. You.”
Let us know in the comments if you enjoy a bit of action from a novice!
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Jane Kriel, lover of chocolate and all things Sweet Valley High.