Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Musings on Romance, Fantasy and Sexuality--Part I
A Virgin: To Be or Not To Be!

Whew, I have been neglecting my blog terribly. I guess I needed something that I really wanted to write about. Well I found it.

Last night I was on the All About Romance website (one of my favorite places to hang out) and reading the discussions about many issues, including sexuality. I think that many good points were raised. Romance lovers took the time to discuss things that drove them crazy about romance novels. I have certainly read a romance novel or two that made me cringe or even want to toss it across the room. Who hasn't? If you would like to know what makes my hair stand on end and smoke come out of my ears, see my archived post on romance novel don'ts.

So after reading the numerous theories, pet peeves, and suggestions on AAR, my mind was sent into pondering about romance novels and reality versus fantasy and the sexuality quotient. In this post, I will ramble on about the virgin heroine, or non-virgin heroine.

To start with--I think it's only fair to remind any romance novel reader who happens to read this blog of this thing: It's romantic fantasy. It's romantic fiction.
And in romantic fiction and fantasy, love conquers all. Even if the milk's spilled, the pudding goes rancid, and all the grapes are sour at the beginning of the story, by the end, happiness still results. If we take that away from romance then what's the point of immersing ourselves in our happy land of romantic fiction where a hero sweeps a heroine off her feet, or vice versa?

There is a certain element of romance reading that is wish fulfillment. I will freely admit that. Since we have established the wish fulfillment aspect of romance, I must submit that inherent is the need to be able to identify with the heroine in the romance story. That is where the conflict often arises between various fans.

Again and again there is the furor about the 'unrealistic virgin' hero versus the mature, sexually aware and knowledgable heroine. To this I say to each their own. But I must also add there is a place for both. As I don't wish for the virgin heroine to become extinct, I don't advocate the banishment of the sexually experienced heroine.

Now my personal opinion: I like, even prefer the virgin heroine. I won't go into excruciating detail on this since I have already posted a blog about virginity. But I will state for this discussion that a virgin heroine fulfils the fantasy aspect of romance. Maybe I'm wrong. But I would think that at least most women have slept with someone and lived to regret it. This shouldn't be a problem for the virgin heroine (at least I hope she doesn't regret sleeping with the hero. It can happen but not too often, I hope). That in itself is already a powerful appeal in the fantasy sense. The reader gets a blank slate through her heroine. To go further, the first man that she knows sexually is the man who fulfils all her needs and is the true love of her life. Her awakening to love is congruent with her sexual awakening. I think this is a powerful fantasy as well.

Now the gist I got from the thoughts submitted in my reading last night was that many readers roll their eyes at the virgin heroine because of the unlikelihood of it. But how unlikely is it that a Victorian unmarried, protected and cared for woman would not be a virgin? A Regency lady? How about a medieval lady? We are not discussing the poor, or the common masses where the chances of rape or being taken advantages of are fairly high before the young woman is barely into her teens. Not to mention, no one particularly expects or cares if she retains her virginity, unless there are religious teachings to the contrary that she is reared with. In the medieval romance I was reading last night, Spring's Fury by Denise Domining, there are at least two "peasant" characters who had babies even before marriage. My eyebrows raised a little at that, but then I considered that was the norm for that period. I need to research that question. But lets get back on track. For a gently reared lady of "quality," I submit that virginity in these circumstances is expected. In fact an author would definitely need to explain its lack.

The next issue raised is the inherent double standard: the heroine is an innocent virgin yet the hero is allowed to shag, whore, and rake to his heart's content. Let me submit that you are indeed preaching to the choir. This double standard makes me nauseous. I have pondered it and in my own writings have tried to avoid it. In fact I would be one of few authors and readers to insist that I feel a chaste hero is just as good a thing as a chaste heroine. Now the same voices that speak out against the double standard often maintain that they have no use for a virgin hero. Is the alternative really to make the heroine unrealistically experienced? I think not. Keep in mind we are discussing historical romances at this time.

What is the solution? Well, if you want an experienced heroine you have some decisions to make. She can be a respectable widow, she could be a woman who played the game by society's rules-she married and lost her virginity to her husband, produced an heir, or lost her husband, and went on to pursue her sexual desires in a discreet manner, or a woman who had one affair with a beloved that ended badly. She could have been sexually assaulted, or she can be a woman who lives outside of the society's mores, in most cases what we call a "fallen heroine."

Now I will be honest with you and admit there was a time when I wouldn't touch a book with a non-virgin heroine with a ten foot pole. You must understand that I began my long, lucrative career as a romance reader at the young age of 12, with a book that boasted a virgin heroine. I read it and enjoyed it. Of course I was conditioned in that instant to gravitate towards the familiar. As I have aged, so have my tastes and sensibilities. I read a lot more non-virgin heroine books (of most of the varieties mentioned). But I still demand, request, however you want to put it, that it make sense that the heroine is not a virgin. That is required in the scope of the historical time period. Now if you were to pick a common woman, without money or protection, then it follows that this young woman would be most likely to be a nonvirgin. As a common woman, she is not given the same degree of protection from men. Now don't get mad at me and assume I am being sexist. I did not make the rules! Society did. I don't care for this particular rule, in fact. But the rules of society exist and dictate our behavior. Hence the study of sociology. I digress.

Someone mentioned that they say never say never when it comes to a romantic story idea or plot. I think this rule is a good one--at least I have come to agree with it. As I mentioned, I started out a staunch proponent of the virgin heroine. What changed things? I read books by authors that showed me that all the elements that I enjoy in a romance could be there without a virgin heroine and I could still enjoy the book. What did it take? Characters who I liked, respected, and were interested in, and a novelist with the skills and the conviction to pull it off. Which characters? Lady Lily Lawson and Ghislaine De Lorghny. Which novelists? Lisa Kleypas and Anne Stuart.

Years ago I read a book called Then Came You. I was not tricked into reading this book, I must assert. In fact the blurb clearly states that she is a ruined lady who lives outside of society's rules. That was a hint to any reader that the innocent virgin wasn't to be found in this story. By that point I was already a huge fan of Lisa's and had read every book she had written that I could get my hands on. Not to mention that this was the prequel to Dreaming of You, the book in which my beloved anti-hero, hero Derek Craven makes his entrance. In short, there was no way I wasn't going to read the story, regardless of the non-virgin heroine. It didn't take long before I totally fell in love with the passionate and tortured woman. Now what did Lisa do? She took a premise that I vowed to avoid and made it go down smooth and delicious like hot chocolate. She gave me a heroine that intrigued me, seduced me, and garnered my respect and admiration. And she gave me a story that knocked my socks off with the wonderful combination of angst, joy, and romantic fulfillment that I want in a romance. Case in point.

The next story that challenged my perceptions and beliefs about my acceptance of a non-virgin hero was A Rose at Midnight. Now Anne Stuart really kicked things up a notch. Not only was the heroine a non-virgin, she was for a short period of time, a prostitute. Thankfully she had only slept with 21/2 men in her own words. You would probably suspect my sensibilities were very offended at this point. Well let me qualify this by saying that I adore Anne Stuart. I would read all of her books at least one, most of which I have read many more times. In case you have never read her, she is the author who takes the darkest and most uncomforable subject manner and plugs it right into a romance novel setting on a routine basis, and does it very well in fact. I had read a lot of her books by then and I was unsurprised that she "went there" again. I admit that I did have a few moments of squrminess reading it. After all it was my first prostitute heroine. But I will tell you here and now I was one satisfied customer when I finished the book. My qualifications for the most part had been satisfied. The non-virgin, prostitute heroine won me over with her depth and integrity, and along with her journey came a sure fire formula for romantic novel success: True love had conquered all.

Does this mean I would read any book with a non-virgin heroine? No. Yes. I'm not sure. My rules change with each year that I grow older. And with each book that I read that goes against the formula and changes my perception of what my romance no-no's are. Do I particularly like books where the heroine has been a prostitute, courtesan, or just plain round-heeled? A stern no to that question.

In this case I would have to say that I have to feel some respect for the heroine. How does the writer inspire respect in me for his or her character? It's easier than it sounds. Merely give me the motivation for the character!

Is is enough to have a heroine who likes sex, in large quantities, and with as many men as possible? Good gracious no! I'm sorry but I find nothing admirable about that sort of person. I cannot divorce my own morals from the situation to be okay with such a casual sexual attitude. Am I saying that heroine shouldn't enjoy a healthy sex drive? Not at all. But for me, sex needs love to breathe life into it. Otherwise it's just scratching an itch. And if I just want to see or experience people doing that, I need not read a romance novel. I can watch a porno movie, watch Sex and the City (grin), or read an erotic novel or story. But I choose to read a romance. Therefore love is necessary. And a character who respects the power of love and sex is integral to my enjoying a story.

Women are complicated creatures. We love, hate, emote, process, act, reason, breathe, etc. In order to make a heroine that a reader admires and enjoys, she has to have those complexities that us real life women possess. Making a heroine a non-virgin can add layers. Making a heroine a virgin can do the same. But it must be done the correct way. There must be motivation. The character has be fully-fleshed in order to appreciate her motives and her decisions. She absolutely must be animated, even if it's merely between the pages of that novel. If an author does that, then I am happy. I may flinch at the fact that she had many lovers because of my personal distaste of that. But if she is a woman that I can respect, admire, and respect despite any perceived flaws or imperfections, if she has been shaped by her sexual encounters as by other aspects of her life, then more than likely I will finish the book and be a happy woman.

I guess I'm done rambling for now. I suppose I really ought to get my copies of Mary Balogh's A Precious Jewel and The Secret Pearl. And then maybe I'll read No Man's Mistress....I'm working on new territory, prostitute and mistress heroines. After finishing Rebecca Paisley's' Rainbows and Raptures and enjoying it, I'm looking for more in this category. I have to challenge my perceptions you know! :)