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Monday, October 13, 2008

Theory #42: Readerly Theories: Virgin Heroines

It's Smart Bitches Day!

Okay, I can't stand it anymore. I was reading reviews prior to writing my own about Lora Leigh's Tanner's Scheme, and came across several complaining that the heroine was promiscuous. She'd had five lovers by the time she was 30. That isn't by any stretch of the imagination promiscuous.

Depending on where you look, the average age to lose one's virginity is around age 17. Even if she waited until she was 20, that's only one lover every two years. How is that promiscuous?

I suspect a lot of them are reacting to the fact that she "allowed" one of her lovers to coerce her into a threesome, but said lover was an assassin paid by her father to have sex with her to keep her under control, so how much choice did she really have there? (Setting aside the whole question about whether having had one threesome disqualifies one from ever attaining romantic happiness.)

I'm having a hard time getting over the whole subject. It's readers like those reviewers who push the whole virgin heroine thing by making authors and publishers think that's what we all want. I am so terribly sick of the plethora of romances with improbably virgin heroines (widows and divorced women who are virgins, for heaven's sake!)--or if they're not virgins, they've had one, maybe two lovers--but they didn't enjoy it. Undoubtedly, if they tried pot in college, they didn't inhale, either.

Granted, sex is better if love is involved, but why can romance heroines never have had orgasms before meeting the hero? Is a lack of orgasm required for finding happiness in a relationship?

In real life, it's not. Case in point: yours truly. Okay, I'm going to come clean here--I've had a dozen lovers in my lifetime. Some were bad, some were okay, and some were pretty darn good. And yet, despite the predictions of a certain subset of romance novels, I've been monogamous for 25 years, and am one of the most happily married women I know.

Okay, real life =/= fiction. And maybe it's not fair to compare, but what exactly is the fantasy we're supposed to be buying into here? It sounds more like a male fantasy than a female one: the Star Trek fantasy. You know, "where no man has gone before". It's not the only time when certain romance novels read like men's fantasies, either--all those heroines with too-large breasts (there are a lot of them) seem designed for men, too.

And I can understand where it's easier not to deal with a heroine's past relationships--it's part of why a lot of protagonists are orphans and/or only children. If they're not, either you have a whole bunch of characters cluttering up your book, or you have readers wondering why this character never sees or talks about her family.

But really, from the authors' perspective, I don't have a problem with it. The characters are who they are; the story is what it is. If the heroine an author envisions happens to be a virgin, or the story is about the heroine's sexual awakening, I'm fine with that.

What confuses me is that so many readers demand virginity from their heroines, or close to it. Not only that, but they freely demand a double standard--the heroes should be promiscuous, to prove their virility. A hero who hasn't had dozens, if not scores, of lovers is presumed to be less than masculine.

Why? It appears that I'm wrong in assuming that the sexist double standard is mostly the domain of unevolved men. All these years of feminism, and still so many women buy into the patriarchal view of things. I'm saddened. I wouldn't feel nearly so upset if the same readers complained about the heroes' promiscuity, but they don't. In Tanner's Scheme, for example, the hero had had dozens of lovers, and nobody complained about that.

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I was just talking about this with SB Sarah. My heroine Meg is kinda aggressive and not very moral. It'll be interesting to see what folks think of her. But then, they haven't seen anything like her sister...
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