Have we created our own cult?

There were four-and-twenty virgins come down from Inverness

And when the night was ended there were four-and-twenty less…
trad. rude song
As long as the plots keep arriving from outer space,
I’ll go on with my virgins.
Barbara Cartland
This topic started off as a conversation with my buddy Pam Rosenthal as part of our meanderings on our workshop at the 2006 Beau Monde Conference. (Yes, the workshop is called Pam and Janet Evening. It’s on writing erotic historicals.)
A dime a dozen in romance-land.
Granted, they were around. Virginity was by implication an important part of the business deal that upper-class marriage was even in the Regency period–the groom wanted to be sure that his heirs would truly be his, and not the in-laws’ third footman’s. Yet we still have extraordinary plot twists to ensure that the heroine is untouched when the Big Bang occurs–virgin widows, husbands who had to rush off to take part in Waterloo (sorry, honey, not before the big game), couples who didn’t want to marry and so therefore didn’t want to…you know. Or the hero turns out to be her first and last, with diversions in between (guilty as charged). And not just in historicals, where the concept of a virgin heroine is justified, but all through the genre.
Consider also the typical defloration/consummation, where after some minor carnage, the heroine gets to Nirvana with very little effort (and snorts of disbelief from me)…and despite the bloodbath, they keep doing it. Or, we’re told, if she has had previous partners, there (1) weren’t many, and (2) it wasn’t that good, so therefore she holds blank slate status.
Yes, I know these are huge overstatements and I can come up with exceptions too, but why do these conventions exist? Is it the only way we can show that this is IT, the Real Thing, the Big Banana?
Despite the boom in erotic romance and erotica, why are we still so wary of a true depiction of female sexuality?
Thoughts, anyone?
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5 Responses to Have we created our own cult?

  1. I think that this fantasy is that–a fantasy. If your first time weren’t uncomfortable, and awkward, and lasted more than few minutes? And no mess?

    Or if you found your Soul-Mate (or Passion-Mate), and your previous experiences just paled in comparison.

    I think this kind of sex is what some women wish it could be–pure, yet passionate, with the one, destined partner.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily being uncomfortable with female sexuality, but fantasizing about an ideal situation (again, for some women).

    For example, I wish my first time had been with my husband–not because I wanted to be pure for him, but because he’s just so much better than the first guy.

  2. What is the true nature of female sexuality? I’m not certain any of us knows.

    I have more difficulty believing that women could be casual about sex in the days before effective birth control. In my opinion, the prospect of pregnancy must have been a huge deterrent to Regency ladies giving in to their sexual urges. The accepted child-outside-of-wedlock of today was the bastard child of yesterday. And the mother of such a child would have been shunned (unless she was rich enough and clever enough to create some fiction about the child or have the child reared elsewhere, like The Duchess of Devonshire)

    I always have a hard time motivating my unmarried heroines to have sex, even with those hunky heroes I like to create! The stakes are just way too high.

    And another thing (g)!
    Why does the first time have to be traumatic? In the arms of a man who knows what he is doing, perhaps it would be pleasureful enough to continue and brave the bloodbath to do it again! Granted, few of us live that fantasy, but it is a pretty terrific fantasy. I don’t particularly want to read about the less-than-ideal experience. (Although in The Wagering Widow, the “first time” was less than perfect!!)

    But I think our differences are to be valued. They lead to a variety of visions of our time period and keep the fiction fresh and original.

    Diane (hopping off her soapbox)

  3. Elena Greene says:

    My feeling is it’s not so much that romances portray unrealistic sex (um, some women do enjoy their first times and not everyone bleeds) but that they haven’t portrayed the whole spectrum of experiences. But you can’t “blame” any one book for that. Said by one who has written good first sex and narrowly avoided the virgin widow element. 🙂

    Even though it’s a historically plausible pairing, I’d like to see more variation on the pattern of the experienced, oh-so-good-at-what-he-does rake and the virgin heroine. I liked how Janet broke it up in DEDICATION. I’ve done a modest variation by writing a few virgin or almost-virgin heroes. At some point I’d love to write an experienced heroine with a virgin hero (loved that in OUTLANDER). Fun!

    I do think setup is important if you want a non-virginal heroine in a historical romance. It’s sort of like you have to explain why she isn’t a virgin; whereas, in contemps I think one might have to give reasons if she is. But are you saying there are a lot of contemps with virgin heroines? In the ones I have read, the heroines usually have some experience, not necessarily bad either. But admittedly I don’t read that many contemps. If so, maybe it’s down to Megan’s fantasy theory.

  4. This line of thought started for me from reading an interesting AAR discussion. A reader pointed out — quite brilliantly, I thought — an instance in which “even Pam Rosenthal” made rather a fetish of virginity. (This was in my story A HOUSE EAST OF REGENT STREET, which has a very knowing and not-at-all virginal heroine. And yet, as the reader noted, I got, um… hoist on that same petard. And no, I won’t tell you how.) The context was interesting too — the AAR discussion was about the recent NY Times Magazine article about a certain movement against contraception and all pre-marital (hey, all non-reproductive) sex. Which got me thinking all kinds of fascinating things — about just how far the fantasy apparatus can take us and whether we really want to go there.
    First. Best. Forever. It’s fun and oddly fulfilling to pretend the three terms don’t bear an ironic relationship to each other. And sometimes they don’t (I’ve been married for a gazillion years and contentedly monogomous for most of that time). And yet for me, it’s the opposite set of fantases — the fraught, incomplete, skewed, and INTERESTING stuff — that makes the homey harmonics play best. Janet or perhaps Megan — you probably know about music returning to the tonic chord… that’s where I’m trying to go with this.

  5. Elena Greene says:

    Pam, I find your take on this very interesting. I suspect some writers and readers like the first/best/forever scenario because it matches their own experience. Some like it because it is an alternative to their (unpleasant) reality. And some enjoy what you called “the opposite fantasy” just because it is different.

    But I find it hard to assign a clear agenda to it all. My own stories usually start with a core idea, and if that idea isn’t directly related to the characters’ sexuality, then I make up their experiences (or lack thereof) to fit that core. I don’t know if other authors feel compelled (or are compelled by the market) to write only the best/first/forever scenario.

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